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Musical Theater

Lilla Crawford gets a kiss from Sunny. By Joan Marcus

It’s definitely not a hard-knock life for Lilla Crawford. At only 11 years old, she’s singing, dancing and acting her heart out on a Broadway stage—for the second time! This L.A. native made her Broadway debut in 2011, playing Debbie in the closing cast of Billy Elliot. Now she’s donning a red wig to star in the title role of the Annie revival, opening at the Palace Theatre on November 8. Dance Spirit chatted with Lilla just a couple weeks after she started rehearsals.

Dance Spirit: What was your reaction when you found out you’d landed the role of Annie?

Lilla Crawford: I was really, really excited. I thought, “Wait, what? Really?” It was this moment of disbelief. It was Friday the 13th when I found out, so now I think that date is lucky.

DS: Who was the first person you told?

LC: I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone at first—I had to wait three weeks. I went on the “Today” show to announce it, and then we put it on my Facebook fan page. So everybody kind of found out at once. My friends were calling me like, “Oh my gosh, really?” They were sad to see me leave L.A., but they were so happy for me. I know they’re all going to come see me perform.

DS: What have rehearsals been like so far?

LC: Building the show in rehearsals has been so cool. Every day I learn something new, and I’m excited to do the show from start to finish. All the scenes are fun, and the other kids are my best friends. We met for the first time during the audition process, and they’re all so nice. Also, working with the dog who plays Sandy is great. Her name is Sunny, and she’s the cutest. We’ve been practicing together a lot.

DS: Do you have a favorite part of the show?

LC: I love the whole show! I’ve seen the movie a million times, and I saw the play when it toured to L.A. I don’t really have a favorite part, but I like the number “N.Y.C.” That one’s fun to perform.

DS: You made your Broadway debut in Billy Elliot last year. So far, how is Annie different?

LC: The rehearsal process is definitely different. With Billy Elliot, I was being put into a show that was already running, so I started rehearsing by myself, then with the other Ballet Girls, and then finally with the rest of the cast. But I only rehearsed with the whole cast once before I went on. For Annie, we’re learning it all together because it’s an original cast. I’m excited because I’ve never done previews, a tech week or an opening night before. I think my favorite part will be tech week, when we start to rehearse onstage with all the cool set pieces and costumes.

DS: Imagine yourself in 10 years. What will you be doing?

LC: I’ll probably still be acting because I love it so much. There are so many parts I would love to play, but my dream role would probably be Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. That would be a really fun character.

Dancer to Dancer

Audiences around the U.S. may know Sydney Burtis as ballet girl Keeley Gibson from the national Broadway tour of Billy Elliot. But with a passion for rhythm and feet that won’t quit, the 13-year-old is really a tap dancer at heart. Last summer, she won Junior Miss Adrenaline at Nationals—the first female tapper to ever earn one of the competition’s national titles. And recently, Sydney tapped her way into Tap World, a documentary produced by tap sensations Chloé and Maud Arnold.

"My mentor, Danny Wallace, and I have such a great bond. When we tap together, it’s like we’re one person."

Fast Facts

(Photo by Visual Tech Productions)

Birthday: August 7, 2000

Studio: Performer’s Edge Dance Center in Davenport, FL

Who would play her in a movie: Shirley Temple. “She was an amazing tap dancer.”

Hidden talent: Reciting the number pi to more than 60 decimal places

If she were a superhero, her super power would be: “Never getting tired. It upsets me when I’m at a dance festival exhausted. Even though my brain and heart really want to keep going, my feet and body can’t. It’s frustrating!”

The strangest thing in her dance bag: “A screwdriver, in case my taps come loose.”

Performer she’d Love to work with: “If he were still alive, Michael Jackson. His lyric—‘If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change’—really speaks to me.”

Dream dance role: “I would love to be in one of Savion Glover’s tap shows. It would be such a privilege to stand onstage with the professional tap dancers who inspire me each day.”

Travel to NYC? Check. Audition for Broadway show? Check. Win the starring role in said Broadway show? Check! By the time Alex Ko was 13, he’d crossed more items off his bucket list than most kids would dare to dream of. But now, at 17, he’s checked off one more: publish a memoir. Alex Ko: From Iowa to Broadway, My Billy Elliot Story tells his tale of training in ballet and dancing in the Tony Award–winning Billy Elliot: The Musical. DS spoke to Alex about how he’s done it all.

Dance Spirit: When did you decide to write a book? 

Alex Ko: I always liked writing in school, but my plan was to be a dancer. Then, I got injured a week into my run with Billy Elliot—I ripped the patella tendon in my knee and was out of the show for five months. When I couldn’t dance, I realized writing was my backup plan. I started jotting down my experiences for myself, and then it progressed into a real story over the next couple years.

DS: Once you started performing again, how did you find the time to write? 

AK: My dance training taught me focus, and I definitely needed it to sit down and write for hours whenever I could. I would write on the subway, at home in bed and even backstage during shows.

DS: What’s your favorite part of the book? 

