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Piper Friend

Posted: 10/25/2013

To make it professionally, musical theatre students need to do more than sing. That’s why Roosevelt’s Theatre Conservatory started a unique program that emphasizes dance.


By Laura Janota  | Photos by Bob Coscarelli

Roosevelt University freshman Piper Friend began dancing at home in Ann Arbor, Mich, as a toddler, shortly after learning to walk. One of her classmates, Lance Spencer, came to the discipline as a teenager, dancing in 10 different shows at his high school in Plantation, Fla, before graduating last spring. The two are part of an inaugural class of Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA) undergraduates enrolled this fall in a new musical theatre program - of the first of its kind in the nation - that emphasizes dance.

"I had whittled my list of top schools down to 10 – and Roosevelt was one," recalled 18-year-old Friend, the winner of a Cathy Roe Broadway Bound dance award and a regional and national dance competitor. "Then I noticed that Roosevelt had a new program that was different from the rest – and I knew it was for me – because it had a concentration in dance."

Learning about the program from two fellow South Plantation High School graduates at CCPA, Spencer also was intrigued by the dance option, including a new dance facility and dance professors with experience on Broadway. "I thought 'Why not try it since dance is one of my better musical theatre skills?'" During the past several years, Roosevelt's Theatre Conservatory has built a national reputation for selective Bachelor of Fine Arts programs in Acting and in Musical Theatre with an emphasis in Voice. Its students, who hail largely from high school theatre programs and prestigious performing arts academies all over the nation and beyond, arrive as community artists and graduate to become professional performers.

"Adding the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre with an emphasis in Dance is going to further add to the conservatory's reputation," predicted Sean Kelley, director of the Theatre Conservatory and associate dean of CCPA. "It will give us a reach like never before, putting us in a category to become the premier musical theatre program in the country." The 17 members in the inaugural dance class come from 11 states and Canada and include students like Jamie Traxler of Utah, whose top talent is singing, and Hannah Battersby, an actress at heart and recent graduate of the acting program at Booker High School's competitive Sarasota Visual Performing Arts Center in Sarasota, Fla.

The inaugural class: 17 students from 11 states

"I've been acting all my life," remarked Battersby, who received the Sarasota Center's Outstanding Performance and Achievement award in 2012 and starred in the play, "Snow Angels and Other Cool Views," staged in 2011 at the Florida Theatre Conference. "But I realized I would have to strengthen my dancing to make it professionally," she said.

"I'm a singer first, but I'm really into musicals that are about dancers who sing," added Traxler, who mentions Fosse, a musical revue showcasing the choreography of dancer Bob Fosse, as one of her favorites. "This program is going to help me stand out. And I really think it's going to make Roosevelt's Theatre Conservatory a huge success."

On par with the University's established program in musical theatre-voice, which today has approximately 120 students, the new musical theatre-dance track is the brainchild of Luis Perez, associate professor and director of musical theatre at Roosevelt.

"I began thinking about the blend of talent that someone starting out today must have in order to break into the field and stay in it," said Perez, who researched what other musical theatre programs did to make students competitive. The former Joffrey Ballet principal, Broadway veteran and noted choreographer knew from experience that a triple threat of acting, singing and dancing could exponentially increase one's chances for success.

However, what surprised him during his research was the discovery that few musical theatre programs around the country – and none in the Midwest – offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Musical Theatre with a concentration in Dance. "I knew from my experience with musicals that there is a real need – both on and off Broadway – for talent that can do more than sing," he said. "And I firmly believe that adding more dance to our program will help students."

The University also opened this fall a new 13,000-squarefoot facility on the third floor of a building at 218 S. Wabash Ave. It will help the musical theatre program achieve its goal of doubling in size within four years. Located less than three blocks north of CCPA and Theatre Conservatory headquarters in the Auditorium Building, the addition to the Chicago Campus will be a beacon for further expansion of the theatre program and its performances.

