When Genevieve Labean was a corps member with New York City Ballet, she was cast in a role that led her to embark on a second career. The company was gearing up to perform Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite, only this time, instead of using prerecorded professional voices, the dancers would do all the singing themselves. “I had done some singing as a child, so they asked me to come into the studio and sing a few bars from the score, very informally,” says Genevieve. Next thing she knew, she was cast as Rosalia, one of the female leads. The role allowed her to combine her love of dance with her childhood passion for singing. The experience of singing onstage was so life-changing that it pushed Genevieve to leave NYCB in January 2007 and try her hand at a full-time music career.
An Early Start
As a child, Genevieve took voice lessons and studied piano, later appearing in musicals as a student at NYC’s Professional Children’s School. She also sang and danced in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. “My mom was a pianist and music was always in the house. And since I grew up in NYC, I used to go to a lot of Broadway shows,” she says. Genevieve also pursued a short career as a voice-over artist, recording TV commercials for AT&T, Entenmann’s and Crystal Princess Doll. But ballet soon became her focus, especially after she was accepted to the School of American Ballet at age 11. She joined NYCB’s corps in 2000.
“I was really enjoying my career as a dancer, but after playing Rosalia, I fell in love with singing again and knew I wanted to explore it further,” Genevieve says. She started investigating her options, and through a family friend was put in touch with songwriter Martin Briley. “He taught me a lot about composition and song structure,” Genevieve says. “We worked on one song together and I created a few others and recorded them on a demo.”
Another friend then passed the demo along to Jason Linn, executive vice president of New Line Records, who was immediately taken with Genevieve’s pure, unaffected singing style and vocal range. “Her demo stood out from the pack because her voice had this haunting, emotional quality that you just don’t hear a lot,” says Linn. Soon after, Linn contacted her to say that he was interested in submitting some of her songs for a movie soundtrack and some TV pilots. “I was really surprised and excited that people were taking me seriously, that this had the potential to be more than just a hobby I loved,” Genevieve recalls. “I guess, deep down, I always knew music was going to be a part of my life after I stopped dancing, I just wasn’t sure in what capacity.” New Line ended up using two of her songs, “Camouflage” and “The Bigger, Better Deal,” for a new TV show called “High School Confidential,” set to premiere early this year.
A year after leaving NYCB, Genevieve is currently enjoying developing herself as an artist rather than getting on the fast-track to musical stardom. She’s studying part-time at Columbia University, taking music theory, music history and diatonic harmony classes. She’s also putting together a group of musicians who will perform with her at small venues in NYC.
“Ballet taught me how difficult it is to pursue any artistic career, and that it’s ephemeral anyway, so it’s better to just enjoy the process rather than worry so much about getting to an end result,” she explains. “As much as I loved dancing, I was always worried about the future. Right now I’m just enjoying what Balanchine called ‘baby steps.’”
Genevieve usually composes at the piano, though ideas come from her journal entries or personal experiences. “Sometimes I’ll have a tune in my head or a theme I’d like to write about, and sometimes I will have the lyrics and have to figure out the music for it,” she says. Though she cites Joni Mitchell and Norah Jones as musical influences, Genevieve enjoys a wide range of musical styles, including classical, jazz, folk, Irish, Brazilian and Middle Eastern. “Ideally, I would like to incorporate all these styles in my music at some point!” she says. And not surprisingly, she occasionally distills melodic ideas from the many composers she danced to at NYCB, such as Bach, Stravinsky, Chopin and Philip Glass.
Passing It On
Genevieve’s advice to dancers interested in a singing career? “Take voice lessons and music theory classes, and expose yourself to as much music as possible,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to learn a new instrument, and go to a lot of musical performances to see if you enjoy the environment.” She also advises keeping a journal for recording experiences, imaginative ideas, lyrics or poetry.
Genevieve explains that the best way to ease into the music biz is to start doing it on the side, until you find people you connect with creatively and can put together a good demo. “But if you want to stop dancing entirely, it’s okay not to have a second career perfectly lined up,” she says. You just have to be emotionally prepared. “Dance is so all-consuming that it’s daunting to step into the unknown. But try to recognize the limitless possibilities of the unknown,” she explains. “As long as you maintain reasonable expectations along the way, you’re moving in the right direction.”
Daniela Amini is an NYC-based freelance writer. She specializes in dance, opera, theater and local news, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.