Everything is Beautiful at the Ballet…or What I Did For Love

I used to tell my drama students at the high school that if you can do any other work other than performing arts, by all means do it. But if you couldn’t do anything else, no other job would be as fulfilling. I am fortunate to know a couple of multi-talented professional performing artists who – fortunately for us all – cannot do much else. Grace Stockdale, a former neighbor here in Steamboat Springs, has performed in over 1200 touring company productions alone of Kinky Boots and Waitress (and is contracted for the company of the Broadway revival of 1776 opening in 2022). Caitlin Abraham, who helped create the dance program at the Steamboat Arts Academy, has a lengthy professional resume including leading roles in Chicago, La Cage aux Folles, American in Paris, and – who else? – Cassie in a revival production of A Chorus Line. This Broadway production about the world of those dancers 20 feet away from stardom won all the Tony awards in 1985 and probably inspired countless young people to forsake the farm, move to NYC, with the dream to make it to Broadway. Well, these two young women did just that. They were gracious enough to send me an hour of their reflections on their careers to date and this month’s column is mostly their words, not mine. If your children choose to take on this dream, blame them.

Their stories are similar: both knew they loved dancing and performing at very young ages, in their earliest memories. Caitlin recalls watching a high school performance and telling her mother “I want to dance on that piece of wood [the stage].” Grace would act as the Prince to her sister’s Cinderella. They were all under the age of 5. Both women found a nurturing and sustaining environment outside of their communities during adolescence. Caitlin attended the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan while Grace stayed closer to home, finding her tribe at our own Perry-Mansfield Camp. Both ultimately ended up in New York City, the Valhalla for the American performing artist. And both are unusually tall which has affected their careers in similar ways. But here their career paths began to diverge.

Caitlin had originally wanted a career in the ballet, studied endlessly under some of the greats in the dance world, was hired by the Carolina Ballet, and eventually rose to the role of a principal dancer. But she wanted more and knew she was too tall for many of the classic roles (most male dancers just aren’t very big and it doesn’t look right) so she returned to New York and ultimately got into the musical theatre pipeline. Obviously with her dance and gymnastics background, she scored high dance marks but didn’t have the vocal skills necessary for leading roles. So she returned to study and work to find success. “Singing lessons became my barre,” referring to the classic piece of dance workout equipment that she probably spent thousands of hours using in her youth.

Grace found success astoundingly quickly, landing a leading role in the touring company of Kinky Boots almost right out of college (Ithaca College: a foremost musical theatre program for you parents searching for your college bound juniors and seniors). She stayed with the company for over a year and soon afterward was cast in the touring company of Waitress (as an understudy for the lead actor, Jenna, among other roles, and performed as the star on several occasions). Her reflections on over three years and hundreds of performances are much like what we all think of our jobs: glamorous, romantic, well-paying, and filled with hours of diverting travel activities. NOT!!! It was hard work with 8 shows a week including a travel day, prior to the next week of 8 shows. For three years. While those of us who got to catch up with her backstage after a performance basked in her glory, she was thinking about getting something to eat and getting enough rest for tomorrow’s show(s) or travel. Her graciousness speaks volumes about the individual far beyond her skills as a performer.

Grace was never a dancer growing up. Like most Steamboat kids, she skied, played basketball (leading scorer for the Steamboat Sailors), ran track, and was generally athletic. Combining her natural athleticism with the same work ethic she demonstrated early on for singing and acting, has enabled her to become the classic Broadway “triple threat.” She was able to learn the dance moves required for her role in the morning, practice them during the lunch break, and return in the afternoon with some degree of mastery: “I can’t kick myself in the face but I am a mover.”

The past 12 months of pandemic – and continuing – have been particularly difficult and tragic for performing artists in New York. The Broadway theatres are closed and will be for most of the year. Grace was weeks away from her first opening on Broadway with contract signed and costume fitted, when the world turned upside. Many of her friends and colleagues took other jobs telecommuting; or left the city entirely. Fortunately, although Grace wasn’t able to do much else other than perform, the “else” has turned into a fulfilling career in photography and videography. Her side gig has become her main gig for another year and it’s taught her an important lesson: “cultivate the human being that you are and the performer inside you benefits.” Reflecting on her younger self, she realizes that while she’s found success and failure, she could have avoided a lot of pain and suffering in her career if she had cared a little less. “You’ll lose roles because you’re taller than the leading man [there’s that height thing again] or if a Tony award winner suddenly becomes available. But it’s not YOUR fault! Bring what YOU can offer to an audition or a performance, and avoid the rest of the drama.”

Caitlin is a professor of dance at Marymount College in NYC. She’s been instrumental in educating dancers here in Steamboat via zoom if not in person. Her appreciation has grown for the confidence and self-assuredness children exude when performing. She wants to support them harnessing their dreams while offering insights into the business of the performing arts; because it is – after all – a business. If there is one final common denominator from both of these outstanding artists, it is that at the end of the day, you should – no matter what parents or peers or guidance counselors recommend – “Follow that damn dream!!!” Do what you do for love.

“Kiss today goodbye

And point me toward tomorrow

We did what we had to do

Won’t forget, can’t regret

What I did for love

What I did for love” 

A Chorus Line {Songwriters: Marvin Hamlisch / Edward Kleban)

Grace Stockdale: be yourself, stand up for yourself, do your work, move on.

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