I met Ryan through Broadway Donation. We were just talking before his class and found out that we lived a stop away from each other. We ended up taking the train back together that night. A couple days later, due to construction, I ended up seeing him at my stop. I asked Ryan then if he would be interested in being featured for Dancers of New York, and he kindly agreed. We met again about a week later for the interview. By the time we finished the interview, it started to rain. We decided to shoot in the rain anyway (using a plastic bag as a camera cover) and we ended up with some great photos. Below is the full interview and photos with Ryan Kasperzak. For more information about Ryan, check out his website. Ryan is represented by MSA Agency.
How did it all start?
It all started with flip of a coin, actually. When I was probably 12 or 13, my family just moved to the suburbs of Chicago. I had always done theatre and played sports but everyone was like, “You move so well; you should take dance.” But I really wasn’t interested. At the time, MC Hammer and Michael Jackson were pretty much the two coolest people on the planet. And my mom found an ad for a free boys street dance class. It was before hip-hop, so we called it street dance. I sorta wanted to go, but I didn’t want to be responsible for taking dance classes as a 12 year old boy. My mom was like, “Ok. I’ll tell you what. We’ll flip a coin and if it comes up heads you’ll go to class and if it not, we won’t ever speak about it again." She literally flipped a coin, and I went to this street dance class, because that’s the way it happened. One class in, the teacher was amazing, and she was like, “We’ll put you on scholarship and you can take tap, jazz, and all this.” It’s funny now to think that essentially my entire career was based on a coin toss.
I’ve always focused in theatre dance. I did a lot of tap dancing as well. I used to go to all these great tap festivals that they have--Chicago Human Rhythm Project, St. Louis Tap Festival, Motor City Tap Festival (in Michigan where I’m from)--and got to study with a lot of great, legendary tap dancers like the Nicholas brothers, Maceo Anderson, Peg Leg Bates, Buster Brown, all these great legendary tap dancers. Got really into that. I studied a lot at the Broadway Theatre Project. It’s a program in Florida that was founded by Ann Reinking. That’s where I got exposed to theatre jazz--the Bob Fosse style-- and I got to work to work with Ann and Gwen Verdon. I studied with Gregory Hines down there--and Ben Vereen. So that was my training and I went to school here in New York--Marymount Manhattan College--for acting, actually.
So you got to train with these legendary tap dancers before college?
Yeah. So they have these big festivals in the summer. Some of them are like a week long. Some of them are only a weekend. It’s really great and this is one of the things that’s really cool about tap dancing. The way it gets passed on is different than other forms of dance. You get the opportunity to work with the best in the world because it’s a small circle. Gregory Hines used to talk about it. If you are a basketball fan, the odds of you getting to shoot free throws with LeBron James or Michael Jordan are about a zillion to one. But in the tap world, it’s a small circle. Gregory Hines was my Michael Jordan when I was a kid, and I got to dance with him. I got to take class from him and we would trade 8’s. I got to improvise with him; I got to perform with him. What a wonderful and lucky experience that is. I think that’s something that’s cool about the world of tap--that’s different from athletics or something like that.
They would have these big festivals in the summertime, and you go and get to take class. At the time--this is the early to mid 90’s--all these great tap dancers were still alive. So they were all being honored at these different festivals over the years. They would honor the Nicholas brothers--they would come and teach a master class and get an award. I was really lucky I got to meet a lot of those guys and dance with a lot of those guys before--now a lot of them have passed away.
When did you start seeing dance as a career?
When I was a teenager, I danced at this competitive studio in Michigan. When I was probably like 16, I got a scholarship to study in LA at what was called Tremaine, which is one of the studios there--sort of like Broadway Dance Center, but in LA. I went out there for a few weeks with couple other guys from the studio. It was the first time I got to train as a professional. I remember that trip and really seeing what else was out there--what top quality dancers looked like and how much better than they were than I was. I remember that was a real turning point. I was like, “Okay, if I am going to do this, then I gotta get serious.” I started taking more ballet. More importantly, I started focusing in ballet class. I used to go to ballet class and just goof around. I hated it. So that was a real turning point. I was like “I am going to do this. I am going to commit myself to this. This is the training I need. This is what I have to do.”
