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Artistic Director In Paradise: Andrew Corbett’s Journey to JOYÀ

By Ashley Sutherland-Winch
& Mena Buscetto

“It’s a little bit like the Billy Elliot story to tell you the truth” Andrew Corbett began. Andrew joined TheatreArtLife in the adjourning restaurant of the Cirque du Soleil’s JOYÀ theatre located on the Vidanta property on the Riviera Maya, Mexico.

Andrew Corbett’s theatrical journey is quite incredible from growing up in England, his successful career as a dancer, choreographer, and the path to his current role as an Artistic Director with Cirque du Soleil.

“When I was eight years old, I had a little girlfriend who took ballet class across the hall from where I took Kung Fu.  One day, she dared me to come to ballet, so I snuck over and as it turned out, I was better than all of the little girls in the class! The ballet teacher asked me to come back, so each week, my parents would drop me off for Kung Fu but I would take ballet.  About four months later, my instructor spoke with my parents to tell them what a great dancer I had become, and following the surprise that I had been taking a different class, they were very supportive.”

Just two short months later, Andrew auditioned and was accepted into a vocational ballet boarding school, thus beginning his career as a professional dancer.

Andrew Corbett trained at the Royal Ballet School in London, which served as a foundation for his multifaceted career. From there, Andrew went on to perform with the English National Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, and then moved into the modern dance world working with Sir Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company.

“We created new versions of old classics like Cinderella, The CarMan, The Nutcracker, Highland Fling (Les Sylphides) and Sleeping Beauty. With these shows, we were able to travel the world and as a principal dancer with the company, I was performing on stages all over the globe in lead roles.”

In 1995, Andrew was given the most incredible opportunity to be part of the original cast of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.

Andrew Corbett

New Adventures: Matthew Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’. Photo Bettina Strenske

“Out of everything that I have done, my most favorite was performing Swan Lake on Broadway when I was 22 years old. It was a very revolutionary new ballet with male dancers doing the roles of swans. It wasn’t feminine, but masculine, bare chested, bare footed, and it won lots of awards including the 1999 Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical, Best Choreography, and Best Costume Design.”

“The show was created in London in 1995 for a two week season only at the world famous Sadler’s Wells Theatre and it became a huge success in the UK. Then it got picked up for the West End in London and subsequently became a huge hit on Broadway. There had never been a full length ballet that lasted this long in the West End and Broadway before so it was an incredible time.”

Andrew Corbett

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake premiere at Sadler’s Wells on 9/11/1995. Pictured from Left to Right are Andrew Corbett, Valentina Formenti, Heather Habens, Adam Cooper as The Stranger, Neil Penlington, Isabel Mortimer as The Queen and Barry Atkinson’s The Private Secretary

“When I was 26, Matthew Bourne asked me to stage the next production of Swan Lake and of course I said yes! After I staged the production, I became Resident Director of the show and debuted it in Japan.”

“I continued in management for many years and one day was contacted by Cirque du Soleil, but it took a long time to actually join the company. I was originally approached to be the Artistic Director of Saltimbanco in 2008 but that didn’t work out, so I returned to the stage to do a bit of acting. Cirque du Soleil eventually called me again and I have had the opportunity to work on seven shows including the Michael Jackson Immortal Tour, Saltimbanco, Kooza, OVO, SEP7IMO DIA, several creations, and now JOYÀ!”

Andrew Corbett Andrew Corbett

Photo 1: SEP7IMO DIA premiere: From Left to Right: Adriana Pegueroles & Andrew Corbett; Photo 2: From Left to Right: Andrew Corbett and the Red Spider, Cynthia Beranek at OVO by Cirque du Soleil

Joining Cirque du Soleil was another huge career highlight and especially working with JOYÀ as a fully-fledged Artistic Director.

Known for his skills as a dancer, choreographer, and now director, those that work with Andrew speak of his incredible ability to stage productions with a strong vision.  Andrew will say that his best talent is being a fast learner.

“When I came into dance companies and they would say ‘you have a couple of days to learn this role’ and I would learn it. Not a lot of dancers actually can learn things that fast, so they kept relying on me to cover all the principals because I could go on at a drop of a hat. Being able to go on stage at a moment’s notice never made me scared, it actually drove me to be the best I could be.”

Leading a show as dynamic as JOYÀ by Cirque du Soleil certainly comes with pride and excitement, but also unique challenges. Andrew referred to his role as Artistic Director as a “hybrid”. Like most Artistic Directors working with Cirque du Soleil, Andrew must maintain the artistic integrity of the show but also manage the artists, Performance Medicine team, stage management, musicians, coaching, and dance captains. The Artistic Director oversees the general day to day running of artistic operations along with making the show as great as it can be every night.  As Artistic Director of JOYÀ, Andrew has other responsibilities unique to his production. JOYÀ is constantly evolving.

