How an Immigrant Choreographer Built His Way to the Emmys

For an immigrant to create a career in the United States this not only takes leaping the hemisphere, traveling a few thousand miles, and saving for the expense, but solid preparation and planning, friendships and alliances, and a determination to continually come up with solutions to ensure success. And in Brazilian dancer, director, and choreographer Alex Magno’s case, success includes choreographing for Madonna, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, SYTYCD, Riverdance, and being nominated for an Emmy for Madonna’s Drowned World Tour to name-bomb a few. So, what were Alex’s plotting points to finding his place alongside these great talents of the performance industry?

Let’s start with planning and preparation. Alex’s strong, classical and fluid contemporary lines steeped in masculine sensuality, came from a natural athletic ability that developed early on from studies in Karate (Shotokan and Shorin-Ryu) martial arts. He attended Spaço Dance under Ana Melos’ guidance and scholarship; one that required rigorous ballet training in the RAD ballet syllabus, and Laney Dell’s American styled jazz technique. With studies in classical form coupled with his experimentation in choreographing club dances for himself and a few buddies, we can appreciate his approach as the choreographer for Madonna’s The Girlie Show and Drowned world tours.

Alex Magno

As Alex’s foundation in technique and appreciation for movement were established, he attended a performance of choreographer, Renato Vieira’s company Vacilou Dançou under the direction of Renato and Carlota Portela. He found motivation for a life in dance. “I was inspired to a whole different level. [Here was] a dance company with a storyline, with theatrics, with drama. What drew me to his [work] was how he was so powerful on stage and how he danced with the women – the partnering and all of that - ‘I want to be like that’.”

Alex shares attending his first class with Renato and being in a room full of well-to-do dancers at a studio in a more prominent area of town. “I was barefoot, wore a cut-up, multi-colored unitard, a cut-up fringed t-shirt, leg warmers, and bandana!”  he says, laughing at his younger, more resilient self. “I went to take his class and that changed my life too. Renato gave a [choreographed] jazz-barre and choreography to Michael Jackson’s song Beat It, because he was workshopping for one of his shows. It was about gangs with daggers. I killed it!” Alex was given a scholarship and, soon after, became a company member. “I became more complete.”

Determination is only part of the effort equation; you have to come up with solutions.

Goals grew out of inspiration and developing a sense of self-worth. For any immigrant to create a path and realize their goals, is to take a chance and make it all happen. Alex made plans to compete for CIC Video and Paramount Pictures’ publicized marketing campaign to have Solid Gold in Brazil. The company created a sponsorship for a winning young artist to visit the United States.

To compete, Alex perfected his routine and performance. As well, “I spent a year preparing to get here. I took English lessons. I saved all the money I could. At the time I saved $600 which, that’s nothing here, but there, $600 is – especially thirty to forty years ago – a lot of money. I worked approximately 12-13 hours a day teaching in multiple places, choreographing, doing TV shows, company dance work, just everything and saving as much as I could. The only way I got [to the United States] is because I took a chance on a competition. It was my train. If I had not taken that train my destiny, my whole life would be completely different. Los Angeles presented itself, and I thought, ‘I should do this. This is a possibility’.”

Friendships and alliances can create growth and opportunities. In order to have a career in Los Angeles, Alex needed a scholarship and a place to stay. In this, the power of friendships and community cannot be expressed enough. The translator for Alex’s visit was a ballroom dancer who lived in Hollywood on Romaine and Crescent Heights, and shared his home with other international dancers. A place to stay was secured.

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To have a dance community and build associations, Alex walked to Dupree Dance Academy, at Third Street for his daily dance class. “I took tap, ballet, everything I could get my hands on. I took classes with Doug [Caldwell], with Randy [Allaire], Jackie [Sleight], Jodie [Wintz]. In February, Dupree had a scholarship audition.”

Victor Manuel was one of the judges at the audition table. The general consensus of the other judges was that Alex had training and did not need a Dupree scholarship. In a perfect imitation of Victor’s forthcoming presence, Alex wittingly retorts Victor’s reply to his associates, “‘Yes, you do. He wouldn’t be here if he didn’t need it’.” Then Alex shared a truth about Victor and building strong industry associations, “He says what he sees. You need people like that!”

