Lauren Cannon, a featured dancer in the touring musical “Wicked,” decided to leave show business when she was 6 years old.
“Apparently I said I wanted to quit,” Cannon said. She doesn’t remember this incident but has heard the tale many times from her mother, Karen, the founder of DanceWorks Performing Arts in Vancouver. Her mother never pressured her at all about dancing, Cannon added. When the 6-year-old announced her retirement, her mom said that was perfectly OK.
Cannon’s resolve crumbled when dance-recital costumes arrived. One yellow ballerina tutu and she was back to stay, she said. That was the first and last time Cannon considered a life not focused on dancing, she said.
“I had as much access to dance as anybody could ever have. I was raised in that studio,” which is now approaching its 25th anniversary, Cannon said.
Cannon is thrilled to be back for the occasion. The Vancouver kid, a 2008 graduate of the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, is now 28 years old and staying with her mother in July.
She’s spending some of her days working with students at the DanceWorks studio in east Vancouver. At night she heads for the Keller Auditorium in Portland and transforms, over the course of a single performance of “Wicked,” into numerous human and nonhuman inhabitants of the magical Land of Oz.
“I’m a witch hunter. I’m a student at Shiz University. I’m one of the Emerald City’s ‘high society,’” Cannon said. She’s even an evil monkey — but not a flying evil monkey, unfortunately.
“I am so many different creatures in so many, completely different costumes,” she said. “It is such a fun show.”
It’s also a serious show. Based on a brilliant 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, “Wicked” reimagines and profoundly darkens the pre-Dorothy backstory of rival witches in “The Wizard of Oz.” Maguire pictures the idyllic Land of Oz as rife with corruption, racism and civil unrest. While the stage musical’s plot substitutes a happy ending not in the book, it also remains startlingly relevant to anybody who has ever felt lonely, misjudged or outcast, Cannon said.
“At some point in our lives, we all feel different,” she said — even if you don’t have green skin and a witch’s hat.
Cannon studied dance at the University of Arizona at Tucson for one year before bolting for New York City, where she spent another year sleeping on her brother’s couch and working day jobs, such as waiting tables and selling cupcakes, while auditioning for dance roles.
“I was as well prepared as I possibly could have been. I had no idea how hard and defeating it was going to be. Ignorance is bliss,” she said.
Here in Vancouver she’d been a big fish in a small pond, she said, but in New York there’s no end to talented competition. Some of those auditions drew hundreds of terrific dancers, many of whom were weeded out over the course of gruelling daylong sessions or endless weeks of callbacks.
“It’s hard to remember you are any good when you keep hearing ‘no,’” Cannon said. “At that age you are so desperate for validation.”
Eventually she got a big break. A production of “West Side Story” hired her to go on what’s called a “bus-and-truck” national tour in the role of Graziella, the sassy girlfriend of Riff, ill-fated leader of the Jets gang.
That kind of touring is exciting and exhausting, Cannon said.
“You check into a hotel, you get a 6 a.m. call, you rehearse for six hours, you do the show, you get back on the bus, you keep going,” she said.
Her experience led to more hires in the same role, and Cannon kept playing Graziella during a long-running European tour.
Long before that, in 2003, “Wicked” opened on Broadway and quickly became a phenomenon, rising to rule the musical-theater world and generating a series of national tours that have been underway continuously for years.
“We fell in love with that show in middle school,” Cannon said. “It feels like I’ve loved ‘Wicked’ forever.”
Auditions are continuously underway too, and three years ago Cannon snagged that prominent, multi-faceted dancing role and joined a traveling operation of about 100 people. She flew to Columbus, Ohio, to watch and rehearse; then she joined the company and debuted in South Bend, Ind. She’s been on tour with “Wicked” ever since. She even met her boyfriend in the company, she said.
Coming back, going home
Because “Wicked” remains so popular, Cannon said, it gets to “sit down” for weeks in cities like Boston, San Diego and Portland, rather than bugging out overnight. That’s a relief for the cast and crew, she said — and a treat for Cannon herself, since spending July here feels like a homecoming.
“This town has changed a lot. It just gets better and better,” she said, looking around appreciatively during a sidewalk interview outside a downtown Vancouver cafe. When you’re an ambitious, artistic local kid, a stomping ground like “Vantucky can seem pretty blah-di-blah,” Cannon said. But coming back for the first time in years has been an eye-opener.
“This whole area of the country is so wonderful,” she said.
Going onstage rarely makes her nervous anymore, she said, but knowing that many of her local teachers, friends and family members are coming to see her in “Wicked” is a different, more personal kind of pressure.
“I know all those eyes will be specifically on me,” she said. “They’ll be watching me.”
They can’t watch for long. Cannon will leave “Wicked” after this Portland run, she said, and head back to New York to start pursuing bigger, better roles that don’t involve major travel anymore. She already knows she’ll be dancing in this year’s Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, she said.
“I’m ending three years on the road in my hometown, and I’m so grateful. ‘Wicked’ is a really respected show,” she said. It’s one that will likely prove to be a gem on her resume. She’ll be rehiring an agent, something she hasn’t needed in a few years, she said.
“Dancers don’t have forever,” Cannon said. “It’s time to try for other shows.”
Dance classes and performances at VSAA were not high on Cannon’s priority list when she started there because she was already devoted to hours of after-school dance work every day, she said. Instead she focused on all the other arts — music, singing, acting and movie-making. “Thank goodness I could do all those things” at VSAA, she said. They’ve rounded out her skills as a performer and aided her career.
That’s her main advice to ambitious dance students now, she said: Don’t specialize in one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Be a well-rounded artist and performer.
“Do everything, try everything,” she said. “You never know what world you’re going to end up in.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Wicked,” the musical.
When: 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. today and July 28; 7:30 p.m. July 23-28; 2 p.m. July 27.
Where: Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay, Portland.
Tickets: $49 to $179.
On the web: https://portland.broadway.com/shows/wicked