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Dance

Detroit’s ballsy ballerina

Christopher Leadbitter wants to save the city — and the world of dance

Photos by Cybelle Codish
Leadbitter performing in "Twisted Cabaret."
Teaching a class at Miss Barbara's Dance Centre
During a CASP rehearsal
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Published 9/7/2005

On a Sunday afternoon, the camp factor is way higher than the drop ceiling at Miss Barbara’s Dance Centre in Birmingham, where choreographer Christopher Leadbitter is getting a dozen dancers ready for their next big show.

Crouched in a corner of the room, near a pile of red- and silver-sequined top hats, Leadbitter stuffs his feet into a pair of scuffed yellow tap shoes while talking to his dancers, who are taking five. Through the mirrored wall, they watch his reflection, listening while wiping the sweat from their pierced lips and brows.

“OK, now, listen up. Girls, you can rub up against the boys before the music starts, but nothing more. Right on the scream, start flogging. And boys, I want your shirts off so the audience can hear the flogging against bare skin — which reminds me, for the show, ladies, wear black and white panties.”

Leadbitter, 29, is founder of Causing a Scene Productions (CASP), a multimedia performance art troupe that began as a hobby three years ago and is now a weekly gig of dance, drag and debauchery at Diesel, the Hamtramck night club that tops the machismo meter. Because of Leadbitter’s big shows, an otherwise trendy Friday night in Detroit nostalgically evokes a dramatic scene from German expressionist art. The room glows by a seedy red light rather than a strobe, and the ridiculous revolving stage remains motionless. When Causing a Scene is on stage, men don’t leer and women aren’t self-obsessed. The mood is intensely androgynous, but far from asexual. For about 45 minutes, there’s a lot of flesh and feathers in the room. And it’s claustrophobic, cabaret-style. Even nonsmokers buy a pack.

The way Leadbitter tells it, his lifelong career as a dancer prone to deviancy began with an overpowering adoration for a mainstream classical ballet performance. At age 4, he went to see “The Nutcracker” at Orchestra Hall and fell in love with the art form. But his grandmother, Vera Leadbitter, says it’s not quite that simple. In a thick and aristocratic German accent, she explains that he always had a deep feeling for music. When a toddler, she says, Leadbitter would sit on the floor by his grandfather’s desk, playing with blocks, and ask: “Papa, would you please put on Sowinski?”

“He meant Stravinsky,” she says. “When his grandfather played it, suddenly, he would get up and dance. As a toddler, he bent and turned to music that wasn’t even rhythmic.”

Leadbitter grew up in Franklin, living in a beautiful home with his great-grandmother, his grandparents and his single mom. His grandmother is a portrait painter, and his great-grandmother was a poet whose children’s story was broadcast live on the radio, set to a Beethoven piece performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (Leadbitter comes from a long line of artists and architects, and, get this — his great-grandmother’s uncle was Kurt von Schleicher, minister of defense for the Weimar Republic).

At age 8, Leadbitter had pleaded enough, and his mom signed him up for ballet and tap-dancing lessons. A year later, he was studying jazz dance as well. By the time Leadbitter was 14, he was taking unlimited ballet lessons, six days a week — after rehearsing for three or four hours, he’d stay up until 2 in the morning finishing his homework.

Trained under Mary Geiger, a disciple of legendary Detroit ballet teacher Sandra Sevaro, Leadbitter learned the older Russian method of ballet that focused on technique, making every position perfect. Leadbitter says Sevaro was known for being “the bitch of ballet,” and Geiger was no different. “She was always very in-your-face loud, and nothing was ever good enough. She yelled that my jumps weren’t high enough and my turns stunk. She put the fear of God in me.” His preteen years were a constant battle between loving performing and trying to figure out why he was torturing himself, putting himself through the physical and emotional abuse.

Around that time, he and his mom moved about an hour away to Holly. Every day, his grandmother sacrificed six hours to drive from Franklin to Holly to pick her grandson up, then drive him to rehearsal in Farmington Hills, wait for him during three or four hours of class, drive him back to Holly and then drive herself home to Franklin.

“I did it because I saw how devoted he was,” she says. “But first of all, I saw how talented he was. On the bottom, there was always dance.” Because his grandmother was going to such lengths to keep him involved, Leadbitter says there was a lot of pressure to make it as a pro.

“If you want to be a ballet dancer, you have to train day in and day out,” he says. “It’s almost like training for the Olympics. You’re teaching your body to do things that are very unnatural — standing in turned-out positions, which your hips and knees aren’t used to, and hiking your legs up. You really have to push yourself to the limit, especially when you are young, because your body can still take all that pulling and throbbing.”

