When the dancer Kolton Krouse performs their solo numbers in Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ on Broadway (Music Box Theatre, booking to Sept 17)—and at their curtain call too—the applause is loud and whoops even louder. Fans wait to lavish praise and pose for selfies at the stage door after the show. The 26-year-old breakout star, originally from Gilbert, Arizona, is a fierce whirl of movement in their revue solos, “Spring Chicken” and the Trumpet Solo in “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and even steals the company dances they take part in with their commanding physicality, slicked peroxide blond hair, raunchy costuming, vivid makeup, and mischievous expression.
When we meet by Zoom, the non-binary performer is in a white top, and fully made-up. They say they are aware of audiences’ adoring response, but “a lot of the movement in the pieces is internal, so when I am doing the Trumpet Solo I am tuning everything out apart from our drummer, Gary (Seligson). Bob (Fosse) originally designed that number to be that you’re in the backroom of your favorite club improvising, looking at yourself in the mirror. It’s supposed to be about you and the music.”
Krouse can hear people cheering, but not the gasps friends have told them about. They laughed. “One distinctive voice I did hear on opening night was (performer) Justice Moore’s. She was just saying, ‘Work!’ and ‘Yes!’”
Krouse’s family has come to see the show; their mom Janna has seen it multiple times. Their younger brother Konner was seeing it for the first time, and while Krouse had pre-warned him there would be nudity, Konner exclaimed after the show, “Oh, you were naked on stage. Your ass looked great.” Krouse laughed at the memory. “I was like, ‘I’m dead.’”
One young dancer, who went to the show with her dance teacher, came to the stage door after seeing Krouse perform the Trumpet Solo to compliment the performance, then turned to her teacher to say that it was time to practice that solo herself wearing LaDuca dancing boots, just as Krouse wears. ‘She said, ‘I know this is what we need to do now.’”
“Spring Chicken” is fun to perform, Krouse said, as it’s about a performer feeding off the audience. They have read the reviews of the show, including by this author, which have singled them out for praise. “It’s kind of crazy. I don’t have a lot of words. It’s kind of surreal in a way. I didn’t expect anything from it. I’m just here doing my job. I’m glad people are responding this way. It’s really incredible to read, especially the review that compared me to Marilyn Monroe. That one made me cry because I love Marilyn Monroe so much. I used to love watching all her films, like Monkey Business. One of my favorites is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Some Like It Hot obviously. She has always been an inspiration to me.”
“It was kind of hard, wondering, ‘Who am I? I don’t see someone like me.’ Now I get to do that for someone…”
— Kolton Krouse
Krouse joins other non-binary Broadway performers who have won plaudits this season, like J. Harrison Ghee in Some Like It Hot, and Justin David Sullivan in & Juliet (in February, Sullivan declined consideration in the gendered categories of the Tony Awards).
“It’s really cool to be part of this right now,” Krouse told The Daily Beast. “It feels like all of us are being part of this history that’s happening. Growing up, I never saw anyone in movies or shows that I could relate to. So I had to, like, relate to someone but not really because they weren’t this, or this, or this. It was kind of hard, wondering, ‘Who am I? I don’t see someone like me.’ Now I get to do that for someone, and J. Harrison Ghee gets to do that for someone, and Justin David Sullivan does too. All of us are on stages representing something that was never represented before. Any nonbinary kid that comes to see us gets to go home thinking, ‘I could do this one day.’”
The issue of awards’ categories is “such a tricky one,” said Krouse. “I do think there is a need to expand the categories, but how they do that I’m not sure. For me personally, if people ask me what I would call myself, in an actor or actress category, I would call myself an actor as I personally don’t think that word is gendered. When it has ‘male’ in front of it, yes, it’s tricky. I’m not sure what you would call a separate category.” When this reporter asks what their preferred pronouns are, Krouse said, “People call me different things—whatever you want to call me I’ll answer to. Pronouns are not really big for me.”
Do Broadway producers and casting directors have a long way to go when it comes to treating non-binary performers fairly? “I kind of think so,” said Krouse. “In certain shows like Bad Cinderella there is no one like me represented on stage. I think a lot of shows are still doing that. There are a lot of things Broadway needs to work on in terms of diversity—this, body image, ethnicity, a lot of things.”
