American Idol’s Brian Scott Bagley on his Josephine Baker connection

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday September 24, 2009

If you're bi-coastal, and your other coast happens to be the banks of the Seine, you might have caught Brian Scott Bagley's performance as Josephine Baker in his piece "Josefiend," which was recently part of "La Gentry de Paris Revue."

However, even if you missed Bagley in Paris, you can catch him this weekend in Jerome Savary's "A La Recherche de Josephine," another Baker-inspired project playing at Montclair State University's Kasser theater through Sunday, Sept. 27. This time, Bagley doesn't play the famous diva--who, like Bagley, performed on the Paris stage--because that honor goes to Nicolle Rochelle.

But Bagley does serve as a choreographer and dancer for the show; and the former student with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has also contributed choreography to another Savary show, "Don Quichotte Contre L'Ange Bleu."

You might remember Bagley from American Idol; he was the "Dancing Janitor" who auditioned in 2005. But for an artist, no work is too humble to contribute to the life experience upon which he draws. Plus, being on American Idol surely can't hurt.

Bagley chatted with EDGE about the usual: art, culture, and cosmic coincidence.

EDGE: You've just choreographed and co-starred in a Paris dance production celebrating Josephine Baker--you played a Baker-inspired character you call "Josefiend"--and now here you are Stateside in production
called "Looking for Josephine," in which Baker is portrayed by Nicolle Rochelle. Is this some sort of cosmic coincidence, or did your turn as "Josefiend" open the door to the current production with Ms. Rochelle?

Brian Scott Bagley: The full cosmic history of me and the amazing Josephine is a pretty long story and a bit unbelievable. Here is the short version:

The summer before I began my studies at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre School, I studied at the Broadway Theatre Project with notables such as Ben Vereen, Debra McWaters (Fosse diciples, if you will), and Jeff Calhoun (producer, director, and choreographer).

That summer at BTP, I began to pen a musical about Josephine Baker. Next, through the journey of looking and finding housing in New York--an amazing feat in itself--I lucked up by having a roommate who introduced me to N'kenge Simpson Hoffman now of Three Mo Divas and "DivaLicious" SHOW, who was preparing to audition for a production about Ms. Baker that would be produced and performed in France.

Amidst my screams of excitement for her (and my excitement because she was auditioning for a show about "my girl" Josephine Baker, not to mention my mind drifting to thought of the possibility of a connection to the show... i.e. "a job"), I asked her if I could coach her dance-wise, The JosieB Way, for the audition. She accepted.

And at an informal audition at the Belvedere Hotel in New York, I met and was hired by Jerome Savary, the creative mind behind "Looking for Josephine," and hence the debut of my American In Paris life.

When the cast of "A la recherche de Josephine" a.k.a. "Looking for Josephine", performed on the same stage that Josephine Baker herself performed on at the Casino de Paris, I met Gentry of Paris, who is a producer and the artistic directrice of "La Gentry de Paris Revue avec Dita Von Teese."

Through that meeting, I became the choreographer of "La Gentry de Paris Revue avec Dita Von Teese" (a show with the splendor of the Grande Revue, where Parisian Music-Hall is reborn and rejuvenated by reviving the lost tradition of the sumptuous theatrical song and dance extravaganzas of the 1900s in the traditional style of the Ziegfeld Follies productions and Folies Bergere, with the mix [including] the most beautiful Burlesque strippers in the world.)

The following is a quote from 21 Century Pinups:

"The day that Gentry and I met for the first time to discuss the show and myself as choreographer, we met at the café across the street from the Folies Begere...

"As I read through the script I realized that the show she had written was very nice but missing something. So my imagination started running. I myself had written a theatre piece called 'Josefiend'--a story of a young man who lost his mother and turn he then turns to drugs to soothe his hurt.

Because of the hurt and the drugs, and his mother's adoration for Josephine Baker, he begins to go in and out of personalities; his mother, himself, and Josephine Baker. I saw this as a great opportunity to workshop the Josephine Baker part of my show 'Josefiend'... I never thought that this humble theatre piece when matched with The Gentry de Paris Revue would lead to a journalist calling me 'the new Black Pearl'.

