How She Got There: Leanne Cope, Actress & Tony-Nominated Ballerina

Name: Leanne Cope

Twitter Handle: @cope_leanne

Instagram Handle: @leannemcope

Whether you’d like to convince yourself that you’re an unofficial dance expert or become a dancing queen during long road trips, we’re all obsessed with dancing—regardless of whether we’re watching someone dancing or dancing ourselves. Granted, we aren’t alone because Leanne Cope dancing practically her entire life.

Aside from training as a professional ballerina and working with the Royal Ballet Company, Leanne Cope has transitioned her craft onto the Broadway stage. While she performed as Lise Dassin in An American In Paris: The Musical in critically acclaimed theaters around the world, her role as Lise is her first time singing, dancing and talking on stage. Although this musical rendition of this musically-inclined love story might be her first time on Broadway, Leanne Cope went on to win Best Female Dancer at the 2015 Astaire Awards and the Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence at the 2015 Theatre World Awards, both for her performance in An American in Paris.

Though you might have missed out of seeing the musical in person, you can watch An American in Paris is select theaters later this month on September 20 and September 23. If for, whatever reason you haven’t already reserved your tickets, we talked to the Tony-nominated performer Leanne Cope about her time as Lise Dassin, dancing for the Obamas and her expanding career.

Her Campus: You portray Lise Dassin in An American in Paris, which focuses on this sometimes complicated love story. Can you tell us anything about the first time you fell in love with dance and ballet?

Leanne Cope: I started ballet when I was about five years old, and I started because my mom used to see me walking about on my tiptoes all the time. And she saw that I had a natural knack for ballet, so she sent me to along to ballet school. I think I must have fallen in love with it in a pretty swift way, actually. I was a kind of love at first sight with ballet, but I hadn’t seen a ballet until I was much older until I was about 12 years old. So, I didn’t really know it could be my job or my vocation, but I did it for fun. And I did it because my friends did it. Then, I took it a lot more seriously from about the age of 11 because I went away to boarding school then.

Yeah, I think it’s something you kind of sometimes have a love-hate relationship with ballet. You can have good days and bad day, like with everything. Some days it’s going really well and some days not so well, but I still love going to the theatre and watching it. It is such a great feeling when you do nail something. If you do something really well, it’s such a good and fulfilling feeling to finish a ballet class or to finish a performance. So, I still have a great love for it.

HC: Absolutely. And like you said, it has to feel refreshing after going through hours of practice and finally nailing a routine or nailing move.

LC: Yes, exactly. I guess it's similar to how sports people get the time they want or they’ve run a race or something. It’s the achievement at the end of it. That’s such a great feeling when you’ve worked really hard for it.  

HC: Absolutely. Then how did you first get involved in the industry?

LC: Well, I went to ballet school when I was 11, so it’s a boarding school in London, and they just made me concentrate on ballet. It’s kind of similar to SAD in New York, New York City Ballet—it’s this worldwide school. So, I studied there for five years, and when to another school which goes from 16 to 18. Then I was lucky enough to get a job in the Royal Ballet Company, so I guess my career started when I was about 18. And, I danced with the Royal Ballet for about 12 years. I danced in the Covent Gardens with the company, and we did all the classics: The Nutcracker and Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. I also got to dance some new ballets, which were choreographed—and a lot of Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon. That’s how I met Christopher Wheeldon before I got involved in An American in Paris.

HC: That’s amazing. You also portray a French accent in your role as Lise. How did you study and research that accent?

LC: Well, I studied French at school. I don’t speak it very well. But also, there’s this wonderful thing that all the ballet terms are in French. So, French became a language that I could understand quite well; I’m just not very good at speaking it. I used to, before every evening after rehearsals, I would come home and I would go onto YouTube. I would find a video of a French actress just speaking in an interview, so I’d listen to maybe Juliette Binoche or Audrey Tautou and just listen to them just talking in normal life. They’re not playing a role or such, just having a chat with another person. I might just have it on in the background when I was cooking dinner or while I was in the bathroom, so I could just surround myself with those sounds because I was just trying to take it in that whole time.

But, we had a wonderful dialect coach that helps me and would be there every time I would say something slightly wrong. His hands would just go up in the corner [of the set] and I’d have to go and get notes from him. Another thing that really helps as we opened the show in Paris was being surrounded by French-speaking people really, really helps the accent.

HC: That's amazing. especially with the innovative way that you kind of supplemented your teachings from your dialect coach with watching the YouTube videos.

LC: Yeah, I just felt that I needed to surround myself with it because most of the other actors spoke with an American accent, well, they are American, anyway. But, it can’t be changed because, from where I stand, everyone has an accent. So, we all had to put an accent on. But in America, most of the actors spoke as they normally spoke, then myself and Max [Westwell] we had to have dialect coaching to get us to have that French accent.

