In creative arts, talent alone is rarely enough to achieve success. With any heralded dancer, actor or musician, there’s always a grinding component of hard work that constantly bubbles beneath the surface. Mark Davis, an assistant professor in musical theatre and studio voice, knows this combination well.
Davis grew up in Rochester, New York, but visited his grandmother in New York City often. Whenever in town, he and his mother would often see a Broadway or ice skating show.
“Through a love of movement … my interests grew,” Davis said when discussing his adolescence.
Although he began his journey as a figure skater in his teens, he blossomed into a dance and choreography career later in life. Davis pointed to one competition in his youth that combined both his passion for skating and dance: theatre on ice. He said he appreciated the “more artistic team thing.”
The original love of skating is something he’s never lost despite a lengthy, successful, international choreography career. “Skating, for me, has always been the original reality show,” Davis said. “It’s a universal feeling; everybody has the ability to overcome something.”
Over the course of global choreography career, Davis experienced many different dance cultures and reflected on how that made him identify or understand his own culture. In 1989 while in Germany, Davis founded Les Danses Dønsk, a choreography collective, and subsequently worked with a variety of clients, constantly seeking out different results.
This balance of capitalist endurance and creative experimentation is something Davis discusses fondly.
“It was a way to make money creatively,” he said. “Germany was a rich place for me to grow.”
As he transitioned from performing to teaching, Davis sought to teach students lessons he’d learned; not only educationally but also culturally. He explained it can be hard for American artists to understand the confined nature of the American system. “I always encourage students to … leave America. You have to leave America to understand it,” he said.
Tré Tyler, a third year drama major, first met Davis during an audition last year in McKenna Theater for Chicago. Tyler described him as, “a pretty imposing figure.”
“He carried himself with kind of a professionalism but very personable,” Tyler said.
Tyler said Davis’ ice skating background translated well into choreography and helped foster a nurturing creative environment.
Tyler explained that one of the biggest lessons Davis taught him was the relevance of every person’s story. Every actor or student brings something from their background into their practice; it’s important to use this to tell individual stories.
Juliann Stiny, a third year biochemistry major, took Davis’ modern jazz two class last fall, after which she decided to audition for Chicago during spring semester.
“He taught us things that he learned when he was not only a part of Broadway,” Stiny said, “but also some things that he had taken away from other universities and teaching other musicals.”
“He always gave it his own little flare because he told us he used to do figure skating so he would implement some of those elements into the class,” Stiny said.
Stiny candidly touched on Davis’ talent as a professor and how his personal experience helps him. “Having someone like Mark Allan Davis who is able to shine through everything that he has gone through and come here to this university and show everybody and say, ‘Hey look, it doesn’t matter what race you are, it doesn’t matter what sexual orientation you have, you are here as a performer and I’m here to teach you as a performer.’ ”
This welcoming insight has stuck with Stiny even after the class and the play. Davis teaches his students as much about the trials of life as the trepidations of performance art. His unique background transfers well in choreography teaching but even better as overall insight for adulthood. “I think that’s what makes him such a great professor and such a great teacher because he is there for the students rather than being there for himself,” she said.