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In 2010, John and Leo Manzari were big news. The teenage brothers, a dancing duo from Southwest D.C., had been picked from almost-obscurity by tap dancing eminence Maurice Hines to star in Sophisticated Ladies at the Lincoln Theatre. Their Cinderella story—-combined with the boys’ charming looks, manners, and cool onstage style—-proved irresistible to the Washington Post, NPR, and Dance magazine.
In time, the media moved on. The brothers went back to the rhythms of real life; for Leo, now 16, that’s meant high school at the Field School in Northwest; for John, 19, it’s college at New York’s Marymount Manhattan. But they still perform regularly, and this weekend, they’re tapping at the Music Center at Strathmore in a couple of tributes to Duke Ellington.
Tonight, the brothers perform in Brian Stokes Mitchell‘s “American Songbook” program with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. On Sunday, they have a smaller part in “Ellington: A Sacred Concert,” which highlights Ellington’s spiritual compositions.
John and Leo spoke with Arts Desk by phone about the performance and their plans for the future.
Washington City Paper: How did you wind up in this show?
John Manzari: A while ago, we did a few events at Arena [Stage]. One was the opening night gala, the really big deal. And we met Brian Stokes Mitchell there; he did a really long set, and we spoke for a few seconds. He’s a really nice guy. When he booked this gig, I think he said, “You should get the Manzari brothers in there.” And someone contacted our mom.
WCP: How are you managing rehearsals, since you’re in different cities?
JM: Leo couldn’t rehearse during my winter break, so over these past two weeks, he came to New York. After my classes, around 7 p.m., we rehearse until we drop. We’re in New York right now. [The musicians] know the songs we’re doing; we’re putting everything together the day before we perform.
WCP: Have you performed in D.C. recently?
Leo: Almost everything we did last year has been in D.C. We were at National Dance Day [on the mall]; we performed, and Nigel [Lythgoe, a judge on So You Think You Can Dance] liked us and asked us to perform in the show’s finale.
WCP: Will you continue to perform together in the future, even though you’re physically separated?
LM: Yes, we want to still maintain the brother act. And also branch off into individual projects. I’m putting a lot of time into recording music.
WCP: John, how about you?
JM: I’m dancing in college. Fifty percent of my time goes into performing with Leo, and 50 percent into my training. I’m getting my BFA with a ballet concentration. It’s a lot of technique and manipulating the body; I’m pretty much reconfiguring my body and the way that I move. I feel my body changing, and the balance between performing with Leo and then coming back to school and doing modern and ballet was really hard at first. It’s getting easier.
“Brian Stokes Mitchell Sings Ellington American Songbook” takes place at 8 p.m. tonight at the Music Center at Strathmore. $39–$69. “Ellington: A Sacred Concert” takes place 4 p.m. on Sunday, also at the Music Center. $30–$59.