New elective provides deep dive into musical theatre

February 27, 2021

Dancers wearing white button down shirts and black ties jumping in unison

USC students perform "Cool" from West Side Story | Photo by Craig Schwartz

The bright lights of Broadway have found their way into a new class at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. This semester, lecturer Kate Dunn is piloting the elective Dance Technique for Musical Theatre. The class offers a deep dive into the singing, dancing and acting skills needed to land auditions in the industry. It is open to all USC students and has attracted students from the USC School of Dramatic Arts, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and USC Kaufman among others.

Teaching the right skills

Early in her dance career, Dunn transitioned from the company setting in Australia to the stage in London’s West End. While she felt equipped with dance skill, Dunn realized that her traditional dance training lacked elements necessary to break into musical theatre. She envisioned filling these gaps of knowledge and experience in her new elective for dancers interested in the profession.

“I wanted to support students in learning some of these missing skills. I also wanted to introduce them to some of the people in the actual profession,” Dunn said. “We’re mimicking real rehearsals in class. When you come to rehearsal as a musical theatre performer, you’re in musical rehearsals. You need to be able to understand the basics like when to sing and harmonize, who you’re singing with and understanding the score. We’ve done some preparation work for that so students learn more about the music and not just dance.”

Building a musical theatre repertoire

As Dunn said, professionals in the musical theatre space have come into class with learning and networking opportunities for students. Dunn described that the class has been broken down into individual modules revolving around certain shows and skills. They are currently working through a four-week module focused on the song “Cell Block Tango” from the musical Chicago. We assigned Each student a monologue from the song and will be working toward creating a short film of their work.

In the four-week module, USC Kaufman accompanist Alice Huang worked with students in the first week to read and familiarize themselves with the show’s score. In the second week, Rob Fisher, Musical Director and Supervisor for Chicago, continued this work and led a masterclass in singing and reading score. Director Scott Faris coached students while preparing their monologues in week three. He also guided students on how to analyze their given texts and how to use acting and voice to enhance their dance performances. Finally in week four, choreographer Gary Chryst will teach the show’s choreography, as well as an introduction to Fosse improvisation.

west side story

Students in “West Side Story” rehearsals | Photo by Carolyn DiLoreto

The online advantage

Cami Amein, a senior electrical engineering major, took this class to finish her minor in dance. She described that the bulk of her coursework sits in math and physics, so this minor offered the chance for a creative break in her day while continuing a lifelong passion for dance. Amein explained that she enjoys musical theatre herself, but the dance style is far outside her comfort zone. In this regard, she has preferred dancing over Zoom this semester because it allows her to feel less intimidated in the studio.

“It’s probably not a popular opinion, but I have really preferred dancing online at least this semester because I don’t have a background in musical theatre,” Amein said. “In my apartment, I feel like no one can see me, and I feel uninhibited in class. I go as full out as I want, or if I don’t get what’s happening I can mark it. I just figure things out at my own speed, which I really appreciate.”

Career aspirations in musical theatre

Maya Reyna, a freshman theatre major, decided to take this class because she had an extra two units in her schedule. She remembered her positive impression of Dunn from her audition for the University, and jumped at the chance to work with her in class. As someone interested in a career in musical theatre, she appreciates Dunn’s teaching style and guidance.

“It’s so cool being in a room with someone who’s done so many things in what I’m interested in. She’s so accomplished, kind and always looking out for us,” Reyna said. “Professor Dunn is great at communicating and seeing dance through theatre. It’s a unique skill because a lot of dance teachers don’t think that way. It helps us learn better.”

Ariel Davis, another freshman theatre major, enrolled in this class to supplement her studies at the School of Dramatic Arts. Like Reyna, Davis wants to possibly pursue a career in musical theatre. She saw this class as an opportunity to build vocal and dance skills on top of her acting work.

“I know there’s been a disconnect with people in theatre because of the pandemic and not being able to perform live,” she said. “Through this class, I’m hoping to get some passion and connection back for performance. We’ll learn things and then perform them for the teachers and professionals like casting directors and choreographers. It’s like the full theatre experience without actually being in a theatre.”

By Brigid Murphy