HEAD OVER HEELS choreographer Spencer Liff takes Gracie Hays inside the life of a nine-year-old on Broadway, auditioning rituals, and So You Think You Can Dance.
GRACIE HAYS: What were auditions like for you, when you were working as a dancer?
SPENCER LIFF: I’ve always loved auditioning. I was six years old, the first time I went out for something—it was an open call for the national tour of THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES. My mom and I stood around for hours, and I actually wound up getting the job. I’ve been going to dance auditions pretty much ever since. I love the competitive nature of it, and the community—you see everyone you know, and even if you don’t get the job, it ends up being like a free dance class. It’s the only part of the business where you’re expected to go into a room with your direct competition and audition in front of them—when you go for a singing audition, they don’t bring you all in at the same time and make you sing in front of each other. Roommates or couples will come in for the same job, and one person might get cast and the other won’t. I always just think it’s fascinating that we put ourselves through that.
GH: What was it like to be performing professionally at such a young age?
SL: I knew it was a big deal, because my mom sold our house in Arizona when the tour began. The show’s first stop was in San Francisco, and my very first time performing on a professional stage was at the Golden Gate Theatre, so it’s very special for me to bring HEAD OVER HEELS back here.
I got BIG, my first Broadway show, when I was nine. I moved to New York City with my mom and brother, and we all shared a studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen for a year. I just loved every second of it. As a kid, you go on so many auditions and you don’t book a ton of stuff, so I think it really sets you up to be able to handle rejection in your career. It taught me at a really young age that you can get told “No,” and it’s not the end of your life.
You just go home and go on with it.
"We saw upward of five hundred dancers for our eight ensemble roles...It’s a little excessive, but I knew what I was looking for and I wasn’t gonna settle. " -Spencer Liff
GH: How many auditions would you say dancers tend to go to in a month?
SL: A lot of folks honestly go to an audition almost every day of their life. Monday to Friday, they’re at the same studios.
GH: Most dancers retire in their thirties and forties, because of the physical demands. How did you approach that unofficial deadline?
SL: I knew I was going to choreograph pretty early on in my career. I didn’t want to wait until I couldn’t dance anymore, so I started transitioning very, very early. At twenty-three I started saying, “Okay, I’m not dancing anymore. I want you to see me as a choreographer,” which was very scary. I really had to draw a clear line in the sand with producers and directors, though, in order to get anyone to take me seriously.
GH: What were you looking for, in casting dancers for HEAD OVER HEELS?
SL: We saw upward of five hundred dancers for our eight ensemble roles. I wasn’t looking for a cookie-cutter ensemble—I gravitated toward anyone who had their own unique, dynamic quality. I was especially interested in people who hadn’t made it to Broadway yet. I think it’s important to have that fresh energy in the show.
GH: Is it unusual to audition that many dancers?
SL: It’s a little excessive, but I knew what I was looking for and I wasn’t gonna settle. Every single dancer is someone I’m really thrilled with. And in this show, they all have to sing, too, while also dancing at the very highest level. That’s part of why we had to see so many people, because those are hard boxes to tick.
The cast of HEAD OVER HEELS takes on the #BlackPantherChallenge. Click through to check out the video on Spencer Liff's Instagram!
GH: Tell us about the choreography. What kind of aesthetic did you have in mind?
SL: More than any project I’ve ever done, I knew exactly what the dancing here should look like. All the amazing percussion and the guitars in The Go-Go’s music just make your body move in a certain way. Because this show mixes the Elizabethan Romance era with 1980s pop punk, I didn’t feel tied to one or the other. I decided I wanted the dancing to be the most contemporary piece of the puzzle, so I tried to come up with numbers similar to something I would choreograph on So You Think You Can Dance. I wanted to incorporate the dancing that’s popular in the clubs right now, along with more of a street style. We got the whole show choreographed in four weeks. The steps all just came out really quickly—if you have good people around you, you can move very, very quickly.
GH: You’ve been working on So You Think You Can Dance for nine seasons now—a show that’s known for its frenzied under-a-week rehearsal time. What’s it like to work in that environment?
SL: It can be a little terrifying, because you only have a couple of hours with the dancers before they go live in front of millions of people. Then the next day you have to start all over again with a new number, and a new set of dancers. It took me a couple of seasons to really trust myself. I would say that almost every bad scenario you could imagine has happened to me by now, from having my dancers switched at the last second, to discovering that the wrong version of my song has been cleared. The music clearance has gotten pulled entirely, even, and I’ve had to go on camera choreographing a number to no music, while the producers were desperately trying to find a new song. There is no other form of the business I work in that gives you that much pressure—nothing else in my career will stress me out that much, or seem as insurmountable. It’s the best training ground ever.
HEAD OVER HEELS performances begin on April 10th at the Curran. This limited engagement leaves the Bay Area for Broadway on May 6th.
Single tickets can be purchased here. Tickets are also available as part of #CURRAN2018, our first-ever subscription offering, featuring four extraordinary shows: three brand new works and the smash hit DEAR EVAN HANSEN.