Nicholas Afoa – Lion King life

New cast have joined the London production of Disney’s The Lion King this summer, including New Zealander Nicholas Afoa who has taken on the role of Simba at the Lyceum Theatre.

Afoa made his stage debut in the Australian production in 2013 and played Simba in the Sydney production of the musical between 2013 and 2016, performing more than 860 times. The opportunity to play the role in the West End brings Afoa to London for the first time, as he embarks on his second professional theatre engagement.

The Auckland-raised performer had a promising rugby career with the All Blacks until he was sidelined by injury. After recovering and dedicating himself to his theatre career, nearly a decade later the 30 year-old beat 400 other hopefuls to the role of Simba in the Australian production.

What caused your transition from rugby pitch to stage?

I suffered an ACL and miniscus tear in a rugby game when I was 23. My introduction to theatre wasn’t until years later as I spent a lot of time trying to rehab the knee and come back to rugby. I also spent time trying to start a band and focus on my solo music. I eventually accepted the fate that was the end of a rugby dream and focused on these artistic qualities; I feel so lucky to be where I am right now.

Did you undertake any formal training as a result?

My formal dance training really started once I had landed the role. Now being part of the show has become such a huge part of my life and I feel like I am training and improving my skills every day. It is great to be around so many talented performers and teachers in an environment where everyone is constantly learning.

Describe a day in your life.

I like to spend time with my wife, go to the gym, keep in touch with family back home and go to vocal classes or ballet classes to keep my body up to speed.

How important is your ranging and diverse world experience in your work today?

I wouldn’t be able to bring the same depth to the role if it wasn’t for my life experience over the last 10 years, the interactions I have had with people, the trials I have overcome and what I have learnt from overcoming them. I worked as a youth counsellor for four years, where I learnt so much about adolescent behaviour and the way young people (like Simba) view the world around them and perceive themselves – these are all things that helped me to bring Simba to life.

What’s the most rewarding thing about the performing arts?

The most rewarding thing is how, through your passion, you can also inspire and move others. That’s what drives me, especially if I’m feeling tired. The fact that somebody in that audience, young or old, is being positively affected by the show is the most rewarding thing.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I always say a little prayer moments before swinging on stage. Whenever I can I will watch young Simba and Mufasa in the first act. Their scene gives me an extra emotional boost that I carry through into the second act.

What is it like being part of The Lion King?

It’s very humbling. Every day I learn something new. I’m in an amazing show surrounded by talented, passionate people. I still consider myself very fortunate and never once take it for granted.

What were you most looking forward to about beginning your Lion King contract in London?

What I was looking forward to most was learning and experiencing new energies and actors, seeing how that would affect me as a performer and being able to see what contribution I could make. It was also a chance to experience life outside Australasia as I have never been this far away from home.

What is your advice to an aspiring dancer?

I see with the dancers I work with how dedicated every dancer is to maintaining their own standards. What dancers’ bodies go through is mind-blowing. It inspires me to keep bettering myself. My advice would be to keep working hard, but also give yourself time and space to heal when you need and to also take in some of the world around you. While it’s good to be driven we can get so set on our dreams that sometimes we lose touch with our surroundings. This is also where we learn the most about ourselves and in turn makes us better and rounded performers.

Getting The Most Out Of Your Dance Class

As children, parents and carers spend lots of time and money committing to dance lessons, even when they take joy from watching rather than doing. Taking children to dancing lessons requires energy and time, not to mention additional funds for competitions, costumes and extra performances. For a child, it is not until later that they see dance lessons in the same way, as an investment. Only then do they see that time, money and energy go to waste when they do not make the most of their dance lessons.

It is understandable that every dancer experiences a rut in their training, where they may not want to attend classes or feel they are not improving at the rate they should be. Despite this, it is not the dancers that stretch the most, sweat more or practice at home at all hours that necessarily get the most out of their dance classes either. The correct mental attitude is hugely important in dance training, to understand the purpose of dance for yourself and how to experience it in the best possible way.

When dancers become older, their adult freedom equates to a similar responsibility for themselves, be it getting themselves to classes, paying for their own training or beginning to assist with the teaching at the local dance studio. With these aspects comes heightened responsibility, for learning, fuelling and directing your dancing. It goes without saying that dancers must therefore arrive early and prepared for class, being focused and dedicated to the class, taking and applying corrections that are given to the class and spending time on the parts that need the most improvement, even if that means going back to basics.

