How did you start dancing?
My uncle and aunt, Steve and Angie, own a dance studio in Connecticut, D’Valda and Sirico’s Dance Centre. When I was about 3-4, my mom thought that I needed an activity to do, so Steve and Angie took me to their studio, and I started dancing. It was a huge competition dance studio. We competed 5-6 times a year. I continued dancing from there.
What happened from there?
During my freshman year of high school, it was becoming difficult managing my schedule so I applied for a performing arts boarding high school in Michigan called Interlochen. I had spent two summers there as a camper so I knew what I was walking into. I was accepted and spent my sophomore, junior, and senior years there. It was basically my mini-college. You live in the dorms, have your academics in the morning, dance in afternoon, and rehearse during the evenings and weekends. We had about five major performance opportunities throughout the year, and we occasionally got to travel to perform as well.
As high school was coming to an end, I auditioned for 8 schools for musical theatre and got rejected from every single one of them. I thought, “Great, now what do I do?” My mom allowed me go to New York for a year and see what happens. She also warned me that if I did not book a performing job within that year, I had to go to college. Luckily, I was in the city for about five months before I booked my first job, which was the European tour of Grease for a year. When the tour happened, I was 18 years old and traveling the world with an incredible group of people.
You were pretty much set on performing as a young kid.
Though I always knew that choreography and directing was where I was going to get to, I knew I needed to take these steps to understand the business and get the training before I could make that transition to the creative side.
What do you think helped you get such a solid vision for your future at a young age?
I started dancing so young, and at my uncle and aunt’s studio, dance was not considered recreational. They were training us to be professionals, and it was very intense. By doing competitions, I got the opportunity to learn different styles of choreography, perform in front of an audience, meet professionals from the industry, and was fortunate to receive several scholarships to different intensives where I was getting the opportunity to work with some incredible teachers including Gwen Verdon, Gregory Hines, and Frank Hatchett to name a few. I took advantage of every opportunity I had and never saw myself doing anything else.
What was it like when you first found out that you didn’t get into any schools for musical theatre?
Yeah, I mean, I had a slight mid-life crisis at 17 [laughs]. But I had a whole life ahead of me, so I re-envisioned my path and my journey. I have to be honest and say I never really loved the idea of going to college, especially after going to Interlochen, which felt like college to me.
I felt like it was the universe telling me to go out to the city, and when I moved to NYC, it was all about self-discipline. I was spending every moment I had taking classes at Broadway Dance Center, meeting with my voice teacher, and going to every audition I could. I got a job working at Bath and Body Works as a survival job.
How was your first move to New York at 18?
It was pretty uneventful. I grew up in Connecticut about an hour away from New York City. Growing up, I would come in for class and see shows all the time. When I was about 13, my mom trusted me to go to the city on my own. I would board the Metro-North train, get off at Grand Central, walk to Broadway Dance Center (the one on 57th St.), take my classes, walk to the train, and go home. When I finally moved here, I already knew my way around the city and had created a support group.
After all the little trips I used to take, I was here for one really long trip.
What happened after the tour of Grease?
I did the tours of Fosse, Cats, and then I got my Equity card doing We Will Rock You in Vegas. When I came back from Vegas, I started working with Andy Blankenbuehler doing pre-production on different projects he was working on and also performed in a show he choreographed, Waiting For The Moon. Around this time, I started really focusing on making the transition over to the creative side. Andy’s career as a choreographer was starting to take off, and I thought he would be the perfect person to seek advice from. He explained that if I wanted to make this transition, I needed to fully commit and that no one would take me seriously if I was reaching out to them for opportunities and then becoming unavailable because I was going to do shows.
After giving it some thought, I told him that I was indeed ready. Luckily, he was working on It’s A Wonderful Life at Paper Mill Playhouse and needed an assistant. While we were putting the show up, Andy was working on The Apple Tree, so he was not there for some of tech. It forced me to be very hands on and to learn how to communicate with the director and the performers and how to make quick decisions.
Shortly after It’s A Wonderful Life, I performed in an industrial directed and choreographed by Lisa Stevens. A fellow cast member told me that she was new to NYC and was looking for an associate, so I reached out to her. After I had sent her an email, she called me back within 24 hours and said that she was working on a project and that she needed someone since her previous associate had just booked a TV show. Within a week from that phone call, I was signing my contract at Disney to be the associate choreographer for High School Musical On Tour. I worked on the US company and also got to travel to the UK and Australia. It was an amazing four-year journey that propelled my career to the next level.
Once a show has been choreographed, does it change when it’s set in different regions?
Yes and no. The foundation is set. You know the piece works but as you start traveling, you’re meeting different performers and they all bring something new to the table. You want to feature each person to the best of their ability so, inevitably, things change.
What happened after High School Musical?
I started working at several regional theaters and was beginning to do my own choreography. I was finding a nice balance of creating my own work and then being the associate on bigger projects. I had my first associate director position working alongside Jeff Calhoun on the National and UK Tours of 9 to 5.
