THIS DANCER'S LIFE: Christen Heilman
Dancer. Actor. Singer. Artist. Educator. Teacher. No matter what term you use to describe her, Christen Heilman exemplifies the very best of what we've come to expect of creative people making their way, while challenging themselves creatively, through the Nashville performing community.
Perhaps best known for her musical theater roles onstage - she was Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre in Circle Players' The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Meemaw in Mel O'Drama Theatre's Cousin Cleetus' Christmas... and in the starry "blondesemble" of Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre's All Shook Up in 2015 and she's among the multi-talented "Showstoppers" appearing in Music City Theatre Collective's upcoming premiere gala - she has an even more impressive resume as a dancer/choreographer to her credit.
Today, Christen Heilman helps us re-launch our feature series about Music City dancers: This Dancer's Life, which gives readers some background on what motivates these talented individuals, as well as giving you details about the background which precipitated their terpsichorean dreams.
What was your first introduction to dance as an art form? I can't remember a time in my life when there wasn't dance. I can say the performance that really inspired me most as a young person was watching Les Ballets Trockadero De Monte Carlo perform in an intimate theater in Bowling Green, Ohio. This all-male comedic ballet company showed me that perfect technique can be paired with comedy and grace to elevate the art form above its stodgy history.
What was your first real job as a dancer? My first real job was The Nutcracker with the Metropolitan Repertory Ballet in NYC. We rehearsed in all kinds of tiny spaces throughout Manhattan (once under a music rehearsal for Aida!) and were broadcast on National Hungarian television! I remember there was something truly magical about walking past the tree in Rockefeller plaza clutching your costumes in your freezing hands on your way to a final performance.
When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in dance? I have found that the arts are really something that chooses you rather than the other way around. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in dance and performance when I tried all kinds of other things; interior design, women's studies, chemistry, philosophy etc. and I just kept returning to the dance studio. Now I use all those other interests to help inform my performances and teaching!
Who is your dancing idol? Anyone making it work! I admire most those who are making a living dancing and in the arts in spite of all the challenges. In particular, I am amazed by those dancers who manage career and home with the same grace, dignity, and joy in both realms.
Why do you pursue your art in Nashville? I was living and teaching in rural Indiana when my husband was offered a position here in Nashville. It took some coaxing on his part, me thinking Nashville was just about country music and honky tonks, but after a few visits we decided to make Nashville our new home. I have never been more delightfully surprised in a place.
What are the best parts of working here? Without a doubt, it is the community! It's an incredible group of talented folks who live and work here. Even though a lot of us are not from Nashville or even the "South" we have adopted that sense of support and generosity for which the area is known. You never have to worry about someone undermining you at an audition. We're all here to do our best and trust that the right person will get the work!
What is your dream role as a dancer? If you could dance any role, what would it be and why? I would love to perform the lead girl in the "gotta dance" sequence in Singin' in the Rain. Sassy, sultry, and requiring amazing technique and acting. That's something I could really sink my toes into.
What is the biggest spot on your resume? The biggest section of my resume is full of musical theater. It's what I got my degree in and it's what I find most interesting! I'm constantly amazed at how musical theater stays alive and relevant. Even if I've done a show before, chances are it will be with a new production crew with a different vision and understanding of what that show means in our world today. In a lot of ways I think musical theater makes dance more approachable, and can be a great launching point for discovering new forms and styles of dance for an audience.
What role/work is your most favorite? I love anything that can make me laugh. A performance with a clever surprise is always a winner in my book!
What's the biggest misconception people have about dancers? That we don't eat or that we never have to work out to stay fit. Let me tell you how hard it is to stay in shape in such an amazing food town! One of the places I teach is situated between two local bakeries! It's fantastic! And yes, I love to explore local restaurants and pubs while trying my best to make responsible choices and treat my body kindly. However, even if I'm eating right, it's the time spent in the gym that helps keep my muscles strong and reactive. After years of dancing my body no longer responds to dance as exercise as most people's would! I still burn calories, but it's so used to the movement that cross training has become an incredibly important and vital part of my life.
What's your favorite work created for dancers to perform? I absolutely love classical ballet movement to contemporary music; pop, metal, rap...you name it! Or the other way around! Hip-hop movement to classical music etc. That to me, is how we use art to change our everyday lives. It is in exploring the juxtaposition that we come to better understanding of ourselves and others. Maybe through working in new ways we can help heal our world a little. Step-by-step, Tondu by tondu we can work together to open new ideas! No art trapped in a box. (Unless, you want to do a dance trapped in a box! Talk about working against your boundaries!)
If you could have dinner with any three figures (living or dead, real or fictional) who are a part of the world of dance, who would you choose and why? Gene Kelley...his verve and passion for dance are such an inspiration! I love his ability to adopt new styles and forms of dance. Even after his passing, his wife allowed his image to be used in a hip hop version of Singin' in the Rain because she said he would have loved it! Anna Pavlova...Her desire to dance literally drove her to the grave, but it is her fervor that really helped spread and develop pointe work. So much drama and drive in one beautiful package! I'd like to give her a hug and let her know what a difference she made to the art form. Jose Limón...He brought fresh perspective from Mexico and a fearlessness and understanding of dance before him. Influenced by early Broadway and not afraid to use his own body's oddities as gifts, he changed modern dance. I'd just love to hear him talk about dance in New York in the 1930s. What an incredible time to live/work.
What's your favorite way to treat yourself during performance season? Coffee! Fancy, simple, strong, or sweet. It's my favorite way to give myself a little pick-me-up both emotionally and for energy!)
Imagine a young person seeing you onstage or seeing a production in which you played a major role coming up to you and asking you for advice in pursuing their own dream...what would you say? First off, I am constantly in awe of how performances can change and inspire lives for good but also can damage. As a teacher, I find it critically important to try to encourage students and young people to take the time to find your dream and also to realize that art isn't limited to a profession. If you love to dance and that's all you can think about day in and day out (and I mean EVERY waking thought is filled with dance and your dreams are full of movement, you can't sit still because dance is bursting out of every pore of your being) then look into a conservatory, art school, or college. If, after conservatory or second company training it's still filling every ounce of your being, then consider a career. However, if you think you can be happy doing anything else, make sure you pursue that too. You can be a dancing pharmacist or twirling surgeon! (Ok, no pirouettes while in surgery please!) Go to school and study anything that lights a fire in your soul!
In college I took part in a workshop with Craig Schulman (played Phantom in Phantom of the Opera and Jean Valjean in Les Miserables on Broadway). He gave us some advice that I have carried with me all my life since then: If you love the arts and performing, but can be happy doing something else...ANYTHING else, do that. Because art is hard. You will have to sacrifice, scrape, and scramble. But, if it's the only thing that you can do that makes you happy...then you have to perform!