Why Lizz Picini is a unicorn

If you’re a musical theater dancer, you know the name Lizz Picini. Whether you take Ricky Hinds’ class next to her, audition for her at Pearl Studios, perform with her at a regional theater, hear her name called back at an ECC, or take her class at Broadway Dance Center, it’s clear that Picini has become what the industry calls a “unicorn” – someone who magically wears multiple hats on any given project.

BDC was able to catch a quick call with Picini, who is currently performing in and serving as associate choreographer for CHICAGO down at the Maltz Jupiter Theater in Florida. “I started dance because I liked dressing up in costumes,” she laughs. “Though honestly, it’s truly a miracle that I do this for a living.” Picini was born premature with underdeveloped hips. Her doctor had her wear triple diapers to realign her femurs in her hip sockets. “I’m lucky to be able to walk, let alone to dance! It’s a reminder to be grateful for this gift.”

Picini continued dance throughout her youth—mainly focusing on ballet and pointe work. She also sang in her church choir and studied piano from her mom. After high school she attended Towson University, known for their strong technical dance program, to obtain her BFA. “I studied Dance Performance and Education,” she explains. “I took all the education curriculum but ended up dropping that secondary focus. I never thought I was going to teach…I just wanted to perform!” (We’ll come back to that irony later)

Just four days after graduation, Picini moved to New York City to participate in Broadway Dance Center’s Summer Summer Session. “Towson was fantastic for concert dance training, but I felt BDC’s SIP would help bridge the gap between college and the professional world.”

Dirty Sugar Photography

“I vividly remember that first day at BDC,” Picini recalls. “There were 75 summer interns! I was intimidated by the talent.” But Picini stood out from the crowd. Bonnie Erickson, former Director of Educational Programs, saw how focused Picini was about training and about pursuing a lasting career in the performing arts. “I didn’t perform in every student-choreographed piece,” Picini admits, “l would take classes in the areas I wasn’t as strong in, I made an effort to look presentable in every class, I sent professional e-mails updating my mentors on my progress, and I took every note I was given.” For Picini, SIP was not just a fun summer in New York City. “The program opened my eyes to musical theater, and I was excited and hungry for the challenge.”

BDC’s theater teachers like Jim Cooney, Ricky Hinds, and Al Blackstone really shaped Picini’s time as a summer intern. “Jim saw my potential and gave me a lot of tough love,” Picini says. “I had strong ballet technique and vocal chops, but Jim’s class challenged me as an actor—It still does! Ricky’s and Al’s classes demand professionalism and hard work, but the room is filled with so much fun and joy. I believe that that supportive and empowering environment is how you can get the most out of a dancer.”

That’s not to say Picini’s time in the program was smooth sailing. “There was one musical theater mock audition where I crashed and burned,” Picini confesses. The teachers and administrators behind the table said that, with that performance, she would have been cut. But, because they knew Picini’s work ethic and capabilities, they said they would actually call her back. “More than anything, the program taught me that, while talent is great, consistency and hard work are the most valuable qualities to be successful in this business.”

At the end of SIP, Picini was praised with the “Most Outstanding Student” award. “I was given a job in BDC’s retail store which gave me the opportunity to continue my intense training.” She became a “regular” in many of the advanced theater classes and, when a teacher’s assistant would leave town for a gig, Picini was there and she was ready. “I didn’t go into class desperately wanting to become an assistant,” she explains. “Stay present and patient and do the work. It’s a balance of being proactive and open, but also being in the right place at the right time.”

Lizz with Jim Cooney and Bonnie Erickson

Picini was also promoted on the administrative side when she started working in BDC’s Group Services. “One day there was a teacher who didn’t show up for class, so they threw me in!” Picini recalls. “It was exhilarating!” After that dive into the deep end, Picini got a few chances to sub for Jim Cooney, an opportunity to lead one of BDC’s Absolute Beginner Workshops, and eventually scored her own guest teaching slot. “I had about three people in my initial classes,” she says. But things took an unexpected turn in 2016 when FOX brought cameras into Picini’s class to promote “Grease Live.” “When cameras show up, a class will always sell out,” Picini jokes. Maybe dancers initially came for the cameras, but they stayed for Picini. Her class has been waitlisted ever since.

“I’m completely overwhelmed when I’m in that studio in front of 75 people. I have to pinch myself,” Picini says with immense gratitude. “It’s an honor to teach alongside so many of my mentors at BDC. Sometimes I feel insecure because I haven’t been on Broadway yet. But I realize that dancers don’t come to my class because of my resume, but because of me and my work.”

