How did you start dancing?
Probably started in the womb [laughs]. When I was 4-5 years old, I was selling tickets to my family at dinner for the show that night. After dinner, we would gather in the den, and I’d put on my Michael Jackson jacket and put on a show. I think everyone thought that it was probably a phase or that I just had a lot of energy, but it didn’t stop. At 9 years old, my father had a patient who owned a dance studio in Toronto, Canada. They took me over to check it out and see if I liked what they were doing there. I think we registered on the spot. My dad actually put me into it. It was hockey one day, baseball one day, and dance one day during the week. Slowly but surely, dance took over the week. The sports just faded away.
What type of dance did you start with?
Hip-hop. Started at a studio called Roland and Romaine School of Performing Arts. everyone had to do ballroom. So we were partnering right away. From the time I was 9 years old I had the teacher’s hand on my hips teaching me how to groove, lifting girls right away. We all had to learn to partner. We were learning theatre, Broadway shows, and lip-synching to it and putting dances together. We all learned to perform. When I was a kid, they had a talent agency for children that they worked into the studio, and we were all working. People would come in and find kids at this one studio. I guess jazz, hip-hop, tap, and ballroom is where I started. Once I realized that I wanted to take this further, I realized that you needed some ballet training and technical abilities to actually pursue this as a lengthy career.
When did you decide to pursue dance as a career?
I went to university for psychology. I did my BA in Psych, thinking that I’d be a child psychologist. I still loved dancing. I did my diploma in business management thinking I would run a dance studio. Never really realizing that being a choreographer was a feasible opportunity. I didn’t really hang out with the theatre kids growing up, I didn’t know about the theatre schools that existed in my neighborhood. Which was good. I was able to be versatile, and I still might be a psychologist or a dance therapist down the road. Once I left school, I was asked to choreograph a production of West Side Story. I didn’t realize that you had to the original choreography. I was given this book of the choreography and I didn’t know what to do with it. So I just choreographed it myself. Didn’t really pull from the movie or anything and just did my own thing. It was a pretty big hit. People started asking me to choreograph things right away, right after people saw that in Toronto. One of my first mentors started calling frequently, and I didn’t really stop working for a while. That’s when I realized that this is an actual job that I could have in this world. People will pay you to do it.
Were you still dancing in college?
Yeah. I was teaching my way through college. Every night I was teaching hip-hop. I had a hip-hop troupe, and we would perform at clubs. I was dancing a lot to get through college, and all the other kids would take my class. I had one class of like 90 people. I would just teach as much as I could. That’s when I fell in love with teaching. I just saw what it did for everybody. All the stressed out students would just get together and dance all night.
I always knew I was good at choreography. I always felt like it was inside of me probably since I was 10 years old. I did my first talent show piece and spliced together four songs and choreographed it all. I always knew I had a knack for creating dance and finding new music and being inspired by stories and people. I never knew it was a real job opportunity, so it was never at the forefront of my mind as a career.
Going back to West Side, you said that you did your own thing—did you know the original choreography before?
Of course. I knew about it, but I didn’t watch the movie to get inspired. I really just did my thing. I created ballet after ballet. “Cool” was this whole contemporary piece with all the girls and guys involved. I remember someone coming up to me after and being like, “I did miss the snapping section, but I love what you did with that number.” And I replied, “What’s the snapping section?” [laughs]
I try to remember the fearlessness I had during that job. Sometimes you can hurt yourself by knowing too much about a project and thinking you have to be a certain way. I was just inspired by the story and the music and just did my thing to it.
How did you get to where you are now?
