Don't Fence Me In

February 21, 2008

In today’s pressure-cooker world, where getting a leg up on a career path can begin as early as kindergarten, those choosing dance as a calling are, for the most part, confronted with even harsher realities. Earning a living dictated by their bodies, dancers have an extremely small window for success—financial or otherwise. And while professional athletes also have relatively short careers, they are often compensated with multimillion dollar salaries and superstar status.


What’s a dancer to do, then, in the climate of the 21st-century job market? Adhere to the aesthetic ideals of the concert stage, or stay flexible and keep an eye on what makes sense moneywise? Dance Magazine asked five dancers about how they arrived at their life-changing decisions.


For Holly Cruikshank, erstwhile star of the Broadway shows Movin’ Out and Contact, her career was forged from anatomical destiny. At 6′, the Arizona-born dancer now living in Carlsbad, California, had trained in ballet from childhood. After her freshman year at North Carolina School of the Arts, Cruikshank had already begun auditioning for a number of ballet troupes.


“I wanted to be in a company so bad,” recalls Cruikshank, “and Hubbard Street was my dream. When they said, ‘We love you but you’re too tall,’ I was bawling my eyes out I was so depressed.”


But hearing that Will Rogers Follies needed tall dancers in New York, Cruikshank drove to the city with a friend. “I was 18 and got it. At first I was excited, but then I realized I wasn’t going to be in a ballet company—it was being in a show and doing showgirl moves. At the same time,” she continues, “I was getting paid four times what ballet company corps members or apprentices were making and I was on Broadway.”


And she never looked back.


Indeed, with six shows and a 15-year Broadway career under her belt, Cruikshank, who was also in Fosse, earned rave reviews touring as the lead in Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out, and as the elusive Girl in the Yellow Dress in Stroman’s Contact.


Cruikshank, recently married, can currently be seen strutting her leggy stuff as one of the Honey Bee dancers on NBC’s The Singing Bee. She considers herself lucky. “I could make a living on Broadway and buy an apartment. People in ballet were waiting tables just to pay the rent. Some people say it gets monotonous doing the same show every night, but you have days free to take class and go on other auditions. I loved it.


“With Twyla,” adds Cruikshank, “she treated the whole show like a dance company and let you do something different each night. Artistically it was so fulfilling. I had the best of both worlds: the commercial side on Broadway, and the artistic side—being with Twyla, who is a legend, and the other dancers.”


John Byrne
also studied for a year at North Carolina School of the Arts, where his ballet and modern dance training served him well. Getting accepted into Paul Taylor’s second company at age 18, Byrne was soon touring and performing such well-known works as Arden Court and Aureole. He also danced briefly with the main company.


But stage fright soon became an issue. “I never developed a thick skin,” says Byrne, “and having to be judged all day was hard.” Plus, after three years with Taylor, “I wanted to do other things, not dedicate my life to just one artist. When you dance for Graham or Taylor,” adds Byrne, who recently hosted a workout DVD, “it’s all about preservation. The stuff they’re doing was created a long time ago. But to do something new and fun, that’s what I enjoy.”


Byrne left and began working in the more lucrative field of music videos. He choreographed for Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, and Britney Spears. He also choreographed and performed in Elton John’s Las Vegas show The Red Piano.


Also relishing her career, which includes performing in no less than 10 Broadway shows, is Lorin Latarro. After earning an undergraduate degree in dance from Juilliard, the New Jersey native performed with the Martha Graham Ensemble and MOMIX.


“I did Graham for a minute,” says Latarro. “There was very little work and that’s one reason I left, but MOMIX was a real joy and I got to travel the world for two years.” But she also wanted to sing and dance and act. “I took a huge risk and left MOMIX, thinking there was no way I was going to get to Broadway if I was always in Italy.”


Within six months, Latarro scored Swing!, taking over for one of the lead dancers in 1999. She’s been employed on the Great White Way ever since. She’s gone from the ensemble in Curtains to a featured role in Fosse to covering lead roles in the recent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. “I’ve been able to jump around from playing a ditzy blond in one show to Brenda in Movin’ Out. With MOMIX,” adds Latarro, who also choreographs, “it was always a specific performance style. In every Broadway show I’ve gotten to do something pretty spectacular, and each show teaches you something different.”


The spectacle quotient is decidedly heavy in the Broadway smash Wicked, where Reed Kelly has been a part of the cast for three years. Born in Minnesota, Kelly trained in jazz, tap, and ballet and performed with Minnesota Dance Theatre. Accepted to Juilliard, he went to New York for summer training, but ended up auditioning and performing in The Radio City Christmas Spectacular.


“Then September 11 happened,” recalls Kelly, “and I set Juilliard aside. Just because you get into medical school doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be a doctor.”


After a two-year stint with Radio City, Kelly moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in music videos for Cher, Jessica Simpson and others, as well as acting in the Will Smith film, I Am Legend.


“I love ballet, but it’s an extreme discipline. Also I knew I would miss jazz, hip hop, tap, singing,” says Kelly. “I wanted to work in more facets of the industry.”


Tapper Ray Hesselink also wanted to explore other options. Currently teaching at Steps and Broadway Dance Center, he relocated from L.A. to New York seven years ago and began learning moves from old-time tappers like Miriam Nelson. “I delved into theater dance,” he recalls, “like Jack Cole and Fosse. From there I got introduced to classical Indian dance—Odissi. It came easy to me because of the rhythms.”


In fact, Hesselink performed for two years with Nayikas Dance Theater Company before he left to pursue directing and choreographing. “I wanted to get my work out to a broader audience,” says Hesselink. “I also wanted to do more comedy and musical theater, because I love storytelling through tap or theater dance—that’s what I’m best at.”


Currently assisting choreographer Peter Darling on the musical Billy Elliot (which hits Broadway later this year), Hesselink has also performed in tap festivals and was a soloist in the Chicago-based show Imagine Tap! In addition, he has chalked up film, television, and commercial credits.


“The prestige of concert dance is nice,” notes Hesselink, “but ultimately it’s about joy. It’s doing projects that are fulfilling. I really understand comedy and we need to laugh more—to bring more light into the world.”


There’s no doubt that Hesselink—like Cruikshank, Byrne, Latarro, and Kelly—all do just that. By following the twists and turns of their paths, by working hard, and by loving their craft, not only do they set shining examples for generations to come, but also spread some beautiful dancing around in the process.


Victoria Looseleaf, an L.A.-based writer, produces a local TV show on the arts.


Photo by Lois Greenfield.