Lee Wilson
Photo by Lesley Bohm

When Lee Wilson first began dancing, she wore tap shoes and took lessons in her neighbor’s basement. “I loved the scraping sound of taps brushing across the cement floor, the clicking sounds of the heel taps, and the crash of a full-footed stomp,” Lee recalls in Rebel on Pointe, her memoir that we published this past Tuesday.

But it was after watching ballet company after ballet company perform that Wilson found a new art. “Ballet gave me a glimpse of a different world order, and I wanted to be a part of that world.” After dancing on pointe in Europe and with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York, Wilson again felt drawn to a new dance outlet. “Every day, as I walked to the Metropolitan Opera House, I passed through the Broadway theatre district.” Wilson resolved to “become a part of this magical, musical, mind-expanding world,” and before long, she was under the bright lights of the Broadway stage.

But what exactly is it about Broadway that attracts ballet dancers? Here, Wilson shares some of the reasons why ballet dancers turn to Broadway. 
 

“The gifts of dance enrich my life to this day.”

 

 

[1]   Broadway offers freedom.

Dancers on Broadway have more freedom. In ballet companies, dancers usually sign contracts for one year and must dance whatever they are assigned and work with any choreographer the company wishes. The artistic director determines who dances what and how often. If he becomes infatuated with someone who isn’t you and takes away your roles, or if he constantly demeans you, you have to wait until your contract expires before you can leave. On Broadway, dancers know who the choreographer will be before they audition, and they can decide after the audition if they want to do the show. In musical theatre, dancers usually perform eight shows a week, and they usually have the right to give two weeks’ notice.

[2]   The roles are irresistible.

The starring role in On Your Toes is a flamboyant Russian ballerina. In the most recent Broadway production (1983), Natalia Makarova, a star of the Kirov Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, won a Tony Award as best actress in a musical. You can bet the role will attract a star ballerina in the next revival.

[3]   Storytelling takes center-stage on Broadway.

I grew up watching the great story ballets, including The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Coppélia, and these were the ballets I loved to dance. But in the 1960s, plotless ballets came into fashion, and I didn’t respond to them emotionally. There were no three-dimensional characters to play—no themes that illuminated the human condition. On Broadway, Cabaret, Carousel, and Fiddler on the Roof were dazzling entertainment with unforgettable characters who gave me insight into myself and into the world around me. I wanted to become part of that magical, musical, mind-expanding world. So I left ballet and found my home on Broadway.

[4]   Dancers can follow their favorite choreographers

Gillian Lynne, the choreographer of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, was a soloist with the Royal Ballet before she choreographed musicals, so she attracted first-rate ballet dancers. The original cast of Cats featured Wayne Sleep, a principal with the Royal Ballet. I chose the Broadway-bound La Strada because I wanted to work with Alvin Ailey. I had worked with Alvin previously when he had choreographed Antony and Cleopatra for the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, and I wanted to work with him again—not only because I admired his work, but also because I loved his sense of humor.

[5]   A dancer’s audience can grow with Broadway

Currently, at least three principals of the New York City Ballet (NYCB) are Broadway-bound. Robert Fairchild has the lead role in An American in Paris. Tiler Peck is starring in Little Dancer, and Megan Fairchild is playing Ivy in a revival of On the Town. The artistic director of the NYCB, Peter Martins, has indicated that he hopes that as the ballet dancers reach new audiences, they will also create new audiences for ballet.

[6]   Broadway provides an interim job when ballet jobs are scarce.

In 1938, when the Mordkin Ballet disbanded, Fernando Alonso, later known as the father of Cuban ballet, and his wife, future prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, found themselves unemployed and the parents of a new baby. They couldn’t afford not to work, so they danced on Broadway until new ballet companies were formed. When I signed my contract with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, it was for the spring tour with an option for the following year. Just prior to the tour, I auditioned for a summer production of Carousel at the New York State Theatre, and I kept that job as a backup until the Met exercised its option. If the Met hadn’t picked up my option, I would have performed in the musical while I looked for another ballet company.

[7]   Dancers make more money on Broadway.

When I left the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in 1967 and joined the Broadway company of Hello, Dolly!, my salary increased by 15% a week. The gap today is far wider. Dancers on Broadway have another financial advantage. Once the show is open, they have only one weekday matinee and can supplement their incomes by doing other work, such as television commercials or teaching dance. Ballet dancers are usually rehearsing new repertoire during the day. When I danced at the Met, I could be called anytime between 9:00 AM and 11:59 PM during the week and I often had two performances on Saturday.

 
Lee Wilson’s memoir Rebel on Pointe is available now on our website and wherever books are sold.

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