Ben Hartley gives young dancers The Broadway Experience

January 14, 2009

Students break out in dance class at The Broadway Experience. Photo by Robert Petkoff

In the six and a half years that English-born Ben Hartley has lived in NYC, he’s become a Broadway staple. Watching him take turns across the stage as a seagull, butler and sea creature in The Little Mermaid on Broadway, it’s hard to believe he was once so far from the Great White Way. Now the 31-year-old has a mission: Give young dancers a taste of what it’s like to work on Broadway. Last summer, as 28 dancers ages 11 to 19 spent six days dancing, singing, acting and learning, Ben fulfilled his vision.

Ben’s Background: In the studio and onstage

Ben first came to NYC in 1998 as a ballet dancer in a touring production of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, and felt as though he’d burst into the heart of the dance universe. “There were so many styles that had never really come to London before,” he says. “I plowed into jazz, musical theater and a lot of Fosse [style] classes.”

When the last curtain fell on Swan Lake and it was time for Ben to go back to the UK, he promised himself he’d one day make NYC his home and forge a career on Broadway. “It was a world of optimism where you literally felt like you could do anything or be anything,” says Ben. Three years later he made the move. But in an unexpected turn, Ben found himself teaching, rather than dancing on the Great White Way.

It turned out that while Ben would need a green card to work on Broadway (which he didn’t have yet), he could still dance off-Broadway and work as a teacher with the visa he already had. “I taught from time to time in London, but I don’t think I truly discovered my passion for teaching until I moved to NYC,” says Ben. For five years, he taught on the faculty at Broadway Dance Center and took guest teaching spots at Peridance and Steps on Broadway. After he got his green card and started working on Broadway in 2004, Ben knew he also wanted to teach his own unique program that would allow students to “experience what I did 10 years ago,” he says. So he created The Broadway Experience.

The Road to the Workshop

The teaching company was formed in 2006, and the full program launched in 2008. But it was a long journey in between. Deciding which instructors would fit well was the easiest starting point, as Ben’s career had put him in touch with fantastic choreographers, dancers and directors.

Next, Ben tackled finding an appropriate space for the inaugural summer. “A high-end program needs a top of the line professional environment,” he says. “Upon touring the facility of Mr. Baryshnikov’s 37 ARTS in midtown Manhattan, I immediately knew this was the place I wanted to present TBE.” The sprung floors, climate-controlled studios, column-free spaces, natural light and inspiring views fit Ben’s needs—and vision—perfectly.

Marketing the workshop, however, proved to be a big challenge. “TBE is an international program so not only did I need to advertise in the US, but also in the UK,” says Ben. Fortunately, his friends, colleagues and program staff-members helped Ben get the word out to prospective students.

Once dancers were in the know, Ben focused on what type of pre-professionals he was interested in teaching and in what manner. The program, says Ben, “is geared around being a triple-threat performer, but it’s not a performance-based program.” This means Ben’s not interested in dancers spending a week learning a routine to perform in a grand finale. “These days students have a lot of opportunities to perform but not to work with the kind of teachers that I’ve hired,” says Ben.

The instructors—an impressive list of Broadway performers, choreographers and directors, plus musical director Kevin Cole, a concert pianist who has worked extensively on Broadway and on the symphony circuit—help students hone the skills that might help them nab jobs later on in life. “It was a lot of mentoring, and we had some tears, but there was a lot of encouragement to climb over these obstacles,” says Ben. “The walls were broken down by the end of the week.”

At the Experience

A typical afternoon at TBE includes 30 minutes of Kevin teaching students to sing a Broadway number, and then on to Ben for the steps that go with it. “They had to memorize words and music in a half hour,” explains Kevin. “Then they would have to sing and move at the same time.” He adds: “They realized how difficult and different that is and what you have to do to make it work with your breathing. It showed how quickly you have to process information and give a performance and how the song can’t suffer because of the movement or vice versa.”

Students rest between classes at TBE. Photo by Robert Petkoff

The six-day program also includes Q&A sessions with Broadway performers who share tips and insights about their lives on the stage. Susanna Daly, a 17-year-old TBE participant from New Jersey, says that meeting these professionals—like Spamalot’s Tony Award-nominated choreographer Casey Nicholaw—was the best part. “It was like, ‘Who gets to meet these types of people?’” says Susanna. For some of the students, hearing that even the most talented performers don’t always make it was “a little scary,” she adds, “but Ben always said, ‘If you’re meant to do it, you’ll do it. If that is your dream, then you have to follow it.’ So it was all very positive.”

Most importantly, Ben wants the students to leave the program having answered some important questions for themselves: “Can I do this for a living? Am I good at this? Do I like this? What don’t I like?” he says. “I want to give them an experience that might help change their lives.”

Now, Ben’s working on the 2009 version of TBE and is looking for corporate sponsors who will help aid dancers who can’t afford the program. He wants to share that magical NYC experience that led him to fulfill his own big Broadway dreams.