Since her days with Sydney Dance Company, Australian dancer Kathryn Dunn has made a career for herself on the Broadway stage. Liam Burke reports.
It’s hard to fathom the diversity of Rockhampton-born Kate Dunn’s CV, but the chirpy Australian rhythm of her voice hints at how she has maintained success in the international world of dance. Dunn is one of a handful of Australians who has seamlessly moved through the arduous disciplines of dance: from the Royal Ballet, to Sydney Dance Company, Chunky Move and Bangarra, into several musicals in London, then travelling to Broadway as dance supervisor with Billy Elliot. Although Dunn’s seven-year stint with the musical ended this past January, she remains embedded in the ever-moving New York dance scene. I spoke with Dunn from her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment where she was enjoying having her kids all to herself, and preparing for her New York choreographic debut.
LB: From ballet to innovative modern, then to the saucy Roxie Hart in Chicago: did you plan it this way?
KD: I think I have just gone with the opportunities that came up. I had a very diverse childhood training – tap, ballet, jazz, and song and dance, so I’ve always been curious to do new and different things. I went into ballet because I could at the time and I suppose I suppressed some of the things I loved because I knew their time would eventually come.
LB: Could you name the choreographers you’ve worked with since leaving Australia?
KD: Of course: the great Sir Kenneth MacMillan [the late principal choreographer of the Royal Ballet], who mentored me, Sir Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins, Wayne Eagling, David Bentley, Ann Reinking [Chicago], Susan Stroman [Contact] and Peter Darling [Billy Elliot].
LB: What was the Royal Ballet like in the 1980s?
KD: It was a golden era in ballet with the likes of Natalia Makarova and Fernando Bujones, and I joined after only a year-and-a-half at the [Royal Ballet] School. I was very homesick at first and it was confusing to me because the system was so different. One season I’m dancing principal roles in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets, the next season hardly dancing at all. Very different to the musical theatre experience where you get the job and dance the same show eight times a week.
LB: What has been the most challenging thing in your career?
KD: Being a single mum while living in London was tough. Juggling all the things you have to do to maintain a career and raise a child at the same time, but ultimately it was an amazing time when I look back. In New York I had my second child with my partner Scott Faris, while I was associate choreographer on Billy Elliot, but obviously I had a lot more support.
LB: Recently you were featured on America’s PBS [Public Broadcasting Service], and you talked about rehearsing the young dancers in Billy Elliot. You said, “It’s like watching six pots on the stove: one is fine, two are bubbling over, and three not hot enough!” How did you manage that while raising your own kids?
KD: I think high-level ballet training gave me the perfectionist quality needed, and that time in London gave me the great ability to multi-task. When Peter Darling was first looking for an assistant, the fact that I was a mother worked for me. He trusted I could do the job because I’m always aspiring to be better and I never feeling that things are as good as they can be. Who can? You just do the very best you can.
LB: Now that Billy Elliot has closed, what are your plans?
KD: I’m choreographing a piece for Dance New Amsterdam at their centre devoted to choreographic exploration. I’m excited to see what I have to say with my own choreography though I’m not sure what style it will be yet! Then working with Scott [Faris] on a new musical Rio, for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. After that I’ll be assisting Peter [Darling] again on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda as it transfers to Broadway.
LB: What do you miss about Australians?
KD: The wonderful carefree attitude that comes with the work.
LB: Are they so different to Americans you’ve worked with?
KD: In general, I think Americans take everything incredibly seriously, which is understandable because there is such a huge amount of work here, and every “type” can really succeed.
LB: Who was your greatest teacher?
KD: The late, great Queensland teacher Valerie Hanson. We took 6.30am ballet class, then to school, then back to ballet all night. She was intimidating, like the queen, but she never ever raised her voice. She expected a lot from you and you definitely wanted to live up to her expectations.