Making mistakes is a large part of dance training; it will mean you will discover something new about the dancing body, through listening, watching, or error, even if this feels uncomfortable. Don’t forget to enjoy the process and thank your teachers for giving you the tools to better yourself and work hard in each class you take.

Wings and Sickles

The aesthetics of ballet are continuing to evolve, however something which has remained a constant is the appearance of the foot when it is fully pointed. The ankle joint has limited movement outwards and inwards, however the adjustments of the foot’s position can make a big difference to how it looks to the audience.

The foot as an extension of the ankle can elongate an arabesque or alternatively turn it inwards and demonstrate a weaker foot by sickling. When the foot is pointed in a neutral position an invisible line can be traced up through the floor, foot and into the ankle. Whilst this is technically correct, a winged shape can be seen as more desirable in that the toes are pointed outwards, extending the line. Sickling the foot might indicate poor training or weakness in the ankle, as well as demonstrating a more unsightly line.

The ankle has a slightly larger range of motion inwards, so students may be prone to sickling regardless. Genetics or anatomy can also contribute to a student’s tendency to sickle, and injuries can occur when the foot is both sickled and weight-bearing. This pulls the tendons of the ankle out of alignment, yet injury can occur when winging the foot too. Sickling can even be the intention for some choreographers, if that is what the movement or piece demands, yet for the majority of times, improving ankle strength and stability will minimise sickling.

If the foot winging is supporting weight, this too pulls the ankle joint out of alignment. Dancers may force their heels forward with tendus, instead of using their turnout. This places stress on the tendons on the inside of the foot and twists the knee joints. Despite this, winging could be encouraged in non-weight bearing positions in order to improve individual aesthetics and enhance the line – and limited turn out – the dancer is creating. Turn out must be fully engaged however, so as not to solely rely on the shape of the foot.

Dance-inspired Fit

There are many dance-inspired fitness methods on the market today, from fitness trainers who used to be dancers to those who use dance as a means to remaining happy and healthy, whilst not having a dance background. Aerobics and Zumba classes still have their place, but these are now two of many different options for class participants. Workouts of these kind offer a combination of dance, fitness and wellbeing, and there is truly something to suit everyone, be it at sports centres or the local dance studio.

Today dance-inspired fitness – such as ballet-inspired workouts, dance cardio and toning barre classes – use dancers’ graceful and athletic bodies as a start point, aiming to emulate the idea of dance and being a dancer, rather than aspiring to lose weight or tone up. Strength, lengthening and athleticism can be just two focuses in classes of this kind, aiding existing fitness regimes for both non-dancers and dancers alike. Equally, classes such as HIIT (high intensity interval training), yoga and Zumba can be offered at dance studios that may have previously only offered technique classes.

Barre-style workouts can be used for physical as well as mental fitness benefits. They usually use the body’s own weight to gain lean muscle and a balanced mindset, where the focus is purely on the own body. Many may combine barre, Pilates and dance, and may even incorporate hand weights to aid the body’s training. Mixing up the body’s fitness routine – whether it is from a dance or fitness perspective – continues to challenge the body, and help participants find both energy and strength in the change in fitness activity.

Dance and fitness of course go hand in hand, so trying something different can renew your passion for the reason behind the workout, offering a range of benefits for both body and mind.

Twyla Tharp Dance heading to Italy

Twyla Tharp Dance recently took the premiere of its choreographer’s latest creation to Italy, performed at the end of June when the company visited Florence, Ravenna and Rome. This Italian tour saw the preview of a new work as well as two works performed from Tharp’s repertory. She has been creating dance for 50 years, and during that time she has choreographed over 160 works. These include 129 dances, 12 television specials, six Hollywood films, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows and two figure skating routines.

Within this creative circuit, Tharp has not only created work for her own company, but for most American dance companies, such as American Ballet Theatre and the Martha Graham Dance Company, as well as the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet and Australian Ballet. In her time as a modern dance choreographer she has earned herself two Emmy Awards, and the 2002 Broadway dance musical Movin’ Out won her a Tony Award. In 2008 she was awarded the Jerome Robbins Prize and the Kennedy Centre Honour, and she has received 19 honorary doctorates.