AK: The family memories. My dad died when I was 11, and writing the chapter about his passing was difficult—it felt like I was reliving it. But in the end, writing it down was therapeutic.

DS: Who do you hope will read it? 

AK: Anyone with a dream.

DS: What’s next for you? 

AK: Right now, I’m training every day with Wilhelm Burmann at Steps on Broadway in NYC. I hope to keep dancing and to go to college to study English and writing.

Some of "Matlida"'s amazing kid stars swing it out. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I was a tad nervous when I walked into the the Shubert theater to see Matilda: The Musical, the Broadway adaptation of Roald Dahl's story that officially opens tonight. The book manages to present this weird, perfect mix of cynicism and hopefulness—it walks that line only Roald Dahl can really walk—and I was worried that a big musical production might iron all of its nuances right out.

Was I ever wrong. There's nothing super-Disney about this show (though the kids in the audience still went absolutely wild for it), and thank goodness. Tim Minchin's music and lyrics don't drown the story in pounds of sugar—they keep the book's sharp edge and wit, even during the naturally mushier moments.

And the CAST, you guys! First of all, there are the four little wünderkinds who alternate playing Matilda, the kid genius with telekinetic powers. For anyone under the age of 12 to carry a show is pretty darn impressive (see: Billy Elliot's Billys), but the Matilda I saw, Milly Shapiro, was already holding the stage like a seasoned veteran. That's not to mention the other youngsters who play Matlida's classmates, all of whom manage to develop memorable characters.  (Jared Parker, aka Nigel: You are my hero. I'll hang out with you in Chokey anytime.)

And then there's Miss Trunchbull. Oh, man, Miss Trunchbull. Let's put it this way: She's played by a he (Bertie Carvel). She's the most delightfully nasty, icky, terrifying school headmistress you'll ever meet. And she totally steals the show.

Oh, and there's a TON of very dance-y dancing—which isn't a surprise, given that the choreographer is Billy Elliot's Peter Darling. You get everything from a flashy spoof on competitive ballroom dance to a sweet number involving playground swings. And that explains why the rest of the cast is filled out with some of our favorite Broadway dancers—including cutie Ryan Steele, of newspaper-fouettéing Newsies fame.

The short version of this rant? Matilda is a musical that brings Roald Dahl's crazy world to sharp, hilarious, wonderful life. See it!

As I was watching the new production of Annie on Broadway last night (yay!), I kept getting this weird, persistent sense of déjà vu.

Scrappy, adorable young ragamuffins trying to survive in the big city? Struggling against an unjust system run by tyrannical adults? Wearing period costumes? Speaking in heavy New Yawk accents?

Around the time the pinch-their-cheeks-cute cast launched into "Hard Knock Life," it hit me: Annie's orphans are just like Newsies' pape-peddlers! They're basically musical-theater world siblings, or at least cousins. Am I right, or am I right?

So here's the thing: I think there's a great, and so far missed, opportunity here. If these casts got together, they could create some kind of mind-meltingly cute mashup video. Imagine the song combo possibilities alone! "King of N.Y.C." "Little Girls Carrying the Banner." "Seize the Day...Tomorrow"!

And here's the other thing: Us DS-ers happen to know that Newsies heartthrob Ryan Steele and none other than Miss Annie herself, Lilla Crawford, know each other from their days in the cast of Billy Elliot. So this COULD ACTUALLY HAPPEN. Newsannie! Annsies! No wait—let me do this properly:

Whaddya think, kids? Wontcha please make every Broadway die-hard's dreams come true, maybe someday soon? Aw, gee!

Happy Tony Awards weekend, everyone! You've probably already feasted your ears on the Ultimate Broadway Playlist. But if you're like us, you can never get enough of the Great White Way. So here are a few more song-and-dance treats: 9 standout moments from the Tony Awards themselves. In reverse chronological order:

1. Last year's fantastic opening number. Neil Patrick Harris, backed by Broadway's finest dancers, tossing off laugh-out-loud lyrics—yes please. ("If you've seen a show, then you already know how magical theater can be; it's a two-hour, live-action, barely affordable, un-lip-synched version of 'Glee.'" Amazing.)

2. Billy Elliot stars Trent Kowalk, David Alvarez and Kiril Kulish accepting their joint award for Best Actor at the 2009 Tonys. So talented—and so, so adorable.

3. Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of In the Heights in "96,000" at the 2008 Tonys. I will never tire of this guy's crazy, and crazy smart, way with words.

4. Spring Awakening's medley at the 2007 Tonys. Before they were Gleeks, Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff absolutely nailed it in this show.

5. Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking in "Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag" from Chicago at the 1997 Tonys. Two Fosse legends sharing a stage—need I say more?

6. The original cast of RENT performing "Seasons of Love" at the 1996 Tonys. Not only is this song incredibly powerful, but just look at all the soon-to-be-famous faces in this group (starting with Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel!).

7. Patti LuPone in the title song from Anything Goes at the 1988 Tonys. Yes, I loved Sutton Foster in the recent revival of this show, but Patti LuPone is pretty hard to top. (And check out the sailor girls' outfits! Scandalous.)

