October 21, 2021

CHS Theater, Performing Arts Institute: Growing professionals

Following in footsteps

Carlita Withers photography

A rehearsal photo from a Performing Arts Institute recital with the Halpin family, from left, Kevin, Aisling, Cindy and Cassidy.

Aisling Halpin says a dancer is never finished training.

“It’s use it or lose it,” said the New York singer, dancer and actor. “You have to keep up technique, flexibility, strength. I’m still taking dance classes.”

And that’s after working eight years in the business, a degree in musical theater from Syracuse University, and years of dancing in her parents’ Cortland Performing Arts Institute dance studio.

Halpin and Dougie Robbins, also of New York, a director and choreographer with his own dance company, DPRdance, came back to the area to teach choreography for Cortland High’s “The World Goes ‘Round” earlier this month.

Halpin is a 2008 Cortland graduate while Robbins graduated in 2007.

“After choosing the show back in May, I contacted several CHT alum to see if they would be interested in guest choreography,” said Susie Carr-Feuerherm, director of the piece. “Since the show was a musical revue, each number could be taught separately making it a great opportunity to divide and conquer.”

“Aisling and Doug were the first to jump on the opportunity,” she said.

Halpin choreographed “Ring Them Bells” and Robbins did “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” and “All That Jazz.”

Carr-Feuerherm said they were professional and approachable.

“On top of giving us great choreography and some basic lessons in dance technique, the students were able to see firsthand that it is possible to turn your humble beginnings at CHT into successful careers in performing arts,” Carr-Feuerherm said.

And even more CHS alums were involved: Ben Wells, music teacher at the school, was vocal director, Nick Alteri was technical director (recently returned from working in NYC now employed at SUNY Cortland in the Performing Arts Department) and Connor Beattie, lighting designer, is a musical theater major at SUNY Cortland, Carr-Feuerherm said.

“I have to say, it was the highlight of my school year this year,” Robbins said. “We had so much fun. The kids were incredible, both in talent and willingness to try anything.”

He taught the kids they need to know the history behind the shows. Robbins, a SUNY Cortland musical theater graduate, is teaching dance at three studios and will return in the summer to choreograph “Hair” at Cortland Repertory Theatre.

He’s also raising funds to stage a dance show his company, a “VERY SMALL non-profit theater jazz dance company,” will feature at CRT Downtown, Robbins said.

Photo provided by Aisling Halpin

Aisling Halpin, with the stick, works with SUNY Cortland students.

Robbins moved to Cortland when he was a sophomore and fell in love with theater as a senior, said Kevin Halpin, Aisling’s dad and chairman of the performing arts department at SUNY Cortland. Robbins also started dance at Performing Arts Institute before doing four years at SUNY Cortland.

“From not dancing at all to to running a professional dance company — he’s incredibly hard working,” said Halpin, who helps his wife, Cindy, president of the institute, run the dance company at Marketplace Mall.

Halpin has 48 years as a performer, then choreographer, director and teacher.

“Oh my God, I am old,” Halpin said.

When Aisling was born, he and Cindy reevaluated their life. The couple didn’t want to be performers in New York with children. Kevin Halpin went back to school for his master’s and started working as a teacher in direction and choreography.

They moved to the area, where Halpin has grown the performing arts department for almost 20 years. The couple’s Performing Arts Institute is looking at its 15th year.

Cindy Halpin said when she’s teaching dance with Aisling: “We are so in tune. I sometimes hear her speak and I think it’s me talking … She totally understands what is needed … I am so proud of her. The older kids look up to her.”

Kevin Halpin said choreographers need to see movement as a form of communication that excites, inspires and tells a story. They need to motivate their dancers, have intelligence and be patient.

His daughter’s work is “so thoughtful and beautiful.” And she has so much technique as a ballerina, he said.

Their other child, Cassidy, is completing her senior year in Nazareth College for musical theater. In fact, both girls teach choreography at the institute.

Aisling does tap, hip-hop, ballet, classical ballet and theater dance. “For most of the shows, I am doing theater dance,” she said.

“I was in the first national tour of ‘Cabaret,’ the Broadway revival they took on the road. I did that three years ago. That was an amazing show, incredibly powerful to be part of. I played Molly in ‘Peter and the Star Catcher,’ another national tour.” Molly is the star catcher in the show, she said.

When Aisling was approached to choreograph at Cortland High:

“I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be so fun to come back and work at Cortland High School. We scheduled a day. I came in on Saturday morning and taught the entire number to students in one rehearsal.”

She was impressed by their work ethic.

Carlita Withers Photography

Halpin, left, and Clare Lickona, a Cortland area student, from a Performing Arts Institute “Nutcracker” show in 2016.

“It was really touching. I was surprisingly emotional. I have come back to Cortland so many times, working at PAI … To come back and work with Cortland High theater, with Ben Wells and Susie Carr … It was so crazy. I am teaching again at Cortland High School! …Watching these kids work so hard and being passionate about this, was inspiring.”

Aisling Halpin said to be successful:

“One, if you really want to pursue a musical theater profession, you need to get the training in these disciplines: singing, acting and dancing. All three are necessary. Whether in high school or college. You need to make sure you are taking everything you can in theater.

“Two: Be the actor people love to work with. Show up on time. Have a smile and work hard. Be a positive energy in the room. The director will want you back.”

“I am one of the luckiest people in the world to have learned from my parents,” she said. “They have such passion for what they do. When you are an actor, or in the arts in general, there are a lot of sacrifices — time with family, time with friends, financial sacrifices.”

Her parents set her straight on what is involved “without crushing me.”

“When I was in college, a lot of my peers were unaware of the difficulties of being an actor. I didn’t have that. I came in being very prepared.”

Her parents are incredible teachers she said. Her mom can take people who don’t believe they can dance and transform them in a couple years.

“She believes in every single one of her students — 100 percent. She’s tough.”

And her father has the creativity and vision she admires.

Aisling also credits Susie Carr, Ben Wells and retired theater director Julie Carr, who gave her first lead role — Esther in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” She had to be alone on stage, singing.

“It was very scary.”

She learned to draw from the energy of the audience. “You are not by yourself. You have an audience with you,” she said.

Robbins said the students did all parts of show production at Cortland High School: sets, props, both front and back of the theater. He learned to respect all parts of the process.

“You work as a team. As a director and choreographer, I appreciate that when I work with technicians,” he said.