A star of 'So You Think You Can Dance' is nominated in this year's National Dance Awards
I set out to interview Tommy Franzén with a view to acknowledging him as the first hip hop dancer to be nominated for a Critics’ Circle National Dance Award - for Outstanding Male Performance (Modern) – but, seconds into our conversation, I realised that defining him as a hip hop dancer is like saying Winston Churchill was famous only for smoking cigars. As he proved week-after-week on BBC’s ‘So You Think You Can Dance’, Franzén is a remarkably versatile performer but – above all else – he’s a man who loves adventure. Our discussion is littered from beginning to end with “firsts” in a vast catalogue of ticked boxes for both Franzén, the performer; and Tommy, the daredevil!
Like so many male dancers, Franzén’s early experimentation with dance came courtesy of accompanying his sister; first in ballet, which did nothing for him; and then – just as he was turning 11 – it was the freestyle/street/jazz/tap classes of American performers, David and Mary Johnson, which captured the young boy’s passion. Franzén was born in Sweden and its deliciously apt that he first saw the Johnsons in rehearsal for the 1990 Eurovision song contest (since, thanks to Abba, Sweden will forever be associated with Eurovision!). Young Tommy was drawn into taking a class – alongside his sister, Elena – and he still recalls standing in front of a mirror “looking at myself and not knowing what was good or bad”. Convinced it was all the latter, Tommy vowed to his dad and sister on the journey home that he’d never return. In unified horror, they declared, “but you were the best one there” and he hasn’t looked back since. Talking about his early training, I can see how his fluid movement style received its foundation in David Johnson’s teaching. Tommy recalls his first mentor being “a guy who learned from the street; he just picked things up and hadn’t a clue about names of steps; so, consequently I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. It was just fun”.
Tommy Franzen, © Philip Watts
It was Elena who also led Tommy into musical theatre. She was appearing in a successful version of ‘Joseph...’ on the professional stage in Malmö and Tommy was always around supporting her. So, when the role of Simon (second-eldest brother) came up he made the easiest of transitions onto the stage, aged just 14. A career in musical theatre burgeoned over the next seven years with roles in such staples as ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof’.
Dance classes in a variety of styles continued but Franzén grew restlessly inquisitive about where more formal training might take him. Roles on the Swedish stage were there for the asking but working alongside trained actors and dancers made him question the robustness of his own technique. This ambition was coupled with a belief that he needed to find this new direction outside Sweden and led him to a scholarship at London’s Urdang Academy. Getting there was delayed by a further challenge since, shortly after winning the place, Franzén got his first major singing/speaking role as Prince Chululongkorn in ‘The King and I’, which ran for five months and led to another pair of firsts: a debut title role in ‘Peter Pan’ and the acquisition of harness skills which started a love of aerial work. In more recent years Franzén was the lead aerialist in the closing ceremony for the Asian Games and – on the day before we met – he’d just returned from another aerial show to celebrate Qatar selling 77 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas!
Having stalled the Urdang for a year, Tommy left Pan’s harness to descend on Covent Garden, joining a first year of undergraduates as an unknown in this country but already a seasoned stage star in his homeland. It must have been hard, I ask. “I gave up a lot to become a student”, he agrees, “and it was very strange but I had to put aside everything I’d done, ignore my pride and get on with the process of learning”.
Most dance graduates wear out shoe leather auditioning for a break, but Franzén spent much of his 2nd year at college in ‘Bounce’, touring across Germany and the UK – including seasons at the Edinburgh Festival and Sadler’s Wells; and he was on a ‘plane to Italy just 2 days after graduation, dancing for six months in Lucio Dalla’s musical version of ‘Tosca’.
It seems clear that the Urdang hiatus represented a bridge between his musical theatre and pure dance careers. I ask if he contemplated going back to being a song-and-dance actor and he responds frankly: “I’ve auditioned for a few West End shows, and when I look around I see outstanding singing but most directors are not looking for dancers that stand out; and singing –which is more important here - is not my strongest skill”.
Franzén’s first contact with the Royal Opera House was auditioning for Aletta Collins’ ‘The Red Balloon’. He didn’t get that job but was invited back for ‘Goldberg’ – a project by Kim Brandstrup and Tamara Rojo which brought different styles of dance together on the Linbury stage. Before being cast, however, he was taken by Brandstrup to appear in Jonathan Kent’s 2009 production of ‘Fairy Queen’ at Glyndebourne: a try-out that led direct to ‘Goldberg’, which Tommy describes as a “golden moment in my career”. He adds that it was “one of my best experiences because of the mutual respect between different types of dancers. I was slightly intimidated at first but the ballet dancers weren’t at all snobby”. Thankfully, co-ordinating the diaries of such a diverse group has worked and ‘Goldberg’ now looks set for a possible revival.
