Former classical ballet dancers often branch into teaching or choreography — or leave dance altogether. But whether it is because of the profound style differences, a preference for the classical form, or even a lack of awareness of the possibilities in the format, few make the transition to Broadway.
Choreographer Sean Kelly is one who successfully has made the move. After a successful ballet career, culminating in principal dancer and ballet master status at Houston Ballet, Kelly was hired by Twyla Tharp in 2003 to dance in Movin’ Out. He toured with the show for five years as dancer and resident choreographers.
After leaving Movin’ Out, he joined the first national tour of Billy Elliott as resident choreographer, where he modified Peter Darling’s choreography to showcase the abilities of the individual actors playing Billy.
In addition to his choreography projects, Kelly is a member of Rasta Thomas’s Bad Boys of Dance. Over time, his assignments with the company have included dancing and ballet master duties; most recently, he has added resident choreographer and associate director responsibilities.
Dance Vine: How did you make the transition to Broadway from a successful career in ballet? Did you have to re-tool your dancing technique to make this successful?
Sean Kelly: When I first started dancing, I studied at a studio in Marin that taught all styles of dance like jazz, modern, Latin American, and ballroom, along with some ballet. It was later, when I went to Marin Ballet, that I began to focus primarily on classical dance. I do think that the variety of my early training helped me be open to different styles and techniques. I also think that the diverse contemporary repertoire I had the pleasure to dance while at Houston Ballet and other classical companies helped me to be a versatile dancer.
So, when I did make the transition to Broadway, I felt that I was able to pick up the various styles quickly. My classical technique was helpful, and I became known as one of the Broadway people who could help other cast members technically, as well as stylistically, with choreographers’ works.
Also, the experience of having been a choreographer and ballet master encouraged people to offer me some wonderful opportunities. In addition to performing as a swing for Broadway and touring productions, I have mostly been a dance captain, resident director, or resident choreographer — or a combination thereof.
As resident choreographer for a Broadway show or touring company, how often do you go back to check on things to ensure the cast is performing at peak wonderfulness?
I have always been either a swing or a resident on the tours I have been on, so I was able to check the show on a daily basis. I generally give at least some notes every few days so the show stays looking as good as possible.
It’s a delicate balance with noting, as the show usually is being performed eight times a week. I like to give enough notes to remind people of the details that make the show really strong without nitpicking too much. I want the cast to feel that I trust they will continually deliver a good performance, but also let them know I am watching and care that they and the show look their best.
For A Swingin’ Holiday are you using the original orchestrations — especially with the Ellington and Goodman? If not, who is doing them?
I am using the re-working of some holiday classics like Jingle Bells, the Dreidel Song, and Nutcracker selections by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ted Wilson, and Corky Hale, among others. Diablo Ballet Music Director Greg Sudmeier is arranging the music for the ballet.
Unlike ballet orchestras, most jazz bands are unused to phrasing work for dancing. How have you approached this challenge?
With Greg’s help, I have picked selections that I like, as well as ones that I feel are both appropriate to choreograph to and also ones that inspire me to create movement. I also chose a variety of tempos and qualities in the music to help make the piece more varied and to assist the dancers with their characterizations.
When working with dancers, is it more difficult to bring ballet to Broadway or Broadway to a ballet company?
I would say that depends on the dancers.
Some classical dancers are uncomfortable stepping out of the classical box, so to speak. However, given how much varied repertoire is expected from classical dancers these days, I think this is becoming less common.
For Broadway performers, some either haven’t had a lot of classical training or are somewhat uncomfortable trying it. But, these days, I also see more people with classical training in Broadway shows.
Personally, I’m a big fan of training in different styles, with an emphasis in classical study, because it likely will serve a performer well and prevent injury.
The Diablo Ballet dancers are incredibly excited and open to exploring different ways of moving. And, of course, they are well-trained classical dancers. That combination makes it enjoyable for me to work with them.
What would you consider your “dream project”?
Variety keeps me excited. I feel I have been very fortunate to be a part of some amazing ballets, in addition to some amazing Broadway shows.
In addition, I find it rewarding to take care of a show like Movin’ Out or Billy Elliot. At the same time, I love having the opportunity to be creative on a project like this one with Diablo Ballet, where I get to craft something new.
What do you have scheduled for the coming season?
I will be returning to Bad Boys of Dance, which is a company based out of Maryland that my colleague, Rasta Thomas, started about five years ago. Currently, I am the associate director.
The dancers in Bad Boys of Dance are a diverse group of athletic young men who have training in ballet as well as acrobatics. There are a few beautiful and talented young ladies in the company as well, but the main focus is to show how athletic and exciting ballet can be for men. The company has been touring extensively in Europe and has also traveled to Australia, New Zealand, and India this year. In addition to enjoying my work with the company, and hopefully passing on a lot of the wonderful training I have received, it has been fun to travel with this great group.
And there is good news for Bay Area dance fans — Bad Boys of Dance will be in the Northern California area January 22, 24, and 26, 2013, with performances in Modesto, Folsom, and Santa Rosa.
This weekend, join Diablo Ballet for the world premiere of Kelly’s A Swingin’ Holiday, performed to live music from jazz legends Duke Ellington, Nat “King” Cole, Wynton Marsalis, along with the familiar Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. The Jose Limón classic The Moor’s Pavane and the California premiere of Lento a Tempo e Appassionato by Vicente Nebrada (Ballet National de Caracas) round out the program.
Friday November 16 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 17 at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.
Lesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
Call 925.943.7469 for tickets or purchase online at
Sean Kelly, Broadway choreographer, talks about his Diablo Ballet world premiere of A Swingin’ Holiday:
Diablo Ballet dancers Aaron Orza and Mayo Sugano work on a sultry pas de deux to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” for our November world premiere of A Swingin’ Holiday.
Former dancer, Geri Jeter, has been editing and writing for over fifteen years, writing on dance, food, music, NASCAR, technical theater, and Italian-American culture. For the past five years, she was the dance critic for the Las Vegas Weekly; in 2007 Nevada Ballet Theatre presented her with the Above and Beyond award. Now living in San Francisco, Geri is excited about covering the entire scope of West Coast dance. You can read more of her dance writing at her blog Dance Blitz (www.dance-blitz.com) and follow her Las Vegas and San Francisco restaurant reviews at DishKebab (www.dishkebab.com).