Before he came to Cleveland for the 2015 International Association of Blacks in Dance conference, Omar Humphrey didn't even know Verb Ballets existed. He grew up in Dallas; he graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in modern dance earlier in that year; he'd done tours in Austria; he'd spent time living in New York. So when it came to his audition and the offers her received after the conference, Verb was something new to consider, in more ways than one.
"I had a unique process. I saw Verb perform during the conference, and it was the host company for the conference. And I had about eight offers but mainly for modern dance," he says after rehearsal one weekday morning in July. "I decided, if I want to do this thing called dance, I should really stretch my ballet skills."
At Oklahoma, he'd been in the modern rep and ballet companies, but he'd never pushed himself when it came to ballet, at least not in the classical sense.
Now, at the age of 23, he's in his second season with Verb.
"I've grown a lot," he says. "I dove into it."
Verb Ballets is a contemporary ballet company located on the east side. Not only do the members of the company, who come from prestigious schools all across the country, perform, they also train and teach youth groups. It makes for a grueling and busy, but rewarding, weekly schedule. There's class from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. Rehearsal from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Weekend performances. And a teaching schedule from about 4 to 8:30 p.m. every Monday through Friday.
For Humphrey, he's teaching various talent and age levels, working out the students' steps in technique classes, few of which are actually ballet. "In addition to teaching modern jazz, I also teach at two gymnastic schools."
"It's grueling," says Humphrey " but pure magic."
The pinnacle of that magic comes onstage.
"It's joyful," he says, to put it simply. "It's a high incomparable to anything else. Your heart is racing, the lights are shining, and once you walk off the stage, you ask yourself what the hell just happened. You don't even remember until something knocks you out of that dreamlike world. You try to get it in the studio but there's nothing like being on stage. All your endorphins are just running wild."
Over the past year, there have been many standouts, but for Humphrey, the production of Peter Pan was perhaps the most meaningful professionally and personally. "I got to work with a choreographer named Pamela Pribisco," he says. "She's inspired me so much since I've been here -- artistically, socially, in a business sense. She's inspired me to differentiate personal from business when it comes to being an artist. She reminds me when you're in front of a room, the people will react to how you act. So if you want them to have a specific reaction, you have to act that way. She's taught me so much. You're an employee first and you do the work you're paid to do. And try not to beat yourself up; you are trying to be as expressive and vulnerable as you can, and sometimes that comes off in social situations too."
That's a lot from one production, and Humphrey speaks in monologues, which is not surprising given his profession. While he asks a co-worker to double check the spelling of Pribisco's last name -- he wants to make sure she gets a shout out -- he talks about the rest of his life, which mainly fall into the category of things he can do in his house. He loves Cleveland, but, "I'm a homebody. I like to hang out with my cat. I'm a huge cook. I crochet. I'm a homebody."