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Going places, even out of this world, with Thomas Warfield

Thomas Warfield.
Thomas Warfield.

Thomas Warfield’s favorite color is purple.

And he’s not subtle about it: His hair is purple.

His personal style doesn’t stop there. Warfield is an explosion of color. Marvelous jackets. Slick trousers and shoes decorated in geometric-pattern precision.

And a sense of artistic purpose that spills over into all he touches, carrying him to … outer space.

Warfield, who was told as a young man, “You’re killing your career,” has been going places for decades.

He’s been at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 25 years. And that’s what we’ll be celebrating this weekend. The show is “Twenty-five Years Through Movement and Space” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. It’s in Ingle Auditorium in the Student Alumni Union building on the RIT campus.

“When people think of RIT, they don’t really think of performing arts really,” Warfield says. “But we actually have a robust performing arts environment.”

As evidence, he lists the performing arts curriculum at the school’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, which he heads, the upcoming addition of a minor degree in dance, and the many arts scholarships available from RIT. And the biggest new arrival on campus — the anticipated completion of the Student Hall for Exploration and Development, or the SHED. Warfield is creating a dance to celebrate its opening in the fall.

This upcoming weekend of Warfield dance includes some of his older pieces. One has been augmented with American Sign Language. And one that’s an interpretation of the Charles Dickens character Miss Havisham from “Great Expectations,” jilted at the altar, living in a tumbledown mansion. Warfield’s dancers will be in wedding dresses. “As a kid, I was obsessed with that story,” he says.

The three days also includes newer dance works by Marc Holland, a lecturer with the NTID Department for Performing Arts.

Yet Warfield’s world is not contained by RIT boundaries.

We’ve seen him at the Rochester Fringe Festival, including one show where he showed off his extensive shoe collection. A week ago, he joined soprano Kearstin Piper Brown and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at the Eastman Theatre, narrating “Rooted in Rochester,” a show celebrating Black Rochesterians. “I think I may have been channeling my uncle a little bit,” he admits.

His uncle was William Warfield, the booming bass-baritone singer and actor, who grew up in Rochester. You know him: “Ol’ Man River.”

Now, at age 60, Ol’ Man Warfield takes a step back and sees what he has wrought.

“I truly tried to integrate arts, or collaborate arts, across disciplines,” he says.

Warfield has integrated the past with the future, in the language of augmented reality, combining the real world with computer-generated content. In virtual reality, and the crossing of computer-generated simulations of three-dimensional images and environments. And motion capture, the discipline of recording the movement of people or objects and digitally converting them into a realistic virtual film or animation.

When Warfield says, “I like to travel,” what he really means is he doesn’t like to stand still. Through periods of studying dance in college and working with New York City dance legends Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey, Warfield evolved from ballet to modern dance, even earning a review in The New York Times.

He created a program called DanceArt, traveling the world to set up programs combining dance, music, poetry, visual arts and an awareness of social issues. His global poem, in praise of peace, involved asking people to write two or three lines of poetry, addressing:

What does peace mean to me?

His New York City apartment filled with letters in response to that question. Poems of peace from the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, French President François Mitterrand, and the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein.

Restlessness is a part of Warfield’s story. He studied Buddhism for a while. He disappeared for 20 years, working and teaching in Europe and Japan.

“Doors are opening and what do I do?” Warfield asks. “I go off to Macau.”

To join a dance company on the south coast of China. This is what was known as “killing your career.” But, “I like adventure,” Warfield says. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to do this.’”

Thomas Warfield, the nephew of William Warfield, unveils the bust of his uncle created by artist Shawn Dunwoody.
Max Schulte
WXXI News file photo
Thomas Warfield, the nephew of William Warfield, unveils the bust of his uncle created by artist Shawn Dunwoody.

Social responsibility has long been a part of Warfield’s universe. There was his Uncle William’s involvement in forward-thinking organizations, including serving as president of the National Association of Negro Musicians. Warfield’s father, Robert, had been the commander of an Army band, then a church choir director. Warfield’s mother, Vernice, was a church minister, active in area civil rights, and helped create the Urban League of Rochester.

Thomas Warfield’s world ramblings came to a close when he had to return home after his father fell ill. Robert Warfield died in 2002. When Vernice died in 2017, she was 102 years old.

Their legacy is his address. Warfield still lives off East Main Street, where he grew up with them. “I hear my mother and my father’s voice all the time in that house,” he says.

Their words of social responsibility remain with Warfield, even as he senses that the momentum that they were a part of has slowed. Stopped. Maybe even receded.

“You don’t even realize how things are not progressing,” he says. “They’re kind of going backwards.”

But Warfield’s moving forward. He has hope. “Creativity and the arts are really a big part of that hope,” he says.

After Warfield returned to Rochester, he took the dance job at RIT. He remembers sitting in his office that first day, thinking, “What do I do now? I really hadn’t planned to be a teacher. I had not taught in an academic setting.”

But his experiences suggested he could explore new worlds. His travels had led him to California in the mid-’90s, and a chance meeting with the pop-culture astronomer Carl Sagan, who was heavily involved with the SETI Institute. The search for intelligent life in the universe.

Good luck with that, starting with planet Earth. But “every year he did this sort of project where he tries to communicate with extraterrestrials,” Warfield says. Communicate by any means necessary. “And so one year it was dance. And so this is what got me into, well not only astrophysics, but quantum physics.”

Judging by their notable absence from “American Bandstand” over the years, it appears aliens don’t dance. Nevertheless, “Art, or creativity,” Warfield says, “has a way of telling us something about the world that we wouldn’t understand, or know otherwise.”

So it was Sagan who really turned Warfield onto quantum physics. Now he was thinking about “the spirituality and connectedness of everything.”

“It was always in my mind, yeah,” he says. “This whole thing about dance and science.”

Warfield was now out of this world. He collaborated with RIT’s astrophysics school on a multimedia project called AstroDance. “It was a project that sort of used dance to introduce students and, well, a general audience, to basic ideas about astrophysics and science,” he says.

You know. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravitational waves, black hole binaries and supernova explosions. Science you can dance to. Warfield was looking at simulations of black holes. “It looked like dance, like it was choreographed.”

Dance, he decided, was “not a cerebral teaching, but more the essence of something.”

This stuff isn’t easy. Warfield was trying to decipher Einstein’s theory of relativity. “I broke it down into things I could understand, somewhat,” he says. “And I used those pieces to create this dance. ‘The Search for Gravitational Waves.’

“And then, of course, a few years later, they found gravitational, or detected, gravitational waves. And I thought,” he says with one of his big laughs, “Well, we must have had something to do with that, with the dance.”

So perhaps Warfield is a dance prophet, but now the solar system shimmy is a forgone conclusion. “The whole energy of the universe is dancing,” he says.

Holland’s dance pieces, about the planets, fits this cosmos. “The enormity, the vastness of the galaxy,” Warfield says. “And yet, it’s so personal. Look in the sky, yes, it’s this vast thing. But then there’s you and it.”

Scientists such as Sagan get it. Musicians such as Bernstein get it. After responding to Warfield’s call for a contribution to the global poem, “He wrote that he was interested in meeting me and finding out what all this was about,” Warfield says of Bernstein.

They had lunch together one afternoon in New York City. A lunch that, Warfield says, “changed my whole life.”

“He said to me, ‘The artist is the person who has the vision and moves society ahead.

“‘That’s your job.’”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.