As artists we are always searching for ways to polish our craft and get our feet in the door. We look toward our teachers, mentors, and established choreographers and performers in the business to help us grow and improve. On January 24th in Loft III we were treated to a conversation with highly esteemed and versatile artists Grover Dale, Donna McKechnie, and Randy Skinner as part of Steps Beyond’s Artists Talk Series. In “Hear it From the Pros: A Conversation with Broadway Insiders,” discussions with the panel included topics on breaking into the business, what it takes to have a career, and how to stay relevant over time.
As the moderator of the evening, Patricia R. Klausner initiated the fascinating talk by asking each panel member “how did you break into the business?” Michigan native Donna McKechnie heard music on the radio, and would dance around the room to what was playing. (The inspiration for the character of Maggie from A Chorus Line. A show that Ms. McKechnie is highly recognized for being a part of in her Tony award winning performance as Cassie). She ran off to New York at the age of 17, and never looked back. Her first major show was in the tour of West Side Story. She made her Broadway debut in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, where she met Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Ms. McKechnie said, “You need someone in your corner. You need help.” Her mother was her champion. Realizing the love of dance her daughter possessed she sent her to ballet classes as a child.
Grover Dale’s start as a performer was very different. His parents were worried about him making a living by dancing. He grew up in a three room shack on a dirt road in Pennsylvania. “No money for anything other than paying the rent.” Mr. Dale went around the neighborhood selling pot holders. When he heard music, he wanted to move. He sold candy on the street, and was offered a $1 to take a neighbor’s child to tap class every week. He then got his tap classes paid for. Mr. Dale’s Broadway debut was in Michael Kidd’s 1956 production of Li’l Abner. The next year he was cast in the original Broadway production of West Side Story working with Jerome Robbins. The beginning of an illustrious career. He also dappled in investing money in a show, but it closed, and he never invested in a show again.
Randy Skinner grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and was put into dance classes at the age of 4. He danced around the room aiming for rocking chairs and bouncing off of the couch as he moved. He was given his equity card in college, and came from a very supportive network of family and friends. Mr. Skinner went to four years of college before moving to New York. His first Broadway show was 42nd Street in 1980 as Gower Champion’s dance assistant. (Mr. Champion wasn’t a tap dancer. Sadly he passed away on the opening day of 42nd Street and never got to see it open).
Taking a cue from the conversation about money, Ms. Klausner asked the panel to “think about your money, and what you can do about it? Not just for today.” Ms. McKechnie was told not to waste time going to college. One of the smartest things she did (and recommends to everyone in the business) is to invest in lessons. If you have any interest, go to acting classes, voice lessons, dance lessons. Ballet is of great importance as the foundation to one’s technique. She mentioned “the standard for dancing in shows is way up. If interested in Broadway, you have to study. Have to be more than just a great dancer.” As Ms. Klausner said “ballet dancers are having more opportunities on Broadway.” (Look at current shows such as On The Town, and An American In Paris. As well as the recent production of Susan Stroman’s Little Dancer that made its premier in Washington D.C.). Randy Skinner said “people are staying longer in shows. For the benefits.” He recently choreographed for New York City Center’s Encores! production of Lady, Be Good, and those shows are 5 nights only, and always sold out. “Dancers have to go for the jobs that keep them employed.” Grover Dale is a huge advocate for dancers and other artists investing in and creating their own projects. “There are dancers out there building all these projects on their own.” (He is the founder of answers4dancers.com).
Grover Dale: “People are taking their careers into their own hands and are succeeding. Not relying on agents. New generation of choreographers.”
Donna McKechnie: “People are creating the opportunities. It comes down to what do you want? You create the demand. Peer groups are so important to support one another. You have to surround yourself with people who understand and appreciate what you’re doing. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask for help!”
Randy Skinner: “You have to find the joy in the classroom. Social media pulls away from the concentration. In-between jobs it’s important to stay involved and focused on training. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Going back to class can be daunting. Don’t limit yourself to what you can do. When you get in your show, you want to be at the top of your game.”
All three panel members had influential choreographers play a large role in their careers taking off. For Randy Skinner it was Gower Champion, Donna McKechnie it was Michael Bennett, and Grover Dale had Jerome Robbins. Robbins was a control maniac, and wanted dancers to fit his format. It was a challenge to work with him. “Don’t try to please Jerome Robbins.” Michael Bennett wanted to emulate Robbins. In being introduced to Gower Champion, Randy Skinner had met Ann Miller, who wanted him to do Sugar Babies. Instead he stayed with a show titled Jolson, which closed. He got a call about 42nd Street. The dance arranger on 42nd Street was the arranger for Jolson. He spent eight hours in the room with Mr. Champion, and came out the assistant on the show.
Forming these close working relationships proved important in the longevity of our panelists’ careers. Donna McKechnie started choreographing/directing, and started to think outside of the box. She worked with Leslie Caron who was 83 years old at the time who was inhibited in her movement. To Ms. McKechnie, Grover Dale said “you trusted yourself, which allowed her to trust you.” Grover Dale was asked by Jerome Robbins to choreograph a dance break. He came up with a break, and then Robbins had him do something else, before ending it with Mr. Dale’s original idea — he had to have the last laugh. Randy Skinner did a musical version of Ginger Rogers’ life. “Wear as many hats as you can. Start right now. Keep a foot in every door.” Mr. Dale – “You have to find things to keep you stimulated in a long run.”
Following the discussion, the talk was opened up for questions. On the topic of specialization versus versatility, each panel member had their own thoughts. Randy Skinner wants the MGM dancer. (Think of musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood). Donna McKechnie said that it can be a dilemma, and that it’s important to go back to the fundamentals. Grover Dale asked “what is performing now? Build a chart. Gear yourself for what you want.” They all agreed that if you study classically, you will be able to do more. If you have limited funds, put a good part of it in ballet classes. Having danced “Music and the Mirror”, Ms. McKechnie gave advice on singing and dancing at the same time. You Learn how to breathe differently. You breathe from a different place when you’re just singing, as opposed to when you’re dancing. Pace yourself and learn where the moments are that give you a chance to breathe. This will help you to be more efficient.
The panel left those in attendance with lots of great things to think about that were discussed throughout the evening. A few inspiring thoughts from each panel member.
Grover Dale: “When you’re in class, the kiss of death is using the mirror incorrectly. Don’t make yourself small. You have to make it big and fill in the entire space. Be prepared for anything. Sometimes they change things on the spot.”
Randy Skinner: “As long as you love the process of doing what you’re doing, you’re going to be ok.”
Donna McKechnie: “Getting rid of that criticism. Distance yourself from it with something positive. You need a lot of love. Go where the love is. Respect yourself. Don’t try to control the future. All you can do is try to improve yourself.”
As a performance artist, writer, teacher, and someone who does freelance work in technical production, this talk has motivated and inspired me to keep going after my dreams, and to have fun along the way.
By Anne-Allegra Bennett
Steps Administrative Assistant
Photo: Courtesy of Answers4dancers.com