I was really lucky to have mentors who believed in me. I also pushed to get more mentors who would potentially believe in me. I still am someone who loves to hustle. I love going out and meeting people. Putting yourself out there and meeting as many people in the business as possible is something I enjoy doing. Whether it’s composers, lighting directors, any kind of designer, I love talking to them. Whether I work with them in the future or not, I can always gain insight from them. Over the years, I would just keep reminding these people what I am up to. Every couple of months, I would just put up new videos, new content to send around and be like, “Hey guys, check this out.” Some people would write back and some people wouldn’t. Some people would be like, “Yeah, I need someone to assist on this. I am so glad you emailed me today.” I just got those opportunities and continued to build relationships. I started working at the Stratford Shakespeare festival, which was a great place for me to hone my craft. After two years of performing there, I decided to try to make the move to New York City. Just to see if I can make waves here or what it would do for me.
What was it like moving to NYC?
I moved here first in 2002. Lasted four months. Spent all my money. Couldn’t get a sponsor. Because I am Canadian, I can’t just be here and work. So the whole immigration thing was an added challenge, which was trying and tedious. But if you know that you have to be here, you figure out how to be here. During that first four-month stay, I was young and wide-eyed and ended up getting a good opportunity back in Toronto and ended up moving back home and getting more experience.
Then I moved to New York in early 2010. It was great. I felt immediately welcomed by the community. I realized that there was so much work here and that people aren’t so cutthroat. If you have the talent and the persistence, then there’s something for you to do. Whether it’s teaching or choreographing for studios or regional productions or Broadway shows. I found that the choreography community is really a nice group of people and very welcoming. I just put myself out there and fell in love with the city instantly.
How did you end up getting your immigration stuff taken care of?
I found people who believed in me and an agency who has trusted that I will continue to work. I had to prove to the government that I am somebody who can give back to the artistic community here.
You have to have a sponsor. You have to have an agent or somebody who’s going to sponsor you to be here until you work towards getting your green card. It’s never-ending. I think it weeds out the people who feel like they don’t need to be here. I have a lot of friends at home who would work non-stop here, but there’s something about all the paperwork that keeps them from coming. There’s just been nothing stopping me and a lot of Canadian friends who come here. But it’s an on-going thing.
What are some of your favorites moments from your career?
Having not grown up with a technical background and then assisting on a new production at the New York City Ballet was pretty cool. It taught me that I could be a creative asset anywhere and opened me up to more than just the goal of choreographing a Broadway show. There’s so much more out there. There are so many jobs that I never even knew existed for me until I moved here. One of the first ones through the SDC observership was assisting Lynne Taylor-Corbett on The Seven Deadly Sins at New York City Ballet, which starred Patti LuPone. They wanted a more theatrical approach, so she thought that I was the right person. Lynne continued to be a great supporter of mine. That was great.
Also, Steve Gaeto, my agent at Bloc, and other agents at Bloc put me forward for some jobs at Vogue magazine. I’ve now done 4 fashion jobs. I got to work with Annie Leibovitz on a Charlize Theron cover. Recently, I did the September issue with A$AP Rocky and Chanel Iman, and we did a spread of different dance poses. I work with people at Chanel and other modeling agencies. Those things are fun and frightening because you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do until you get there. But those jobs have really opened me up to realizing that you can help out creatively in any capacity. You can’t pigeonhole yourself into what you think your dream is. We’re in a city where everyone is creating. If you open yourself up to all those people, you’ll realize there are experiences that will help you down the line even though it was not on your radar.
As a choreographer, how do you help out at fashion shoots?
They call me the movement consultant. I work with the models and the artist on giving them ideas for poses. I am good at watching and suggesting how a certain line works on the models. I am good behind the camera, and I know how to make people feel comfortable in front of them. I get people to loosen up, give them ideas, and make their body work in ways they didn’t think of. It opens them up to a whole new thing. The photographer will shoot a lot, and I’ll give suggestions as we go. We’ll look at the pictures, and I’ll give them ideas for the next round of shots. On a shoot, a fashion editor just came up to me and said, “We need a moment here.” I just went up to the models and gave them one suggestion, and we got an incredible shot, which ended up being a major picture in the September issue last year. It’s really cool to find these other mediums where your work can help out and make a difference.
What are your aspirations?
It changes everyday. I know I want to choreograph a Broadway show. I want to reach further into the TV and film world. I need to make a living [laughs].
