Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chris Tyler and Shane Sparks

MTV'a newest dance reality show, "America's Best Dance Crew" features dance troups in amazing hip hop performances. Shane Sparks is the head judge for this show - and is one of the choreographers on Merrimack Hall's wish list of artists we hope to bring to Huntsville for master classes!

Shane is often assisted by Chris Tyler, the Nashville-based hip hop artist and choreographer who is returning to Merrimack Hall on March 29 for a day of master classes. On last week's episode of "American's Best Dance Crew," Shane Sparks told a dancer who was dancing with an injury, "my best friend and favorite assistant is a guy named Chris Tyler. Chris has terrible knees but dances through the pain and kills it every time." Shane continued to praise Chris for his professionalism, his talent and for not letting his injuries affect his performance as a dancer.

My daughter, Emma, and I were watching the show and were so excited to hear Shane speak of Chris on national television! We just loved Chris when he was here in January and can't wait to see him again next month. He is a tremendous teacher, a brilliant dancer and an all around great guy! I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about offering a hip hop dance class to six-year-olds, but what Shane taught these babies was so age appropriate and adorable - he had them hip hop dancing to a rap version of "Pop Goes the Weasel!" From beginner to advanced, Chris' classes were action packed, fun, unique and all the dancers who came enjoyed themselves so much! We can't wait to see what he has up his sleeve for us next!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Wade Robson and His Original Work, "Change"

When Wade Robson left Huntsville last July, after a week of master classes, auditions and a three-day intensive, my husband and co-founder of Merrimack Hall, Alan, and I said to each other that if Merrimack Hall never did another thing, that week was worth the money we have donated to start this organization. We knew that the opportunity we had been able to provide to 285 area dancers was truly unique and that the three-day intensive was absolutely life-changing for the 13 dancers Wade selected. After seeing the performance of his original work, "Change," at Merrimack Hall's Evening of Dance featuring Wade Robson last month, we have a new perspective on how truly amazing our experience with him has been.

When I first contacted Wade's agent, in August of 2006, it was a pipe dream that I might be able to convince him to come to Merrimack Hall to help us inaugurate our dance programs. But after my dear friend April Cook, Director of Marketing for Broadway Dance Center in New York, spoke to Wade on my behalf, we were able to schedule the week with him.

In 2007, there were five organizations that received original work from Wade Robson; the hit TV shows "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Dancing with the Stars," The San Francisco Ballet, Cirque de Soliel and.......Merrimack Hall! When "Change" was performed on January 27 at Merrimack Hall, it received a five-minute standing ovation and brought much of the audience to tears. This intense, moving and inspirational piece is Wade's personal statement on peace, and on young people becoming empowered to make a change in the world. I know that each of the young dancers who were a part of this performance were shown the power of dance to express emotion and convey a message - this one of hope and change.

We feel a "semi-connection" to the work Wade did with the San Francisco Ballet, as they called him to commission him while he was in Huntsville in July! He had recently had a piece on "So You Think You Can Dance" entitled "Hummingbird and Flower" that caught the attention of the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Ballet, the nation's oldest professional ballet company. Wade was in our Green Room having his lunch when the call came asking him to meet with the ballet company to discuss the commission. He was so excited after the call and told me he was blown away by the response to "Hummingbird and Flower." He worked with the dancers in San Francisco for several weeks in the fall and again in January, and his piece was the focal point of the ballet company's 75th anniversary celebration in January. Wade said, "I haven't spent one hour doing what those ballet dancers do, and they haven't spent one hour doing what I do, so we were all challenged to work together. But we did it, I loved every minute of it, and I think they did as well." The performance received rave reviews from the San Francisco press, and I'm sure that this work will lead Wade in many new directions!

While he was in Huntsville in July, he was also in the middle of his negotiations with Cirque du Soliel to be the choreographer for a new production they are mounting at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas in August. He has temporarily relocated to Montreal for rehearsals for this new Cirque show, which features the magic of Chris Angell, a cast of 12 dancers and other Cirque characters. Wade is working to set choreography around aerial tricks, acrobatics, and the amazing magic and illusions of Chris Angell. The show is set to open in August, and we are planning our trip to attend one of the first performances! Wade's wife, and creative partner, Amanda, said she is anxious to see what Chris Angell's "tricks" are, but said she is frankly afraid there aren't any tricks - she said after meeting Angell, it is highly possible that he can actually do those unbelievable illusions!

Wade has promised to schedule a return to Merrimack Hall in late 2008 or early 2009, once his work with Cirque is finished. We'll keep you informed as these plans develop!

Debra Jenkins, Founder

Chris Tyler Returns to Merrimack Hall

Nashville-based hip hop choreographer Chris Tyler is set to return to Merrimack Hall on Saturday, March 29, 2008, for another day of master classes for dancers age 6 and up! Our website,, has complete workshop details.

Chris is celebrity choreographer Shane Sparks' favorite teaching assistant,and was mentioned by Shane this week on MTV's new dance show "Dance Crew." Shane referred to Chris as "my best friend and best assistant in the business!" Chris is working with Merrimack Hall to secure a workshop with Shane Sparks in Huntsville, so stay tuned to this blog and our website for more details!