It blows my mind and humbles me as well... I am so thankful for the adventure..."

So that's the short version. "Looking for Josephine" first, and after [that,] "La Gentry de Paris Revue avec Dita Von Teese."

But I'm leaving out a lot of juicy, cosmic Josephine-connecting tidbits out. Like why I slept in the metro the day before the fateful audition that brought me to Paris, the many people and situations that I met in New York who were connected to Joesphine Baker during the time I was waiting for the contract for "Looking for Josephine" to come through, the autographed book about Mrs. Josphine Baker I randomly found the day before I left for Paris...

Not to sound crazy but I'm simply thankful that God and Mrs. Josephine Baker have been looking down on me. I'm living this adventure and it is a blessing.

EDGE: My understanding is that "Looking for Josephine" parallels Baker's career with post-Katrina New Orleans. Does the show celebrate the progress of equality for all over the last 40 years, or is the point more that there's still so much to be done?

Brian Scott Bagley: Yes "Looking for Josephine" does parallels Baker's career with post-Katrina New Orleans.

But it is more a story that tells the story of Jazz history and suggests that inequality is still present in the U.S.

And no, during the show you won't necessarily see a story that describes the progress of equality for all over the last 40 years... but honestly, it can be felt amongst the cast members, who are made up of members who are French, Cuban, and Americans. "Our own little performing UN."

And it's not the point of the show, but yes, there is still much to be done in the way of fighting to ensure equality both in America and France, and maybe several other parts of the world.

The more we push that rock a little, it will move a little more, and more, until it's rolled away. "Looking for Josephine," in its way, is a part of that.

But Mrs. Baker's set an very good example to follow. For example, during her second return to the U.S., she refused to perform in theaters that had segregated seating. And she was successful.

But, of course, there was a backlash in the end [during her] last days in America. Thus, she still had to continue push that rock in her way. And don't get me wrong; I don't want to seem pessimistic, but we can always do more to make it better for each other.

"But I'm leaving out a lot of juicy, cosmic tidbits out. Like why I slept in the metro the day before the fateful audition that brought me to Paris, the autographed book about Baker I randomly found the day before I left for Paris..."

EDGE: You both starred as Baker and served as choreographer for your "Josefiend" dance composition. Baker was a vigorous civil right advocate even in her expatriate years in France, and she stood up to the Nazis by becoming part of the French resistance during the occupation in World War II--so why the "fiend" in "Josefiend?"

Brian Scott Bagley: First, "Josefiend" is a bit of a play on the end of her first name, Josephine. The "fiend" is because I am a fan and a fiend for Josephine: "I just can't get enough."

Her life, her adventures, her... natural magnetism and talent, and her strength and courage [are inspirational]. I receive such inspiration by taking account of her amazing life. And again, "Josefiend" is based upon a separate theater piece I wrote, which I wanted to use or rather workshop through the opportunity of my "La Gentry de Paris Revue avec Dita Von Teese" experience."

If I may [say so], she is, well... my inspiration drug.

EDGE: There might be a sense out there that appearing on American Idol opens doors for performers, but is that true? Did being labeled "The Dancing Janitor" help or hinder your career?

Brian Scott Bagley: It depends on the person and the desire and drive they put out. American Idol, I believe, did open doors for me. But a large part of that is what I did, and how I planned after A.I., even if the plan wasn't clear at first.

For me, A.I. was a moment that instilled inspiration and built confidence. Although, honestly, the [fearsome] three, in their "truthful judging," can sometimes do the opposite.

I personally decided to count it all joy the positives and negatives. It gave me the inspiration, courage, and for that time fame to do some positive things. I used that moment, that little window of fame, to give back a bit. I held a concert fundraiser for the Maryland Chapter Red Cross' Refugee Empowerment Academic and Leadership Teen Program. And that following summer, I followed some Broadway dreams in Florida at the Broadway Theatre Project and then in New York hustling at school, four jobs, auditions, and waiting for that break.

