When Reigning Soca Monarch Machel Montano made his debut performance at Fantasy Carnival’s Secret Saturday event, eyebrows shot up immediately and speculation arose regarding the absence of his original HD Dancers and the appearance of a seemingly all-new cast of “foreign-looking” dancers.
Even as patrons enjoyed themselves in the rain at the Queen’s Park Oval, bloggers and Facebook lovers questioned the apparent “substitution” of “Wining Jade”, Brittany Dookie and company. However, the truth about the new cast is far less sinister than some of the hypotheses presented online.
Montano has been working with a Los Angeles-based creative arts production team called Zen Arts for the past three years. Run by fashion designer Susie Culini and creative director Doug Miller, Zen Arts is described by Miller as “an artist collective of performers, musicians and designers specialising in acrobatic performance routines”.
The company has worked with industry giants like Madonna, Lady Gaga and is currently working on the 2014 Grammy Awards Show.
“My partner and I started about seven years ago as performers,” Miller explained in an exclusive interview with the Express, “and we both worked for another company, but then decided to form our own company. Since then, we’re no longer performing, we’re creating and producing and we’ve worked in over 15 different countries for a lot of high-end celebrity events, private events, theatre shows and corporate events for clients like Google, Adobe and Facebook, for example…
“What we’re doing here is we brought performers and we’re doing choreography for and with Machel, as well as creating all the costumes. We started working with Machel three years ago—he called me when he was doing the Return show and ‘Advantage’. He wanted to collaborate and add some elements for his Soca Monarch performance. Of course, I didn’t know who he was at the time, I had never heard his music and he sent me the song and I was like: ‘my God, what is this?’ Because it was 180 beats per minute and I wasn’t sure how we could work at that tempo, but he called me back a few days later and flew me in for a show he was doing at the Licensing Office place—and that was the first time I ever saw him perform and I was blown away by the energy, by the crowd, by his level of showmanship… and that was the start of our relationship.…”
Of course, Montano won his first Soca Monarch title in 2011 with “Advantage” and worked with Zen Arts again last year, as he levitated and flew through the sky for “Float”. During this time, Miller has come to understand and appreciate soca music, as well as the Trinbagonian culture and our annual Carnival festival.
“We didn’t want to just throw ourselves into this amazing culture,” said Miller. “We had to take the time to understand it and get familiar with all the nuances and traditions and the way things work here. So we talked about how we could use technology and our technical and acrobatic experience to take things to another level—and from last year, we also started doing more production work with him: we did all the audio-visual, graphics and design for pretty much the entire Machel Monday, as well as RAMA and all the bigger ones. So we started getting more involved and developed a really good relationship…”
Montano called upon Zen Arts again more recently, as he filmed his soon-to-be-released music video for the 2014 single, “Happiest Man Alive”, in Los Angeles with Trinidadian-born director Damian Marcano.
“That video is not out yet,” Miller explained, “but we worked on it about a month ago and that was the first time we got to use our dancers and choreography with him—and that video went off so well in terms of the dancing and the choreography that it really gave us some momentum to talk about what we could do for Carnival. Then, a couple of his dancers left for personal reasons and I think he was in a position where he had to figure out and fill the void in terms of his dancers…”
Enter Amanda Bartolomeo, Danielle Hendrix, Mariah Murray, Tiffany Payne and one of the original HD Dancers, Zulema Charles.
The LA-based dancers have quickly become friends with each other and are working with Charles and renowned choreographer Jason Young to integrate their highly technical dance moves into the wining culture of T&T. Young has performed on tour with Madonna, Britney Spears and Ricky Martin and now works as a choreographer for some of the top acts in the music industry. He is excited about the opportunity to work with Machel and soca music.
“I’ve been dancing my whole life,” said Young, “and after we worked on the HMA video, Machel was impressed and wanted to do more. I grew up in New York, so I’ve known soca and dancehall and Caribbean music all my life and I’m excited about where it’s heading now. I think Machel’s music is changing in a way that’s giving it great crossover potential and I’m thrilled to be a part of the team…”
The Zen Arts dancers are all new to the Trinidad/Carnival experience and expressed great excitement about working on this project. As the only local dancer in the midst of the contingent, she is challenged to keep up with their technical expertise and coordination, while introducing them to and instructing them in the local and Caribbean styles of dance.
“It is definitely challenging for me,” Charles admitted. “My body is protesting loudly, but my mind is strong and I’m learning so much from them. It’s a different level of intensity and concentration and professionalism as well because you know our mentality in Trinidad is more laid back, but it’ll pay off because I’m taking my skills and experience to the next level, while adding to Machel’s performance and image.”
Look out for the all new HD Dancers next big performance coming to a fete near you.