I was able to work alongside Jeff again on the show that changed my life and gave me my Broadway debut, Disney’s Newsies. I remember seeing the movie in the theatre and being absolutely blown away, so to have the opportunity to bring it to life on stage was a dream come true. After Newsies, I was able to work with Alex Timbers on Here Lies Love at The Public Theatre and was fortunate to go to the National Theatre in London to set the show there.
What are you up to now?
I am the associate choreographer on a show called Come From Away, which we recently presented at La Jolla Playhouse and at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. We will be doing the show again this summer at the Ford’s Theatre in DC, then in Toronto, and then on Broadway. It’s the amazing true story about this town, Gander, in Newfoundland. On 9/11, 38 planes made emergency landings in Gander and this town that had a population of 9,000 people, took in 7,000 people who were stuck there for five days until the airspace was reopened. The show, written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, directed by Christopher Ashley, and choreographed by Kelly Devine, is about good people doing good things.
What are your aspirations?
Honestly, as cliche as it sounds, it’s to do work I am passionate about. It can be a show here on Broadway, a tour, regionally, something overseas. At the end of the day, if I am going to invest myself, my artistry, and my work, it’s got to be something I am passionate about and something I can surround myself with people that have that same drive and passion. Broadway is not the end all be all. There are actors, theatres, and companies all over the world creating unbelievable pieces of art.
What would be your number one advice?
Don’t overanalyze the audition process and outcome because you have no idea what people are looking for and what is needed in that moment. As long as you can leave the room knowing that you did your absolute best, that’s all you can ask for. Once you are done, whether you’ve been cut or made it through to the end, you need to move on to whatever is next—taking class, seeing a movie, hanging with friends, having a cocktail—whatever it is. I see people hold onto auditions, and it will just eat you up.
What’s it like to be on the other side of the table after being a performer?
I absolutely love the casting process. Nothing is more rewarding than getting to offer someone a job. With Newsies, it was especially thrilling because we gave so many young performers their first professional gig, and most of them their Equity card. I love seeing fellow colleagues come in and surprise me by doing something I didn’t know they could do. Just recently I had a friend who I only knew as a dancer come in for a project I was working on. She made it to the end, and when it came time for her to sing her 16 bars, I was completely blown away.
I also love getting to meet the new generation of performers that are making their way to the city. Especially with Newsies, I have so many young performers walk through the audition room, and I am in awe of the talent out there. The training just keeps getting better and better and these performers are becoming more and more versatile.
My mentor, Jeff Calhoun, always tells people when they come into the room, “We want you to book the job. Be your best and that’s all we can ask for.” I find when people release the competitive and cutthroat energy, they have more fun and it takes some of the pressure off.
What would be the toughest time you’ve had in your career?
As a performer, my audition process for Mary Poppins, which I was convinced was going to be my Broadway debut. I had gone in many times and had several callbacks in front of the full creative team. After the initial calls had gone out, I did not receive one but then was asked to come back in again for a couple roles that had not been cast yet. When all was said and done, I did not get an offer. It was a major blow especially having about 7 or 8 callbacks. It’s never easy getting cut from an audition, but it is even more difficult when you are that close to something.
As a choreographer, it was learning how to balance family and life with my career. When you’re a performer, you can usually request a personal day or get something in your contract. When you are hired as a director or choreographer, you don’t get those personal days because your commitment is much more limited, especially when you’re working in the regional theatre world. You have such limited time to mount a show that it’s nearly impossible to miss anything. That balance can be tricky, and it’s something that I think most directors and choreographers are still trying to negotiate.
What would be your advice for performers wanting to become choreographers?
Find people whose work you respond to and reach out to them for guidance and support. All of us started somewhere. Andy Blankenbuehler was the perfect person to nurture me during my transition from performer to choreographer. From there, Jeff Calhoun, who I have worked with for many years, took me under his wing and helped push me even further and even helped me develop my directing skills. Directors and choreographers are always looking for people to do pre-production. Find out what people are working on and offer you services, ask them for advice, talk to their assistants and associates. People at the top of their game and the up-and-comers, like myself—we all had a mentor at some time. We all had somebody who helped us get to that next level. Put yourself out there.
What’s your favorite part about living in the city?
I like the fact that I’ve lived here 16 years and there are still so many things I haven’t seen or done that are on my list. I think I lived here for 7 or 8 years before I went to Brooklyn for the first time.
Yeah, I mean this was many years ago, so Brooklyn wasn’t like the cool place it is now. You really would think that you were asking somebody to go to Egypt when people suggested going to Brooklyn [laughs]. So yeah, I am always discovering new places and things to do. The city never gets old. Coney Island is next on my list [laughs].
Any last thing you want to share with the world?
Remember that there’s more happening out there than theatre and dance in the world. Don’t let yourself get sucked into that bubble that you forget about all the other stuff you can do—travel, sightsee, books, music, movies. Don’t forget to live and always be the best you can be.