Sean Kelly Swings Into Action
Sean Kelly and A Swingin’ Holiday
A favorite among colleagues and audiences alike, Sean Kelly, born in San Rafael, California, enjoyed a nearly two decades-long career as a principal dancer with Houston Ballet, and then decided to try his hand at Musical Theater. He joined the casts and/or became Dance Captain in such shows as Carousel, Swing, Moving On and Billy Elliot. He was recently in the San Francisco Bay Area to set a new holiday swing-themed premiere on Diablo Ballet – which is where we caught up with him.
Toba Singer: You enjoyed a long performing career at Houston Ballet. Could you paint a picture of the company during the time you were there?
Sean Kelly: My perception is that at the time I was there the company was a little bit more old school and hierarchical, especially in terms of the principals being viewed as real stars, and in thinking about today’s companies, it’s probably true in general that there’s been some relaxation of the hierarchy. The advantage for newer dancers is that it opens things up and allows more opportunities to dance roles normally given to dancers in the upper ranks. But I did love the aura that surrounded Li Cunxin and Janie Parker in those days. They were the stars of the company, as two examples, and they were such beautiful dancers, but then my perspective began to change as I started to get more opportunity, and you find you want to share some of that glory. There had been so many for whom it took a long time to advance, but as time passes, it does come your way. Dancers such as Dawn Scannell and Barbara Bears made it such a special time for me. Working with Christopher Bruce was amazing, though I think I only danced his Rooster once, but did get to do Ghost Dances. I’ll never forget what it was like to learn Paul Taylor’s Tico Tico. It was so different for all of us, trained as we were in classical ballet, but just as with Bruce, a voice in my head kept repeating, “I want to be in the front lines of this,” and when they were casting Ghost Dances, I literally said to myself over and over, “I am going to do this!” and thankfully, I did!
Under Ben Stevenson’s direction what I really learned and loved was that besides being a good teacher, he was so theatrical, always giving an intention to the dancer’s internal actor, and even in contemporary pas de deux, he had a way of having us give him the character. He might say, “Reach up, touch her hair, give me a purpose. I don’t have to give you the purpose. You bring something to it.” What was so fantastic is that being young, and maybe a little over the top myself at times, I was willing to go there, to that over-the-top place, and so from those years of coaching by Ben, when I went into musical theater, I remembered his words: “If you’re not going to be interesting as an actor your technical skills won’t count,” except in a one-dimensional way. But if you’re a good actor, they’ll ignore the sickle foot, or other deficiencies. For Carlos Acosta, who was dancing with us at the time, and who was so technical, Ben made him think in a different way. When we get together now, Barb, Dawn and I will often reflect upon how wonderful that coaching was. Ben can be challenging when he is wanting more from you. He really pushed people, and could be demanding and harsh, and when I was coming up through the ranks and had to meet those demands for more, sometimes it felt extreme, but then suddenly I did achieve what he was expecting from me, and he began congratulating me on my work and wanting me to take on more of a role in coaching others and that too felt like a panic-inducing expectation, as if he was putting too much on me as an accomplished dancer at a time when I was just beginning to recognize those accomplishments. Sometimes if you tap into something personal in a dancer and push too far, it can end up extinguishing that fire within.
I wouldn’t have wanted to change the experience of being in the company in Houston. But once you reach that apex in the arc of your development and can do what the artistic leadership, the public and most of all what you expect of yourself, you can experience a new kind of performance anxiety, and that is what began to happen to me. I had been the kind of dancer who was very reliable and often put in at the last minute for an injured dancer. One time, we were at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and I was to partner Tiekka Schofield in Don Quixote. My family was there, and suddenly, I came down with bronchitis, and as I had done in the past when I was sick, still planned to dance, but it got worse, and I was worried that it might trigger my asthma, so I went to Ben and said, “You know based on my history, that if I could dance I would, but also based on the many times I was put in last minute for others who were sick or injured, this time I’m asking for a pass.” It ended up that Tiekka danced with Carlos (they were a couple at the time). So they got a chance to dance it together, which they otherwise wouldn’t have had because Ben was loathe to let couples dance together, and they did an amazing, rock star job of it, and the audience loved it, so it all worked out well. But that experience made me begin to think about the next chapter in my career. As time went on, I found more and more that I wanted to make a transition, and so I retired and took a ballet master position for a while. I found that I wasn’t comfortable supervising dancers who had previously been colleagues, and at the same time I found that I was more and more interested in doing musical theater. As a classical dancer, it was a big step to actually give myself permission to entertain the idea of doing musical theater, but I thought, “I have this technique, and so I don’t have that to worry about. I can finally relax in a dance style that, yes, requires good technique, but is so relaxed, and carries with it a different challenge from the expectation of ballet”. It was a catalytic moment and I realized, “Now’s the time!”
TS: In looking back, what was your contribution to Houston Ballet?
