When did you start dancing?
I grew up dancing—maybe in 2nd grade I decided I was going to be a dancer, and I never stopped saying it. I guess I never grew out of that dream that many girls have. I grew up in New Jersey, which has it’s pros and cons [laughs], but one of the pros of growing up in New Jersey was that I took a train into the city, which was only 20 minutes away, and received really great training at an early age. I saw many Broadway shows throughout my teen years. I was very lucky.
How did you know what type of dance you wanted to be a part of?
I didn’t. I did everything. I studied at SAB, Broadway Dance Center—tap, jazz, ballet, ballet, ballet. I even studied modern dance in high school at Nikolais and Louis—round one pioneers of post-modernism. I went to Juilliard where we were given mostly classical and modern training, but because the school was in the city, I would go to Broadway Dance Center after a full day of Juilliard dancing and take musical theatre, jazz and tap classes, and singing lessons.
I knew I wanted to travel and see the world, so I danced with the Martha Graham company and then with MOMIX. For about two years out of college, I toured all over the world. Europe, Africa, Australia—I got to see the world and travel with very intense dancing. Then all of a sudden, Africa, Italy, Switzerland—after the fifth time—became less exciting and a little more of a drag—with suitcases, loneliness, and jet lag. So I started auditioning for Broadway shows, and I left the dance company. After three or four months of really auditioning, I landed my first Broadway show. 14 Broadway shows later, I retired [laughs].
That’s amazing. 14 Broadway shows.
I felt very at home on Broadway. But on Broadway, it wasn’t that there was just “Broadway dancing.” With every single Broadway show was a different style of dance that was needed. For my first Broadway show, Swing!, it was all partnering and very authentic Lindy hop, West Coast swing, and salsa. For Fosse, it was—Fosse. And then Kiss Me Kate was classical Jack Cole, classic jazz. And Movin’ Out with Twyla Tharp, it was back to modernism. There were many different styles even within Broadway, so I never got bored.
What helped you the most with being a versatile dancer?
The more classes you take—it’s just about learning. I love to dance so much that it never felt like work for me. So taking three or four—even five dance classes a day when I was in high school was all I wanted to do. I am sure I would be diagnosed with ADD now. But back then nobody did that [laughs].
What are your aspirations?
Waitress is the first Broadway musical I’ve choreographed. I’ve choreographed a play, Waiting For Godot with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stuart. I love being creative; I love choreographing. I’ve always done it, and I just want to keep creating work that means something, raises issues, is entertaining, but also pushes the envelope of musical theatre.
When I first heard about Waitress, I was surprised to find out that that this is the first Broadway production by an all-female creative team (director, writer, composer, choreographer).
Well, we did it. We’re here. So, not looking backwards, I am not sure if it’s harder, but I can say that it’s certainly different being a woman. I have to say though, I have really great people around me who are my mentors, who have opened doors for me that I’ve worked very hard to get in front of. It’s exciting! Now that people are actually talking about gender parity, things will change more rapidly.
What’s it like to work on Waitress?
The director is Diane Paulus who’s won a Tony and many other awards. She’s whip-smart, really fantastic, very creative. Very open in the room, combined with a beautiful writer Jessie Nelson who’s written—to me—some of the most important movies I’ve ever seen in my life. She’s writing the script based on the screenplay written by another fabulous woman, Adrienne Shelly. Top that with music from Sara Bareilles, who needs no further introduction. And Jessie Mueller who’s our leading lady, who’s also a Tony Award winner—a spectacular and incredible actress.
Sara Bareilles is really just a cool chick, an artist through and through, which is so exciting. I said to her when I met her that it was so nice that I am finally her friend, since she was my friend in my head for years because she got me through about three bad breakups with her music. I’m glad that now we really do know each other.
When did you make a transition from being a dancer to a choreographer?
I’ve always choreographed. I was always creating and choreographing. But the way I was making my living was more by performing. Within performing, you get to work with other choreographers, so that means you’re being creative in a room and choreographing shows. But nothing really shifted—except how I got paid and where I spent more of my time. It gradually became less and less interesting to perform on stage. What I found more interesting was time creating in the studio before it got “frozen,” meaning nothing about the show changes from that point. When you’re a performer, freezing the show feels really good because you know what you’re doing. But then you get more and more interested in the creative process, then freezing the show becomes boring. It’s when my scale tipped towards being more interested in creating and not freezing that I made the leap.
You’ve had a lot of success as a choreographer. What would be your advice to people who are wanting to become choreographers?
Study. Read. See everything. Be kind. Be collaborative and open. Imagination works in an open environment. Be prepared and organized, but change ideas based on what’s in front of you and color outside the lines.
What’s your favorite moment from your dancing career?
I have two specific moments. When I was dancing in MOMIX, one of my very first professional jobs, we performed at the famous ancient amphitheater in Athens, Greece. There was a moment when I was looking up at the stars and dancing in this ancient Greek amphitheater called the Herodes Atticus theatre. And I just felt like I was completely connected to every single artist since the beginning of time that had ever stepped on that stage. It was just the most beautifully existential moment I’ve ever experienced in my life.
And then I would also say doing Movin’ Out for me as a dancer was a culminating experience. For me, that was the pinnacle—my most vivid and physically intense memory of my career. I spent two years with Twyla’s show and danced the lead role many times.
Your toughest time?
Right out of Juilliard, there was a moment where I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was living alone really for the first time in my life. It was very scary. New York City is a very big city. If you just stick to it, it gets very small very quickly. I spent four years focusing on technique and dance and performance, and you turn around and realize—there were some days I actually didn’t speak. The whole day was spent dancing. Then you’re all of a sudden thrown out into the universe, and you realize the need to remember verbal articulation because it’s been underdeveloped. That first year of being out of school, I had to develop how to talk to people again because dancing is so silent on some level. I was so immersed in dance. And then you have to pay rent and figure out how to make money as a dancer. They didn’t teach us that at Juilliard. They just gave us the tools to make money. I teach at Juilliard now, and I teach a class to help students with all the things that scared me in that first year of adulthood.
What do you think helped you get over that?
Go to as many auditions as possible. I went to all of them. Sooner or later you get better at it. By definition, it’s scary. You’re about to be judged.
That’s the other thing I’d really like to say out loud. Be authentic. That would be my biggest piece of advice honestly. Look in the mirror, love yourself. I know now that I am on the other side of the table auditioning dancers, that’s what I am interested in. And that all these people who come in and try to look like somebody else or dance like somebody else, or they don’t feel comfortable in their body, or they’re worried about how we’re going to feel about them—If you prepare well and are being yourself, then nothing else matters. What you need on stage is people who bring something to the table that is very real. That’s what’s interesting. Not the perfect body. Or the perfect nose. Nobody cares.
What would be your number one advice to people surviving the city?
Don’t drink. Go home at night. Stay in class during the day. Remember that this is a job like any other. You don’t become a doctor without going to med school and residency. You don’t become a lawyer without passing the bar exam. To do all those things, you need to study and work hard. It’s the same thing for dance. It’s not a magic bullet. Talent is not enough. Hard work gets you 90% there. Talent gets you the other 10%. You can get better, or you can get worse. It depends on what you do when you wake up in the morning.
What’s your favorite part about the city?
I love the city because I never get bored. If I want to see a movie or a show or a basketball game, or go to a fabulous dinner, it’s all right here. I am always meeting new people. I love it. This is my home. I’m never leaving [laughs]. No way. I am a lifer.
Is there any last thing you want to share with the world?
How lucky we are as dancers. How lucky we are that we understand what it’s like to fly.