In Broadway's An American in Paris, Allison Walsh whirls through the streets of the City of Light with the aplomb of a veteran musical theater dancer. In The Lion King, Jaysin McCollum stalks the jungle with the presence required of a performer dedicated to the Great White Way. Though both are clearly at home on Broadway, it's not their natural habitat: Instead, they're former ballet dancers.
And they're not alone. Dance-centric shows like An American in Paris, On the Town, Finding Neverland and Fiddler on the Roof have made a comeback in the last 10 years, a happy return after several seasons in which smaller, more intimate musicals proved the norm. Now, classical ballet dancers are being hired for their technique, quick pick-up skills and in-depth partnering knowledge. “For On the Town, much of the dancing was ballet-based, so we were looking for great ballet training," says choreographer Joshua Bergasse. “Dancers with a ballet background understand body lines and partnering."
But, not everything gleaned in the ballet studio will help if you're hoping to switch out your pointe shoes for LaDucas. What does it take to make it on the Great White Way after a career in ballet?
“It's been beyond worth it to see my artistry grow in an unexpected way."—Jennifer Gruener. Photo by Justin Patterson Photography.
For many ballet dancers, there are a variety of perks. To start, because musicals continually open and close in New York City and around the country, different types of dancers are needed more often, and the chances of getting hired are better. For Jennifer Gruener, this larger volume of opportunities was attractive. After studying at Philadelphia Dance Theatre and The Rock School for Dance Education, a degree in dance from Indiana University garnered her only an unpaid trainee position. Taking her mother's advice, she journeyed to New York City, shifted her focus to musical theater and has embraced the diverse styles of dance available to her: She's performed with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular national tour, at regional theaters and, currently, in the ensemble of off-Broadway's Trip of Love.
Walsh, a 30-year-old ensemble member and lead understudy in AAiP previously performed with the Joffrey Ballet and BalletX. She saw AAiP as an opportunity to continue her career in a less physically demanding way: “I was at a point where I wanted to try something new before I retired," she says.
“We're smart and intuitive: That counts." —Allison Walsh. Photo by Ted Ely.
Finding Your Voice
When dancers make the leap, they're often surprised to find how vastly different the musical theater audition scene is—leaving many unprepared for their first stabs. Having to learn new dance styles, sing, and read lines and monologues can be daunting. “After we did ballet, Horton and choreography from the show, they asked if we could sing," remembers McCollum of The Lion King audition. “I didn't know I was supposed to bring music! I sang a cappella, which isn't appropriate."
Gruener adds: “When I started auditioning, I hated singing. I had to get over that—quickly. With casting now, it's important to be able to understudy roles: You must sing."
She started taking as many voice lessons as possible. “When I'm not good at something immediately, it's hard for me to stick with it. In auditions, I didn't always know what would come out of my mouth! But just like I kept working at ballet, I kept at the voice aspect, even though it was uncomfortable."
Walsh did the same: “Breathing for singing is so different than dancing. Just to sing and be comfortable in front of people is the biggest challenge," she says. “But if you're comfortable, the casting team can see you're someone they can work with." McCollum adds that he consulted his new cast mates to understand where to go for future auditions: Now he has a music book and monologue choices, and he goes to acting classes regularly.
“Go to every possible audition," says Gruener. “Get in the practice of it, largely so you can understand the process, see how many styles you have to pick up and start to understand what you're right for."
“I didn't know I was supposed to bring music to auditions!" —Jaysin McCollum. Photo by Rick Stockwell.
But take comfort: Your ballet base will hold you in good stead in many ways. “The strength and technique of ballet dancers is always helpful in the rehearsal room, and they speak that common language of ballet vocabulary that can make creating faster," says Bergasse. “I can say do eight counts of jeté turns and then fouettés, and a ballerina can execute it quickly without demonstration."
Walsh's attention to detail and ability to retain information has also allowed her to spend time as a dance captain for AAiP. “I learn quickly, I can help choreographers and I know how to communicate with other dancers because of my time in the ballet world," she says. “Actors often comment how quickly ballerinas learn and how eager we are to adapt. We're smart and intuitive: That counts."
But not all ballet studio protocol is helpful. “In ballet you don't necessarily talk to teachers or those you audition for. There's a sort of 'pedestal' situation," says Gruener. “But in musical theater, it helps to network." Gruener noticed that taking classes with teachers who she'd later see in auditions was a natural—and common—way to create connections, and chatting with them afterward was appropriate.
The vibe of musical theater auditions and rehearsals also shocks many former ballet dancers: They bustle with energy and chatting instead of quiet gravitas, and big personalities are much more apparent. It's important to find your own center of focus and relax. “I'm looking to see if the dancers can let loose. Not everyone can: They're not necessarily trained in that, and sometimes it's harder than you think to adapt," says Bergasse. “Try to be yourself, that person who loves dance and finds joy in it."
Bergasse notes that this more high-energy situation can be intimidating. But, trusting in your training and ability to adapt will help. “Sometimes the personalities in the musical theater world can be overwhelming," he says. “But, rather than be afraid of it, embrace it. In the end, we're all cut from the same dancer cloth."
For Gruener, trusting in this fact has paid off. “I think back and am always so happy I didn't get a job in ballet," she says, with a laugh. “Musical theater has allowed me to live in New York, go on tour to places I wouldn't have before and enjoy jazz and other styles I always loved. When I first moved here and wasn't getting jobs, I wondered if I made a mistake. But it's been beyond worth it to see my artistry and abilities grow in such a fun, unexpected way."
Lauren Kay is an NYC–based writer and dancer.
Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.