Tharp formed her company at 23 years old, looking for dancers with high levels of technique and strong personalities, but who are also open-minded and willing to forget that they know anything else about dance. The Italian tour for the company saw eight dancers perform, presenting the preview of Beethoven Opus 130, as well as Country Dances and Brahms Paganini.

The new creation, Beethoven Opus 130, received its official premiere at the Saratoga Performing Arts Centre. The piece was originally kept completely secret, apart from some workshop shots taken during the Catskill Mountain Foundation residency in April. Country Dances premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1976, inspired by American music and traditions. Brahms Paganini, from 1980, is set to Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini.

Annual World Hip Hop Championship to hit Vegas

The 15th Annual World Hip Hop Championship is set to hit Las Vegas in August, where the world’s top hip hop and street dancers will be competing at the 2016 World Hip Hop DANCE Championship and World Battles. Otherwise referred to as “the Olympics of hip hop dance”, it will see a record number of 3,500 dancers representing 50 countries compete.

The championship will take place in early August, and competitors will be aspiring to win the gold medals and the world title, and score the perfect 10. The championship will begin with the USA Hip Hop DANCE Championship to determine those who will represent America. Over 100 Crews (made up of five to eight dancers) and MegaCrews (made up of 15-40 dancers each) from throughout the US will travel to Las Vegas to compete for the top three spots advancing to the World Championship.

The championship continues with the World Hip Hop DANCE Championship which will see over 250 Dance Crews and MegaCrews from 50 nations compete in qualifying rounds at the Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort, leading up to the World Finals at Thomas & Mack Centre. Here the World Battles will witness the world’s best street dancers go head to head for world titles for B-boys, Poppers, Lockers and All-Stylers.

The championship was created by Hip Hop International, the originator of the most respected and largest street dance competitions in the world, as well as the creator of “America’s Best Dance Crew”. Founded in 2001, Hip Hop International highlighted street dance, pushing it to the forefront of mainstream popular culture. The world championship is therefore viewed as the ultimate competition in street dance, launching the careers of dancers for artists and companies such as Justin Bieber, Jennifer Lopez, Rhianna and Cirque Du Soleil.

Summer University At Sadler’s Wells

Sadler's Wells LogoLaunched in 2010, Sadler’s Wells Summer University supports the development of professional dance artists interested in extending their dance practice. The first edition of the project ran successfully between 2010-2014 and the organisation is now recruiting for the second edition starting in Summer 2015. The Summer University graduates (2010-2014) was a combination of notable dance names, and the second batch looks set to mirror this result.

Summer University offers 15 dance professionals the chance to take part in a four year project, meeting for two weeks each year to share work, hear talks, explore methodologies and philosophies of performance making and extend their own dance practice through self-study. As a free course, it is open to dance makers and other artists involved in the performing arts who are interested in developing their own choreographic practice. Also focused on is the future possibilities of dance as an art form.

The course is open to artists based in the UK, with no more than five years professional experience as a dance maker. Directed by the admired choreographer Jonathan Burrows, in collaboration with Eva Martinez, Artistic Programmer for Sadler’s Wells, the course encompasses guest speakers and experienced professionals from the worlds of dance, theatre, visual arts, philosophy and artistic development in sharing their knowledge.

The second edition of the Summer University will take place between 14-27 September 2015 at Sadler’s Wells, a unique opportunity for dance artists and dance makers to immerse themselves in the art and develop their practice further. Applications for the Sadler’s Wells Summer University are currently open: deadline to apply is 22 May 2015 at noon.

Siobhan Davies Dance And Dancing Museums

Siobhan Davies DanceSiobhan Davies Dance will be taking part in Dancing Museums, a new European partnership project which will bring together five European dance organisations: La Briqueterie – Centre de développement chorégraphique du Val de Marne (France), Comune di Bassano del Grappa (Italy), D.ID Dance Identity (Austria), Dansateliers (Netherlands) and Siobhan Davies Dance (UK). The dance organisations will be joined by eight internationally renowned museums to explore new ways of interacting with audiences.

