Eye-catching banners showing a jazzy blonde in a little yellow dress hang over L.A.'s busiest streets, advertising Contact's run at the Ahmanson. But Holly Cruikshank, a stunningly beautiful brunette, is starring as the Girl in the Yellow Dress. What does it feel like to work a lifetime, finally land one's first lead in a touring company show, only to have the advertisements flaunt one's Broadway predecessor?
"Frustrating," Cruikshank generously described the situation, finally forced to laugh about it. She quoted Bob Fosse: Dancers don't dance to become famous but rather because they love it.
The Tony-winning show brings to life three short stories, told mainly through dance. In the third piece, a busy ad executive realizes his loneliness and finds himself in a dance hall, where he spots that girl in yellow, whom Cruikshank describes as "somebody we wish we were but don't want to have the ego to be in real life." Cruikshank plays two sides of that character: the unattainable woman and the girl next door. In the interview, Cruikshank resembles neither. She looks instead like a natural teenager (she is over 21), in Capri slacks and a peacock-blue top that tries but cannot overwhelm her vivid blue eyes. But her 6-foot-tall frame is unmistakable. And it's what has helped shape her career.
She was quick to term Contact's director/choreographer Susan Stroman (The Producers) "an amazing woman on every level." According to Cruikshank, Stroman hired those who put something of themselves into the simple audition routines, who brought acting to dancing. The dancer believes her own ability to do so won her the part. Of course, her beauty and well-schooled dance technique couldn't hurt.
After establishing her dance career, Cruikshank took acting classes to improve her musical theatre skills, but also to develop confidence and a sense of self. Her dance background helped her acting; being physically comfortable is an asset in class and onstage, she notes. Her acting teacher, New York's Alan Savage, is "real—no weird exercises." When she prepared to audition for Contact, he helped her locate some anger within. A shy person, she said, "I don't yell in real life."
At the Contact audition, Stroman first gave the dancers short basic combinations, then explained the character and asked the dancers for their interpretations. Cruikshank had not yet seen the show. Those who had seen it portrayed the Girl in the Yellow Dress as "icy," Cruikshank recalled, but she brought warmth to the character. "She has confidence in herself, but she still has a heart. Otherwise, who would want her?"
Gaining confidence has been occupying Cruikshank's adult life, a surprise to those who see her as ideal. Until five years ago, she feels, "the height issue" was holding her back from her potential. "I was trying to be smaller, not taking charge of who I am."
Raised in Arizona, she first danced at age 3, "jumping around" in a tots class. Begging her mother to let her continue lessons despite the rising costs, she trained in ballet, dancing professionally while still in high school. While other teachers found excuses for her because of her height ("You can go slower because your legs are so long," she was told) her tallest teacher pushed her to excel. Accepted by audition to the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts, Cruikshank studied with ballet legends Melissa Hayden and Jacques d'Amboise, but at the school performance she danced the lead in a jazz piece.
When the school took its advanced students to New York to audition for ballet companies, she watched her friends get accepted while the companies told her they had already filled their quotas of tall girls. She exited auditions in tears. Modeling was possible, but agents told her to get a nose job. Fortunately, her favorite NCSA teacher shepherded her into an audition for choreographer/director Tommy Tune, who was casting the road company of The Will Rogers Follies—a matter of right place, right time, she believes, for she was primed to quit dancing. After the tour, Tune brought her into the New York company. She joined the revival of Hello, Dolly, was featured in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, then danced in the original cast of Fosse.
To those now starting out, she advised: "Know yourself. At auditions, don't try to fit into every part. Know what you can do best and capitalize on it. Be persistent. And always train." In L.A., she takes a jazz class, plus yoga; she relaxes on Mondays. She also takes voice lessons, which have helped deepen her breath, always a battle for her—her voice teacher, in fact, wants her to cease the sit-ups.
For Cruikshank, being tall, smart, and lucky has finally come together for her. She is now walking tall.