ExPats: Arian Keddell
From a young age, Arian Keddell knew she wanted to dance. “I’ve always wiggled around a lot, I was a very theatrical child and grew up with music in my house.” she said, laughing as she reminisced about growing up in Elmira in the late 1980s and 1990s. “My parents were always singing, my siblings were always singing.”
While most of her family participated in and excelled at local sports like soccer, Arian was less interested in sports and more concerned with appreciating the flowers on the field. After turning 8, her parents noticed Arian’s talent and flair for the dramatic. Hoping to engage her in an activity that suited her interests, they enrolled her in a beginner’s ballet class at the YWCA on Lake Street.
“I went down into a basement and stood against a ballet barre, and had my little feet pointed and my little legs stretched and it was like ‘I think I like this. Yeah, I want to do this!’
And then that first sequence of pliés (plee-ays), that first sequence of tendus (ten-doos) - I was like, ‘This is exactly what I want to do FOREVER!’” she recalled.
Photo by Michaela Reynolds
Arian cultivated her newfound passion, attending a private ballet school in the Elmira-Corning region to hone her skills. Her training, however, was noticeably lacking in diversity, leaving Arian without many examples of professional dancers, or even peers that culturally resembled her - a brown girl from parents of different ethnicities.
She wrote about her experience in a piece for Broadway Plus, earlier this year.
“It was not until I started going to other performances that my parents took me to - Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey … I saw Chicago when it toured through Elmira - and I actually saw diversity in dance.”
Her parents, Regina and Donald Keddell, made a concerted effort to expose their children to diversity at every opportunity, ensuring Arian saw productions that featured representations of culturally diverse entertainers so she’d know the option of professional performer was available to her as a viable career.
“I’m so thankful to them for being so open with us, and so honest with us, about our ethnicity, and about the fact that people might treat us differently,” she said.
Arian’s mother is black and her father is white. She grew up with them, and her brother and sister on Elmira’s northside, attending Booth Elementary School and Ernie Davis Middle School. She graduated from Elmira Free Academy in 2001.
She attended Mercyhurst College, earning a B.A. in Dance Concentration Musical Theatre. After working to refine her craft, fortune and a dream opportunity found Arian shortly after she left her beloved ballet for musical theater.
Photo by Terra Macleod
“My first professional job in musical theater was a gospel version of Jesus Christ Superstar in Atlanta that was just absolutely beautiful.” she said. “ It was an incredible experience and I just so happened to have the former choreographer and director of West Side Story in the audience my opening night.”
Impressed with her performance, he asked Arian if she’d be interested in auditioning for a tour that had been going several years. She was interested and ended up booking, what turned out to be, an international tour that took her to nine countries over the course of a year.
“Having that opportunity presenting itself to me, it was just like - ‘I could perform AND I get the opportunity for travel and to see the world, while doing the thing I love? The arts offered a door to seeing the world and a way to make a living.”
Arian continued touring with musicals, living her dream of being a professional performer representing Black Indiginous People of Color (BIPOC) on stages across the country.
She took a break in 2012 due to an injury, returning to the Southern Tier and teaching ballet in Ithaca before assisting in the launch of a performing arts school, Triple Talent Academy of Performing Arts in Elmira, in 2014. Arian worked with Academy founders to cultivate and nurture community youth and adults interested in the performing arts.
“When I moved back, years after I had been someone in the professional realm, I wanted to make sure that the students I interacted with also understood that it really is sustainable, but there are sacrifices that have to be made in order to have a life as a performing artist.”
“You’re not going to get every birthday off,” she says, explaining the intense life of a touring entertainer. “You’re not going to have every holiday with friends and family. If you’re on the road you’re gonna miss a lot of experiences with friends and family.”
However, for Arian, the opportunity to travel and connect with audiences by sharing a variety of transcendent stories through performance art is worth the personal trade-offs. She takes her role as an ambassador of inclusivity and representative of the varied human experience, seriously.
In 2018, Arian jumped at the opportunity to join the national touring company of Chicago and perform in one of her favorite musicals - her ultimate dream, after joining a ballet company.
“When I saw it tour through Elmira as a young teen, I knew I wanted to be in it. The other shows I have done have been incredible gifts but Chicago was really the only musical I absolutely wanted to do.”
In October 2019, shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the globe, she joined the Broadway production of Chicago.
“It definitely was, and still is, a dream come true because it was a very specific goal/dream. And my parents supported my dream every step of the way.”
Throughout the global health crisis, Arian was able to pivot to virtual teaching and performing opportunities to survive the shutdown of what is, unarguably, one of New York’s most lucrative industries.
“Early in the course of the pandemic we had different projects that we were part of - like we did some performances about voting that were virtual. That was cool,” she said. “And then people shifted so we could still do funding for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS virtually.”
“It was nice to be able to still have pockets of performance (during the pandemic), even if it was sitting on a chair in front of some taped-up wallpaper of a scene you had to put up yourself,” she said, laughing as she remembered the adjustments made to survive the past 18 months of social distancing and physical barriers that had shuttered Broadway.
“Those places and spaces kept me connected to the community. That’s what was really important - knowing that there were people out there who do what we do who are finding different ways to be able to do what we do ... and that there were people who cared about making sure we could still stay attached to this thing that we’ve really worked so hard for.”
“The arts are vital,” Arian says, pointing to the popularity of binge-watching entertainment via a variety of streaming platforms throughout the pandemic, particularly in the initial months of the global shutdown.
She hopes the importance of the arts is finally acknowledged and, as a result, more funding is directed into arts education.
Having survived Covid-19’s disruptions, Arian was part of Broadway’s recent reopening as part of the Chicago the Musical Broadway’s cast.
“We just started back, which feels amazing! Our first performance was September 14th,” she said, a tinge of excitement creeping into her voice.
In September, Arian performed in a GMA segment featuring a musical number from Chicago to celebrate Broadway’s reopening.
“It was exciting. That’s probably the first time that most of us had been in front of a live audience in more than 18 months!”
“To hear the applause and to feel the joy and relief everyone was feeling, was exciting,” she said.
As Arian navigates Broadway’s return, she remains tethered to the Southern Tier, hoping to continue inspiring those with an interest in performance art to pursue their passion, just as she has.
“I think the hard part for most things in the area is generating interest. But also, people really understanding that the arts really are vital and important.”