SK: I would say that I brought versatility to my work, able to dance both classical and contemporary works. I had a sense of humor, and became known for that among the dancers, sometimes maybe a little too much. I’d be doing something funny in class, and Ben would say, “Come center and share it.” Sometimes I think that I may have dug myself in too deep because that’s what people remember about me! I was overall very reliable. My sense is that I am remembered as a solid dancer, memorable, in it to win, very physical in the contemporary work, and not afraid to be emotional on stage. I think I had range in that I could be vulnerable, strong or campy, exploring all of it and I loved to do that. I think I was the one who was eager to be down front when guest choreographers were casting. Their needs and my suspicion about what they were looking for resolved into, “Give me the spirit and intention, I’m interested in working with you.”
TS: How did you begin your Broadway career path?
SK: Two friends of mine, Christine Richmond and Marvin Arvin, had transitioned to musical theater in NY, and so I had sent out resumes and photos through them. I began to get interest, and Chrissie was at that time assisting Robert La Fosse on Carousel and I got job at Paper Mill, and that put me in New York. Then I got a tour of Swing as both dancer and dance captain. The same thing happened with Moving Out. Kim Craven [associate choreographer on Moving out] had been with Pennsylvania Ballet and she liked me, in part because we both shared a classical background, and she spoke with Keith Roberts [first Tony in Moving Out], and that piqued Twyla Tharp’s interest and after that there were multiple auditions, the tour and then becoming dance captain.
TS: For those classical dancers who might like to dance in musical theater, and are now working in ballet companies where there is health insurance, company class, and other such accommodations, would you draw a balance sheet of working on Broadway compared with dancing in a ballet company?
SK: I’ve been fortunate to have gotten tours with long lives, but I know from friends’ experiences that you can easily get a short show and then be out of work. One thing to consider is the physical demands of dancing the same role eight times a week. If you have a shoulder problem, remember that you’ll be doing that same problematic lift eight performances a week. In ballet you’re doing different rep all the time, and so in a way, it is more forgiving. Also, on an artistic level, it is challenging to keep the show fresh. Twyla told us, “If you start to feel stale, go to a museum. You pay for the first visit, and I’ll pay for the rest. If you stay fresh, so does the show.”
Broadway offers much better pay. That can certainly make it interesting and enticing. I’ve done bus and truck tours where you sleep on the bus floor in fetal position, but also tours where we’ve stayed in the nicer hotels. It runs the gamut. In terms of my own gamut, having had the title of principal, I suppose I could have tried to insist on certain conditions being met. But when I transitioned to musical theater, I was willing to be the tree on the left, because if you give me a chance, I’ll show you that I’ll work my way up. I want to be very good at what I do. In my relationship with Kim, I proved myself, and that paid off when I received a call from Peter Darling (Billy Elliot choreographer] in which he said that I was the one they wanted for Billy Elliot. As part of my maturing, weighing all the many hard things about a dance career, the bottom line was: “I have a great job. I want to be good at what I want to do, but if I want to be a prima donna and tell them how to run their company, I will regret it because they are the bosses and no matter what my rank, I am there to do it for them, and so they are going to be ‘Well here’s what I need, so if you don’t like that…’” Don’t lose the gratitude because there’s someone out there who will be very grateful to have your job if you aren’t.
Diablo Ballet presents “A Swingin’ Holiday”
TS: Tell us about the piece you are setting on Diablo Ballet.
SK: Lauren Jonas [Diablo Ballet Artistic Director] said to me, “Our musical director, Greg Sudmeier, and I want to use big band music, and given your background in swing, we would like you to set a holiday piece for us.” Over the course of numerous online meetings, Greg gave me song selections, funny numbers, an athletic finale, a romantic pas de deux. There are those big band reworkings of musicians’ works like Duke Ellington’s. I had to find characters, the idea being that these are different characters in a swing club, and we sewed ten songs together. It’s a holiday party at a club in the 1930s or 40s, with those period costumes. We incorporate the athletic with tricks and there’s some classical en pointe. Each one calls for creating different characters. There’s a wealthy, well-dressed diva couple, a Lindy Hop couple, and a nerdy guy who an adorable girl wants to pair up with. Greg arranged the music and will play the drums. I’ve enjoyed introducing swing to the company. It has taken a fair amount of time to work through that, hitting the humorous and sentimental notes, and at times, I’ve thought, “Oh gosh, it’s not working, and then after the funders’ show that ended about an hour ago, I’m happy again, because they totally responded to the moments, and told me that they liked the choreography.
TS: What have you enjoyed about working with Diablo Ballet?
SK: They’re well-trained dancers, and what I’ve definitely appreciated is that they’re open to the experience. Especially the more classically trained of them want to try the swing. They are very excited to learn, allowing me to be more vulnerable. That’s made it fun!
See Diablo Ballet’s A Swinging Holiday by Sean Kelly, Moor’s Pavane by José Limon, and Lento a Tempo e Appassionato by Vicente Nebrada at the Lesher Center for the Arts • Friday, November 16th 8:00pm • Saturday, November 17th 2:00 pm & 8:00pm. For more ticket information: diabloballet.org