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.”

BDC alum kicking her heels in sixth season as a Radio City Rockette

Since she was a little girl, Alyssa Lemons always knew she wanted to be a dancer. Lemons excelled in her Dallas hometown ballet classes and was accepted to the University of Oklahoma as a ballet major. But when an injury sidelined Lemons the very first semester of her freshman year, she felt jolted and defeated. Over the Christmas break Lemons’ dad surprised her with a trip to New York City and tickets to see the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular.” And with that, the rest is history.

Photo courtesy of Madison Square Garden

Lemons loved the precision, glamour, technique, and athleticism of the Radio City Rockettes®. Suddenly, that twinkle came back to her eye. When she returned to college, Lemons switched her major to Kinesiology and began dabbling in musical theater dance classes once her injury had fully healed. She was stepping out of her comfort zone—and it was exciting!

In her heart, Lemons was ready to take the leap into the concrete jungle. But in her mind, she knew that she didn’t have all the knowledge and tools to succeed in the theatre world, having grown up a bunhead her entire life. So, upon graduation Lemons attended Broadway Dance Center’s Summer Session—an intensive eight-week program offering dancers diverse training of unparalleled distinction in addition to weekly seminars and master classes designed to introduce the tools and networking opportunities to help launch a professional career. Students take 12 technique classes per week, participate in mock auditions with esteemed panelists, and have several performance opportunities (including a final showcase) throughout the two-month session.

“Like most dancers first coming to this city, I was intimidated by the whole scene,” admits Lemons. “The BDC training programs offer more than technique classes—You’re encouraged and challenged to step outside your comfort zone, and you get incredible mentorship along your journey from the amazing faculty.” Some of Lemons’ key teachers throughout her training were Matthew Powell, Dorit Koppell, Jamie Salmon, Richard J. Hinds, Al Blackstone, Ray Hesselink, and Germaine Salsberg.

“I grew up a ballerina,” Lemons says, “and at BDC I realized I could do so much more. I felt empowered to take classes in different styles like hip-hop, tap, and musical theater.” Lemons credits her strong and versatile technique and her ability to pick up choreography to her commitment to take diverse and challenging classes.

On top of the Summer Session program, Lemons was also accepted into Invitational Week at the Rockettes Summer Intensive.  Doing double duty with the Summer Session and Rockettes Intensive made for a memorable, however exhaustive, first few months in the Big Apple. After Invitational Week, Lemons was asked to come back to Radio City as an assistant for the educational programs such as the Rockettes Experience and Summer Intensive. And, she also knew she had more training to do. So, she went back to BDC for the Professional Semester—a four-month training program that allows for an even deeper dive into all that it takes to cultivate a professional dance career.

Year after year, Lemons lined back up outside of Radio City to audition for the Rockettes. Instead of feeling defeated, Lemons learned from her college experience—choosing to use a new perspective and grow from the perceived setback. “When I would get cut, I knew what I had to work on, and I got back into class to keep getting stronger. As a dancer, you’re going to have hard days,” Lemons admits. “But if you have that passion inside you, that fire, discipline, and perseverance will get you through.” After her fifth audition, Lemons got the call she had always dreamed of—She was officially a Radio City Rockette.

Lemons, now in her sixth season with the Rockettes, emphasizes how much her training at Broadway Dance Center prepared her for the job of a lifetime. “The schedule was probably the most challenging part of Pro-Sem,” remembers Lemons. “You’re taking up to four classes a day plus a seminar in the morning and rehearsal at night.” That schedule built up Lemons’ stamina and work ethic for when she started rehearsals with the Rockettes—six hours per day, six days per week for six weeks! “Pro Sem really pushes your stamina and teaches you persistence,” Lemons adds. “It’s a skill—and a practice—to always show up and do your best even when you’re tired.”

The Rockettes rehearsal process and show schedule are undeniably brutal (we’re talking up to four shows per day!). “But it’s empowering to know you’re not alone,” Lemons says. “There are 79 other women standing with you. It’s definitely a sisterhood and we encourage each other through it all.”

“I still get chills,” Lemons admits. “To call myself a Rockettes is just mind-blowing. I’m so inspired by my fellow Rockettes, the entire cast, and production crew for the Christmas show because I know how much goes into it all. This is truly a dream come true.”

Now, Lemons is feeling the “full circle” moment—teaching the Rockettes Experience to aspiring young dancers like she was not so long ago. “You can’t train in this precision style anywhere else,” notes Lemons of the Rockettes training programs. “Whether you want to pursue the Rockettes or any other dance career, they help you in all aspects of technique and really show you all that goes into a professional job.”

When Lemons is on her “off-season” (i.e. not kicking up her heels at Radio City during the holidays), you’ll find her back taking class at BDC. You see a lot of professional dancers nowadays either hitting the gym or just taking classes they’re comfortable in. But for Lemons (and many Pro Sem alumni), why would you ever want to stop challenging, training, and growing? That’s not just a “professional,” that’s an artist.

“I would strongly encourage dancers to audition for Pro Sem,” Lemons adds. “It’s an incredible program with such a tried-and-true structure. You get technical training, mentorship, and master classes with top Broadway and commercial choreographers. And, perhaps most of all, you develop the work ethic, professionalism, and confidence to audition (and audition, and audition), work in this business, and never quit your daydream.”

Breaking into Broadway

The lights are bright, the buzz and energy is so full of life. It’s full of song, dance, storytelling, exciting choreography, extravagant costumes and sets. It’s Broadway. It’s lovingly called The Great White Way – one of the first streets in the U.S. to be lit with electric lights. Its history and reputation and potential for amazing things make it a “bucket list” item for many dancers. But when so many dancers are vying for the same goal, how can you turn this dream into a reality? How can you break into Broadway?

Here, we turn to Stephanie Bissonnette, a 2010 graduate of Broadway Dance Center’s Summer Intern Program (now called the BDC Professional Semester), who made her Broadway debut in the musical Mean Girls last April. She knows all there is to know about what kinds of classes aspiring Broadway dancers should be taking, how to prepare for that singing audition and how you, too, can make it on The Great White Way, doing what you love.