Marisa Riegle"This is a remarkable step forward for our college and the Theatre Conservatory," said Henry Fogel, dean of CCPA. "We believe it will open doors for future growth of the program and lead to even more performing-arts partnerships with the community."

The new space includes dance, voice and film studios, showers, lockers, a student hang-out space as well as several faculty offices, including one for new full-time dance faculty member and assistant professor of theatre Jane Lanier.

"Dancers are storytellers and I believe in coming at dance through a story," said Lanier, a Tony-nominated Broadway star who has danced opposite Perez on Broadway and who also has trained with two of the greatest modern choreographers of all time, Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins. "Too many musical theatre programs are geared toward singing and I'm glad to be a part of a program grounded in informed movement. It will provide the triple threat that today's young performers need to get ahead."

Sierra Schnack, a 2013 Quincy, Ill., high school graduate and winner of a "mini Tony" QUILTA award for her role as Annie in Quincy Community Theatre's Oklahoma! remembers being thrilled to find the program on the Internet. "When I saw the Roosevelt website and learned that I could "Act a Story," "Sing a Story" and "Dance a Story," I knew it was the program for me," she said.

"I freaked out about the "Dance a Story' part," added Schnack, who has always wanted to study in Chicago where she hopes to take advantage of the many professional theatre opportunities. "I hadn't seen anything like that on any other college website and I knew that I had to try out for the program. It is my Cinderella opportunity."

During auditions held earlier this year in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Las Vegas, Perez and others from Roosevelt's Theatre Conservatory emphasized dance as one of the paths to professional musical theatre.

Luis Perez (center) believes a solid foundation in dance will help his musical theatre students succeed.

"A lot of the musical theatre auditions I went to had a dance element but none of them took dance to the level that Luis Perez did," said 18-year-old Xavier Euzarraga of Bremerton, Wash., who won the Dancing with the Tacoma Stars Ballroom Competition's Amateur Division in 2011. "He (Perez) made the audition fun and convinced me that I could learn a lot from him," said the Roosevelt freshman, who, like others in the inaugural dance class, turned down offers from other schools in order to join the program. This fall, the dance track freshmen are taking their preliminary theatre classes together with incoming members of the conservatory's voice program. The tracks split off into more intensive training in either dance or voice, depending on the student's degree emphasis, beginning in the fall of 2014.

"I chose this school because I wanted a mixture of dance, voice and acting," said inaugural class member Meredith Steinke, "and so far I've certainly been getting that kind of well-rounded comprehensive training." The Vail, Colo., native is an example of the kind of ambitious but also very practical student that the program is attracting.

Roosevelt dance students"I had thought about becoming a nurse," said Steinke, who had trained in her hometown with world-class ballroom dancing champ Colin Meiring, a dancer in Michael Jackson's video "Thriller" and a choreographer for the Grammys. "He (Meiring) seriously pushed me to be confident in my ability and I'm glad that I listened because I believe this is going to get me the experience I need to follow my dreams as a performer, choreographer and director," she said.

Mikaela Gerwing, a native of Calgary, Canada, and a recent graduate of one of the leading performing arts boarding schools in the United States, the Idyllwild Arts Academy in California, believes that being a member of the inaugural class is special. "When something's brand new you get a lot of individualized attention," said Gerwing. "You also get to help work through things and shape the program for the future."

The inaugural group will debut its talent in dancing, singing and acting during the spring Freshman Footlights show being held on April 10-13, 2014 in the new Katten Landau dance studio, which is located in the University's Wabash Building.

"Roosevelt University is a fantastic place to start a career in performance," said freshman Kaite Engelhardt of Arlington Heights, Ill., who has been dancing since she was four years old, receiving much personalized attention over the years in the arts through a Northwest suburban home-schooling co-op program. "I'm getting a well-rounded education in performing, but dance is truly my passion. It lets me express myself fully," she said.