HC: Absolutely. Then what was it like preparing for the production itself. Was there just a thing as a typical day when you were on set?

LC: Wait, for the show or for the movie?

HC: The movie or either, sorry.

LC: Well, to be honest, it’s made for film because we’re just filming one of our shows. Once the show is up and running, we don’t rehearse that often. We get notes, so if things aren’t running quite as smoothly, we get notes maybe once or twice a week. But, before we need to open, there isn’t really a typical day on set. It’s just what we need to work on that day, but we would always start with ballet class. We’d warm up in the morning, we’d have 45-minutes. Normally, ballet class is about an hour and 15 minutes, so it was shorter than normal. But, we had a 45-minute ballet class to warm our bodies up, and then we would have a vocal warmup to get ready to sing and talk. Then, they would kind of dip us into queue studio, so Christopher would be working and doing theme work in one room and then the assistant choreographer could be working and cleaning a dance routine in another room.

So, there’s never a time when anyone was sat down kind of doing nothing and being about to twiddle their thumbs. They were always keeping up busy. We were always practicing something. There were quite a lot of scenes that I wasn’t involved with—the big scene, the kind of ‘stairway to paradise’—I wasn’t in those scenes. So, there was quite a lot of time where I was kind of by myself, where I’d go to the dialect coach or I’d go downtown and have an extra lesson. Even if you have a spare hour, you’d fill it with something, whether that’s learning a new line or going over choreography. So, it’s quite nice to not know what you’ve got that day and just come in and be prepared for anything.

HC: And that’s a hard task in itself to be prepared for anything.

LC: Yes, it is. It’s true. You kind of start the day thinking you’re doing the big ballet, and then they change their minds that they want you to sing. They keep you on your toes. They make sure you’re always warm, whether that’s vocally or physically—that you can just be ready for any bit of the show, at any time. Yeah, that is a challenge in itself.
 

HC: And I know you just spoke on this a little bit, but in previous interviews, you’ve talked about how some of your pre-show rituals include bashing your pointe shoes around to get them ready for practice or for an actual performance. In addition to that, as well as stretching, are there any other pre-show rituals or routines that you go through to get read?

LC: I always like to get to the theatre quite early. You don’t officially have to be in the theatre until the half-hour call. But in the West End, it’s slightly different because we do a group warm-up, so we have to be there an hour and a half before the show. But, I always like to get there at least two hours before curtains open, just to make sure I’m there, I’m ready and I’m in my dress room. The first thing I’ll do is have a cup of tea and put the kettle on and have a cup of tea and just relax in my dressing room. Then, I’ll just check that my shoes are all ready, make sure the ribbons aren’t loose, to make sure they’re more secure. Then I’ll do my costume prep, so make sure my hair is in pin curls and then I put my makeup on. Then, I tend to go down to the stage, just to feel the stage setting and practice some of the sets. Once I’m physically warmed up, I’ll move onto my vocal warm-ups.

I would stick to the same type of routine, most days. I always had the same pair of leg warmers that I wore every single show to warm up in, and the same jacket. It kind of did the whole distance, Paris, Broadway and the West End—the same pair of leg warmers and the same jacket that I wore for every single show to keep me warm. And I’ve still got them actually, but I haven’t had to put them on since then, but they’re still there waiting in a drawer for the next show. [laughs[

HC: That’s amazing, particularly with all the points in your routine and how it gets you in the mindset to work.

LC: And I probably didn’t need to do them that way. I’d say, if it didn’t go to plan, I’m not one of those people that say, ‘Oh, I haven’t done this, now the show’s going to go badly.’ I don’t have to go exactly to plan, but it’s nice to have a routine. I think most people enjoy having a routine.

HC: Absolutely. And in another interview, you’ve also noted that when you went through the audition for An American in Paris, it was the first time you spoke or sang on stage apart from dancing. What inspired you to go out for this audition?

LC: Well, I didn’t really know that I was auditioning for when I started. Christopher actually sent me a message on Facebook saying he’d like to hear me sing, and I presumed it was for a ballet he was doing that he, maybe, needed someone to sing something.  So, I didn’t actually know what I was auditioning for, until a couple of weeks later when I got an email from a casting agency in New York it was headed with An American in Paris: The Musical. I was like, ‘Oh, so that’s what I was doing.’

So yeah, I didn’t actually know. I guess maybe he didn’t want to scare me, and maybe if I was terrible, he didn’t want to feel obliged that he had told me what it was going to be and he didn’t want to get my hopes up, or something. So, he kept it very under wraps until later on when I got the email and found out what exactly it was for. But, it was scary for me because ballet is a silent art form. You don’t make any noise, even in a rehearsal studio, you don’t really ask questions. But in a musical, you can ask your co-workers questions and ask your director questions and have a conversation about the role. Just to ask those questions in rehearsal, let alone actually speak on stage and generally being more vocal, that was scary, especially with someone like Christopher, who I’ve known since I was like 13.