Photo by Glorianna Picini

Outside of BDC, Picini has performed at numerous reputable regional theaters across the country. “I did a ton of dance captain jobs and then was asked to be assistant choreographer for a show at Finger Lakes Musical Theater (now The Rev Theater Company),” Picini remembers. “I was nervous because I didn’t want to give up performing. But, due to the limited amount of union contracts available, I would not have been on the project at all had I not also been assistant choreographer!” Her initial predicament quickly became her superpower. It wasn’t black-or-white—Picini could do both. And she was more marketable as a result! “It checks a lot of boxes if one person is capable to do a lot,” Picini acknowledges. That’s one less flight, one less housing accommodation, etc. “I’ve put a lot of work in and it has really blown up. People have taken notice and that’s such an incredible feeling.” Picini has assisted such choreographers as Parker Esse, Ricky Hinds, Rommy Sandhu, and Denis Jones. “Being behind the table has leveled me,” she discloses. “Casting a show is a complicated puzzle. At many auditions, you could cast the show ten times over with the amount of talent that comes in! A dancer’s job is to show up and do your work. That’s all you can do—and that’s enough.”

Photo by Glorianna Picini

As a teacher, associate choreographer, and active performer, it’s no surprise Picini’s schedule can be jam-packed. “I’ve learned (and am still learning) about balance,” she concedes. “There was a point when I felt so popular yet so alone. I was also hospitalized for exhaustion at one point.” Picini has realized how important it is to rest, say no when she needs to, and keep a supportive inner circle of family and close friends. “Rest days, therapy, and my faith keep me grounded. Now I understand that I am me and the opportunities that have been opened to me are because I am expressing and taking care of who I am.”

Picini credits her ever-bourgeoning journey to BDC. Her creative voice, infectious laugh, and humble work ethic inspire her peers, students, audiences, and own teachers and mentors. “Recently a choreographer whom I had never worked with called me to wear multiple hats for his upcoming project,” Picini explains. “He said, ‘And if I know of Lizz Picini, this is right up her alley.’ That is the most amazing feeling. Sure, Broadway will always be a goal. But I’m learning to celebrate the present and continue to put in the work every day.”

Student Profile: Stephanie Brooks – Apassionata

Not Your Typical Tour
Apassionata, Dance Captain, Stephanie Brooks (Professional Semester Alum.)

“APASSIONATA has been Europe’s most popular live arena shows for
nearly a decade, thrilling more than five million fans across 15 countries with a breathtaking display of the beauty and the bond between horse and rider, man’s strongest and most trusted animal.” – Apassionata.com

Audition
During my final mock audition in BDC’s professional semester, I received representation from McDonalds Selsnicks and Associates (MSA). One of the benefits of having an agent is that sometimes they have closed calls with just their clients, if their choreographer was booked for the job. When MSA sent out the breakdown for a horse show audition, I didn’t know what to expect. However, I was excited when I saw that Lorin Latarro was choreographing; I loved her choreography in The Musical Theatre Performance Project last year. The audition combination had a lot of personality, was technically challenging, and stylistic. After cuts were made, she paired us up for partnering. I was overjoyed when I received the call that I booked the job and even more so when I found out a fellow colleague of mine was going to do it with me. (Go Wildcats!!!!)

Rehearsal
We rehearsed in NYC and learned a lot of material quickly, keeping in mind that a lot would change once we actually got to the arena. Our first stop was Kentucky. Technical rehearsal consisted of long days in the dark cold arena. These rehearsals involve a lot of hurry up and wait, but I found that during the waiting is when you can learn the most if you stay engaged. It was such a privilege to watch Ken Billington (96+ Broadway Shows) do the lighting design and learn from Scott Farris (dir. “Chicago” and “Walking with Dinosaurs”) as he brought together American theater and European Equestrian riders. Lorin Latarro (Currently choreographing “Scandalous” set to hit Broadway this October) pulled from her diverse performance background and allowed us to collaborate on certain parts. It was a very artistically fulfilling process.

Overcoming Obstacles
Dancing in sand, running with flags and fire torches was strenuous on our bodies. For body maintenance, I did some form of Pilates, Yoga, and rolled out my muscles with a tennis ball. We had to be flexible and try to figure out how to adapt the choreography in the sand, and how not to spook the horses or get spooked by them. During rehearsals you could hear Portuguese, French, German, Ukrainian, Icelandic, and English being bantered across the gigantic arena. After one of the first runs of the show, the horse choreographer called everyone together and our choreographer jokingly said it looked like a medieval conference. Picture 40+ horses and riders gathered together speaking different languages and four American dancers and a choreographer standing in a giant sand box. It was a surreal experience.

Stepping Up
As Dance Captain, my responsibilities were to run any extra rehearsals, communicate with the production team, maintain the artistic integrity of the choreography and spacing, make sure that the dancers safety and needs were met, and promote team unity. This production was a learning process for all of us. Most of our stage crew came from the rock concert world and we had to share with them certain theater protocols and vice versa. The communication between the tech crew, dancers and riders was extremely important, because the horses weren’t always predicable. We couldn’t depend on entering or exiting on a musical cue and it forced us to be quick on our feet, listen and watch each other. We developed physical and verbal cues and had to go with whatever happened in the moment.

Unique Atmosphere
Some of the perks of this job were that we had amazing caterers who traveled with us, we learned how to ride horses, picked up a little bit of French, Icelandic, and Portuguese, and got to work with and meet incredible people.