Who were some of your most influential teachers?
I will forever be indebted to Ann Reinking for what she did for me as a mentor over many many years. First as a student. I was a student at the Broadway Theatre Project. Then at 19, I started teaching there. She was a huge mentor in helping me learn how to create and put a show together. Because every summer, she would put a show together--these revue shows--and she would do these transitions that you would invent on the spot. That style she used later became what they used in musical Fosse, which is essentially a revue show that she strung together with these really clever transitions.
And then Gregory Hines, like I said, was Michael Jordan to me. First time I got to dance with him was just incredible. It was like getting to spend time with your hero and do what you love. He was such a wonderful, generous spirit. He was always--he understood that he’s the Michael Jordan of tap dance. And I think he understood what that meant to kids like me who looked up to him. So he would go out of his way to be that guy. He would take me to lunch. Everytime I would see him, he would be like “Hey, man! How’s it going? It’s good to see you!” I remember--this is kind of a weird story--but we were doing this benefit show and he was performing there. We had met a few times like I said and we’ve been to lunch once or twice but I was pretty shy around him. So we didn’t really say anything. I remember we were at the benefit, and I was doing a sound check. And I went to the bathroom, and he came in to the stall next to me, and he was just talking to me while I was taking a pee. He was like, “Yeah, man. You look really great out there. Your stuff is really good.” It just sort of disarmed my nervousness because he was just so cool and so casual that he would joke around in the bathroom. Here I was, just nervous to be around him. I think he really understood that. He used to talk about how Sammy Davis Jr. was that guy for him. And how the way Sammy treated young dancers like him. I think because of the relationship he had with Sammy Davis Jr., he understood what it meant to be somebody’s hero, and how important that was. So he was huge influence on me. I was really grateful for that relationship.
How has your experience with these great teachers influenced your way of teaching?
One of the things that I learned from Gregory that I really try to incorporate in my teaching is this idea that if you can get people laughing and make it fun, then they’re more open to any lessons that you have to give them. They have to get through that first. You’ve seen my class--obviously comedy is a big part of who I am and what I do. And I really try to bring that into my class from the first moment in the warm up to try to get people to loosen up and understand that this is going to be fun and you shouldn’t be nervous. Then you can be your best self. And Gregory was like that. He was instantly cracking jokes and loosening people up because he understood that people would be nervous around him. I was nervous around him. That’s definitely something I learned from him that I try to incorporate. Obviously the element of style is something I learned from Ann Reinking and Gwen Verdon and all those wonderful Fosse dancers. I feel like my body learned of Fosse style when I was really young as a teenager and my first professional job was a national tour of Fosse. That style is just so ingrained in my body. The way I move is my own unique movement, but my body is always colored by that style--what those lines are and the way isolations happen when I hear music. I think that’s a big part of it as well.
How old were you when you first got the national tour of Fosse?
I was 22. I started rehearsals six days after I graduated from college, which was perfect. I was really lucky. I didn’t really dance much in college because I was an acting major. I studied in London for a semester. In college, I really got away from dance. I got really burnt out in high school doing this competitive dance and I was dancing like 60 hours a week. I got really burnt out on dance. I really wasn’t interested in studying dance when I was in college. I did study in the summers; I worked at the Broadway Theatre Project Program. But while I was in college, I wasn’t really focused on dance. I was focused on theatre. I remember when I showed up for the first day of rehearsals. I was nervous that they would realize that I was an imposter and I wasn’t really a dancer and that I would get fired on my first day because I remember showing up and there were these beautiful dancers who had been dancing professionally or come out of college dance programs. And here I was. I barely knew how to dress. I remember everyone stretching and doing all these elaborate warmups and I was like, “Oh, I guess I should stretch too.” I didn’t even know what to do with my body. But then of course, we got into it and once I got into the show, I was like, “I know how to do this.” But I was convinced that they were going to discover me--my real lack of ability--and that would be the end of me.
