Choreographed for success
TUNE in to TVB Jade any night of the week, and chances are the screen will be filled with formation dancing youngsters in life-threatening Lycra.
Whatever the occasion - Canto-pop performance, variety show or beauty pageant - the show is not over until the sinewy young women and men who make up the TVB Dancers have strutted their stuff.
It has been that way since the inception of TVB's dance department 25 years ago, and it is not going to change. Now, dance has been granted even greater importance with the signing of American choreographer Brad Jeffries.
How did TVB manage to snare a dance wunderkind on a one-year contract when he would normally be too busy in his native United States to even commit a spare weekend to the station? Thanks to feature films (Back to the Future III, Death Becomes Her and the upcoming Beverly Hillbillies, to name a few), countless television shows (Tracey Ullman Show, Life Goes On ) and music video projects (Madonna, Neneh Cherry, Stevie Nicks), Jeffries has become one of an elite crew of choreographers who can pick and choose their projects.
But TVB? While many people Stateside may have queried Jeffries' decision to make the move at a time when his career is going from strength to strength, he feels it is time to expand his horizons and ''push the envelope'' of his dance career.
And Jeffries got the chance to take a break from the hallowed halls of Hollywood when ex-TVB choreographer Michelle Williams offered him the job.
The lanky Californian said: ''Los Angeles can be so stifling creatively because everything is so commercial and dependent on the hip quotient. It is a narrow view, a microcosm. They are creating things for the world, yet they are so focused on themselves.'' JEFFRIES will have plenty of opportunities to display his talents at TVB. Of the 5,000 hours of programming the station produces annually, 800 feature dance numbers. The load is shared with six other in-house choreographers.
He has no doubts he will learn from his experience here: ''You don't ever see this high a level of dance outside the US. I think it is superior to anything in Europe or anywhere outside the US.
''It offers me an opportunity to work with much more resources and create numbers more than I would have in the US. The only time you find this kind of resources allotted to dance numbers in the US is in feature films, and there are as many hours here inTV as there are in feature films there,'' Jeffries said.
A boy wonder of choreography who has had nothing but big breaks since he entered the business 15 years ago, Jeffries puts much of it down to luck. But the humble attitude does little to belie the facts. Achieving so much in a profession where so few are chosen, he hit the big time at 19, after three years of dance training.
Having grown up in San Jose, California, Jeffries took up dancing with a fervour that could have been scripted from a Golden Age Hollywood musical.
In 1981, he auditioned for a part in the classic Broadway musical A Chorus Line. The show's theme suddenly became a reality, and strains of ''I Think I've Got It'' turned into ''I Know I've Got It'' when he was offered a role.
Jeffries spent two years with the production before moving on to Dreamgirls. ''I was the third white boy from the left,'' he said of the switch to a part which was less challenging but offered a chance to work in a production he adored.
But the bright lights of Broadway were not enough to hold the ambitious lad, and he moved back to Los Angeles determined to break into choreography.
Within a month, he had landed choreography jobs for a feature film and a concert tour. Little did he know he was helping to launch other people's careers, let alone his own. Employed to choreograph the first tour of a singer who had yet to hit the reallybig time, Jeffries put Madonna through her paces for her Like A Virgin tour.
''We were both just starting out. She had done her first album and she hadn't really broken. It was her first time touring and performing. In 1985, at that time, just having dancers on stage was innovative. It just wasn't done. It was amazing to be giventhat kind of responsibility at that age and level of experience,'' Jeffries said.
''It was a good thing I was so naive, because to be handed reins to such a strong horse - the power and influence it would have. I would go into the clubs and all the wannabees would be dancing steps from my choreography.'' After a gruelling day rehearsing Madonna and company, Jeffries would speed to the Hollywood hills in the evening where director Robert Zemeckis had hired him to create dance sequences for a film that was later to break all box office figures at the time - Back to the Future.
''For about a month, I was working a double job. It wasn't like 'wow' or anything, because at the time who knew she was going to be that big or that the film was going to be the number one grossing film? It was a lucky time for me. I was just thinking, 'OK, I've got this in my lap and I've to do the best job I can','' he recalled. WITHIN six months, success had propelled Jeffries into a life cluttered with the pitfalls and perks of instant stardom.
''Both jobs gave me a springboard for my career. The music video offers were raining in. I wanted to do pretty much anything that came my way, and then I got choosier later,'' he said.
That choosiness has turned out to be good news for TVB. Jeffries is sure this new experience will have the same positive results of past decisions.
''Hopefully, I can contribute something. It is certainly not like TVB is limping along without me, but hopefully I can add another colour and flavour and learn something in the interim,'' he said.
Impressed with their facilities, Jeffries likens the TVB studios at TV City to something out of the '30s and '40s when Hollywood studios did everything in-house.
''That is why it is so interesting for me to do this. You can't expect this in the States anymore. Even the networks don't have that anymore. In America, they are focused on selling videos and music, which is limiting. It is different from 12 minutes on TV - it is not driven by record companies.
''I am completely in awe. Twelve minute numbers! It is like a playground.'' To familiarise the 30-odd TVB dancers with his style, he is teaching jazz classes two or three times a week.
''For me to choreograph to my potential, they will have to know my dance language, which is different from theirs,'' Jeffries said.
To meet them halfway, he is learning to count to eight in Cantonese. ''I figure the least I can do is count in their own language. In a few weeks I hope I will get it down.''