Melinda Sullivan is Doing it Right – an exclusive interview for Gotta Dance
Melinda Sullivan is an inspirational performing artist in our community. You’ll recognize her from SYTYCD season 7, with a comeback on season 11 to perform in a duet with fellow tap dancer Aaron Turner. She earned a place on Dance Magazine’s top 25 to watch for 2013, and won Capezio’s prestigious A.C.E. Award in 2012. That winning entry, entitled “Gone,” debuted in expanded form in New York in August 2013. She continues to develop her many talents and interests as a dancer, singer, and actress, which have given her a broad platform for her performance opportunities and artistic enterprises. I am grateful to Melinda who eloquently shares her experiences and latest projects with NoHoArtsDostrict.com.
KC: For our professionals and aspiring professionals out there, what can you share about the experience of working in the different mediums of stage, TV, and film? What’s lending to your success and how has that shaped how you prepare for a versatile career path?
MS: As a dancer, I am lucky to have a strong ballet and jazz foundation coupled with a passion for tap, more of a “niche” dance style. That has allowed me to be versatile while at the same time being unique. Also, dancing takes an incredible amount of mental focus. I’m thankful that I had that focus at an early age. The only way to push through the discipline and sometimes monotony of your technical training is to stay inspired. Look to the masters of your art form to get you to your next level. Read books, watch footage, listen to musical scores written for dance, etc.
Once dancing and performing become your job, you must seek balance between being an athlete, an artist, and a working professional. It can be tricky. Cross train and take care of your body, feed your soul with good art, and meet people in your field who you respect.
Most importantly, if you want to work in both LA and NY as a dancer, you ABSOLUTELY need to start singing and acting ASAP.
KC: You’ve had several roles portraying characters that emulate turn-of-the-century to mid-century styles and settings. Tell us about your influences and what you’re bringing forward from these eras in some of these roles.
MS: Campfire Vaudeville is a song and dance experience that one of my best friends Galen Hooks created. She brought me on as a performer and choreographer, and last year we had a few live appearances around LA coupled with some really incredible video content that Galen executive produced (directed by Charles Oliver). Campfire Vaudeville pulls from a few decades, but definitely turn of the century culture. The project was based on these songs that Galen had written that are influenced by early folk/spirituals, and we thought sand dancing/hoofing would go well with that music. Both art forms are at the root of American jazz music and the original American jazz dance, aka tap dance. You can watch the video here.
Then, by chance, I was referred to director Gilly Barnes for a video project as a part of a series called The Decade Series. It was a centennial film project for Vanity Fair. Gilly asked me to play a woman during the suffrage movement who had been imprisoned for marching to fight for women’s voting rights. Gilly had done a lot of research and encouraged me to do the same. I am thankful for directors like Gilly who use dance to tell stories. In this case, the story was based on historical events, which made it even more powerful for me as the artist interpreting Gilly’s direction and my choreography. The day of the shoot, the wardrobe department even had a vintage prison outfit that a woman had worn. It was a really incredible project to be a part of and the final edit was very powerful, as Gilly had another actor recite a letter that a marcher had written as well as footage from that time. You can watch the video here.
Shakin’ The Blues Away is the second collaboration between myself and director Dante Russo. One of my career goals is to be involved in a movie musical, whether it be in front of the camera or on the creative side. This piece was an ode to MGM musicals, where were the golden age for this genre. I looked at a lot of the footage from that time of the female tap dancers, and I kept coming back to Ann Miller’s piece. She was fiery, confident, showy, over-the-top—the epitome of a Hollywood diva. The movement is really specific as well, and was a great challenge for me as a performer and choreographer. I rehearsed for several months on the piece before filming it and had to work mostly on my upper body. Ann’s style was very angular, and her body was able to create these incredible pictures. I had to work a lot on clarity of my body lines in front of the mirror, over and over. Also, she was able to change directions on a dime. That was a big part of my rehearsal process as well. And turns! Lots and lots of turns. All that ballet training came to use for the long turn sequence at the end of the piece. That particular shot for the film was shot with a crane, and I think we did it like 26 times in a row. It was quite an athletic piece, but it really inspired me to keep working in that direction with my performance quality. In general, that style of dancing takes a huge amount of core strength, so your legs and arms can go anywhere while you are still over your legs, and the ability to perform BIG, facially and energetically. No one will ever dance like Ann, though. She is truly one of the greatest! You can watch the video here.
KC: This summer your evening length show, Gone: A Sound and Theater Project, debuted at New York’s Ailey Citigroup Theater. The reviews for both the choreography and music were fantastic! Will there be a restaging here in Los Angeles? What’s next for that production?
MS: Producing/choreographing/performing/writing Gone was such an incredible learning process. I literally got a taste of EVERYTHING: running my first audition, collaborating with a composer and director, assembling a lighting and sound designer, budgeting, fundraising, the list goes on. The performance in NY was part of the Capezio ACE Award Grant I received in the summer of 2012. Now that I don’t have any deadlines, I have been taking my time to review the material and see what I would like to develop and change. I want to present a concert of my work here in Los Angeles in the coming months, and I would like to include excerpts of Gone in the evening. Nikos Syropoulos (composer of Gone) and I are continuing our collaboration and we are very excited about what we have learned from the process as well as what we will create next. You can watch a video rendition here.
KC: Tell us about the Melinda Sullivan Dance Project and what you’re working on now.
MS: The Melinda Sullivan Dance Project was created underneath the umbrella of the Pasadena Arts Council. PAC has a program called “Emerge Projects”, which incubates individual projects and emerging organizations, offering them the ability to seek funding through fiscal sponsorship. In order to produce Gone in NYC, I needed to raise $15,000 in addition to the grant money I received in order to cover costs of production, travel, dancers, musicians, sets, etc. Establishing MSDP with PAC allowed me to receive donations through Kickstarter and use their resources, knowledge, and administrative expertise to act as a non-profit.
KC: Tell us about your work with the community and dance advocacy.MS: Teaching has become a big part of my life. I am constantly inspired by the students in my classes. When students are fearless, they can do anything! It is also fun seeing it click for people that as a tap dancer, you are a dancer AND a musician. As a teacher, class is the perfect place to play as a choreographer, and there’s nothing like watching the students bring your movement and rhythms to life. I teach regularly at The Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles, and I tour with New York City Dance Alliance. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel and work with students from around the world, in places such as Bogota, Colombia, Tapei, Taiwan, and Stockholm, Sweden. Tap dance is an oral tradition. My teachers passed down not steps and music but stories and artistry. I feel that it is my duty, as an artist and a student of such a wonderful cultural art form like tap dance, is to continue to share what I learned with as many people as I can.
Thank you Melinda! Follow her here.