Was that experience like riding a bicycle after you haven’t been on one for a while?
Yes and no. I was so grateful for that show and the timing of it. Because, if I had to go back and do it all over again, one thing I regret about college is that I didn’t dance more. But, that show was perfect. I learned so much about what it means to run a long show. I did two years on the road. Also, I got in a great dance shape. My technique came back and all of that. Suddenly I was a much better dancer when I finished that show than I ever was before it. I was really grateful for that opportunity. But yeah, I guess it’s like riding a bike. It came back. I was lucky that I had studied that style. I think that sat really comfortable on me. When it was over, I felt like I really understand it. I understand Fosse’s work in a way that not a lot of dancers do. Except for dancers who have done it. I wasn’t lucky enough to work with him--he passed away in the early 80’s. But when you’re able to focus on one artist and one style for enough time, it really becomes a part of you and you somehow understand it from the inside out.
What happened after your first show?
I came back to the city. I was doing other chorus shows, musicals, and things like that. I felt like I wanted to do something a little more creative and artistic. All through my teenage years and college had been choreographing. I was writing minor in school, so I had been writing my own plays and things like that. So I really wanted to do something really new and creative. So I found this audition for this show that was advertised as a stage cartoon. I’d done a lot of clowning and comedy in college and when I studied in London, so I thought this would be great for me. So I went and that’s where I met Mark Lonergan, who’s the artistic director of Parallel Exit--physical comedy theatre. I did this show with them. It wasn’t a dance show but like dance comedy. Since then, we’ve now done as a company, I don’t know how many shows--10 shows over the course of 10 years. That was exactly what I needed. It was a really creative process. We were creating a new show together over a long period of time and then after that, I had this great company that allowed me to continue to create and we all work as collaborators and did numerous shows together. I was doing that for a while--teaching and choreographing.
And then So You Think You Can Dance Happened in 2009, which my brother, Evan, had gone and auditioned for Season 4 on a whim and made it all the way down through Vegas week, but didn’t get picked for top 20. We talked about it and I was like, “You need a better story, kid.” So I was the better story in some ways. It was like, “We’ll go together, we’ll be these brothers and have this throwback Broadway style, and we’ll see how it goes.” I thought for sure I would get cut right away. In fact, because I thought I was going to get cut right away, I wanted to do something off the wall because I was like, “If I am going to go through the trouble of doing the audition and being there, I want them to air my 15 seconds.” The most ridiculous thing I could think of was tap solo with the whoopie cushion, which became my first audition for So You Think You Can Dance. The whole thing went gangbusters. We went and had great success and people really seemed to enjoy our style. I’ve been choreographing for Evan since he was 10 or 12. He ended up finishing third on the show, and I did all of his choreography, and it was great. So that happened.
And after that, I worked on Billy Elliot for two years on the first national tour as a dance captain and as a associate resident choreographer. That was my official title. That was great. I really wanted to understand the innerworkings of a big show--the blood and guts of it. What it takes to put a show together and keep a show running. That is exactly the education I got on Billy Elliot. I think there are no shows that are bigger or more complicated than that show. Because the star of the show is a 12 year old. And there are four boys who rotate the role. That boy has to do everything. He tumbles; he tap dances; he has to be an exquisite ballet dancer; he flies; he has to sing and act in a dialect that’s foreign. And the process of running that show and maintaining that show is a really elaborate matrix. I really got my hands dirty and at this point I feel like I really understand what it takes to run a show like that. So that was cool.
