Hamil­ton dancer is up­front in La La Land

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - grock­ing­ham@thes­pec.com 905-526-3331 | @Rock­atTheSpec

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.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF AMANDA BALEN

Amanda Balen “con­ducts” the cast of dancers in the open­ing scene of “La La Land.”

GRA­HAM ROCK­ING­HAM

CHRISTO­PHER POLK, GETTY IM­AGES

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.

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