Star of the new musical Talia Fowler.
In acting terms, it doesn't seem a huge stretch: a group of talented and ambitious young dancers performing a show about ... a group of talented and ambitious young dancers. But if the characterisations in the musical Fame, which opens in Melbourne on April 21, are not especially challenging, the dancing certainly is, with renowned choreographer Kelley Abbey showing off her performers' considerable abilities to best advantage.
Which explains why, on this particular Thursday at the musical's rehearsal studio in North Melbourne, the room looks like a So You Think You Can Dance reunion special, so dotted is it with faces from the hit TV series. It is also why the two leads - hip-hop dancer Tyrone (based on the character those of us who can remember the 1980s TV show and film knew - and loved - as Leroy) and ballerina Iris are played by SYTYCD alumni Tim Omaji ("Timomatic") and Talia Fowler respectively.
It is just before the lunch break, and the cast is rehearsing the number Dancing on the Sidewalk, in which Tyrone is the centre of attention. Fowler is not required for this scene - in fact, she has not been called for rehearsal at all today. But she is there anyway, wearing a leotard and black tights with a purple sweatshirt over the top, her hair pulled back into a neat ponytail. She sits quietly to one side of the room, stretching and watching the rehearsal and later standing up to check her posture in the mirror.
That she is there at all, performance-ready, on a day she is not required (except to talk with M) says a lot about the 19-year-old from Brisbane who, after gradually becoming a crowd favourite, won SYTYCD's 2009 season. Her short life has been marked by discipline and steely resolve, from deciding at seven that she wanted to be a professional dancer, to completing her year 12 studies at night school while working full-time with the Queensland Ballet Company. So it is not surprising to learn, as both she and her mother recount, that when Fowler was not even three years old, she would stand in front of a mirror and correct her posture, mimicking what she thought was a ballet stance. She is, clearly always has been, a focused young woman.
Which is not to say she doesn't know how to have fun - she is obviously having a blast with Fame and looking forward to the year-long tour to which her contract commits her.
Fowler explains that her character, Iris, joins the illustrious New York School for the Performing Arts late in the school year, placing her as an outsider. Iris is aloof and a little pretentious, afraid of not fitting in. It is a fear to which Fowler can relate, explaining that, during a recent rehearsal, Abbey had prodded her on her character's outsider status to the point that it reduced Fowler to tears.
"It's always feeling that I'm a little bit out of place," she says.
She had a similar experience on SYTYCD, especially in the earlier rounds when people doubted that a ballet dancer would win the audience's popular vote.
"I had a lot of pressure for the first couple of weeks," she says. "I had people saying, 'you're a ballet dancer, what are you even doing in this competition?'."
She remained unfazed, dancing in pointe shoes when she could, then excelling in the other dance genres the show requires of its final contestants. It is probably her confidence, as much as anything, that allows her to adapt to new challenges so easily - despite never having had a singing lesson, she is required to sing two songs in the show. "I'm lucky to have a musical ear and be able to pick up notes," she says.
After performing on the US version of the show (which was part of her prize), Fowler looked at joining the professional year program of the San Francisco-based Alonzo King Lines Ballet, after taking classes with the company for two and a half weeks.
"I felt myself fit in really well and I actually felt myself improve," she says.
But it was around then that Abbey called her to tell her about the role of Iris, suggesting that Fowler audition. She did, and "I ended up really, really wanting the role," she says, joining with her friend Omaji to rehearse scenes and make sure they knew the show inside out.
Now, she is excited about her family and friends travelling to Melbourne - including her mother, father and two younger sisters - to see the show on opening night. After Fame, who knows? Fowler is still keen on the training year with the Lines Ballet, and would also like to perform overseas. Her ambitions have changed markedly since her SYTYCD experience, she says - no longer just focused on classical and contemporary dance, she is keen to expand her performance resume as far as possible.
Abbey, who has worked with Fowler extensively on SYTYCD and Fame (Abbey is the director as well as choreographer), can vouch for Fowler's ability to be more than a ballerina: "She can take her pointe shoes off and she can get down and get funky."
Fame opens at the Regent Theatre on April 21.
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