Ballet Palm Beach: Black dancer overcame odds to get ‘Gatsby’ lead

11:08 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018 Local
Nineh Irving and Tyveze Littlejohn perform in a Ballet Palm Beach production of “Gatsby,” based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel “The Great Gatsby.” Littlejohn will reprise his role as “Gatsby” when the ballet performs at Benjamin Hall in two weeks. Photo courtesy of Janine Harris

Tyveze Littlejohn has come a long way from scraping together pocket change to ride the bus to his ballet lessons.

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When Ballet Palm Beach performs “Gatsby” in two weeks, Littlejohn will take the stage as Jay Gatsby for the second time. The decision to cast Littlejohn, a 25-year-old black man, to play a white character during an era of segregation was an artistic one, said Colleen Smith, the ballet’s founder and artistic director.

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“We always have to go with who’s going to do the part the best — not just technically the best — but also emotionally, what they’re going to give the audience,” she said. “We’re storytellers. The color of people’s skin in the ballet world, really, it’s very unimportant to me.”

Smith originally had someone else in mind to play Jay Gatsby, the larger-than-life title character in the ballet inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the novel set in the Roaring Twenties, but he decided to retire, she said. She cast Littlejohn as Tom Buchanan, the fabulously wealthy but unfaithful husband of Gatsby’s lost love Daisy before she realized he would make a much better Gatsby.

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When she told Littlejohn of the switch, he looked at her with an expression that said, “Are you kidding me?!” she said.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, Smith said. Littlejohn was at the gym a few months later, and a woman he didn’t know recognized him as Gatsby.

That was in 2016, when the Palm Beach Gardens-based ballet first performed “Gatsby.” Littlejohn will reprise the role in performances Feb. 24 and 25 at Benjamin Hall, the theatre at The Benjamin School.

When Smith told her parents the ballet would be performing “Gatsby” again, they had one request, she said: Please don’t change the casting.

For most of his childhood, Littlejohn was an unlikely candidate to become a ballet dancer at all. He started with hip hop and talent show dancing at a Boys & Girls Club where he grew up in Jacksonville. He didn’t know anything about classical dancing until he got into the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, a magnet school in Duval County.

Even then, his family and friends were skeptical.

“Where I’m from, and you’re a black guy, you don’t dance,” he said.

While his friends from wealthier families pulled up for dance lessons in Mercedes and other luxury cars, he had to cancel if he didn’t find enough money for the bus and couldn’t hitch a ride, he said.

After graduating high school in 2011, he apprenticed with a dance company in Denver and toured through Mexico with a Canadian dance company. He had lead roles in “Giselle” and “The Nutcracker” with the Lexington Ballet, where he danced before coming to Ballet Palm Beach.

He hadn’t seen a professional, full-length ballet until the Miami City Ballet performed “Giselle” at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in 2016.

Ballet Palm Beach has a strong emphasis on community outreach, performing at Boys & Girls Clubs and libraries. This year, they’re also taking their community outreach to Cuba and the south Bronx, Smith said.

The ballet donated tickets so that children from the Boys & Girls Clubs could see “The Nutcracker” for free in December.

Helping children find joy in dance is nothing new to Littlejohn.

He thought he would just be performing when he danced in Nicaragua’s International Ballet Gala, but he and his partner got to teach art, dancing and movement to deaf and mute children, he said.

“It was a good moment, and it showed me dance can help in so many ways and make people happy,” Littlejohn said.