“Our production’s length is 80-minutes long and includes an hour of dinner prior for many patrons, so we must always maintain the length of our show.  In order to do this, we back up many of our acts should an act need to be cut due to injury or other unforeseen circumstances.  I am also responsible for maintaining current acts, creating new acts, along with handling contracts, determining salaries, negotiating, a lot more HR items than other Artistic Directors handle on tour or on Las Vegas productions that might have a general manager or company manager.”

Cirque du Soleil’s casting department receives countless show reels from performers that dream to join the company. Andrew shared his view on what people are doing right and what they are doing wrong.

“I’ll tell you what I look for. If somebody sends me countless videos in an email, I get bored. I know I won’t watch them. If somebody sends me a video with a short clip of exactly who they are as a performer onstage, then that will catch my eye.

People, nowadays because they are so obsessed with social and multi-media, edit their reels in such a fancy way that it makes it a challenge to determine their talent and skill.

I want one camera view where I can see you do a full solo or a full act without editing everywhere because that, to me, is not live. I want to see what you’re doing from start to finish, your act or your solo or whatever it is. If it’s a series of small snippets, that’s fine but really I want to see one act fully.

Cirque du Soleil casting uses an online casting system which is a great place to start submitting your demos, but if an artist manages to get my email address, then they send me their demo. I’m all about artists finding out how to connect with directors. I did it during my career. I do find that it’s pushy but in this business you got to push.”

With such an incredible resume and body of work, we asked Andrew to share the advice he would give to his 18-year-old self or to those who want to break into a career in the arts.

“Be patient. When I was 18, I wanted to know everything straight away because I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. I think that learning to put the brakes on when you are younger, taking in the process and especially learning from others is important. Don’t always rush to the finish line. Let it happen naturally because that is the best way to get your life experience.”

The dance world is not always so glamorous. Andrew remembers his least favorite gig… “My first professional gig was with the Royal Ballet doing a show called La Fille mal gardée (The poorly guarded girl) choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton from the 1950s and in it, they had a live horse and cart.  I had to walk behind the horse and shovel all of the shit on stage of the Royal Opera House! After years of training to become a professional ballet dancer, my first job was shit shoveler!”

For those that are interested to work abroad, what pearls of wisdom would you share Andrew?

If you are going to move or work in a different country, don’t expect it to be like where you are from.  I know that is an obvious thing to say but a lot of people do not have this expectation.  I would recommend that you try to stay adaptable, learn the new culture and environment, and truly accept that you are now a visitor in another country so treat it with respect.”

Though Andrew has many responsibilities on a day-to-day basis and has worn many hats in his career, he is undoubtedly energetic and passionate about his work. Inspired by the unique skills and talents of others, his greatest joy in the business is watching other people succeed. In the future, he would like to create his own theater show and break into the music industry.

“I would love to create a concert with a pop or rock star.”

Since JOYÀ  is located on a resort in Riviera Maya, Andrew lives on the property.

“I live in a hotel suite on the resort which sounds glamorous and it is if you are visiting for two weeks but the reality of living in a hotel is different.  I wake up, have my coffee and begin to check a few emails prior to going to work.  Then I hop into my golf cart and travel to work.  My schedule truly changes day to day, I might be on stage all day or in meetings. It completely depends on what the show needs week to week. Days are always collaborative with the rest of the team and especially Jamie Sullivan, the Director of Operations at JOYÀ .  The days always go very quickly because we are quite busy.

When I have days off, I tend to stay on the resort and relax by the pool to have some “me” time.  I do travel to Montreal as often as I can to visit my husband who is based there.  We make the long distance work for us, I visit him and he visits me – often for several months at a time.  Long distance is absolutely doable and it’s nice because we can each have our own independence.

Just because you are married doesn’t mean you can’t be independent. But you have to have a person that agrees that independence is important too.  We don’t need each other to live our lives, we want each other to live our lives.

Andrew Corbett

From Left to Right: Andrew Corbett and husband, Benoit Ducasse.

Travel is also a passion for Andrew and he has been on some incredible adventures in his life thus far. We asked him to share a few of his travel recommendations.

“Absolutely visit Japan, South Africa (travel on the Cape Town to Port Elizabeth Route or take the Rovos Rail, which in my opinion is better than the Orient Express, from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg), and then Transylvania- Budapest, Count Dracula’s Castle – all of it, go!”

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Watch Andrew Corbett’s Show Reel

More Articles by Ashley Sutherland-Winch

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