An Aussie in New York City: A talk with Hannah Russell

Hannah Russell.
Hannah Russell.

Ah, New York City – with her towering, welcoming Statue of Liberty, her energy and diversity calls to many across the world. Dancers worldwide certainly feel that call, with the city’s abounding opportunities in Broadway, concert dance, commercial dance, film, and more. Hannah Russell, having lived and worked professionally as a dancer all over Australia, wanted to be somewhere where she could dance professionally and thrive creatively alongside international artists. NYC became that place for her. Dance Informa recently spoke with Russell while she was in Australia, preparing to head back to NYC for her professional performing career. We’ll let her tell the rest of her story.

Please tell us about your background and how you came to dance.

Hannah Russell.

Hannah Russell.

“I grew up dancing. I started with a small song and dance class when I lived in Melbourne when I was around the age of 11. I moved around Australia with my family a lot, as my dad was in the Air Force. I studied at dance studios in both Sydney and Melbourne. I delved in and out of tap, jazz and contemporary but completed all my ballet exams. I originally wanted to be a ballerina. I had a burning desire to start ballet, then it went from there. It wasn’t until year 11 in high school that I decided I wanted to dance professionally and began to train more in contemporary. When I finished high school, I was thrilled to receive a first round offer to train in the classical/contemporary course at Ev & Bow Full Time Dance Training Centre. 

When I graduated from Ev & Bow, I spent my first year auditioning before I decided to work on my singing and study music theatre at the Australian Institute of Music. Halfway through my degree, I had an ankle injury and surgery on both my feet, which led me to transfer to arts management and music business to finish my degree. When I moved to Arts Management, I learnt finance, business planning, marketing, strategic planning, PR, entrepreneurialism – all subjects I absolutely had no desire to do in high school because I was purely focused on dance.

I really enjoyed studying business in college. If I didn’t do that course, I don’t think I would have been able to navigate my career today. The planning, preparation and essentially working as a dancer is like running your own business; it’s your responsibility. It’s given me a lot more courage as a performer and understanding of the business side, which was not knowledge I had when I first graduated Ev and Bow and was ambitious and conditioned ready for auditions.”

Can you talk a bit more about your career and accomplishments?

In Australia, I have worked around the country as a show host for Nickelodeon, Dreamworks and ABC Kids, as well as performing professionally as a jazz and contemporary dancer for Australian choreographers. I also spent three seasons as a cheerleader for the Pantherettes. In NYC, I danced with Buglisi Dance Theatre at Lincoln Center and ALMA NYC dance company. I have also performed for NYC chroeographer Josh Assor in his theater jazz ‘Billie Jean’ and was a featured soloist for Italian choreographer Giacomo Severeni in his award winning piece, ‘Creating Memories’.

Hannah Russell. Photo courtesy of Russell.

Hannah Russell. Photo courtesy of Russell.

I really enjoyed working with Giacomo. He had such a strong vision and was really passionate about our little group of six bringing it to life. His work really challenged me athletically and mentally. It was an eight-minute contemporary ballet and a highly technical piece.

He was really encouraging to work with. When he first choreographed my solo, it was a lot for me to take in. I didn’t want to let him down, so I worked extremely hard, but it was mutual. We worked really well with each other, and he trusted what I bought to the piece as and knew I had the skill to execute his technical quirky style. It was really great to use all the training from my ballet and contemporary years as a lead in this piece.

I have assisted Ginger Cox, who is on faculty at Broadway Dance Center, with the new student placement auditions at BDC. It was an honour to share my experiences as an alumni ISVP student with the new international students at BDC and be there for them in their first week in NYC and at the infamous Broadway Dance Center.

I was also the recipient of the prestigious Outstanding Student Award when I was an ISVP student, and BDC has asked me to be on the panel for the new ISVP students as well. Another opportunity that enabled me to share my experience positively with new students and work on the other side of the audition table.”

Hannah Russell.

Hannah Russell.

Impressive! What did you find most challenging about working and building your career in NYC?

“I’ve had experience in most styles of dance but also acting and singing. I’m grateful that I moved around a lot as a child. People are different everywhere you go, and what they accept, encourage, enjoy is different. I’ve learnt to just use all my experiences and bring them to whatever opportunity I have as an artist whether people accept it or not.

This is what excites me about NYC — everyone is completely different, being an artist of unique ability is so welcomed, and everyone is so supportive of one another’s individual talent. There is a place for talent and art, and the companies that I have been noticed by have hired me because I have had a broad experience in different genres of dance, music and performing. They celebrate individual artists within their work, which is really exciting and makes their work so original.

When I moved back to NYC, I was no longer a student. I worked full time and auditioned and took class around work. I took a 2/3 pay cut, as I was only able to work one job, but also the wage scale in America is much less than Australia. From that one job, I had to pay the rent and my classes. It was exactly what people talk about when they say ‘hustle’ in NYC. I knew it was what I had to do if I wanted to set my career up in NYC.

I also had to rely on the ‘subway’, which means leaving extra time all the time, because you never know if you will get stuck in a tunnel or end up on a different route. Or if they would cancel your service at 11pm. This usually happened when I finished my shift at 11pm, in the middle of winter and I would have to transfer to a bus in the snow. And don’t get me started on carting your laundry down the street to the laundromat! These are the small little things that you don’t realise we are so lucky to have in Australia, that all add up.”

Where to from here? What do you see as your growth area as a performer?

“I know I can work as a contemporary dancer but also commercially and in theater in NYC as well. There are opportunities for me to use my experiences in contemporary and live performance and theater. I also would love to perform as a Rockette. You need to be in NYC to completely commit to that. My friends in contemporary dance usually have a little laugh when I tell them it’s a dream of mine to dance at Radio City. I would also love to create workshops for young dancers on goals and personal development.

As for my growth areas as a performer, I think it’s important to never stop training and to learn new styles. Coming from the world of ballet and contemporary, I was originally scared to move outside of structured training, and the word ‘improvisation’ used to scare the life out of me. Baby steps, I now actually love improvisation and performing commercially. I want to continue to train alongside people who offer new ideas and challenge me; it is really important.

Hannah Russell. Photo courtesy of Russell.

Hannah Russell. Photo courtesy of Russell.

On the business side, moving to NYC has taught me to ask for help when I need it. I’ve gotten to know a lot of performers from the modern and theater world in the States who have given me advice in regards to working as an individual artist. I’ve also just watched and learnt from training at more than one school and meeting artists from all backgrounds.

Without the relationships I have built, I would have had no idea where to turn to for support or to find the knowledge I needed to get ahead. Having the courage to ask for support when you need it is something I have had to learn and that has helped me tremendously. Taking responsibility for my own growth and where my weaknesses are is something I am working on and will always work on. I think the discipline to take personal responsibility is a blessing that comes with growing up as a dancer and in this industry, which is also a business.”

Is there anything that you bring to the table as an Australian artist, among Americans, that’s unique and beneficial? Perhaps a ‘no worries, mate!’ mentality?

“Yes, ‘no worries!’ Also, ‘keep it real’ and be down to earth. I’m very, ‘Well, it didn’t happen today here in NYC, move on, laugh about it.’ That’s an Aussie mentality that I am grateful for, without realizing it helped me get through life in NYC. ‘No drama’ is also a great one!”

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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