After that, I worked as the assistant choreographer for Smash for a season, which was awesome. I got to work with Josh Bergasse, who’s an Emmy winner from the show and he is again one of the most brilliant and generous people anyone I’ve ever worked with. That was an experience I was really grateful for. Coming from the theatre world, there’s not a lot of opportunity to work in film or television. With the exception of small bits. Usually on television, there would be one dance scene so they’ll have a choreographer and they’ll shoot one day or two days. Even commercial work is one day or two days. And this is really cool because I worked on the show for a whole season. Everyday, five days a week. Which was fascinating to see the way television show is put together and how quickly it happens. It’s traditionally shot in nine day cycles. While they’re shooting one episode, they’re working on the next episode. In terms of dance and choreography, that’s as fast as you could work. They were writing the next episode and then they would figure out the songs and then by the time they figure out the songs and record the songs we basically would have to have the choreography done. We’d rehearse for one or two days and shoot. It was like choreography under the gun. It was as many ideas as you could come up with as fast as you could come up with them. And the pace of that is just an insane way to be creative. But it was awesome. It was so much fun. Such an unique experience that I am grateful to Josh and NBC for that opportunity.
What are you up to now?
I choreographed a show called Volleygirls that was at the New York Musical Festival two years ago. It won the best of fest. I am getting ready to do a workshop at University of Florida. That’s happening and a couple other projects in the new year that I am not at liberty to say what it is--but a couple shows that I’ll be choreographing and am excited about. I’ve most recently directed and choreographed at Marymount, my alma mater, which was really cool. I directed and choreographed the production of Once Upon a Mattress that was at the York Theatre. That was really cool and amazing to get to go back and be a professor at the university where I studied. That was special.
One thing that I see is that there’s a cycle. You start out as a student, and as you grow, you’re able to be a teacher and transfer what you’ve learned to somebody else.
I think all of the arts is like that. You see it all the time. A great artist often becomes a great teacher and ushers in the next generation of great artists. And those great artists become great teachers. You see that a lot. I was taught by Ann Reinking, and Ann Reinking was taught by Bob Fosse, and Bob Fosse was taught by Jack Cole. Not that I would necessarily put myself in the category with those people, but it happens that way.
Where do you want to go from here?
I think the dream for me has been to choreograph a Broadway show. As much as I enjoy doing commercials and television and everything, theatre is home. Broadway, of course, is what I’ve always dreamed about as a kid. Now that dream is really more about being on the creative side. I enjoy performing but I certainly could live without it. I think being creative and being able to make my own work is something I couldn’t live without. That’s going to happen if I am in my room and no one ever sees it or it’s going to happen on a bigger stage, but it’s something that I have to do. I think the dream would be to be part of creating a Broadway show.
What is your favorite part about living in the city?
I love going to the theatre. When I was young, I would come to New York to visit. Just couldn’t go to enough shows. It would be as many as we could fit into a weekend or a week or whatever time I was here. My mom is the same way. She loves the theatre and I was really lucky that when we would come, she liked going to the theatres as much as I did so I’d go see two shows in a day--just try to find whatever we could to go to. Now I am really lucky. My wife works in the theatre as a casting director, so she has to see a lot of theatre, which means I get to see a lot theatre. I am really lucky that I get to tag along. It’s the only place in the world where you can see something different every night for a month and a half and still not see everything that’s there. I think that’s just so cool. Now that I’ve lived here long time, I also really like the food. The fat kid in me likes that there’s something good to eat at every corner.
How long have you been here?
I started at Marymount at ‘98. When I was 18, I moved here to go to school. So it’s been a long time now. We moved around a lot because my dad used to be a corporate engineer--now a race car engineer and works for himself. We moved essentially every two years. So I’ve never really lived in one house too long and this apartment I live in, it’s been the same apartment for ten years, which is longer than I’ve ever lived in any one place my entire life. So it really feels like home now.
What is your least favorite part?