At 16, Leadbitter auditioned for the School of American Ballet and got a full scholarship to train for the summer. When he returned home, he quit high school his sophomore year for a 9-5 job as a dancer for Metropolitan Ballet Theatre, Detroit’s first full-scale professional ballet company. As an apprentice, he was among the youngest of a couple of dozen dancers from across the nation and overseas. But the company folded in six months.

He was already falling out of step with the world of classical ballet. When Leadbitter showed up for a summer program at the Houston Ballet’s academy, where he also had a full ride, he had a shaved head with dyed purple bangs. The first day there, he walked up to director Ben Stevenson, an old British gentleman, and introduced himself, thanking him for the privilege. “Ben wouldn’t even shake my hand. I realized immediately it must have been my hair,” Leadbitter says, still disappointed in Stevenson. “I shaved off my bangs and let the rest of my hair grow. But it was too late; I was perceived as a wild child.”

That’s when Leadbitter realized he’d become disenchanted. Nationally recognized academies take in dancers from around the country, training them by their own methods so that, eventually, dancers are primed to become company members who perform alike on stage. “I didn’t want to be one of those 50 people on stage, all doing the same thing,” Leadbitter says. He told the academy he didn’t know if it was the right place for him and returned to Michigan. At 18, he gave up dance altogether; his grandmother didn’t speak to him for four months.

One good thing came out of his time in Houston, that summer of 1993. Leadbitter studied with Rashonn James, a dancer he calls his “other half.” James, who is now a pre-law student, says, “We are total opposites. I’m this tall African-American and he is a white kid with big blue eyes. But immediately we made each other better. When I met him, Christopher was a sweet Midwestern kid who minded his manners. He gave me his calmness and meekness, and I gave him some of my backbone, my bigness.”

After Houston, James had moved to New York to join the Dance Theatre of Harlem, so Leadbitter saved up $300 (because that’s what he heard Madonna had saved), got a bus ticket and joined James in New York, bringing his essentials: a lava lamp, a ghetto blaster, some CDs and a duffel bag full of clothes and costumes. The pair stayed in the projects on 62nd Street before moving to Spanish Harlem, and finally renting a small studio in Brooklyn.

Leadbitter worked at a bookstore, DJ’d occasionally and went to every free dance and music concert he could find in the city, but he missed performing. He got a scholarship to Steps on Broadway, one of the largest professional dance studios in the world, working in an administrative position so he could take classes for free. Then he met a friend of James,’ who was also a dancer. It took just one look at the animated Leadbitter before the friend realized that he was a perfect fit for Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

Les Trocks, as it is affectionately dubbed, is an internationally known dance troupe founded in 1974, featuring male dancers performing traditional ballet pieces in drag and en pointe.

But he could picture his mistress Mary Geiger screaming at him. “When I was younger, Geiger was always telling me I had terrible feet. She would threaten me by yelling, ‘I’m going to put you in a pair of pointe shoes and send you to the Trockaderos!’ So I had it in my head that it was these dumpy, overweight guys fussing around.”

He also says he wasn’t in touch with his feminine side. It wasn’t that he was uncomfortable being gay — he’d been out for years — but he was anxious about seeming too feminine, two very different things in Leadbitter’s view. When he was younger, he had concealed his career as a dancer from other classmates, until one of them saw him in a performance, after which the teasing was relentless.

Leadbitter also got a lot of flak for being too pretty. As a young man, he is princely, with huge eyes, a blanket of heavy lashes and bone structure that cuts fast across his face. It’s probably why he was profiled in the July issue of Penthouse Forum and in a new photography anthology, Erotique Digital: The Art of Digital Photography. But the photos of him as a child are stunning — picture “The Nutcracker” performed by a real doll whose perfect features practically match the uniform: coal black hair, marine blue eyes and cherry red lips. “When I was young, I was constantly mistaken for a girl, so at an early age that put it in me that I had to butch it up.”

That’s another reason why auditioning for Les Trocks unsettled Leadbitter. “Drag was fine for others, but I didn’t want to go there.” That all changed once Leadbitter was convinced to sit in on a rehearsal and saw the men with hairy armpits and muscular chests. He realized Les Trocks was more like Kabuki theater; the performance was not about being feminine, but about acting, portraying a character who happens to be a ballerina. He was also determined to live out a fantasy that most male dancers don’t: “Secretly, when I was younger, I was jealous of the girls because they were always front and center on stage with the boys behind them. I wanted that.”