I had always looked up to him, and he was this pinnacle of an absolute star choreography. We’d have to curtsy when he’d walk into the room, while I was at boarding school. To be on talking terms with him felt very strange. It was a change and it was nice because we were all equals, and we wanted to know our opinions. So, it’s now very hard for me to be in the studio and not have a voice and not want to ask questions. So, I feel sorry for the next person I get to work with because I’ll be chatting all the time.

HC: But that’s nice, in a way, to see the flip side of the industry and to have gotten that experience. And then, you have extensive experience in dance and being on stage in general. Have you learned anything about yourself or your passion for ballet from your time being onstage?

LC: One thing I’ve learned is that I’m definitely better—I’m a type of person where I’m a creature of habit. So, it really suited me doing a show eight times a week. Whereas, I’m sure a lot of ballet dancers—I remember doing a run of Swan Lake where we probably did 30 shows, and we all thought that was a marathon and we couldn’t spare the thought of doing another 35 shows—but for me, I really loved doing the same thing again and again and again. You never feel comfortable on stage, it’s not the most comfortable place to be, but I’ve got to a point where I walked on stage and I was like, ‘Well, I did this yesterday, and I did it the day before, so of course I can do it today. I got to the point where I can enjoy the show and the play and be brave enough to try something new. Then, figure out if it works. If it didn’t work, then if it works then try again the next day. And if it didn’t work, try something new.

But for me, what I learned about myself is that I really do like doing eight shows a week. And when I’ve learned something, it really helps me become calm and it helped my confidence because it made me believe in myself a little bit more. And I think that all dancers and all performers can do well with that, actually. So, it helped me with that.

HC: And that had to have been, like you said, a confidence boost and a validating experience to say, ‘Hey, I can do eight shows a week. I can do this.’

LC: Yes.

HC: And what’s your favorite part about being in this acclaimed musical production and seeing it hit theaters?

LC: Oh goodness, it’s so hard to choose a favorite thing because this experience really has changed my life. I never imagined that I would be in a musical, let alone one that did as well as it did and being nominated for 12 Tony Awards and 4 Olivia Awards. It was just the most surreal experience. And sometimes when you’re on Facebook, a memory pops up and it will say three years ago today you were performing at the White House for the Obamas. And if I hadn’t have heard of An American in Paris, I would have never gotten to do that and get to record a cast album and go to the Tony Awards. Like Broadway was just the most magical experience, and Broadway and Bryant Park and just getting to sing. You learn as you go.

I used to watch Smash when I got home from rehearsals because I didn’t know anything about putting on a Broadway show. So when I got home from rehearsals, I would watch Smash and I would go, “Oh, well, that must be coming next,” so I kind of learned from watching that TV program. But, it’s really just been life-changing, and I wouldn’t change any of it because it’s all been so wonderful.

HC: Absolutely. It sounds wonderful, and the whole experience itself can absolutely be a favorite part. Then, what advice would you give to a college-age person who might be interested in dancing, whether that’s professionally or recreationally?

LC: I think dancing is such a great way of exercising not only your body but also your brain. I’ve been doing a little bit of teaching recently, and I teach as young as four or five. And the most wonderful thing about dance is that it’s infectious, and you can pick it up at any age and any physicality can do it. So, find the type of dancing that you enjoy the most because it might not be ballet. It could be jazz, or tap, or samba, or it could be hip-hop. There are so many different types of dance, so find the one that you enjoy, whether you want to for fun or for a career. If you do want to do it as a career, I would say I was very much into doing just ballet from 11 years old. And now, I wish that I had broadened my horizons a little bit more at that age. I wish that I had carried on with samba and jazz, just so that now it doesn’t seem so alien to me. But I have to remember the times when I was seven and if I had only carried on a little bit longer it wouldn’t be so hard to, now, pick it up again. So, just try lots of different styles of dance would be the advice I would give to people.

HC: And do you have any words of wisdom that you use to keep yourself motivated in your career?

LC: I think it’s learning to believe in yourself. I think if Christopher hadn’t taken that risk to cast, well Chris and the producers, two non-speaking, non-singing dancers in a Broadway show. I never would have believed I could do it, but he believed I could. And by the end of it, I believed I could. So, I think it’s about believing you can and pushing yourself. Push boundaries because I never thought I would live abroad. I thought I’d always live in England. If an opportunity comes, jump in head first and just work really, really hard, and you’ll never know what you’ll achieve.

I really didn’t think this was possible. If you had told me when I was 10 years old, ‘One day you’re going to perform on Broadway in an original part in a musical,' I would have never believed you. If you see an opportunity, you have to take it and embrace it in both your arms and be an absolute sponge. Take in every bit of information you can and absorb it. And most importantly: Have fun along the way.

An American in Paris: The Musical will be in select theaters on September 20 and 23, and tickets are currently available for purchase