Sean Rollofson: From Ballet to Broadway and back again
When 7-year-old Sean Rollofson stepped onto the stage in the Nutcracker, he had a realization: he was made for this. Since then, he’s traveled the world dancing, been on Broadway and even played a ballet dancer in the STARZ series Flesh and Bone. He talks with us about the formative nature of dance, the difference between ballet and Broadway, and growing up as a performer.
When did you begin taking ballet and how did that shape you as a young person?
I started ballet when I was seven-years-old and it shaped my dedication, drive and focus. You have to commit to it when you are very young, so you almost grow up a lot faster than other kids in certain ways. When you decide you’re going to be a professional dancer, you have to buckle down and treat it like a job, so you pretty much have the responsibility from the time you turn 13. It’s like you’re training for the Olympics or the NFL. It’s the same dedication.
How did that level of training when you’re so young affect the way you carried yourself growing up?
Because of that training, I know how to push myself hard to get to the things I want. A lot of people get that through internships during college, but we were shipped off during the summer to train so I was living by myself in dorms when I was 15. It’s like you’re a miniature adult, having to self-motivate to do school and ballet. We were trained to work hard, trained for perfection, to see details and to call things out. As a ballet dancer, you grow up in front of a wall of mirrors which can be terribly degrading by terribly helpful as well.
What was the first moment that you were doing what you were meant to be doing?
I knew when I was seven. I auditioned for Pacific Northwest Ballet school in early September of that year. I had been dancing at a little school by my house in Redmond, Washington and my teacher said I should go to PNB. It was a big school, there was a class full of guys there and it would be a good fit. I was too young to really be there at 7-years-old, but I was put in class with 9 year olds, and got into the Nutcracker. When I was on stage in my tiny part in the Nutcracker, I remember thinking that this was what I was going to do; I’m going to be on stage. That was the thought process at 7. I loved the rehearsal process and the company at PNB was awesome.
You were a part of the STARZ series, Flesh and Bone, which showed the struggle of bring in the ballet world. What was your entrance into the ballet world like?
Flesh and Bone is a great view into the ballet world in a very dramatic way. It took every stereotypical story and put them all into a large scale story of one person. Nothing like that happened to me obviously. I joined PNB when I was 18 and my entry was rough. I was told growing up that I should quit ballet, that I was not genetically built for it, and that I’d have better luck doing other things. During my last years in high school, I worked hard to prove I was good enough to get into that company. It was a rough path to getting in, but that made me work harder to win and join the company I grew up dreaming about.
What about PNB made it so special for you?
This was my dream company. I’d grown up watching them. I do feel like I lucked out and got to have amazing experiences with PNB. It was odd during my first year to dance with the people I grew up watching. Some of the people who were dancing when I was young were now the principle dancers in the company and it was amazing I was able to dance alongside them. I’m thankful for it and I’m glad nothing was handed to me.
You move between musical theatre and ballet. What was the impetus of that transition?
When I left PNB, I was mentally burned out from the ballet world, but I knew I loved to performer, I knew that I could do it well and I knew I loved telling stories. I moved to New York and ended up joining the company of Phantom of the Opera. It was the ideal Broadway job to transition from ballet to theatre in that there are so many ballet principles within that show.
What did you learn when about your craft while you were at Phantom?
I learned how the theatre world works and how it’s nothing like the ballet world. I realized there are some really great aspects of musical theatre that you don’t get in ballet. In theatre, you’re on smaller stages so little things are more noticed, and you have more freedom n how you interpret the character or the part. I also found it’s a more eclectic group of people. Everyone’s strengths are different.
What I missed about ballet was the intense rehearsal process and pushing yourself for perfection with perfect lines and the camaraderie of helping each other out. In ballet, you’re always evolving through rehearsal too because you’re rehearsing other ballets while performing a different one at night. In theatre, once you know the show, you have rehearsal once a week and then do the same show 8 times a week.
What did moving from Seattle and stepping into a Broadway show teach you about yourself?
I’m from Seattle so I’d never lived outside of my hometown. At home, I had my friends and family, but when I moved to New York, I started brand new. I came to terms with my own routine and I was able to stand on my own. I grew up a little more and I became more confident in myself because I had stripped away my identity as a ballet dancer. Now I was in a new genre of performance. I had to ground myself a little more and have that awareness of me. I didn’t have my safety blanket.
You’ve also stepped into the role of choreographer? What challenges does that present that you didn’t have as a dancer?
I choreographed three ballets at PNB and I loved it. Knowing that you’re not doing what you’re told to do but rather, you’re the one doing the telling and creating the vision was a whole new challenge. I was influenced by other choreographers and ballets I saw. The struggle was getting the concepts out of my head and figuring out the steps and movements to make those concepts physically work. It made me more aware of myself as a dancer. I was more aware of my body and quality of movement. It’s not a small thing to make a ballet. It’s a full body experience.
What’s coming up for you?
I just did West Side Story in Florida and I’m back teaching in New York, which I love. There are also some new performances coming up that I’m really excited about.
Photography by Matthew Holler . . . Interview by Ryan Brinson
Fashion Stylist: Christina Sadler, The Met Fashion House
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