Today I have the pleasure of introducing one of my former dance instructors, Rick Hilsabeck. After many years of ballet, I went to take jazz classes at Lou Conte Dance Studio and was fortunate enough to have him as a teacher there. Rick is not only a dancer, but a singer, actor and painter, as you’ll see here…
1. What is your background in performing and in dance?
Initially, I was involved in gymnastics as a kid and always loved jumping around and flying through the air. I did a lot of tumbling until I realized there wasn’t much of a future for professional trampolinists.
I got involved in dancing for the stage through my high school choral music department. They did a musical every spring. They needed boys who could and were willing to lift the dancing-chorus girls over their heads and such. (Always a good way to get to know the cutest girls in school!) I had always loved singing and after high school, I decided to give it a go in show business. I performed with a wonderful singing and acting group in Los Angeles called THE YOUNG AMERICANS. I was 18 and pretty green. It was there that I got some of the greatest early training and performing experiences of my life. Doing television and a great deal of touring was an amazing opportunity. It was then that I found out if you really wanted a shot in this part of the business, you had better get some real dance training as well. This was the time of A CHORUS LINE. I had aspirations of heading to New York and the Great White Way.
On my way to New York, I stopped back in my home turf of Chicago to get more professional experience and save some money. That was where everything changed for me in the dance department. I began taking classes at the well-respected LOU CONTE DANCE STUDIO. Lou gave me a scholarship and told me that taking daily ballet class was a must and that it was the basis for all solid and lasting technique.
2. Can you share any advice specifically for men in terms of navigating a dance career?
Take ballet. Lots of it. Guys have a bit of an advantage. We can start dancing later and still have a bit of an easier shot at it. The numbers are also in our favor. There simply aren’t as many men and boys interested in the first place. Get strong. Along with a well-rounded variety of disciplines (ballet, jazz, tap, modern) etc., lift weights. Strengthen your back. It will be the foundation you will always depend upon. Especially when you spend years lifting women over your head and have the responsibility of setting them down to earth safely. Another element of the well-rounded dancer is their acting ability. In my opinion, even the most proficient and technically perfect dancer can be uninteresting on stage without a certain presence. Take a good acting class.
Find good teachers. And men should also take a men’s ballet class now and then. I took a men’s variations class and it was fantastic.
Watch Astaire, Kelly, Baryshnikov, Fosse, all the greats. Emulate.
3. Tell me a bit about your experience with Phantom of the Opera in terms of how dance training can impact a performance in musical theater.
My dance training and experience was definitely a great help in my experience playing The Phantom. In my view, there is a certain physical quality and carriage necessary to give that character qualities of grace, mystery and command. The only portions of your body exposed are your hands and one side of your face. So you have your body and voice to convey the rest. Also, just the physical demands of that role are such that the better shape you are in, the longer you can play it and the healthier you will remain. I played the role for four years and most of that time I remained healthy. Having the dance discipline was most definitely key in my longevity playing The Phantom.
4. What was it like to be a principal dancer at Hubbard Street Dance Company? Any favorite memories of that time in your life?
Being a part of Hubbard Street was some of the best years of my life. I wouldn’t have stayed eleven years had it not continued to be artistically satisfying and challenging. I was so fortunate to have been under the great leadership of Lou Conte. Not only was he a great dancer himself, his ability to always keep you striving for perfection and attention to the details, is unique.
His Broadway experience lead the company to consist of individuals, not just tools for realizing a choreographic style. Each dancer had their own unique and recognizable personalities and was encouraged to nurture that. He also embraced different body types (unlike many ballet companies). We came along at a time when Chicago was ripe for a new and different kind of dance company. We were really lucky to have the support of many fans and critics who helped propel the company forward to national and international notoriety and acclaim.
More specifically, having the opportunity to dance in Paris, Buenos Aires (the tango clubs…fantastic!) and other faraway places holds memories I will always cherish. Hubbard Street was really our family. We grew together and I think helped to establish a unique and lasting creative force that Chicago can be proud of.
