Alicia Beck: Dancers should look to musical theatre
On a recent holiday I had to fill in my profession on a landing card. I was flummoxed. My pen hovered over the dotted line as I considered my options. Two years ago I could simply write ‘professional ballet dancer’, but since making the transition into musical theatre, and now on my second job in this genre, I couldn’t find myself a label.
It made me realise how much the two industries differ and what a leap of faith it was to leave behind the regimented life of ballet and work in the razzle-dazzle of musicals. After teaching workshops up and down the country in predominantly ‘dance colleges’, I noticed most graduate dancers aren’t always fully aware of the possibilities available to them in musical theatre, or how to go about auditioning. These institutions have a duty to prepare them for employment in fields outside mainstream ballet or contemporary companies. It’s a known fact that, unfortunately, they won’t all be lucky enough to walk straight into stable, full-time posts in UK dance companies. There simply aren’t enough out there.
The impact of arts sector funding cuts, teamed with ever increasing competition from international dancers, means the graduate dancer jobs (especially in the UK) are like gold dust. Being able to audition with a wider skill set will drastically improve the chances of gaining employment in this tremendously competitive industry, and also give you the tools to cross over into parallel theatre genres such as musical theatre, as I managed to.
Not only that, being a new dance company member with as many theatrical skills possible under your belt will benefit your casting prospects no end. I remember fondly a modern piece called Rossini Cards by Mauro Bigonzetti required a dancer to sing along to a famous Rossini melody mid-ballet. Singing is a big fear for dancers who aren’t confident or trained to do it, but in musical theatre this would cost you the job as all ensemble dancers are expected to sing to a high standard.
Dance and musical theatre are both highly skilled and equally as competitive, one is no easier than the other. But they are immensely different in structure, and knowing about this will make it easier to sustain and locate employment. Dance company jobs are typically sourced on websites such as Dance Europe and MT through casting pools such as Spotlight and advertisements in The Stage, but most commonly through casting agents.
This process, to rehearsals, right through to performance, the two worlds are quite opposing. The MT schedule is a minimum of eight shows a week; it’s the art of repetition, being able to deliver those eight shows at the highest technical level week in, week out. It’s a different physical and mental approach to dance. With ballet, the daily regime of constant training and rehearsals generally lead up to intermittent performance periods spread throughout a season. This keeps the heavy workload fresh and artistically very fulfilling. Neoclassical works were always my forte and I again put this down to a strong jazz and contemporary influence in the training I received from a young age.
Taking the plunge to leave ballet was not easy but the early choices I made helped the transition later on. Find your niche and hone in on personal quirks, strengths and subtle differences that make you impress. Gymnastics tricks and weight training (for boys) are essential nowadays. A solid classical technique teamed with the ability to add style to important repertoire rounds of auditions will help when working in both classical and commercial realms.
All dance techniques complement the other in some shape or form. Gone are the days where a classical dancer will only be expected to dance in pointe shoes. English National Ballet has demonstrated this in many new works by Khan, Killian and Forsythe, stemming from strong contemporary routes and often not danced ‘en pointe’. Similarly, the Mad Hatter (originally danced by Steven McRae) in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet dances an eclectic tap solo, which for me, is one of the highlights of the whole ballet.
I don’t believe in labels, which is why the landing card threw me into disarray. Yes, people know me as predominantly a ballet dancer, but putting yourself into one category is too restricting in today’s theatre industry. Evidently there is a clear link between classical ballet and musicals, as many classical dancers are the heroes of choreographing theatre dance – Jerome Robbins (West Side Story, On the Town), Gillian Lynne (Cats, Phantom), and most recently Carlos Acosta revived Guys and Dolls at Chichester – but the way in isn’t certain with strong dance technique alone. Be diverse, create chances, and never stop learning.
The constant daily challenge for me now is to act without looking too much like a dancer. I predict this came from a hole in my training, as I don’t recall doing any real acting skills study post-GCSE level. I’m trying to rectify it and learn from my peers and coaches, but still feel I have a lot to catch up on. For that reason, and with strong aspirations to improve, on the landing card I wrote ‘actress’. I can only hope the audience agrees.
Alicia Beck is appearing in the West End in The Phantom of the Opera
Contact Alicia Beck on Twitter @aliciaBeck88
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