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Luis Perez: Passing theatre craft on to a new generation

Posted: 10/28/2013

Musical Theatre Director Luis Perez comes from an overachieving family. His parents, both physicians, emigrated from Cuba to the Orlando, Fla., area in the 1950s for a better life – his father rising to become the president of the Florida Medical Association and his mother being recognized as the nation's first female doctor from Cuba.

CCPA Musical Theatre program director Luis PerezA chemistry major and math minor in high school, Perez was supposed to follow in the footsteps of his parents as a medical doctor, just as his younger brother, Tico, would rise to prominence as a practicing lawyer and the National Commissioner and head of the Boy Scouts of America.

But his career plan shifted when Perez, who had been active in martial arts, football and track, became ill in high school. Bedridden for weeks, he knew he needed to get on his feet and back in shape, so he took the advice of a girlfriend who told him to try dance.

"I remember taking a men's ballet class in high school, and totally getting hooked," said Perez, who, at 15 years of age, sat his father down one day and told him he wanted to be a dancer. "I thought my father was going to explode," Perez recalls today. "But he made me a deal: If I could get all As and graduate early he would let me go to New York (on a Joffrey Ballet scholarship) and dance for two years."

Perez met those conditions, but never came home, eventually becoming a principal dancer with the Joffrey. working with such dance and choreography luminaries as Agnes DeMille, Robert Joffrey, Gerald Arpino, Twyla Tharp and Jerome Robbins, Perez danced with the Joffrey Ballet for six years until he suffered a hip injury at age 27.

Switching over to musical theatre, Perez went on to Broadway, appearing in 11 different shows including as a member of the original New York cast for The Phantom of the Opera in 1988, Jerome Robbins' Broadway in 1989, Ain't Broadway Grand in 1993 and Dangerous Games in 1997. He also starred in the 1986 national tour of West Side Story and New York Opera's Brigadoon. Eeach show was physically and emotionally challenging," said Perez, who for Joffrey Ballet performances of Romeo and Juliet, did 15 double turns – jumping in the air and spinning twice each time before landing.

Luis Perez was a Joffrey Ballet principal dancer from 1980-86, appearing in 37 shows including

A choreographer and performer on Broadway for shows like Man of La Mancha and The Civil War, and fight director for Broadway's Wild Party, Marie Christine and Dangerous Games, Perez recalls in the latter show doing so much jumping, lifting and fighting – non-stop on stage for 40 minutes – that he actually had to take oxygen off stage in order to complete his final solo performance.

"If you are to be successful, you have to invest yourself in every show and in every character," said Perez, who has also danced beside Mikhail Baryshnikov and has appeared on TV, in commercials and in film. "It can be emotionally draining, but it is the beauty of what we get to do – which is to live inside a character and then leave that character at the stage door."

Perez joined Roosevelt's Theatre Conservatory in 2005 to spend more time with his wife, former Broadway star and award-winning choreographer Tina Paul, and their two sons, then ages 12 and 20. In 2008, Perez became head of the conservatory's musical theatre program. Each year, he directs and choreographs at least one major musical on the University's seventh-floor O'Malley Theatre stage.

His adaptation of Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical based on the book by Dick Scanlan and Richard Henry Morris, and new music by Jeanine Tesori and new lyrics by Scanlan, premieres April 16-19, 2014 at O'Malley.

"I primarily identify myself as a dancer because I'm able to express myself best in that discipline," said Perez. "But I've done every aspect of theatre non-stop since the age of 17. I've never done anything else in my life and what I've come to realize is that theatre is one of the few disciplines that is passed down from one person to another, and generation to generation. It's not something that can be learned in books."

"I'm just happy to be able to pass on to my Roosevelt students what was once passed on to me," he added.