From June 2015 to May 2017, five selected dance artists, one from each organisation, will embark on a two year period of research and development, and will take part in a week-long residency in each of the museums, providing regular opportunities to collaborate with their European partners as the project progresses. Digital artists and experts from other fields such as history of art, education, curation, visual art, social media and new technology will also join the fray, in order to contextualise the research and stimulate new thinking.

Through Dancing Museums, new methods to engage audiences and enhance the journeys which people make when walking through art spaces will be defined and consequently implemented. In addition, the general public will have its attention drawn to contemporary dance as an inclusive, communicative form, so events will be produced such as choreographic guided tours and participatory workshops. The audience will therefore be placed at the centre of the experience, blurring the boundaries between audiences and artists.

Through the various activities, Dancing Museums will create a space for artists to develop their art form alongside others, sharing skills across multiple organisations, audiences, practices and local contexts. Dancing Museums will culminate in the creation of a new participatory, performative work in each of the five European cities highlighting the role live performance can play in enhancing understanding and engagement in art. The Dancing Museums project is co-funded by the European Union’s Creative Europe programme.

Professional Paths

Careeres After DanceDespite a lifelong dream of performing on stage night after night, the hard reality for dancers is you may not fulfil this. This can be for a number of reasons, whether you are injured or are simply feel drawn to another lifestyle. After maintaining these dreams, and even a stint of performing, there are a number of potential options you may wish to pursue. Dancers are resourceful and disciplined, having gained a number of relevant and useful skills during training and performing.

You may wish to become a choreographer or director, or even a casting director, having the last say in who performs what and when. Your dance knowledge is integral to your craft and the industry, so this is often a natural step for professional dancers. You may even want to step behind the scenes entirely, and become part of the wardrobe, stage management or part of the production crew for a theatre or company. Roles like lighting and set are also appealing to ex-performers, as they have an innate knowledge and sixth sense of the theatre; it is an equally artistic pursuit with creative fulfilment.

Remaining in the office might be more suitable to other professional dancers: management and administration are essential to dance companies and organisations through a number of roles, ensuring the companies make it into the stage and the audience make it into their seats. Other dance and arts institutions also need arts administration to ensure they run smoothly, from marketing and finance to programming, in organisations such as theatres, dance foundations and museums.

If you still yearn for physical pursuits, you may be more suited to roles such as a Pilates or yoga teacher – which complement dance training – or a massage therapist to help people to relax and restore their bodies. Alternatively you may become a fitness instructor or personal trainer, with some extra training. If you don’t want to give up the physicality of your career, fitness is an excellent alternative avenue, with dance based fitness classes rising in popularity. Simply teaching dance, however, is also just as fulfilling in passing your knowledge on to a future generation.

Dance Workshops For Parkinson’s Sufferers

Mark Morris Dance Group LogoThe Mark Morris Dance Group has been holding specific dance workshops for students & Parkinson’s sufferers, namely the company’s Dance for PD (Parkinson’s Disease) programme. Through this community-lead strand, and much like Rambert’s and English National Ballet’s similar work, the companies provide refuge and enjoyment for the sufferers through dance.

Much research has shown that dance can hugely improve the quality of life of people with Parkinson’s Disease, with many rehabilitation programmes focusing on movement and the use of the body to improve experiences whilst suffering with the disease. In particular for 2015, the Mark Morris Dance Group will be bringing its Dance for PD programme to the Sydney Opera House in June, alongside the company’s performance programme for the iconic venue.

For people with Parkinson’s and their carers, a free community dance class lead by dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group will be held in June, alongside the Australian-based dancer Erica-Rose Jeffery who is the Dance For Parkinson’s Australia programme co-ordinator. Providing improved experiences for the sufferers is paramount to this work, and being able to engage simultaneously with the Mark Morris Dance Group will enhance the experience, much like the ethos of the aforementioned UK programmes.

For dance teachers, there will be a two-day introductory teachers’ training workshop held during June too, aiming to assist in growing the network of teachers qualified to lead dance classes for those with Parkinson’s Disease. The Mark Morris Dance Group will also hold two education workshops for school students, including a dance class for students with physical and intellectual disabilities, and a masterclass for more talented dance school students. The company’s visit to Australia, therefore, seems to be a wholly fulfilling venture, and is not one to be missed.