Forget triple threat performer. Debbie Allen sees your actor/singer/dancer combo and raises you a slew of additional bona fides. Though she began her career on Broadway, including a Tony-nominated performance in the revival of “West Side Story,” the general public knows her best for two iconic screen roles nearly four decades apart — the stern but inspiring teacher Lydia Grant in the movie and television series “Fame,” and the formidable Dr. Catherine Avery on ABC’s long-running “Grey’s Anatomy.” The award-winning actress, who just turned 70, not only plays a pivotal character on “Grey’s,” she also produces and directs, roles she’s filled on several other TV series as well. A dancer and choreographer, she also has taught hundreds of students through her 20-year-old Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, which is in the process of expanding into a new facility.
Allen has two projects on Netflix this month. She directed and choreographed the movie musical “Christmas on the Square,” with original songs by Dolly Parton. Premiering Nov. 22, the film features Parton, Christine Baranski, and Jenifer Lewis.
Allen’s other project, “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker,” the first collaboration between Netflix and Shonda Rhimes’s production company Shondaland, premieres Nov. 27 and follows Allen and her dance studio as they prepare for their annual holiday presentation.
Q. In the midst of all this, you’ve been chosen for the prestigious 2020 Dance Magazine Award as a “living legend.” Congratulations! What drives you?
A. Belief in what is possible and creativity. I’m still dreaming and thinking of things that can happen, and I try to make them so.
Q. Your academy has been doing “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” for 10 years. You’ve said you decided to take on “The Nutcracker” with different styles of dance and music and make it fun. Tell me about that creative impulse.
A. My son and I went to see “The Nutcracker” years ago, and he was bored to death. Right in the middle he screamed, “When is the rat coming?” and the audience howled. So, thinking about little boys and dance, I decided to do my own “Nutcracker” and make it more of a musical comedy narrative with three rats like the Three Stooges taking us through all these wonderful dream states. I gathered my faculty and wrote a script and reached out to [musicians like] Arturo Sandoval and James Ingram and we started working. It’s really become a tradition here in LA and people are begging us to travel. It’s a glorious show that we now can’t do now because of COVID, but “Dance Dreams” will give us a lot of satisfaction.
Q. The documentary, which also illuminates your personal dance journey, was a few years in the making. How did it come about?
A. One of our most loved parents, Oliver Bokelberg [director of “Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy”], would bring his daughter to rehearsals, and he’d say, “Debbie, I’m just gonna sit in the corner with my camera,” and we’d forget he was there. He really captured so many things in the moment … about me, my faculty, and these young people and their dreams and what’s possible and how they’re starting to see themselves in the world after training in dance, which gives them hope and a path, a direction.
Q. What do you think the exposure on Netflix might bring?
A. Hopefully it will show why the arts are essential and create more opportunities for kids everywhere. We have to be looking at the future … and we have to help one another.
Q. “Christmas on the Square” seems a sweet reminder of that, an update on “A Christmas Carol” but with lots of song and dance and a knockout cast, which you directed and choreographed. What was that like?
A. Ooooh honey, that was a labor of love! I was so excited to work with Dolly Parton and Christine Baranski and Jenifer [Lewis] and to discover Matthew Johnson. … And I had so many beautiful gifted dancers young and old dancing their hearts out. We shot it in Atlanta, and sometimes it was 103, but it was supposed to be Christmas. Child, there was some good acting going on! But it’s going to bring such joy to the world for the holidays.
Q. With all that you do, you’ve become not just a cultural icon, but a cultural ambassador. Do you feel a sense of mission in this heightened moment of racial reckoning?
A. When anything happens in our lives — good, bad, ugly, challenging, hopeful — it’s for the arts to address and help midwife us through. Dance is what kept me believing I could overcome obstacles of segregation and racism and lack of opportunity. Now it’s beyond racial. It’s economic, and it’s everyone. I have young dancers and 60-95 year-olds and a program for cancer patients — we are using dance as a game changer to face any challenges or fears and not feel alone. Dance is a transformative art, and it will give confidence and creativity to those who study, and for those who watch, it will give them joy.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.