Chris is also the southeast representative for the L.A. talent agency, D.D.O. This agency provides exclusive representation for dancers and places them in music videos, television commercials, stage shows, award shows and more. On January 5, after a day of master classes, Chris conducted an open audition for the D.D.O. Agency. Forty-three local dancers auditioned for Chris. Chris told Leigh Caruso, Merrimack Hall's Director of Dance Education, that he expected to find one or two dancers that he might be interested in signing. Two weeks later, 13 dancers from Huntsville, Decatur and Moulton had been signed to his agency! These dancers are already receiving audition calls from Chris, for everything from rap artists' tours to Pepsi commercials, and a group of dancers just went to Atlanta to audition for a music video. Chris told Leigh he was "blown away" by the talent that he saw at Merrimack Hall!

Providing opportunities like this one to Huntsville's performers is a key component of Merrimack Hall's mission. We are so proud to be able to give area performers the chance to reach their personal dreams and will continue to bring working professionals to Merrimack Hall to work with Huntsville's talented artists!

Debra Jenkins, Founder

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Merrimack Hall Nominates Ron Harris for Virginia Hammil Simms Award

Merrimack Hall is proud to announce that Ron Harris is our nominee for the prestigious Virginia Hammil Simms Award. Given annually to the individual who has done the most to advance the arts in Huntsville through volunteer service, this award is named for one of the early pioneers of Huntsville's vibrant arts community. Mrs. Simms was actively involved in the formation of some of Huntsville's most important art institutions, such as Community Ballet Association and the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, and was one of our community's most prominent philanthropists. I was speechless, thrilled, humbled and grateful to have received this award in 2007, and feel so honored to be able to nominate an artist of Ron Harris' caliber for this year's award.

Ron has been a driving force in Huntsville's theatre community for more than 30 years. He retired in 2005 from a teaching career that included 10 years at Johnson High School and 20 years as the director of the Lee High School Magnet Drama Department. His students have received regional, national and international recognition over the years and have won countless awards for their productions. Ron has also received numerous awards for his work as an educator, director, designer, writer and actor.

There is not a theatre organization in North Alabama that hasn't used Ron's expertise, as either a costume designer, set dresser, set designer, actor or director, and for every job he has taken as a professional, there are multiple ones he has taken on as a volunteer. His eye for detail and love of art motivates him to be sure that every production he is involved with is as professional as possible. While he is officially retired, he can still be found working at Lee High School's productions, coaching and mentoring individual students, and hosting impromptu performances in the backyard theatre he built right after his retirement.

When Ron became involved with us in the planning of Merrimack Hall, he put his creative talents to work for us. Every Friday night for a year, he met with us to review our architectural drawings, help select things like seat and curtain colors, help us define our mission and identify our programming goals. He told me that he had three dreams for himself after his retirement - to have a movie produced, to build a theatre in his backyard, and to have someone build a new theatre in Huntsville. Those three dreams all came true for him the summer after he retired, so he is working on a new set of dreams for himself! His play, "Like Moles, Like Rats" was produced last summer, has been accepted into four prestigious independent film festivals and is set for theatrical release later this year. Visit for more information.

The Virginia Hammil Simms Award will be presented in April.

Debra Jenkins, Founder

Chantal Robson

L.A. based choreographer Chantal Robson left Merrimack Hall on Wednesday, headed to Denver to work with up-and-coming pop star Ashton Grant, and we miss her so much already! Chantal spent a week with us in January another week in February, and has promised to return to Merrimack Hall in August or September and we can't wait! Chantal, and her brother Wade Robson, have become like family to us and we are so grateful to them both for what they've done for Merrimack Hall and for Huntsville's dance community.

Chantal worked with dancers of all ages when she was here in January, and through an open audition, selected 10 who were part of Ashton Grant's performance at Merrimack Hall's Evening of Dance. These young dancers were in their first music video, live on our stage, complete with scaffolding and fog! Chantal told the dancers how proud she was of them; they had approximately 15 hours to learn her choreography, rehearse and perfect it, and perform it with Ashton's live performance of her song "Misery Loves Company," which is about the amount of time spent on an average music video shoot. What a cool experience for these young performers!

This past week, she conducted a "How To Audition" workshop and walked dancers through the paces of what to expect when going on a dance audition. Chantal was so impressed with the talent of the dancers she met in Huntsville and felt that they are all prepared now to go on their first real dance audition!

Chantal and Wade both took a special interest in one young Huntsville dancer and they are both working on some incredible opportunities for her.....stay tuned for some exciting announcements about this young girl!

Chantal will all be announcing this week the winners of the five week-long scholarships that she will be awarding to Huntsville dancers. These scholarships are for classes at the famed Millenium Dance Complex in L.A., where the top choreographers, dancers and pop stars in the industry go for their dance training.

Merrimack Hall's goal is to put Huntsville's performers up close and personal with top working professionals like Chantal and Wade Robson. We know that Chantal and Wade will be returning later this year and are working on several other celebrity choreographers who will be teaching at Merrimack Hall this summer. Stay tuned for details!

Debra Jenkins, Founder

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Welcome to our blog!

Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center is eager to create a dialogue with the public and with our patrons. We hope that you will give us feedback and suggestions, as well as ask any questions you may have about our venue and programming. Let's get started!

We opened our doors in July of 2007, and have been amazed by the talent that has walked through them in the interim: Wade Robson, Billy Bob Thornton, Simon Kirke, Dionne Warwick, Menopause the Musical...and the list goes on. Every time we spotlight another guest artist we are inspired and energized to provide the best venue possible. And we're grateful and humbled every time we see a very young talent soaking up every word, note, or move taught in a master class by the best in the industry.

Our beginning is so much more meaningful when it can be shared with those we respect and value. We must say a heartfelt thank you to our patrons and to the wonderful performers that have shared their talent and knowledge with us.