I think it’s a sort of love-hate situation, which is that pace and difficulty that the city presents. The fact that it’s overcrowded and that it moves so quickly. Really stresses me out sometimes. But it’s also one of the things that I love about the city when it’s convenient to love that. So it’s sort of love-hate. The lack of space--the lack of personal space is hard. Having grown up in the midwest, you had a backyard and reasonably sized grocery stores and not having any of that is tough sometimes. But I wouldn’t trade the fact that the city can be so difficult for all of the things that make the city so great. I wouldn’t trade those at all.
So what drew you away from the competition scene?
Part of what makes you successful at those competition situation is the repetition. The same tricks. The same training. Over and over and over. I also was pushed really hard. I am grateful for that because it made me really tough as a dancer and as a person. But as a sixteen year old kid, I didn’t always see the point. I wanted more freedom to spend time with friends or to do other things--to be a kid. A lot of kids who are dedicated to whatever they do--dance, music, or sports--their whole life becomes the project. Suddenly you are sixteen and you have a career. And you have a job. I think that’s a lot. It’s a lot of pressure. It was just little too much for sixteen year old me. I was a really creative person at 16 and needed space. You need space to be creative. It’s difficult to be creative if you are packed in so tightly in your life, in your schedule. I needed room and space to grow and to be able to do my own thing. I think that’s where the burnout came from. But again, I got so much out of that. The only reason I have any technique is because of the hours I spent at the studio when I was a teenager. That gave me discipline and I know what it means to be pushed and to be worked really hard. And you have to do that a lot in the business. Directors and choreographers aren’t always nice. You need to know how to be successful when you’re being pushed that way and I understand that. I am grateful for that.
So you’re really a veteran in the industry--
Yeah. That’s also a kind way to say that I am getting old [laughs]. But yes, I think that’s true.
Any advice you'd like to give to up-and-coming performers?
One of the most important things you can learn as a performer but also as a person is to be 150% comfortable with who you are. And know that who you are is not going to be fit in every box but that on the day that they’re looking for someone like you, that you will be the best one. I think that was tough for me. I am an interesting type. I’d like to think I am growing into my type now as a character actor, as a character dancer. But when you’re 23 and bald, you’re not going to be right for every show. And that’s really tough. That was a struggle for me as a young artist and I think that’s a struggle for a lot of people. Because you want to be right for every show. And you want to believe that if you’re good enough, that you could be in every show. But that’s just not true. But on the day that they want a short, bald, slightly chubby guy who really tap dances and is funny, I am going to be the best one they’ve ever seen. You have to release yourself from trying to be everything for everyone and you have to be okay with who you are. And know that things that make it difficult for you to be in everything or to not be in everything--the things that make it difficult for you are the things that make you unique and make you special and make you beautiful.
It’s a really hard thing to accept and let go of the idea that “Oh well, if I was little better, I would’ve gotten that show” or “If I would’ve done this differently, I would’ve gotten that show.” What you learn when you start to be on the other side of the table--you start to be the creator and you start to be involved in the casting process--is that everyone is good. Everyone could do the show. It’s just so much about who fits into this specific box that you’re trying to fill today. The minute you release yourself from that and you accept that you’re good and you’re talented, and if you do good work, that’s enough. But that might not mean that you get the show. You’ll be so much better off and you’ll stop beating yourself up over the result. You allow yourself to focus on the action, and the work, and the process, and you release yourself from the result of “I have to get the show,” or “I have to be perfect in the show.” You can be happy with the fact that you danced well or you had a good audition or you had a great rehearsal, whatever that is.
Anything that you want to share with the world?
If people are looking for little known facts about me, I have a smiley tattoo on my right butt cheek. That is an interesting story. It seems ridiculous. It was my first tattoo that I got when I was 21 in Barcelona. It seems ridiculous but I remember thinking, “If I am going to have something tattooed on my body, I want something that’s going to make me laugh.” I forget that it’s there, and everytime I see it, it makes me laugh. It also reminds me that nothing in life should be taken too seriously. Because I have a smiley face on my ass.
How big is it?
A little bit bigger than a quarter. I really hope everyone enjoys that tidbit about me.