Choreographer of Temptations musical says teacher in Toronto first noticed his talent

The choreographer of a new musical about The Temptations now playing in Toronto says it was a chemistry teacher at a North York high school who first noticed his talent for dance.

Sergio Trujillo, raised in Toronto's Jane-Finch neighbourhood, says teacher encouraged him

Sergio Trujillo, born in Colombia, raised in Canada, now living in the U.S., says a chemistry teacher in Toronto first recognized his talent for dance. (Supplied)

The choreographer of a new musical about The Temptations now playing in Toronto says it was a chemistry teacher at a North York high school who first noticed his talent for dance.

Sergio Trujillo, raised in Toronto's Jane-Finch neighbourhood from the age of 12, says Miss Marlene Hutzul at Westview Centennial Secondary School recognized his ability when he was in Grade 12. The area is tougher now than it was when he was growing up, he added. The school was putting on a production of the musical Oklahoma.

"I had never taken a dance class, but I had a lot of natural talent, and she said to me, 'I think you should choreograph Oklahoma.' I said, 'Of course, 'I can do that,' " he told CBC Radio's Metro Morning this week.

"I went into a studio, and I created this dream ballet. It was really an important moment in my life."

Years later, Trujillo is now the choreographer of Ain't Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations, part of the Mirvish Productions 2018-19 season. It is being performed at the Princess of Wales Theatre until Nov. 17 before it makes its Broadway debut next year.

Members of the Motown group, The Temptations, in an undated file photo. From left: Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and Glenn Beonard. Back row from left, Richard Street and Dennis Edwards. (Lennox McLendon/The Associated Press)

Ain't Too Proud is a musical that tells the story of "five young guys on the streets of Detroit," charting their early days as a Motown group through to the heights of their success as the one of the greatest R&B groups of all time, according a Mirvish news release. 

The Grammy-winning quintet, which formed in 1960, had more than four dozen Top 40 hits on Billboard's R&B chart. Hits included My Girl (1964), Papa Was a Rollin' Stone (1972) and Masterpiece (1973).

The show is also very much a Canadian success story. Trujillo teamed up with veteran Stratford director Des McAnuff in the production. Their first venture was 14 years ago in the 2005 musical Jersey Boys in its original production in New York City.

"For me, it's probably the highest stakes moment in my career because I have to live up to the choreography in the iconic moves of the Temptations. When you step up to the plate to hit a home run, you got to be on your game," Trujillo said.

Trujillo said he did much research, including watching videos of the group perform, before starting work on the show and before he started work on Jersey Boys. He said the way that The Temptations moved when they performed was ground-breaking.

"It was revolutionary. No one had seen five guys dance the way they did. They brought soul to music in a way that I had never seen before." 

But Trujillo wanted to put his own spin on the moves to make it new. 

"I made a choice that I was going to look at all of their work, but I was going to take it upon myself to create vocabulary and choreography that was fresh, that was brand new, and put myself in a position that was like, 'If I was the choreographer of The Temptations today, what would I do?"'

Making it fresh meant looking at the work "through the lens of 2018" and in terms of how dance has evolved over the years, he said.

"When a young audience comes to see the show, I want it to find it cool, I want it to find it interesting," he said. "I want to pay homage to them, but I also want to make it have a contemporary point of view."

Trujillo, who was born in Cali, Colombia in 1963, grew up in Toronto, and now lives in New York City, said he first heard The Temptations when he moved to Canada. 

"Oh, are you kidding, it brings me back. I had never heard of the Temptations until I got to Toronto," he said.

Choreographer Sergio Trujillo is photographed at the Mirvish rehearsal studio in October 2013, while he is promoting the world premiere of the dance show Arrabal in Toronto. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Trujillo studied sciences at the University of Toronto and also attended chiropractic school. He was a dancer for 10 years before he became a choreographer.

The first Broadway show in which he danced was Jerome Robbins' Broadway in 1989. His choreographic credits include Summer (2018), A Bronx Tale (2016), On Your Feet! (2015), Hands on a Hardbody (2013), Leap of Faith (2013), The Addams Family (2010), Memphis (2009), Next to Normal (2009), and Guys and Dolls (2009).

In 2015, Trujillo won the Laurence Olivier Award Best Theatre Choreographer for Memphis.

Otis Williams, the only original surviving member of The Temptations, recently saw Ain't Too Proud in Toronto. Trujillo said when Williams saw the show at its opening in Berkeley, Calif., he told Trujillo afterwards: "Wow, I think I may have to steal a couple of moves."

Left to right, Ephraim Sykes, Jeremy Pope, Jawan M. Jackson, James Harkness and Derrick Baskin, cast members of Ain't Too Proud. (Matthew Murphy)

With files from Mary Wiens, Metro Morning