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Doing as Miss Debbie Allen says

A squirmy dance cast settles down and listens up as the choreographer rehearses them for a musical. (P.S. She doesn't yell -- she corrects.)

November 17, 2002|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Inside a converted aerospace factory in Culver City, a tornado of undirected motion is roaring through the brick-walled rehearsal room bursting with nearly three dozen young dancers who can't stand still. The grade-schoolers fidget the most, with unending try-to-top-this cartwheels and handstands, followed by a blitz of polished pirouettes. It is an overwhelming reminder of a child's urge to wiggle and, perhaps, a wake-up call to parents on the fence about having that third kid.

In strides the woman who could give seminars to mothers of multiples on how to extract calm from chaos. Her dancers giggle when they affectionately say she's "the diva of diva-dom, the queen supreme, the bomb." Usually, they call her "Miss Debbie Allen," saying it quickly, as if it's a single five-syllable word they have to rush through before they turn 10.

"Hey!" snaps Allen, in the truly scary, better-do-it-right-now voice that every mother tries to perfect. It's fear-inducing as well as familiar -- at least to these kids' parents -- since Allen, 52, played choreographer Lydia Grant in "Fame," the 1980 movie and the TV series that aired later that decade.

Today she is directing a rehearsal of "Pearl," a contemporary retelling of the Snow White fairy tale she originally wrote as her directing and writing final at Howard University in 1971. ("I got an A-plus," she says, laughing.) It incorporates a broad range of dance styles, from ballet and jazz to tap and hip-hop as well as Cirque du Soleil-style gymnastics.

The musical, which premiered last spring at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., has a cast of 35 children and five adults -- more people than appeared on stage last season at the Geffen Playhouse, where it opens Wednesday and will run through Dec. 22.

This will be the first professional performance for about half of the children, who range from 6 to 18. From their perspective, the hardest part is making "the lines believable but not cheesy," says cherubic Noah Robbins, 12, one of three of the Seven Dwowns (dwarf-clown acrobats) who appeared in the show back East.

With a loud, crisp quiet-down-now snap of her fingers, Allen takes command of the rehearsal at the nearly 2-year-old Debbie Allen Dance Academy. If an observer finds Allen's manner the tiniest bit unnerving, any one of the Dwowns will set the record straight.

"It's not a mean yell," the 8- to 13-year-olds chorus while sitting around a table, and occasionally lying on it, during a break in their first rehearsal at the Geffen in early November.

"Miss Debbie Allen never yells, she corrects," says Edric Leggett, 12, a.k.a. Hungry. And after the correcting?

"Hugs and kisses," exclaims Jamil Morgan, 10, who plays Tell Me Why.

Already, they are poised professionals, meeting with a reporter without a handler and shush-ing each other when conversation strays into potentially socially incorrect territory. ("When is this going to be over?" asks one. "You're not supposed to ask that," the others say in unison, making the line drip with complete shock. Miss Debbie Allen would be proud.)

So when Allen tells them in rehearsal, "You are all old people that are little," it fits. She is trying to make them see that they have the tools to understand the subtext of a scene. She is already treating them as if their years of experience equal their ages. "They come in with a sensibility of being a professional. That's what this is about," Allen says. "With that said, they have all the same rules no matter how old they are."

Rules like: Don't be late; if you're late, you're not on. Do your homework. Stay focused. Don't be disruptive. If you are, an understudy -- the youngest in "Pearl" is 4 -- is always waiting in the wings. And a new one: "Lord, have mercy, don't wear pajamas in my rehearsal," says Allen, as girls scurry to remove the cotton bottoms.

"You have to come from a place of authority," says the Emmy-winning choreographer, for "Fame" and "Motown 30." "You have to know how to make them laugh. You have to have the ability to decipher at a glance what is going on in the room. With that many bodies, there's always something wonderful or dangerous happening."

Gil Cates, producing director at the Geffen, watched Allen multitask at a recent rehearsal. "A bunch of kids were lying around and she's telling them, 'Go help him. Eat your sandwich outside. No drinks in here. Oh, someone put a suitcase on stage.' She's everywhere, and she loves it."

Working with children is about "lighting the path," Allen says. "I want to see the next generation do something else. Every day that we are working, I say, 'Every step I do belongs to you, so now you are going to take that and choreograph.' This is about more than giving back. It's bigger than that. I don't sleep well because I realize there is so much to do."

Near the end of the run of "Pearl," the cast can almost guarantee she'll lose a little shut-eye. Every time Miss Debbie Allen stages a production, there's an appropriately kid-centric reward -- a sleepover. But it's never coed. How to decide whether it's the boys' or girls' turn to do anything but sleep?

It's a solution that doesn't allow room for sibling-like squabbling. When the show is about a girl, the girls get the sleepover, and vice-versa. Not a single little old person could see anything wrong with that.

*

`Pearl'

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood

When: Opens Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Runs Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m., matinee only on Dec. 8. No performances on Thanksgiving. Additional 2 p.m. matinees on Nov. 27 and Dec. 4.

Ends: Dec. 22

Price: $28-$46; $10 for children 18 and younger

Contact: (310) 208-5454

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