There are so many things I’d like to do. I was able to create a new show for Holland America cruise line this year through RWS & Associates, and that got me overseas putting my show up on two ships in the Mediterranean. I was able to check out Europe more than I did when I was a teenager backpacking through it. There’s so much of the world that I want to see. Whether that’s through work or otherwise, I’d like to work on things that allow me to travel or things that allow me to have the money to travel.
My biggest goal is to continue to create thought-provoking work and collaborating with artists that I look up to and feel like I can get on the same page with. So much of the time I am doing the job because I need the job. When it gets to a point where you can really create something from scratch and be a part of the process from the beginning it’s the best. I choreographed a Tonya Harding rock opera this past summer at NYMF, and it was really nice to be part of a musical from the beginning and doing an original piece. Doing more of that is always fulfilling.
What’s been your toughest time as a dancer?
I had just moved to New York in early 2010. I was making waves, meeting agents, had a lot of great meetings set up, and I was hit with Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in my stomach. I went back to Toronto to fight it. I got really lucky because it was only a 5-month ordeal, and then I was back to New York. It still feels like it didn’t really happen. But I was forced into a hospital bed for five months. As dancers, we can’t do that. We feel good when we’re productive, when we’re sweating, when we’re pushing our bodies to the limit. That’s when we feel the most worthwhile, but I had to put that aside. I remember my dad telling me that my job now is to get better. So I was just focusing on that.
Not feeling like I was at my creative capacity was really hard for me. I had really great producer friends come to me in my hospital bed and tell me that they had to get me creating something because me laying on the bed wasn’t going to work. They knew that. So we created an event called I Move Forward, which is a fundraiser for artists living with cancer. I curated an event from my bed and got together a lot of my New York and Toronto friends. We had a live band, different singers on each song, and with each song I provided a choreographer with half the stage to create whatever they wanted. It ended up raising $40,000 for artists touched by cancer, which was definitely the most important thing I’ve been a part of in my life. It was the toughest time turned into a really significant time. Showing myself that I can do that and showing others that I can turn things around was really important to keep me being the fundamentally positive person that I am.
What are some things that helped you get better from that situation?
My support system would be number one. Having people who recognize that sometimes I need them and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes just get me a Big Mac and go away, which happened quite often [laughs]. Having those people try to lift you up was really important.
Because I couldn’t dance, I had to find low impact ways to move. I just couldn’t put dancing on hold. I just needed to get up and go all the time. I found tai chi and found an incredible teacher who would come to wherever I was once a week and we’d get up really early and go out to the park and teach me new moves. It kept my brain working through physicality and I fell in love with it and I continue to use it all over my choreography still. It’s a gorgeous way of moving and has so many positive impacts on your body and on your mind. That definitely helped me physically.
Overall: family, friends, trying to stay positive, thinking about what makes you happy and staying focused on those things both creatively and not creatively, Lance Armstrong’s book, It’s All About The Bike, and having a really great medical staff who you trust.
What’s your number one advice?
Be nice to everybody. Don’t let anyone pigeonhole you into what they think you are in the industry. I had an agent who said, “We don’t really see you as doing that,” and I thought, “How do you not see me the way I see me?” You have a sense of what you’re capable of, and not letting people decide that for you is really important. I would say get out there and say yes to everything. That’s exactly what I continue to do. If it’s something that scares you or you know nothing about it, that’s exactly why you do it. Whether it’s someone who needs help with props or costumes one day or a stage manager who needs an assistant for a week, you do it. And you learn and do whatever you need to do just to get into “the room where it happens [laughs].”
Any last thing you want to share with the world?
I feel very grateful to be a part of this industry and to be working, and to be meeting new students in class all the time, and to be working for a lot of my mentors. It’s pretty amazing that we get to be here and be a few subway stops away from Times Square and Broadway. There are so many days that the city just brings me down and just getting from point A to point B will feel like too much. But in the same hour, if you make the choice to be inspired by the city, it’s there for you. If you are kind to New York, it will be nice back to you.