From Biggar to Broadway?

One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance

By Steven Ross Smith

Those of us who've driven Highway 14 northwest of Saskatoon approaching Biggar have chuckled at the sign “New York Is Big But This Is Biggar”. Today Luke Poitras, an eighteen year old performer from Biggar, can examine this statement from both perspectives. He's studying at The American Music and Drama Academy in Manhattan. “It's a very long way from Biggar,” he says, reflecting on his first few months away from home.

The road to New York began when Luke was five and watching his ten year old sister Kelly tap dancing. Almost right away he wanted tap shoes too. So in 1989 his parents, Charmaine and Tom, started him in lessons at the Biggar School of Dance with Corrine Swann who Luke says “was an amazing teacher.” He also studied with Nicole Loiselle-Davies and Eloise Sitter.

His early teachers got him going on the right foot, studying ballet, tap, jazz, Irish, musical theatre and modern dance. When he was eight he decided to audition in Saskatoon for the Alberta Ballet production of The Nutcracker. He was successful, and joining that production he met Juliette Perrey-Perez, the Nutcracker repetiteur (rehearsal director) for the touring company. That year – 1992 — he danced as Grandfather Mouse.

Now, looking back, he says, “Oh my gosh, for an eight year old that's pretty big — being able to work with professionals in SASKATOON. It was exciting!” He subsequently danced in The Nutcracker each year until 1998.

But after that first year, it had become apparent that Luke needed to look beyond Biggar for training. And so began the family's many-mile, twice-weekly driving commute from Biggar to Saskatoon where Luke was enrolled in Juliette's Dance Centre, run by that same Madame Perrey-Perez.

Madame Juliette “could see that there was potential in Luke.” He had dedication. “He wanted it,” she says. “You have to want it.” His innate drive propelled Luke to work hard, primarily at ballet studies. “Ballet training is the base for dancers,” Juliette says.

At Juliette's Luke also studied musical theatre, and performed in many roles in the School's annual recital-spectacle, right up to 2002. Under Juliette's guidance, Luke found that the more he worked the more comfortable he felt with his technique and the more he built strength, stamina, and energy.

Such learning and development requires hard work and discipline. It is physically and emotionally demanding, and the dancer has to be mentally tough. Juliette says, “The dancer has to be able to take criticism, criticism of everything that has to be perfect – fingernails, chin, body placement, turn-out, weight-shifts, and more. I pushed Luke very hard. But he was willing to try anything and was always fun to work with. And he never missed a class.”

Madame Perrey-Perez' own learning curve was accelerated by working with Luke. In order to prepare him for the Advanced Royal Academy of Dance exams, she had to study and take training in Toronto in the Advanced Two Syllabus for boys. The Royal Academy is recognized internationally and sets dance standards in one hundred and twenty-three countries around the world.

Luke successfully passed three major ballet exams of the Royal Academy in three years. In March 2002 he passed the Advanced Two, a plateau level of the Academy, allowing him to place the letters A.R.A.D. after his name. This designation is recognized as a significant achievement throughout the ballet world. It opens doors into study, teaching, and performing.

In order to develop his abilities even further, Luke began to seek the next step. After considerable research into suitable schools, Luke chose The American Music and Drama Academy located in Manhattan as the right one for him. In 2002 he applied for enrollment. He had to audition for the school, in competition with dancers form all over the world. He was accepted and is one of only two Canadians in first year at the school.

Once accepted he had to audition for individual classes in acting, singing, music theory and different dance forms.

The adjustment of leaving family and Biggar's low density and easy pace, for the teeming energy and anomie of New York City has been a challenge. Just getting there was a bit of an ordeal. En route, in Chicago, Luke lost his bus ticket and had to buy another one. After arrival in New York City, at the school, he lost his wallet and jacket. Fortunately they were returned. Calamities aside, he made it, and now he's well into classes, where he is demonstrating his penchant for hard work, and his Saskatchewan friendliness.

“At first I was kind of shy, but now I've made tons of friends. I'm expecting the unexpected and I will go for it all.” Poitras' goal is to perform in musical theatre, he hopes, on or near Broadway.

Some day he hopes to play the role of the French pointillist painter Georges Seurat in the musical 'Sunday in the Park with George' which features music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. And why not? Though there will undoubtedly be competition for such roles. Acknowledging the uncertain and competitive nature of his chosen profession, he says, “It's all like one huge audition.”

Back home, his Mom, Dad and sister are pulling for him. So too are members of the dance community in Saskatoon. Support has also come in an essential form – funds to assist with the costs of attending The Academy. Luke has received financial assistance from Dance Saskatchewan Inc. (where he's been a member for years) and Saskatchewan Lotteries. Dance Saskatchewan is a provincial membership organization that fosters all dance forms in many communities. And SaskLotteries channels some of its revenues into arts organizations, which then may support individual artists in their training and development.

Luke speaks of his debt to all his supporters, and to the teachers who got him started. He is especially grateful to Madame Juliette for his ballet training. “She's my backbone,” he says.

Everyone who knows Luke hopes that his poised backbone and prairie-bred training and determination will help him make the leap to a professional dancing and singing career. We should not be surprised to see Luke Poitras' name on a musical theatre cast list or on a brightly lit marquee a few years down the road. Maybe we'll even see his name added to the town signs at the edge of Biggar


Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

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