By that time in NY, the A.I. moment was fading. Though I remember that, randomly, people would remember my face and reluctantly ask me if I "was that gay guy, the dancing janitor."

So yes, getting noticed on A.I. was one way to get people to take notice. I'd love to see how others have fared with their life after American Idol. But Praise God all, that manifested into this Josephine adventure.

And being labeled "The Dancing Janitor" hindering [my career]? No. I think you can never be hindered by receiving press, good or bad depending on how you use it of course. I've read reviews good and bad about my audition on A.I. some I could say I'll just take as constructive criticism, but I'm of the mind that you make your own future or at least try your best to. Mama says "Nothing beats a failure but a try. So try until you get results."

Besides, while I was the dancing janitor (training in Ballet technique, teaching hip hop, and cleaning toilets etc. at the Central PA. Youth Ballet), it was fun to imagine myself as Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire dancing, singing, and cleaning the day away. It was such a "whistle while you work" moment that made the work seem easier. "Just love wearing those rose colored glasses."

EDGE: Certainly, it's something of a surprise that a talented dancer still has to go to France for recognition. Is this a failing of American culture? Are we too obsessed with movies and video games?

Brian Scott Bagley: I went to France because the opportunity presented itself, not really because I thought it was going to be better over there.

I didn't know what to expect accept I'm going there to do the job I was hired for (yet sooooo Thankful).

But, yes, I did hope for the possibility to live and follow in the positive, progressive footsteps of Josephine Baker. But that's a part of it when you get out to see what the rest of the world is like you learn, grow and become empowered, and that empowerment keeps growing in me to want to do more.

To take in the the world in this way I can't help but to want to try to live that dream of success. I would wish this for everyone. Whether it's just getting out of state or overseas. It's all truly a blessing to see what else is out there. More so it's truly a humbling blessing that things have turned out the way they have.

And the question of, is this a failing of American culture, "leaving to succeed?" I would say not.

Well, we do what we can do, and try to do better. America is a land full of amazingly talented people on all levels and genres. And that feeds me, from street dance to concert dance, and more. And I think during this moment of crisis will almost force us to bring forth more potent hidden talent.

It goes both ways, I think; while we inspire the world artistically, the world inspires us; it's a give and take. And yes, at times the grass is greener on the other side, but the seeds were planted on the homeland (wherever you're from, for me it's the U.S. Baltimore, MD), and that can never be forgotten but even more so nourished, and given back.

But to answer your last question, Are we too obsessed with movies and video games? I'd say maybe, maybe yes. But if the video game or what we're watching on T.V. inspires to actively get people up and out and doing, it's all good.

That's how it happened for me, ya know: "Fame, I'm gonna live forever..." "Right...."

EDGE: What is next on your creative agenda?

Brian Scott Bagley: Though I live in Paris for now, I'm very excited to be coming back to the states with two U.S. tours.

"The Twins" is an amazing hip hop dance duo from France, real brothers, real twins, who dance nearly all the styles of the "Hip Hop Dance Evolution" from Popping-n-Locking to Voguging.

[Also, I'm] helping to prepare a U.S. tour for "La Gentry de Paris Revue."

EDGE: Will you be returning to France?

Brian Scott Bagley: I live in France for now, and it is truly my home away from home. I've been so thankful to be surrounded by those who I call my Euro-Angels. They are French, Spanish, Danish, German, Austrian or other American expats and more.

But they are neighbors, friends, and like family. Even some people I just randomly met in passing have made me fall even more [in love] with Europe.

But always home is home. The U.S. taught me this gift of sharing in the joy and love of the human experience. So, oh yeah, definitely, "There's no place like home." So I'm sending a big ol' shout out to B-More.

I will be returning to the States to continue this adventure, the same as I will do for where ever else I end up. It's all about the adventure of it all. Where God leads me, I cool with that.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.