Sara Etsy's Unusual Journey to 'An American In Paris'
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Hours in a ballet studio as a soloist with Miami City Ballet to the bright lights of Broadway isn’t always a natural progression for company dancers, but that’s exactly how it happened to An American in Paris star Sara Esty. One Facebook message changed the entire course of her career.
Esty was cast in the original Gershwin musical as an ensemble member and as the Lise Dassin understudy for Leanne Cope. An American in Paris had a two-month out-of-town tryout in Paris, France followed by a Broadway run.
She jumped at the chance to headline the first national tour as Cope headed to the West End to launch the London cast. In a twist of fate normally written in Hollywood movies, Esty’s twin sister, Leigh-Ann, was cast as her understudy for the run.
Dance Dish caught up with Sara Esty the day after the show’s official press opening at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles.
Dance Network: I know the casting director for An American in Paris contacted you via Facebook to audition. How did they find you in the first place?
Sara Esty: A couple of other girls in Miami City Ballet got the message as well, so I think they were looking at the more mainstream ballet companies across the country. They wanted well-trained dancers to be a part of this show. I think she must have gone through the company’s website, but they really checked out the classical ballet scene to see if they could get anyone to audition.
DN: How was your singing technique before you entered the musical theatre world?
Sara: I have always loved singing. My sister and I did a little musical theatre in high school. We were in the chamber choir, so I have always loved it.
So when this show came along, I thought I could still do ballet, which is my first passion, and explore the Broadway world. It felt like a no-brainer for me.
DN: What has your experience been like working with director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon?
Sara: I’m such a fan of his work and so moved by it. When I heard he was going to be directing and choreographing, it was the gift that keeps on giving. I’m three years in and I am still a part of the show.
He wants to a part of every incarnation, whether it’s the national tour or the London production. Any part of it, he’s hands-on.
It was encouraging for those of us coming from the ballet world because it was a scary territory for us to walk into. He really paved the way for us. He comes from the ballet world and he’s doing just fine — a Tony Award-winning choreographer.
DN: How do you make sure the show stays fresh for you after a three-year run?
Sara: At first, your instinct is to use your maximum energy for each show. I had to learn to pace myself and get through seven shows a week. It’s hard and the show is physically and mentally demanding.
I keep reminding myself that every show is a new audience. Every place that we go to, they haven’t seen it before. Outside of me and [co-star] Garen Scribner, it’s a fresh cast. This is the 3.0 version of An American in Paris. Knowing that responsibility, even if you’re tired, you find new things in each show.
DN: What was the biggest adjustment going from a ballet company to Broadway?
Sara: I think the biggest obstacle for me was that in classical ballet your energy has to be pulled up. In acting, your energy has to be grounded and raw — like your emotions are flowing through you. So to turn around and do a ballet where you are supposed to be pulled up, my body went through a lot of things in trying to find a rhythm.
DN: How did your body adjust from hours of dance a day at a ballet company to the focused demands of a 17-minute ballet in the show?
Sara: I used to spend six hours in my pointe shoes a day to now, two hours a day in rehearsal. I don’t think my body hated it. [She laughs.]
Taking classes as much as possible was really helpful and the show provided a class for us before our rehearsals in New York. I found myself getting frustrated because I wasn’t feeling the same as I used to feel after a six-hour day in my pointe shoes. It was OK to let it go and realize it’s a different job and to embrace that.
I had to fight the inner bunhead and tell myself, it’s OK, you’re still a dancer. Don’t worry about it.
DN: Being an understudy or a swing can be so challenging. What did you learn from Leanne Cope when you were her understudy on Broadway?
Sara: She was the most amazing role model I’ve ever worked with. She is a lovely person who leads by example with her hard work. We are still in touch while she’s performing the role in the UK.
I was terrified when I took the role, so to see her not afraid and take on the role with abandon was important. Now that I’m on my own without her and following in her footsteps, I carry those lessons and moments she shared with me.
DN: How are you keeping up your fitness level while you are on tour?
Sara: Every city that we go to, they have found dance studios for us to drop in and take classes. Depending on the theatre, they also set up a nice warm-up room. At the very least, we can give ourselves a class before the show. It takes a bit to get into a routine, so the first show in any new city is always hectic.
DN: How hard is it to eat healthy and clean while you are on the road?
Sara: You find the Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in each city and use a skillet in your hotel room — if you have one. It’s interesting to see how that’s affected my body — where and when I’m going to eat, what’s going to fuel me without making me feel grossed out. [She laughs.]
DN: How many pointe shoes are you going through a week?
Sara: I have at least two pairs going per show because I like to have a first-act pair and a second-act pair. Those two pairs last me for about two weeks. In a ballet company, you just blow through shoes. In the show, I graduate my first-act shoes to second-act shoes, so it keeps them flowing through that cycle.
DN: How do you handle fast changes from pointe shoes to character shoes? Are you cutting your ribbons to make that happen?
Sara: In New York, wardrobe found these elastic ribbons from Bloch and also Capezio Bunheads makes them. They are ribbons that are substantial enough, but they are stretchy.
We tuck the knot underneath and it holds just like an elastic band. They come off much easier than regular ribbons, you don’t have to be sewn into them. It’s awesome!
DN: Your sister is your understudy on the tour. How has her presence helped you out on tour?
Sara: It’s so helpful just knowing that my family is close by — it’s calming. It helps to have my sister and best friend right there. She also gets to experience this role because she goes on at least once a week. It’s so special and something that we will never forget.
For weekly dance insight that goes beyond the surface, join our Patreon page for weekly dance news, twice-a-week podcasts and dance-industry analysis: Patreon.
Need a gift idea for a dance lover? Check out my Amazon page for gift ideas.
If you make a purchase using the link included, we may earn a small commission.
Looking to join a dance community? Dance Dish with KB is on Facebook! Don't forget to answer the two questions for admission to the private group.