Tommy Franzen, © David Clerihew
Talking of different styles of dance inevitably leads us on to ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ (or SYTYCD), the reality dance show that was imported by BBC in 2010, following several years in the USA. It seems to have been an obvious gig for such a versatile performer but Franzén wasn’t interested and ignored the first auditions. The show’s production company, 19 Entertainment, felt that not enough professional dancers had come forward and set up meetings with agents to encourage more established performers to have a go. Tommy explains the possible pitfall: “It was a massive risk for any well-known dancer in the industry, if you failed to get picked”. There were more immediate concerns, too: “it wasn’t initially clear whether we would be paid for loss of earnings while doing the show”. And above all there was a personal dilemma to consider: “I’ve never been interested in competing,” he confides, “even as a hip hop dancer I never did battles. I never wanted to compare my talent with anyone else in that way.”
Gradually, friends in the industry turned his opposition around. They pointed out that the competition was perfectly attuned to his all-round skills, “and so I started to get curious”. He turned up at the very end of the final day of auditions and was asked by one of the production team to stay behind to film a ‘time slice’ – a film of shots taken by 60 cameras in a semi-circle used to promote the series. “I took that to be a good sign”, he says modestly. But, he was still far from convinced about the reality TV aspects. “I was used to being treated with respect as an artist but the recalls were like being herded sheep”. Despite this antipathy, Tommy’s routine earned him the coveted Golden Ticket to choreography camp. He still wasn’t fussed, however, and since the camp clashed with a trip to America and the projected schedule for the show over-ran several potential jobs, it looked as if SYTYCD would go ahead without him. “They must have thought I was really moody”, he confesses,” since it was so much hassle to get me on the show”.
The production company solved the American problem in buying a ticket back on an earlier flight and despite hating the first day of the camp, he stayed the course and came to enjoy the final two days. The big problem on the horizon was ‘Blaze’, a show in which Franzén was not only performing but achieving other firsts as both Resident Director and choreographer. Rehearsals for ‘Blaze’ were scheduled to overlap the semi-final and final of SYTYCD, thus presenting a potentially immoveable obstacle to his participation. In the end, the ‘Blaze’ team, no doubt recognising the value of publicity from a primetime Saturday evening TV show starring two of its performers (Lizzie Gough had also been cast from auditions prior to SYTYCD), gave way and agreed to Franzén and Gough delaying their arrival until after the Final. Since the pair turned out to be two of the three uninjured finalists, it wouldn’t have been much of a show without them!
I asked Tommy what the contest was like. “I had the feeling that I could get voted out at any point”, he says, adding “but also the confidence that I could go far since I knew that I had versatility and some secret weapons in tricks that would get me through”.
Given that I wrote about SYTYCD each week for Ballet.co magazine, Tommy is aware of my concerns about the Final’s outcome. Honourably, he refuses to be drawn on any question about the judges’ comments, praising Charlie Bruce as a worthy winner and conceding only that the choice of choreography (not randomly made as in earlier programmes) suited Charlie’s jazzy musical theatre style much better than the work allocated to either himself or Lizzie; and that he lacked Charlie’s ambition to win, feeling that it was “unseemly” to appeal directly for votes – an attitude that fits his earlier expression of a lack of interest in competition. For a performer that likes to chalk up firsts, Tommy ended in the unusual position of coming second; but, like Lizzie, he was heading straight into rehearsals for ‘Blaze’. I asked him if SYTYCD was worth it and the reply is unequivocal – “I’m so happy that I did it”, he says, “both for my career and for the exposure. I got to showcase a lot more dance that I thought I could do – I’d never done a salsa or a quickstep before”.
Tommy Franzen, © David Clerihew
‘Blaze’ opened in March to some great reviews (it was one of my five dance highlights of 2010) and it occupied large chunks of the year, touring across the UK and Europe. It will come back to the Peacock Theatre this year and Franzén may well return to the cast. He has also continued the SYTYCD connection with Gough, creating a “Tango-House” duet for a gala presented by ex-Strictly star, Karen Hardy. He is working up some dances for a show in Hong Kong, later this year, but he remains much more interested in performing and training than choreography. “Steps alone don’t interest me –my future lies much more in creating shows”, he says, outlining plans for mounting a show with Gough - hopefully to involve Kim Brandstrup – to premiere in Edinburgh at Festival time, later this year.
His immediate future lies with Kate Prince and her outstanding street company, ZooNation (another nominee in the 2010 National Dance Awards) for whom Franzén will perform in Some Like it Hip Hop in 2011. Snippets of the work will be “Sampled” in the promo weekend of that name at Sadler’s Wells at the end of January.
I’d noted that Tommy tweets a lot about climbing and I close by asking him about this dangerous hobby (others include martial arts and motor-cycling). It leads to the discovery of yet another expertise when he tells me that he first took up climbing as one of the six skills required for the stunt register. The idea of Franzén as a professional stunt man really doesn’t surprise me! As we said goodbye, I reflected on the fact that Tommy is yet another example of it often being better to come 2nd in these reality shows (think Susan Boyle, JLS, G4 and so on); since this diffident, action man is clearly a winner, through and through.