5. Do you have any tips or advice for those who are going to be touring?
Practically speaking, try to travel light. I always lugged around way too much stuff. Therefore, I didn’t bring as many things back from my travels as I’d liked.
One of the great things about touring, whether it’s in this country or anywhere else, is the chance to see parts of the world you may not necessarily choose to go otherwise. Get out and about if your schedule allows. Bring a camera and document those irreplaceable times. Keep a journal.
6. What is it that you love the most about performing?
It is a distinct privilege to get to do what you love to do and be paid for it. Many people don’t ever have that experience. There is nothing like a live performance, whether it’s a one time shot or a long run. Each performance has it’s own life. There are times when you find that ephemeral “zone” during a performance that sometimes makes all the hard work and long hours really worth it. I think all performers experience this from time to time. At least, I hope so. I’m very lucky to do what I choose to do.
7. You recently were cast in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot. Can you talk a bit about what it is like to perform on Broadway?
For many actors, having a Broadway job is a kind of pinnacle. Usually it has the best of the best. Having a job there is exciting and it is a privilege. Billy Elliot is a wonderful show. It is great being in a big hit on Broadway. It has its glamorous moments. Many times, we will find out that there are celebrities in the audience. That always makes for a fun performance. But it is also just plain hard work. We have an eight show a week schedule and with constant rehearsals, it can be a long week. But it is so good to have such a great job, especially in these times when so many of our union members are out of work. There is a certain level of excellence that is expected of everyone in the building. And when you’re not working here, you miss it.
8. Is there a high point in your career that you can share with readers?
I choreographed a bit when I was with Hubbard Street. I loved it. Seeing your piece performed for that first time is really a singular thrill.
Certainly, having played The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera was one of those high points as well. It remains the most successful musical ever and to have been a part of that is something I will never forget. It’s also where I met my wife, Sarah Pfisterer. It doesn’t get much better than that.
9. You are also an artist. Can you tell me a little about what you do and how this fits into your life?
Even before I became interested in the theatre, I had wanted to study art. Several years ago I began painting again in earnest. It is such a different form of expression. You are your own boss. There is no one “out there” giving you notes or telling you how to do something. It’s all you. Painting is zen. I can be painting and all of a sudden realize that four or five hours have gone by in the blink of an eye. I really enjoy getting out of my head when I pick up a paint brush. It strikes a good balance.
10. What is coming up on the horizon for you?
Other than my job at BILLY ELLIOT, I don’t know.
At this stage, I try not to plan too much any more. Things always turn out differently than you plan anyway and you can set yourself up for disappointment if you try and adhere to plans too closely. I’ve done all right so far and have come to trust that things somehow turn out. I have an art show coming up and that is always a good thing to work towards. Although with my current schedule at Billy Elliot, I sure would love to have more time in my painting studio. But I know it will always be there and the paints and canvases will patiently wait.
Rick Hilsabeck’s Bio:
Broadway: Billy Elliot: The Musical (Big Davey & understudy for Dad), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Caractacus Potts), Three National Company original cast productions under the direction of Harold Prince; The Phantom of the Opera (The Phantom;- Joseph Jefferson Award nom.), Parade (Governor Slaton), Sondheim & Weidman’s, Bounce (Wilson Mizner u/s, original cast recording). Other favorites: Ragtime (Original Chicago cast, Henry Ford), Gypsy (Herbie), Beauty & the Beast, (Lumiere) Swing!, 1940’s Radio Hour, Victor/Victoria (King Marchan), The Dinner Party (Claude), Guys and Dolls (Nathan Detroit), Sweet Charity (Oscar), Crazy For You (Bela), I Love You, You’re Perfect Now Change, Rodeo, Midwives, Putting It Together. 11 years as principal dancer with Hubbard Street Dance Company. Member of Actor’s Equity Association since 1978. Rick is also and accomplished artist. His work is has been exhibited in galleries in the northeast. He has had several shows and continues to paint in his studio in Connecticut, where he resides with his wife, accomplished Broadway actress, Sarah Pfisterer and his two step-daughters, Hannah and Lily.