Spotlight on James Santos
Life's A StageDecember 2006
By Melissa Gulden
Chances are you know his work, even if you have never met him personally. Peter Pan, Hair, Godspell, to name a few, have al benefited from his expertise.
The CascadeTheater has housed his dance company,The Dance Project, and Redding has
welcomed his Cascade Christmas warmly for the past three years.
James Santos may look as young as his students at University Prep, but he is a fixture in this
community and has been for some time. Santos’ relationship with the Cascade is just the tip of
Born in Redding, Santos was raised in Redding and Vacaville, splitting time between his mom
and dad. His love of children’s theater as a young boy quickly evolved into dance lessons and
He choreographed Redding Community Theatre’s production of The Fantastiks at age 16, and
was soon working non-stop.
Accepted to SUNY Purchase, Santos packed up, moved to New York, and returned just as
quickly as he left. He realized school wasn’t the place for him. “I wanted to be performing,” he
said. However, New York still held that certain magic and he swore he would return someday.
Santos’ talent didn’t go unnoticed. As soon as he returned to California, he was hired by
the American Musical Theatre of San Jose for shows like Follies and Seven Brides for Seven
Brothers, in which Santos scored a leading role. His work escalated, landing him once again
in New York. “My plan was always to return,” Santos said.
He traveled back and forth between Redding and New York, performing in a show,
then coming back home to choreograph for a company or a show at Shasta College. He
quickly learned about the life of a dancer, toiling through audition after audition. Some
panned out, some didn’t, but Santos was determined. He knew his calling was the
stage and he persevered.
It paid off. Santos returned to Redding in the summer of 1999 and landed
another job, this time in Detroit for the Fox Theater. As wonderful an
opportunity Detroit was, New York beckoned.
“I had to pursue the dream of New York,” Santos said. Santos worked hard to make life in the city comfortable, but something just wasn’t there. As much as he enjoyed musical theater, Santos says he wasn’t where he wanted to be. “I wanted to return to my roots—dance.” The New York City Opera offered a chance for Santos to do just that.
“I remember calling my mom from outside the Lincoln Center and just yelling, ‘Mom, I got the job!’”
Santos reminisces about his job with the Opera fondly. “Something was so old world about it; it was such a professional experience. Probably the best feeling job I’ve ever had, as far as the way people treated me. It was massive.”
Massive, yes, but Santos missed his family.
Having returned to Redding each summer to choreograph Kids Unlimited, Santos sensed big changes occurring in his hometown.
“I could feel everything happening in Redding,” Santos said. “And I wanted to be close to family, raise a family, have that life.”
And so he returned.
“I had done what I set out to do,” Santos said. “I had danced in New York.”
Santos began teaching classical dance at University Preparatory School as well as choreographing the Shasta High School musical and various productions.
According to the Cascade Theater House Manager Michele Rider, Santos’ real passion, The Dance Project, was born out of fundraising for the Cascade, and quickly escalated into being the theater’s house dance company. “James brought (to the Cascade) what was missing,” Rider said. “His Dance Project was just what the Cascade was looking for.”
The Dance Project has evolved into a business relationship with the beloved theater.
Now in its fifth full-scale production,The Dance Project has been more than well received; A Cascade Christmas has sold out and added shows for the third year in a row and the productions just keep getting bigger and better. Dance Captain Chase Kinney says Santos is a joy to work with. “It’s amazing working with someone as talented as James.We work together really well.”Many members of the Project share Kinney’s view.
“He has a lot of energy, he’s extremely organized, which I love, and he knows what he wants,” said Leaha Hernandez, company dancer. “He really loves what he does, so he makes it a lot of fun for everyone.”
Santos is happy to be back in Redding, among family and friends. Between directing the dance program at U Prep, choreographing various productions, and expanding The Dance Project, Santos has his plate full.
“We’re trying to build this community. As long as people want it, we’ll keep doing it. And the minute I think they don’t want it anymore, I’ll stop.”