This is Krouse’s second Broadway booking, having performed in the company of Cats at the 2016 revival while they were still studying at Juilliard (later Krouse starred in the much-derided movie).
“This time it’s different, we’re all principals,” Krouse said of performing in Dancin’. “All 22 of us matter. For me, this feels bigger. It’s hard to put into words. It’s an incredible feeling. The cast feels so diverse and what we each represent is different. I like that we are introduced to the audience. Anyone can leave feeling, ‘Oh, that’s me on stage.’ We are all playing characters, but it’s us in those characters and none of us is sacrificing any part of ourselves to play these characters, You don’t really get that usually in musicals. It’s usually, ‘You’re playing this character, this is who originated the role, and this is how it should be played.’”
Dancin’ celebrates the pleasure and physicality of dance, with electric performances by every member of the company. At the end, they all take individual bows, their names in large font projected behind them. “We’re definitely wanting that and wanting to share our love of dance,” Krouse said. “It’s successful because we all love each other too. It’s such a family up there. Whenever we’re performing we’re all supporting each other, and I think we’re transmitting that to the audience. They can see we’re having a good time, so they have a good time. It’s a huge love-fest. We definitely want the audience to feel happy, and leave feeling all this energy.
“The goal isn’t always to reach and grab for them; Fosse’s choreography is very much about the intentions behind movements. We want the audience to watch us and ask, ‘What are they feeling?’ One sequence, ‘Joint Endeavors,’ is all about sex. I’m thinking, ‘Am I going to hook up with this person? Do I want a relationship with this person? Is it a hookup, a transaction? I love getting into the characters, and I love, in ‘Spring Chicken,’ being able to sing on stage for the first time.” (Krouse is now working on their own music, and about to record his first song in a studio.)
“This is not a persona. This is me. With everything on, in an outfit and heel—yeah, this is me, Kolton.”
— Kolton Krouse
Krouse seems so powerful on stage, approaching the audience with fierce and playful command. “It feels like there are 900-whatever people staring at me, and then just me on stage. I’m thinking, ‘What if am not good enough?’ That’s why have I give it my all. If my mind wanders, it’s downhill. I start second-guessing every move. One of the hardest things is, at that moment, people can say the worst things if they wanted to, so it’s like, ‘Breathe’ and yeah…”
Visible in the Zoom shot are some amazingly manicured and colored nails. That, with the full makeup, is “definitely the normal me,” said Krouse. “When I’m fully made-up that’s me, and when I’m not it feels like I’m hiding, and not wanting anyone to notice me. This is not a persona. This is me. With everything on, in an outfit and heel—yeah, this is me, Kolton. I started dancing in heels in high school. I danced in a stripper heel to Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in Love.’ I started wearing the makeup regularly after doing Cats, where I was fully made up every day, and it felt good. Now it’s normal.”
“I didn’t love Juilliard to be honest”
Krouse was a “wild child, running around a lot having fun” when growing up in Arizona. “I had all the energy. My parents were always supportive, and wanted us to to what we wanted to do.” Janna performs ultrasounds, their dad Troy fixes medical equipment. They have an older sister Kailee, 28, as well as younger brother, Konner, 24. “When I was younger, I wanted to do everything my older sister did. She played soccer, I played soccer. She did gymnastics, I did gymnastics. I followed whatever she was doing. When she got into dance, I was like, “OK, I’ll try it. I was 9. I took one class [at Tempe Dance Academy] and thought, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ I knew.
“It was a hip-hop class, which is funny because I don’t consider myself a hip-hop dancer. After that class, the studio owner, Wanda Manville, grabbed me and said, ‘I’m putting you down for ballet, jazz, tap, you’re doing all of it.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and that’s where it took off.”
“There was bullying at school. But I was kind of a bitch back. I didn’t really care. They would say stuff, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I can go at this all day.’”