8. "I Hope I Get It" from A Chorus Line, at the opening of the 1975 Tonys. Now such a legendary number—and again, the original cast is mind-blowing. (Sorry about the poor quality.)

9. The cast of Hair performing at the 1969 Tonys. Harry Belafonte's introduction is unforgettable: "Theater...almost a last refuge, must commit itself to being a center of hope, where we can see the truth...where we can see what the glory of man is and what he aspires to be."

What are your favorite Tony memories? Share them in the comments, and tune in on Sunday to see what this year's standout moment will be!

Tap

David Alvarez in the title role of Billy Elliot (by David Scheinmann)

When 12-year-old David Alvarez walked into an audition for the original Broadway production of Billy Elliot, he was shocked to see other dancers practicing their tap routines. A student at The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, his only training was in classical ballet. “I had no idea what to do!” David, now 18, recalls. “I didn’t even know how to pretend to tap. I had to borrow another kid’s tap shoes.” But when he picked up the exercises quickly, the producers took a chance on the young ballet dancer. David went on to play the musical’s title role for more than a year. And he won a Tony Award for best actor!

David’s audition experience isn’t unusual. Many dancers are proficient in other styles but have little or no tap experience, and are nervous about having to tap at a musical theater audition. DS talked to some of the industry’s leading professionals for simple strategies and steps you can learn to make the tap audition process a little smoother.

Learn The Basics

Faking it till you make it is one thing, but the best way to learn tap essentials is to sign up for a beginner class. “Tap isn’t a discipline that can be faked well, because it’s a specialty,” explains director, performer and Tony-nominated choreographer Randy Skinner. But he also says that most Broadway tap choreography is relatively simple. “In some shows, there’s just one tap number, and in a routine with a large group of people, there’s more clarity of sound with basic steps.”

Skinner says the steps taught at an audition are often the fundamentals of the tap routine that will be in the show, so seeing a show before the audition is helpful. When he choreographed the Broadway revival of 42nd Street in 2001, much of the audition included time steps, which begin the show’s famous opening number.

Fake the Rest

The rest of the body can be just as important as the feet. Justin Greer, dance captain for the current Broadway revival of Anything Goes, says there are three key elements to notice when learning choreography: the shape of the steps, weight changes and body angles. “You can look like you’re doing the steps correctly if you do all the upper body movement confidently and change your weight at the right times,” he says. “If you perform and look like you’re enjoying yourself, people won’t be looking at your feet!”

Sutton Foster and company in Anything Goes (by Joan Marcus)

Choreographers want to see that you can make their style look good and that you have a natural sense of rhythm. “Try to imitate the style of the choreographer and his or her assistants, because that style becomes what we call ‘the world of the show,’ ” Greer says. And remember that you’re not just dancing, you’re playing a part. “Sometimes the best technical dancers aren’t necessarily right for the characters in the show.”

Ultimately, when it comes to making it on Broadway, there is no shortcut. “It’s not easy to get into a Broadway show, and the talent pool is becoming more and more skilled and competitive,” Greer says. “You have to be able to do it all—including tap.”

Still, persistence and a positive attitude can pay off. “I got through the tap audition by being open-minded,” David says. “I tried my best, and I didn’t give up.”

Tap at a Glance

Even if you’re a pro at other styles, make sure to have these tap steps down before your next big audition. According to choreographer Randy Skinner, they are the foundation for most tap choreography on Broadway.

1. Flaps & flap ball-change

A flap has two sounds (brush, step), usually repeats successively and can either travel or stay in place. Adding a ball change after each flap is a basic pattern that demonstrates how well you can make sounds and move through space at the same time. At auditions, Skinner likes to use flaps as part of a turn pattern across the floor—like flap, heel—which shows him how well dancers can spot their turns.

2. Rolling shuffles

Shuffles are made up of two sounds with the toe tap—a brush forward and a spank back. To roll your shuffles, alternate between hopping on one foot and shuffling with the other foot. Aim to maintain triplet timing: 1-and-a-2-and-a-3-and-a-4-and-a. “This step shows us your ear for rhythm, so keep it even. Remember that speed is a matter of practice.”

3. Waltz clog & Irish

These two patterns can move or stay in place. The waltz clog combines

a flap on one foot with a shuffle ball-change on the opposite foot. “This is done in 3/4 time, which is why it is called a waltz clog.” The Irish is a shuffle on one foot, followed by a hop on the other foot and step on the original foot.

4. Time steps

Time steps are repeating 4-count patterns that alternate between the right foot and the left foot. They consist primarily of hops, steps, shuffles and flap ball-changes. “Know the difference between a single, double and triple time step. A second flap is added to the single to make a double, and then a shuffle is added to make the triple.”

5. Double pullbacks

This advanced step is difficult to master. It involves springing from the floor and making two sounds as you pull (leave the floor), then two sounds as you land on the balls of your feet. The foot making the sound alternates: pull right, pull left, land right, land left. “Each sound must be clear and separate from the others.”

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