Unexpected Close
Due to the financial crisis in Europe, Apassionata’s USA tour came to an end early (It is still running in several countries in Europe). We were given less than 24 hours notice that we were going back to NYC and the rest of the tour was cancelled. Of course, we were sad and it’s always a little unnerving to be without a steady job, but nothing in this business is guaranteed. That’s why it’s important to save when you are doing a show, so that during the slow times you can continue to train and be ready for the next opportunity. I learned a lot from Apassionata and am looking forward to what the future holds.

Ahoy! BDC at Sea

Jenifer Dillow (BDC Professional Semester, Fall 2011)

Cruise: Disney Magic

Role: Belle, dancer

Travel: We are traveling to Nassau, Bahamas, Caribbean, Key West, Port Canaveral, Halifax, Nova Scotia, St. John,Canada, New Mexico, and more which I’m unsure of because we won’t start till later in the contract.

Performances: We have six shows plus two theme nights. Four of our shows are full on musicals while the other two are shorter compilations of different dances and songs. We have “Twice Charmed’, “Villian’s Tonight” which I have eight crazy quick changes in (I’m a dancer in that show), “Disney Dreams” where I am Belle, “Dream Goes On”, “Welcome Aboard Show”, and “Farewell Show”. I play many different roles in addition to Belle. I have about fifty costumes I believe. The theme nights are just short dances that we perform for the adults at night after the shows.

Audition: The audition was great! I went in to the singer call, and they gave me a callback that day for Belle. Then I came back in two days later and sang Belle’s songs and they made me do a short dance combo by myself. Then two weeks later they called me offering me the job!

Favorite part: My favorite part is performing every night and being given great opportunities. For example, I was asked to have a photo shoot taken as Belle to put photos and videos of me up on the Disney website. I also love being able to travel for free and meet a lot of people from different countries! Overall, I can’t imagine having a better senior year! I LOVE it!

Latoyia Everett (BDC Professional Semester, Fall 2011)

Cruise: Norwegian Jade

Role: dancer, dance captain

Travel: Throughout Europe – Venice, Barcelona, Santorini, Mykonos, Dubrovnik, Split, and Athens.

Performances: Two 45 minute shows, 1 “Cirque du Soleil” style show where I perform bungie from theatre ceiling. I’m also a magician’s assistant in another show. We perform everything from jazz to lyrical to Broadway to jazz funk.

Audition: I auditioned in the Fall of 2011 in NYC. The audition had over 150 people in attendance. For the first cut, they taught a strong jazz-style routine and we auditioned in groups of 10. Then they made a huge cut, down to 40. Next, they taught a small section from one of their shows, “Elements.” We auditioned about 5 at a time.  Soon they cut us down to the top 10. The audition was one of the most fun auditions I’ve ever been to. Everyone, including the panel, was incredibly supportive and friendly.

Favorite part: My favorite part of the working on the Norwegian Jade is visiting all the amazing ports and meeting people from around the world. We have such a diverse group of people on this cruise. Cruise ship workers are some of the most amazing and friendly people I have ever met.

 

Zanza Steinberg (BDC Professional Semester, Spring 2011)

Cruise: Royal Caribbean – Serenade

Role: dancer

Travel: We started off in the Caribbean and then travelled Transatlantic and are now in the Mediterranean alternating between a Greek Isles and Venice/Italy cruise.

Performances: Two shows – one Jazz and one Musical Theater.

Audition: My audition was for the Chicago show aboard the Allure of the seas, however the casting director found this a better fit for me and I am currently aboard Serenade of the Seas. The audition was extremely long. We were there for 9 hours in total, first an across the floor combo and then a cut, then another across the floor and cut. Then we learnt the original opening number from Chicago, another cut after that. Then we learnt a jazz routine and there was another cut and those of us who made it that far stayed to sing and read sides.

Favorite part: My favorite part is the work. Performing the shows with a live orchestra makes me so happy and I am a very proud member of the cast, grateful to be here. I am mostly just thankful to be a working dancer however the traveling is wonderful and learning to speak new languages has been great!

Mamma Mia! – Broadway Choreography Series with Allyson Carr

This ongoing series offers the opportunity to learn the original choreography to some of Broadway’s finest shows, presented by actual cast members straight from the stage to the studio.
On April 3rd and 5th, “Mamma Mia!” dance captain,

Allyson Carr visited Broadway Dance Center to teach the choreography from the show’s finale “Dancing Queen.”  Students couldn’t help but sing-along to the well-know ABBA classic as they learned the combination, which is taught at the Broadway auditions for “Mamma Mia!”  Though not technically intricate, the choreography challenged students to showcase their individual personalities within the movement.   Following the fun combination, BDC students joined Allyson in a Q&A about her dance career which has included professional performance in ballet, hip hop, modern, and theater!  When asked to give audition advice, Carr responded, “We are watching you the minute you walk in the room.  It doesn’t matter if you’re the best dancer in the world;  You have to be someone that we are drawn to work with.”

Upcoming workshops in BDC’s Broadway Choreography Series:

“How to Succeed…” with Chris Bailey: April 7th and 14th, 12-1:30pm
“Evita” with Chris Bailey: April 10th and 12th, 1:30-3pm
“Chicago” with David Kent: April 14th, 10:30-12pm