— Kolton Krouse
Growing up, Krouse “definitely felt queer. I knew that specifically. For me personally there was never a coming out story, never a like ‘Hey, I’m gay’ moment. I just felt like if straight people don’t have to come out, why do I. There was bullying at school. But I was kind of a bitch back. I didn’t really care. They would say stuff, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I can go at this all day.’ I fought for myself, never physically. It was more, ‘My words can hurt you more than your words hurt me, OK, bye.’”
Krouse was inspired by the singer Joanna “JoJo” Levesque—about to take on the role of Satine in Moulin Rouge! The Musical on Broadway–and was “obsessed” with Hilary Duff. As time went on, Krouse became more ambitious about pursuing a career, competing at the New York City Dance Alliance competition, becoming a record-holding four-time winner of the National Outstanding Dancer trophy.
“I wasn’t really focused at school. I hated school,” Krouse recalled. “My parents were strict with my brother and sister getting good grades. I could not have cared less. I didn’t want to do anything else but dance. Oh, I will say, I do love Grey’s Anatomy, and Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh’s character) made me want to be a cardiothoracic surgeon—but at that point I had to admit I didn’t study hard enough, so there was no way I could do that.”
The dancer Andy Pellick was another early mentor. Krouse was also inspired by his now-Dancin’ co-star Dylis Croman, who they saw perform the Trumpet Solo on a TV special. “There was such ecstasy in it. Her as a performer, the way she commanded the stage were perfect. It is what I wanted to be. Now it’s really cool getting to work with her. We have a lot of moments where I’m either carrying her across the stage or shimmying at each other.”
Krouse went on to study dance at Juilliard. “I loved Balanchine, but a lot of Julliard was against Balanchine because it was seen as an aesthetic. Juilliard didn’t want us to add flourishes. They said we could add those after the basics. I understood that, and got a lot stronger. But I didn’t love Juilliard to be honest. They believe you became artists by breaking you down.”
Still, Krouse did phenomenally well there, booking the Broadway revival of Cats playing Tumblebrutus while still a student, doing eight shows a week, juggling both school and production. “It was hard, but cool to know ‘If I can do this I can do anything. It will be OK.’”
Krouse dropped out of Juilliard in their senior year; by then they were working on the TV show Fosse/Verdon, and then booked to perform in the much-vilified movie adaptation of Cats. Krouse asked Juilliard if they could defer a year as the semester was nearly over, but was told no—they would have to do the entire year over again and not get their money back. “So, I said, “OK, I guess I’m leaving.’” Kruse was named in Dance Magazine‘s Top 25 to Watch in 2018.
The Cats movie, whatever the terrible reviews and audience mockery, was a “really cool experience. I worked with incredible artists like Taylor Swift and I became very close to Les Twins, and how they saw and felt dance. They’re really wonderful humans. I don’t think any of us knew what to expect from the film. Andy (Blankenbuehler, choreographer) would choreograph something. We would film it, then Tom (Hooper, director) wouldn’t like it, so we would do something different. We recorded each number four or five different ways. Because we’d shot everything five different ways we didn’t know what to expect.” Krouse paused, and smiled a que sera smile. Well, our checks cleared, so…”
As for Swift, “Taylor is one of sweetest humans alive. I was so shocked because she is so big, such a pop star, I kind of wanted her to be mean so I could be like ‘You’re talented, great at writing, and mean.’ But she’s so nice. She has it all: she’s gorgeous, nice, so talented, a lovely human.”
“I don’t think it’s ever too late to do anything”
Looking after their body, as for any dancer—especially one doing eight intense Broadway shows a week—is a challenge. Krouse ices their back every night, has compression therapy, general physical therapy, and acupuncture. They are also trying a variety of other treatments: cryotherapy, infra-red saunas, red light therapy, IV drips, intra-muscular shots, and oxygen chambers.
As dancers, said Krouse, “we were always told going through school we have to be a certain weight. At Juilliard they call people into the office, and say, ‘You’re gaining weight, maybe eat less.’ Things we’re told as dancers are ‘You have to look this way, you have to eat this.’ There’s always that body image in our minds. We’re constantly staring at ourselves in the mirror. We worry we’re too big, have too much muscle, that we’re not going to look good doing this because of what our bodies look like.
