When David Choate founded a dance school in his basement in 2013, he had big dreams. Ambitious dreams. Huge dreams. He wanted to train young dancers, of course. He wanted to start a ballet company, as well. And while he was at it, he wanted to change the world.
He was just 25, a graduate of Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts who had recently finished a stint as a member of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s second company. Inspired by the racial inclusivity that seemed to be woven into the philosophical fabric of DCDC, the young Black choreographer-entrepreneur decided he would return to Cincinnati and create something similar here.
If you were feeling generous, you might have called him a dreamer. He wouldn’t have been offended by the description. His fledgling organization may have been an upstart, but he crowed about his grand goals every chance he got. A decade later, he still does.
“We believe a tendu (a balletic leg extension) to Jay-Z is just as impactful as a tendu to Tchaikovsky,” it says on the website of Revolution Dance Theatre, the company that grew out of that basement studio. “We will not only change what people think about ballet, we will change what people think about Blackness. This is how we’ll change the world.”
This week, Choate and RDT are back at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater with the third edition of “Hot Chocolate,” the company’s nod to the holiday season. The show runs Dec. 1-9.
Initially, Choate had no interest in creating a holiday show. Remember, he was trying to carve a new path through the traditions of ballet.
“I said that RDP will never do a ‘Nutcracker,’” he told me back in 2021. “We’ve made a name for ourselves in dancing about social justice. I’m not about to do a ‘Nutcracker.’”
But for all his dreaming, Choate is an eminently practical person. He understands the appeal of performances geared to family audiences, especially during the holiday season. So he set out to develop a production that was festive but didn’t compromise his principles.
As a result, “Hot Chocolate” includes some Tchaikovsky. But there is just as much music by composer Jeremy Griffin. And some by Choate himself, including “Dancing in the Snow,” a work that features the Cincinnati Boychoir.
This year’s production – “Hot Chocolate” is constantly evolving – includes a host of specialty acts and guest performances, including an aerial routine by Precious Gilbert, a Los Angeles-based SCPA graduate and guest appearances by dancers Thee Primo (aka Nicholas Segar) and Johnathon Hart.
“It’s complicated,” said Choate. “I mean, I want to have a show that is appealing and fills the house. But I also want a show that defines our point of view. That’s where we can excel, I think. There are people out there who will not go to a traditional ballet but will come to a Revolution show and will be thoroughly entertained.”
Frankly, that’s the same dynamic in play for every performing arts organization that stages a populist show during the holidays. More people will see Cincinnati Ballet’s “Nutcracker” than any other dance production during the season. More people will see Playhouse in the Park’s new production of “A Christmas Carol” than any of the season’s other plays.
For Choate and RDT, though, there is always the added dimension of race. Just the fact that all of his dancers are people of color distinguishes it from other any other production in the area.
“I drive this very race-driven message because I have to,” said Choate. It may be 2023, but Choate is still on a crusade, trying to open up the still overwhelmingly white world of ballet to dancers of color. In that way, he is treading the same ground that Jeraldyne Blunden did when she launched Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in 1968, the same challenges that Arthur Mitchell did when he co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem a year later.
“I knew that founding my own ballet company couldn’t be easy,” said Choate. “But for some reason, I was always confident that it was doable. I don’t know where that comes from. I think I did underestimate what I was getting myself into to.”
Along the way, he has had to work multiple jobs to support his endeavor. He has picked up work the with local stagehands union and worked as a house manager at the Aronoff Center. He has taught more ballet classes than he thought humanly possible. And, despite all the misgivings he had so many years ago, he agreed to stage a holiday show.
“Hot Chocolate” has proven to be a boon for the company. It may still be a Tchaikovsky-infused ballet, but Choate has found a way to do it with a distinctly RDT twist.
“Look, I know we have benefited from some people supporting us because we are black,” said Choate. “But I don’t want that to be the only reason they support us. I want them to come because they know they’ll have a good time. And I think ‘Hot Chocolate’ is a show that does that. It was good the first year we did it. And it has only gotten better every year since.”