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Ball State student finds her voice at Jacob’s Pillow

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Dancer/singer/actor Alexa “Allie” Dietz, of Zionsville, Ind. may finally have found her voice. And she couldn’t have found a more gorgeous setting to discover it in than the Berkshires region in Western, Mass. That’s where she’s been for the past few weeks at the world-renowned Jacob’s Pillow Dance, or “The Pillow,” where she has been participating in its Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance Program.

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Dietz, 22, is the daughter of Charles and Martha Dietz and a 2010 graduate of Zionsville High School. After graduation she moved to New York where she lived for a year and a half, with the blessing of her supportive parents she tranied at Broadway Dance Center, worked for Spirit Productions and was a member of Odyssey Dance Theatre. Eventually Dietz returned to Indiana and became a student at Ball State University where she is a dance major and will soon begin her senior year.

A performer who has been dancing since the age of five, Dietz is one of thousands from all over the world who competed for spots in the Pillow’s four programs. She auditioned in February in Chicago, after which she was chosen as one of 12 women and 12 men to participate in the Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance program that began on July 28 and ends on Aug. 18.

The annual summer program gives students the opportunity to work with prominent Broadway choreographers, directors, composers/arrangers, and musicians. These artists collaborate to create original numbers and replicate the fast-paced, demanding audition and production process that occurs on Broadway.

Each day, the dancers learn technique in classes that cover ballet, jazz, musical theater dance and tap. They rehearse afternoons and evenings with choreographers and musicians. The curriculum also includes vocal training, audition coaching and career-building discussions, along with other campus activities that comprise this immersion in dance.

The participants present excerpts of the works for the public during free outdoor performances throughout the three week period. On Sunday, Aug. 17, the dancers will perform the complete works, with a live band and guest program alumni, in the historic Ted Shawn Theatre on campus. Proceeds benefit The Pillow’s school.

Examiner.com spoke by phone with Dietz on Sunday, the only day that The Pillow students have time off from their rigorous schedule to take care of such tasks as doing laundry. The previous night she appeared in “Inside/Out” where she performed in front of 1,000 people. “It’s not necessarily a show. It’s a showcase of what we have been doing in the classroom. Its purpose is to show people the kind of dancing we have been working on,” said Dietz who also shared her excitement about working with such big name choreographers as Andy Blankenbueler during the first week, Bill Hastings the second and Peggy Hickey, this week. Dreaming that one day she might appear in “Wicked,” Dietz was also enthusiastic that she would be working the next day with the show’s composer and lyricist, Stephen Schwartz.

Dietz also spoke enthusiastically about Chet Walker, international director and choreographer, and director of The Pillow program for the past 15 years. “He’s great. He’s working with the national tour of ‘Pippin,’ so we only get to see him on a limited basis. He demands so much from you but he really knows how to bring out your best. He’s just absolutely amazing to me. He knows so much about the business and has so much knowledge to share. I am always scribbling in my notebook to write everything down. He has just really great energy and I thoroughly enjoy working with him.”

Dietz went on to say about Walker that “He was working with me this week on a song and he was like ‘Why are you nervous?’ and I said ‘I don’t know, I just am,’ to which he replied ‘Who do you have to be to be the person you have to be to be that person?’ It makes no sense but it makes sense at the same time. If you are nervous, you have to be someone else when you walk into a room to audition so that you come across as being confident. Sometimes it may not be you. You have to be this person who appears confident. He also taught me about telling the story rather than trying to act something while singing. A light bulb went on for me when I worked with him. When you tell the story, while singing, acting naturally happens and it comes from a place of truth.”

This writer also reached out to Walker at The Pillow. He had this to say about Dietz. “The backdrop for the Inside/Out performances are the mountains, the trees, and the sun. You couldn’t paint a better backdrop and there Allie was, all by herself, singing ‘Some Things are Meant to Be,’ from ‘Little Women.’ I think there was a transformation in her understanding of what her voice is. I tell them that at some time in your life, you are going to find your voice—probably not the voice you have now. It’s going to come to you and when that day happens, you’ll always know that day. I have a feeling that she came close to finding what her voice was all about or what its possibilities are on Saturday.”

Pianist John Fischer (he accompanied Emily Skinner in May, 2013 in Indy at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club), the program’s music director, also drew raves from Dietz , who said, “I love John. He is one of favorite people here to work with. He’s such a nice guy and is always willing to help you and encourage you, too. Singing is kind of new to me and I don’t have quite the confidence in it yet. John was going through my book when he picked ‘Some Things are Meant to Be.’ It was actually the most perfect song for me and I never even thought to sing. I ended up getting chosen by Chet to sing it on stage last night. Never in a million years would I have thought I would have been chosen out of so many talented people. It was a huge accomplishment in my life. Now I can move forward and not be scared to sing in front of people. John really, really helped me. I enjoy the energy he gives off at all times because he always so nice and welcoming.”

Fischer, with whom Examiner.com also spoke, said, “A lot of times we’ll do 12 hours with lunch breaks and dinner breaks. At the end, I stick around the studio and help people go through music to get them prepared for their songs in their vocal master classes. It also gives me an opportunity to get to know them a little bit better so Allie stayed after one and she brought in a song. She was very nervous and very stiff. I stopped playing and stood up and said ‘why don’t you just put your hand on the piano.’ We have a nice baby grand in the studio there and I said ‘Just put your hand on the piano, lean on the piano and listen to what I am playing and I am going to listen to you sing and we are going to have fun doing this.’ Then this change came over her face which read ‘OH, this can be easy.’ And from that point on she started showing up all the time to work and develop her voice and I noticed she liked singing a lot.”

When asked what she would ultimately take away her experience at The Pillow, Dietz said, “I think the biggest thing is that I have so much more knowledge about the business, how to work and how to keep working and all that kind of stuff. Mainly though, I learned to just to never give up. There are going to be ups and downs in your career but if you just keep going, it will happen. I am going to take away so much, especially not to be fearful. This journey has been such a gratifying experience with truly amazing choreographers and musicians. It is such an honor to be part of the legacy that is Jacob's Pillow."

Regarding what she hopes her career will include Dietz said, “My main goal has always been Broadway. I have never really aspired to be a lead on Broadway. I have always wanted to be an ensemble or part of the corps.I want to audition to be a Rockette, a dance company. I want to do it all. I’d love to be in a music video or be back up dancer, or maybe choreograph one day.”

When Walker and Fischer were asked their predictions for Dietz’s future they were both in agreement that it’s promising. About Dietz, Walker said, “If she stays on the route she is on, we might see another triple threat on the horizon. The American Music Theater is always looking for talent like hers.” Fischer prophesized, “I think Allie is capable of whatever she puts her mind to. Just tonight as we finished rehearsals she, and this was the second night in a row, she was the girl that stayed late to practice her solo dance number. She has also has a definite passion for singing and connects to the material like the fine young actress she is. I expect great things from her.”

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