“That’s why I think doing this show is really great. There are moments where someone says, ‘I shouldn’t have eaten this.’ And someone says. ‘No, you’re gorgeous, you’re fine, your body is perfect. You don’t need to stop eating.’ When we go into those moments everyone in the show bands together, and says to that person, ‘Do not talk about yourself that way.’”
Krouse laughed. “Yeman Brown (a co-star) says, ‘Don’t talk about my friend like that.’ Karli Dinardo (another co-star) says, ‘You’re perfect, we are all perfect in our bodies.’ I don’t want to hear anything bad about what you think you look like. We hold each other accountable. We say, ‘You are going to eat that! You look beautiful. It’s OK.’ It’s just hard. I haven’t always been great with my body. There were definitely times there were kind of eating disorders. There are still moments where I struggle with it, but it’s a journey and we have got friends to help us.”
One trainer has encouraged Krouse to treat their body as a machine to get through life with, and to treat it accordingly to ensure its maintenance and strength. “She doesn’t talk about what a body should look like, but what it can do for me.”
26 is not old, but as a dancer Krouse knows the artform isn’t something they will be doing forever, which is why they are pondering music as their next career (“I love the poetry of making it”), or even acting, “even though I don’t know if it’s one of my strongest suits.” Single, they live with two cats and to unwind likes to eat ramen and watch Netflix, Hulu, and Disney Plus. Krouse took up figure skating during the pandemic, which changed their musculature and body shape. “I love it. When I’m on the ice and take off with the wind on my face it’s the most freeing thing I have ever felt. If I need to feel joy when I am performing on stage, I think of being on the ice and feeling that breeze. It is so freeing, there’s something so peaceful about it.”
Krouse had first skated as a kid, but when they took up dance seriously their parents—fearing injury—prohibited them from doing it, alongside other sports like skateboarding. During the pandemic, Krouse watched the dazzling routines of Nathan Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu at the World Championships, inspiring Krouse to go to their local ice rink. Now they have two coaches, one for freeskating, the other for field moves. The possibility of injury as he performs on Broadway means they have temporarily stopped skating, but they plan to return to it in the next few weeks. Might it be another career? “I don’t think it’s ever too late to do anything.”
“Obsessed” with Cabaret since first seeing the movie at 13, on stage Krouse would relish the opportunity of playing Sally Bowles in a future production. “Everything about Liza Minnelli in that movie—the performance tics, the energy through her eyes and the confidence exuded from her—amazed me. It says, ‘I know you’re looking at me. It was fun that she is playing with the audience. Even though it was through a camera, it was like a live performance.”
“I wouldn’t want to perform any other way. I am never not going to show up as me.”
— Kolton Krouse
In Dancin’ Krouse plays with the audience with the same focused but impish charm. “Yes, I definitely stole some of her focus,” they said laughing, “though am I sending it out or drawing them into it? Where is the energy going?”
Krouse has another dream role, as the Spider Woman/Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman, inspired by Chita Rivera’s performance of the role. “I love that musical. I don’t know if it would happen because of politics and how productions happen, and the part is gendered. I think it could work, but everyone would have to be on board with it. It might get bad press. I can handle that, but the show would have to support me being seen as who I am. Some musicals and shows don’t want that. I have walked into auditions before where I feel I haven’t put myself in a box. I feel they have put me in a box sometimes: ‘Oh, we can’t show that. We don’t want that,’ and it’s like, ‘OK, you don’t want me, that’s fine.’ I wouldn’t want to perform any other way. I am never not going to show up as me.”
At every performance of Dancin’ Krouse is absolutely, powerfully themselves. What is it like having 900 of us in the palm of their hand? “It’s kind of wild. There are moments where sometimes it feels really quiet. I think, ‘Oh my god, they either love it, or they want me to get off the stage and they are really tired of me.’ I never know what. So, I think, ‘OK, we’ll keep going.’ Sometimes I don’t know what is happening, and sometimes I do, and then I think, ‘Tonight, I got ‘em.’” And Krouse smiles the smile we see on stage, brimming with confidence, challenge, and mischief.