Leadbitter auditioned for Les Trocks and, at first, the directors were skeptical of taking him. Most dancers were in their late 20s to mid-30s and had years of professional experience. At 18, Leadbitter was about a decade younger. But they offered him a two-month contract and eventually hired him full time, making him the youngest dancer in the company’s 25-year history.

He can be credited for helping to shift the focus of the troupe. After hiring him, the director also hired James, and began noticing that younger dancers had greater ability. Fresh out of school, their bodies were still supple, recovering quickly from injury. Les Trocks became less about a comic edge and more about real ballet.

Though he was eager, Leadbitter recalls that learning to dance en pointe — on tiptoes in ballerina slippers — was excruciating. Some male dancers learn to do it for a few select roles in Cinderella and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Les Trocks’ performers regularly dance en pointe, supported only by stiffened satin and some glue. Since he’d never done it before, Leadbitter ended up learning the technique in ill-fitting slippers. For six months, his knuckles stuck out and his toes constantly rolled over, his feet bloody and blistered.

Working with Les Trocks was the closest Leadbitter came to dancing the way he wanted to dance — for himself instead of his family or his teachers — and he got really good at it. They gave Leadbitter two characters to portray. One of them, Pechka Melba, was a naive and sprightly young woman who won over fans around the world. He spent six years with the group, performing eight days a week, working his way through the entire repertoire and filling in for sick or injured cast members while touring Japan, Europe, Canada, the United States and South Africa, several times over.

But the grueling schedule finally cut his professional career short. After catching the flu, he ended up in an emergency room with a virus that had infected his heart, causing the lining to swell. His doctor prescribed bed rest for six weeks, and it was the end of Trockadero. But by then, he’d felt it was time to move on anyway. “When you’re complaining about going to Japan again,” he says, flashing a killer smile, “you know you need a change.”

Leadbitter ended up moving back to metro Detroit to be closer to his grandfather, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He spent his time recuperating and helping his grandfather with physical therapy. After he died, Leadbitter started checking out the clubs around the city.

Immediately, the gay scene in Ferndale disgusted him. “In New York, there is a wide range of gay clubs catering to different types of people with varying interests, but in Detroit, there’s an inbred mentality. It’s such a small community and nobody leaves the city to gain a different perspective.” He says that since people come out of the closet at a young age and start going to the clubs, all they see is what they eventually become — this “Miss Thing” character. “I ran into some old friends like that and I thought, ‘Where’s John? What happened to working on your TransAm, listening to AC/DC?’”

Leadbitter was never “a typical gay boy mincing around the disco.” With a pink and purple Mohawk, he was into rock and heavy metal, and didn’t feel like he fit in that community. He checked out City Club, but he wasn’t into the Goth scene either. There too, he says he was an outcast. Everyone looked at him like he had six heads because he was not into black nail polish and eyeliner.

“I just started getting really pissed off,” he says. “Here are these cultures that are supposedly embracing individuality, but they are no different than the rest of society. If you are not like them, they don’t want anything to do with you.” He noticed that, for the most part, everyone in Detroit is segregated — blacks from whites, straights from gays and even the techno clubbers from rock lovers.

That’s when he started getting the inkling, about two years ago: “I thought, fuck everybody — I’m going to start my own scene.” He put an ad in the newspaper calling for people who were uninhibited and shared an interest in unique music and talking about art. Originally, he thought maybe he would start a band. Perhaps somewhat subconsciously, dance found its way back in his world. He stood around clubs, watching people on the floor, looking for talented dancers.

Sixteen people showed up at his first meeting, and he pitched the idea for a show called “Future” — a postapocalyptic industrial cabaret. It was right before the United States invaded Iraq, and there was a perceived threat of biological warfare. So he bought gas masks on eBay and choreographed a show around them.

Only three or four people had dance experience, so the show was simple. Those early performances were theatrical and fetishized. “I was going through a phase in which I really wanted to push everything in everyone’s face, but it became a personal problem. I was getting turned on by performing with women on stage, so I went through this freak-out where I thought maybe I wasn’t gay. But the problem was the stage.”

At that time he had also begun teaching kids ages 8 to 18 at Miss Barbara’s Dance Centre and Michigan Classic Ballet. Last summer, between working those two jobs and accomplishing all the tasks associated with running Causing a Scene — the choreography, rehearsals, marketing and promotions, and being in charge of costumes, props and sets — Leadbitter says he lost his mind. He woke up one day, a week before a big CASP show at Q in Ferndale, took apart his cell phone, threw it in the trash, left his car in an alley and headed for New York. For a few days, he slept in Central Park. Finally, he pulled himself together and visited with his friends. When he returned home, he began seeing a therapist and decided to not push himself so hard.

