Hamilton dancer is upfront in La La Land
IF YOU’VE SEEN “LA LA LAND,” you’re familiar with the Oscar-nominated film’s spectacular opening scene where hundreds of drivers stalled in an L.A. freeway traffic jam spontaneously leap out of their cars and burst into song and dance.
Hamilton’s Amanda Balen knows that scene intimately. She’s one of the 30 professional dancers hired to make that incredible piece of choreography come to life.
If you haven’t seen “La La Land,” you may have been one of the 150 million people around the world who watched Balen dancing with Lady Gaga during
the Superbowl halftime show earlier this month in Houston. (It was Balen’s second visit to the Superbowl — she danced with Katy Perry at halftime in 2014.)
Balen, raised on the central Mountain and a graduate of St. Jean de Brébeuf high school, has reached the top of the dance world since moving to Los Angeles 13 years ago to pursue her career. She’s danced in several films and spent years on the road, touring with the world’s biggest pop stars including Perry, Janet Jackson and a five-year stint with Gaga.
On Sunday, when the Oscar winners are announced, she’ll be rooting big time for “La La Land,” which is nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards.
Balen is credited in the film as “Traffic Dancer-Conductor,” which means she was the dancer in the yellow dress who hopped on a concrete divider near the end of the scene, raised her arms, turned and motioned to the rest of the dancers like a conductor. For a professional dancer, standing on that divider was like being on top of the world.
The elaborate three-minute-48second song-and-dance sequence took many hours of planning by choreographer Mandy Moore and a rehearsal in a Los Angeles parking lot before moving to a freeway ramp, filming in the searing California heat. The scene, which used more than 100 extras, took more than 40 takes to get right.
“They had to close down the freeway,” says Balen in a phone interview. “We got there early in the morning and shot for two entire days. It was pretty amazing, a unique opportunity, for sure, to shoot on an L.A. freeway.”
Balen, 33, trained with Moore when she first moved to Los Angeles and considers her a key mentor.
But she credits Hamilton as the place where her love of dance started. She began taking lessons at the age of three. As she grew into her teens, she would work at Tiffany’s Dance Elite studio almost daily and was winning major competitions in Canada and the United States.
“Hamilton is incredibly important to me,” Balen says. “It’s where I got my training with my teacher, Tiffany McLean. It’s where I learned to love dance and how to express myself through movement and that is an incredible gift …
“I feel joy when I dance,” she adds. “It’s hard to put into words. It gives you a connection to yourself. I feel very lucky when I look back and think of all the things I have done. I’ve done everything I dreamed of doing as a kid.”
When she’s not on tour, Balen finds time to visit Hamilton, where her parents, Mary and John, still live. Last Christmas, she was able to see “La La Land” with her mother and older sister Jennifer, a Torontobased actress, at Cineplex Cinemas in Ancaster.
Balen was impressed with the finished product.
“I thought it was a beautiful movie,” she says. “I was so happy to be part of it. What I loved so much was that the director really wanted to pay homage to the movie musicals of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. I grew up watching those movies with my sister. Those movies were inspirations to all of us. I still watch them to this day.”
Amanda Balen “conducts” the cast of dancers in the opening scene of “La La Land.”
Amanda Balen, far left, performs with Lady Gala during the Superbowl halftime show earlier this month in Houston, Texas.
Amanda Balen credits Hamilton for inspiring her dance career. She started taking lessons at age three.