Alex worked with more and more dancers through classes and “little gigs.” He wanted to teach a class “no one else was doing. It was a ballet-jazz barre, something I learned in Brazil from the big teachers.” He rented a space in the upstairs studio at the Coronet Theatre. He invited “amazing dancers” who benefitted from his new style and process in what would become his signature class. He gained a loyal following. He eventually took his class to more studios: Al Gilbert, Joe Bennet at Studio F, Debbie Reynolds, and what once was Dupree’s was now LA Dance Academy.

Alex Magno

His dancers were strong technicians with a secure sense of performance and fearless sensuality. “I had the top students, professionals. I didn’t teach them how to dance, but they honored me just to take my class; Cameron English, Carlton Wilborn, Desmond Richardson, dancers from Hubbard Street. They studied with me because they knew they’d get technique and something cool and artistic.” His students not only supported his classes, but performed his choreography for industry jobs. 

As Alex integrated more and more with his dance community through teaching and choreography, he eventually joined the Bobby Ball Agency (BBA) and signed on with Teresa Taylor as his agent. She submitted Alex as choreographer for The Girlie Show and opened his world on an even larger scale.

“Madonna is all about energy. She wanted to meet me and ask a few questions, mainly to see if I was an open-minded artist.” Madonna’s dancers were Alex’s students. “It’s important how you create alliances with dancers. Through trust. These people took my class before Madonna happened.” After his interview with Madonna, her team checked with the dancers about Alex’s talent and work ethic.

It’s important how you create alliances with dancers. Through trust.

A few years later, Victor Manuel was in a position to select the pre-qualifiers for the Emmy Awards and insisted the judging panel review Alex’s choreographic submission for Emmy consideration. Consequently, Alex was nominated for an Emmy for his work on Madonna’s Drowned.

Determination is only part of the effort equation; you have to come up with solutions. “My goal is to have a home where I can make art, and if I can make a living, that will be a blessing. My focus was never I want to be famous and rich. Those come with consequences. But I do need to pay my bills. I did everything I could in between dance work; washing dishes in a restaurant and cleaning kitchens.”

To stay on top of his competition, Alex evaluated his choreographic skills to determine, “How can I do something that is as good as that person, but something they could never be able to do – not because they don’t have the skills or the talent but because they didn’t focus on a [theatrical detail] and [instead] on the movement?” Alex identifies as a long format choreographer, meaning, “I was always a director.”

Alex Magno

A proportionate amount of self-good-will, implementing direction and focus was gained from the brilliant female dancers in his life, his muses: Carrie Ann Inaba, Melissa Hurley, Laurie Kanyok, and Kelly Parker. It was Kelly who, “saw in me a larger possibility. She said, ‘go to film school and learn it so you don’t rely on other people. You won’t have the handicap’.”

And with directing, writing, and musical skills, “the fact that I can collaborate with [a music artist] as a musician, my suggestions are appreciated. [Imagine,] it’s a big deal to work with a major artist and not understand music.”

Alex’s films are moving experiences with visual intrigue that captures and strongholds the viewer’s attention through the use of surreal editing and a flow of storyline that integrates with movement phrases. His musical choices are sophisticated with chords of deep emotional content. He is currently adapting Macbeth for film with movement and song, and a short film, The Dream Seller based on the theme that with a leap of faith, the character can transform from having fallen far from himself. “We all fall. Falling into pieces, and you stop and think about your values and you think, ‘no, I can do this, look how far I’ve come’.”

So, is it easy to leap a hemisphere and travel a few thousand miles to hook up and become dance connected and a major part of our industry? Only with a sense of clear goals and developing a sense of self-worth through planning and preparation, friendships and alliances, and focusing on solutions.

About the author

Laura Fremont’s Dancing Ahead interviews dancers who have gone before, either leaping down a traditional path or twirling along a road less traveled. For more than thirty years, Laura’s dance work as a performer, choreographer, and educator has connected her to an industry of talented and passionate fellow professionals in film, television, and stage. These closely held associations offer rich insight to our newer generation of dancers, to help guide their success, give support, and offer confirmation for their dance journey.