That was easier said than done. He learned from Houston Ballet director Stevenson that if you’re going to do something, do it 110 percent. “In Houston, for the world premiere of Don Quixote, there were elaborate sets and live horses and camels on stage. I was just a little extra way in the back and even my outfit was made of leather and suede.” Now, Leadbitter is grateful that others help out. His dancers have become disciples, even choreographing him in some pieces. And Michiee DeVale, a drag queen and occasional dancer, helps make gorgeous costumes for Leadbitter and the troupe.

The CASP look is a techno-Kabuki-metal-cabaret-burlesque-rock-fetish crossbreed, with gas and gimp masks, sneakers and shades, whips and chains, fishnet stockings and bowties. But occasionally Leadbitter choreographs a number specifically geared for the audience, still pushing for a reaction, even if it’s a confrontation. For a “college night” at Q, Leadbitter choreographed a scene in which guys in flannel shirts strip and become turned on by gay boys, set to the tune of Gay Bar by local rockers Electric Six.

As an artistic director, Leadbitter has a talent for drawing out dancers’ personalities and dramatizing them. Thanks to him, dancer Jeremiah Childers, a pierced techno boy, has found his alter ego as an affected 18th century dandy with superbly continental mannerisms. You wouldn’t see it in rehearsal, but on stage, Andrea Kranz seems like a better Kit Kat Club entertainer than Liza Minnelli. “Dancers don’t even realize that character works for them,” Leadbitter says. “Sometimes one of them will approach me, saying they want to play another role, or be a different type of dancer. I say, ‘Well, you’re not.’”

That’s key to being a successful choreographer. Just because a move looks good in theory doesn’t mean it looks good on every performer. “I realized a long time ago that I’m not going to be one of the boys doing crazy leaps. Jumps were never my thing. But I’m really good at turning.”

James says Leadbitter has impeccable musicality. “Sometimes you see dancers who are disconnected from the music, but Christopher phrases his dancing with the music, placing an accent on certain beats. He is alive because it is in his soul.”

It’s certainly what makes him an interesting choreographer, juxtaposing various genres of music with moves that would seem unlikely. CASPers swing dance to a Marilyn Manson song, pony (a ’60s move) to Klaus Nomi’s robo-wave operatic hit, “You Don’t Own Me,” hip-hop to a punk-like Mindless Self Indulgence song and cane dance to the rhythmic stamp of Björk’s “Enjoy.” In another song, the troupe becomes a chorus of clappers who look like they’re straight out of the Will Rogers Follies.

Leadbitter could easily turn every show into a “Christopher” show, with his multiple fuettes, pirouettes and leaps. But he doesn’t. And that doesn’t just say something about his ego. He can really grab a tipsy audience’s attention when he breaks into an unaccompanied tap solo in between group numbers.

Even in those, there’s some show-stealing Leadbitter can’t help. For instance, in one piece, two scantily clad women join him to perform the simplest, albeit strictest, of movements. That’s when you can sense that he has spent his life in control of every single muscle in his body. It is relayed as a precision that, as Rashonn James says, “makes him fluid with the music.” It’s rare to see dance like that in Detroit, but especially up close and so personal. Even straight men can’t take their eyes off him.

Currently, there are only a couple of burlesque troupes in town, and one fetish troupe, but they cater to specific audiences. Nobody except Leadbitter is attempting to legitimize all the different forms of dance, from the classical to the more subversive contemporary styles, mixing it with music, theater, art and fashion in professional productions, and presenting it to a diverse crowd.

Causing a Scene shows are sexed-up soirees. But watching Leadbitter and the others, you can easily forget the pervy subtext. If you really pay attention, the shows become primal. The performers are amateurs, but under Leadbitter’s direction, every dance is about the tension that swells and finally breaks when the genres of dance, music, theater and performance art come together. In that cane dance number, Björk says it best. Her voice rings loud, clear and long, like a code red alarm: “This is sex without touching.”

 

Causing a Scene performs Friday nights at Diesel, 11425 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck. For more info, call 248-804-4577 or visit www.causingascene.com.

First and third Fridays are “Cabaret Voyeur,” a night of burlesque. Second Fridays are “Superpsychocrazysexyfun Land,” a sideshow carnival extravaganza with Sno-cones, Twister with Telatubbies, and other games and performances. Fourth Fridays are “Retro A-Go-Go,” featuring ’80’s-themed music and performances. Friday, Sept. 30, is “Japanica,” a night of erotic Kabuki theater with dancing geishas and animé warriors, and an art exhibit by Mark Arminski.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to rmazzei@metrotimes.com.

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