Two intersections changed the trajectory of Aaron Marcellus’ life. Clarendon and Berkeley in Avondale Estates, and 45th and 8th in New York City.
The first is where Marcellus studied music and musical theater at the Avondale High School magnet program, now the DeKalb School of the Arts. The second is the location of the Broadway Dance Center, where the vocalist, musician, actor, band leader and composer first met tap dancer, choreographer and McArthur Fellow Michelle Dorrance.
A third intersection has shaped Marcellus’ rich career – the intersection between music and movement. That will be on full display in Atlanta on April 1, when Dorrance Dance performs at Rialto Center for the Arts. Marcellus, 38, composed the music for 45th and 8th, the second of two dances on the program.
“The day I met Michelle I fell in love with the way she taught,” he says. “She is so energetic and kind and giving. I was addicted to her class.” He was eager to learn how to dance, but struggled to keep up. “I was in the back of the class, getting my tail kicked and not knowing why,” he says. “I hadn’t checked the schedule and didn’t realize it was an advanced class.” What he lacked in technique he made up for with tenacity and musicality. Dorrance noticed.
It was the beginning of a rich friendship and artistic collaboration. Marcellus’ tap technique improved and in 2015, Dorrance coached him before he auditioned for Stomp, the hugely successful show that creates noise, rhythm and humor with feet, hands and everyday objects. Marcellus got the job, but he also sang, contributed music and occasionally danced with Dorrance Dance. He eventually had to make a choice – continue with Stomp or tour with Dorrance Dance. It was an easy decision, he says.
Marcellus grew up in Atlanta in a family where he and his older brother would find musical instruments, not toys, under the Christmas tree. His stepfather, Nathan Grigsby, was a huge influence. Originally a music director with Atlanta Public Schools, he has been director of the Joyful Noise Gospel Choir at Agnes Scott College for more than 25 years.
The family attended Tabernacle Baptist Church and Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Marcellus sang in gospel choirs, and when he was nine one of the groups put out a record. As a young adult he auditioned for American Idol, and after three failed attempts he made it into the top 24 in season 11, later becoming the show’s musical director.
When his stint with American Idol ended, he found himself in New York with no job, no money and often no place to stay. He never thought of himself as homeless, he says, even when he slept in Central Park for a couple of nights. His faith in God convinced him that everything would be okay. “Even when I didn’t have anything, I had everything I needed. I learned to say thank you.”
Marcellus did whatever he could to stay afloat, including working nights at the Long Island Railroad. What money he had, he spent on dance classes. Modern, hip-hop, tap. He tried it all. At the Broadway Dance Center, he cleaned the studios in exchange for cheap classes.
For the concert the company is bringing to the Rialto, Marcellus hired two musicians from his 15-piece band, the Marcellus Collective — saxophonist Matt Parker and drummer Kyle Everett. On bass is Gregory Richardson, Dorrance Dance’s musical director. Marcellus will be on keyboard and vocals, he says, but he won’t be dancing. All his focus will be on the music, because this season is his first as the company’s principal composer.
Marcellus has learned how music and tap mesh together, something not every musician knows how to do. Drummer Everett, for instance, “had to learn how to play with the same intensity, but not the same volume,” to allow the taps to be heard, Marcellus says. The drummer has to be the timekeeper but also watch the dancers to see which choreography is hard to do slowly, and how fast is too fast. “You have to just feel it.”
When composing this season for Dorrance Dance, he says he heard the taps and the slides in his head, and imagined the dancers’ arms. He had a particular idea in mind too. “I wanted people to feel that we have stepped out of the pandemic into the future, but there is also something nostalgic about [the score] that feels safe.” The music is sparse and crazy at times, he says, “but there is a through-line that feels like home. I wanted the dancers to be able to swing.”
Gillian Anne Renault has been an ArtsATL contributor since 2012 and Senior Editor for Art+Design and Dance since 2021. She has covered dance for the Los Angeles Daily News, Herald Examiner and Ballet News, and on radio stations such as KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Santa Monica, California. Many years ago, she was awarded an NEA Fellowship to attend American Dance Festival’s Dance Criticism program.