The entertainment industry is an ever-evolving spectacle where only the most versatile and adaptable thrive. In this realm, professionals like Anita Mannings, with expertise spanning dance, singing, acting, choreography, and education, are not just participants but pioneers shaping the future of performing arts. Their roles are crucial in an era that constantly redefines artistic expression and audience engagement, making their contributions both vital and revolutionary.
Anita Mannings’s career is a chronicle of exceptional achievements and a relentless pursuit of artistic excellence. Trained internationally, with a distinguished graduation from the prestigious Bodywork Company and further honing her skills at the Broadway Dance Center in NYC, Anita’s foundation in the arts is as robust as it is impressive. Her career is a mosaic of notable credits, including principal roles in dance and theater, innovative choreography for companies like Siblu Villages in France, and inspiring educational endeavors across various prestigious institutions.
Among her many accolades, Anita’s initiative to create her own show, “On Paper,” at merely 23, and her receipt of substantial scholarships and awards like the Choreographer’s Award, spotlight her not just as a performer but as a visionary and a leader. Her ability to conceptualize, execute, and lead artistic projects showcases her entrepreneurial spirit and her profound impact on the performing arts.
Our exclusive interview with Anita Mannings delved deep into her experiences during one of the most tumultuous periods the world and the performing arts industry have ever faced: the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst the global crisis, her work with Siblu Villages in France and Merlin Entertainments was a beacon of innovation and adaptability. She redefined the essence of performance under constraints, turning challenges into opportunities for artistic evolution and expression.
Perhaps most impressively, Anita’s choreographic work in Kosovo during this period stands as a powerful testament to her commitment to cultural exchange and the transformative power of art. Her role in bridging cultural divides and inspiring young artists across borders illuminates her as a global ambassador for dance and performing arts. Through her, we see not just the survival of art in trying times but its potential to unite, heal, and inspire across all barriers.
As we unveil her experiences, insights, and visions, we invite you to explore the depths of an artist who embodies the true essence of resilience and international cultural influence.
Hello Anita! It’s truly a pleasure to speak with you today. During the pandemic, the performing arts faced unprecedented challenges. How did you adapt your creative process to continue working effectively with Siblu Villages in France and Merlin Entertainments?
The pandemic really challenged me as a creative. I think my contract with Siblu Villages was my most difficult job to date due to the constant changes and adapting to new rules, sometimes even hourly! Normally, as a creative, I am very organized. I pre-prepare my choreography in a notebook and have every formation drawn out. However, during my time with Siblu, I often had to change choreography and group formations on the spot due to the ever-changing number of cast members and rules. On one occasion, after 2 weeks of rehearsals, I only had a few hours to re-space an entire 1.5-hour show! As the French Government announced that only 6 people were allowed in a space at a time, I had to re-space about 8 different numbers, ensuring that only 6 people were on stage at a time and that everyone had an equal amount of time on stage.
Furthermore, with both Siblu and Merlin Entertainments, we had to dance with masks, which was very challenging. You don’t realize how much you use your face as a performer to convey emotion until that’s taken away! I really focused on using my eyes a lot more for characterization; glaring, smiling, widening, as it was all we had to show emotion. With Merlin Entertainments, the very talented prop designer created transparent plastic masks for us with small air vents, so there was some ventilation to get rid of the condensation from our breath, and as we were playing vampires, the guests could still see our fangs. Although, with the very energetic dance routines, wearing masks was a challenge and felt a little stifling at times, we often had to take breaks to breathe—literally! However, I was impressed by how everyone handled the challenge and how innovative Thorpe Park’s, owned by Merlin Entertainments, approach was to entertainment during the global pandemic.
Can you share an example of how you innovated or changed your artistic approach to overcome the constraints imposed by the pandemic?
As a creative, I actually became quite inspired by TikTok! Although initially I wasn’t a fan of the platform, I came to see how much the younger generation connected through it during the pandemic. The dances were simple, easy to learn, and enjoyable for anyone, and during a very isolated time, it was something that brought people together. This led me to create the first-ever TikTok-themed dance piece for Siblu Villages!
I spent hours researching the most popular TikTok dances of the time and combined them to create a mega medley. I was also in charge of costumes, so I ordered T-shirts with the TikTok logo on them and then we wore colorful glasses without the lenses to create a fun themed number. The dance piece was a hit! It was definitely one of the most popular numbers in the shows. Every time the songs came on, the kids in the audience would start to get excited and join in, and the adults would smile and love it too! It was really heartwarming and felt like it brought people together.
I am very proud of coming up with that concept, although of course, I can’t take credit for the choreography. However, the idea was described as innovative. Staff from other Siblu parks wanted to use the number in their shows, and one of my colleagues asked to use it at a friend’s wedding!
Working in Kosovo on a youth project must have been a culturally enriching experience. How did this opportunity influence your perspective on dance and choreography?
Kosovo was one of the most incredible experiences of my career, giving me a new perspective on dance and choreography. It made me realize that dance/choreography isn’t always about the finished product or commercial gain. It reminded me that it’s an art form, and art is there for us to express, to play with, and is a part of the human experience—something professionals can sometimes forget.
During my time in Kosovo, two teenage brothers from the Roma community stood out. Initially, they were noticeable because their behavior was disruptive and sometimes out of control. I learned they lived in very poor conditions and experienced a lot of domestic violence at home, which explained their behavior. But something magical happened when these boys danced or played music: they transformed. They calmed down and became completely different people, suddenly having something to focus on and someone to look up to. They showed up every single day in my classes. I could see in their eyes that as soon as I gave them attention and a task (to execute choreography), they wanted to do well. They listened and, most importantly, they were smiling during the show! The same happened when they played a musical instrument. It seemed like dance and music were an escape for them from whatever was happening outside of the summer camp. This was just another reminder of how powerful art can be. It might not always change lives, but it can offer people a moment of respite.
As a professional, it was a humbling reminder of how we sometimes value prestigious accolades like dancing with a famous music artist or being in a hit musical. These are quite superficial goals often inspired by a goal-oriented society where money and fame are valued more than love or kindness. But actually, when you see the smile on the face of a young person because they are learning and enjoying creating, and knowing that you were a small part of that, that feeling is worth more than any big commercial achievement.
What message did you aim to convey to the young artists in Kosovo, and what do you think they took away from your workshops and choreography?
My message was simple: Joy. That message is what I infuse into all the classes I teach, even here in the UK with adults. I wanted the children to enjoy the dancing and the rehearsals because when you enjoy something, you improve at it and retain the knowledge you’re learning.
It’s like the old cliché: Make learning fun. I remember the subjects at school where the teachers made the lessons fun were the ones I looked forward to the most. Some of these children had never taken a dance class in their life, and I wanted their first impression of dance to be a positive one! And, of course, I wanted to share my love and passion for it with them. Life is hard and short. I always aim for my classes to be a space where students enjoy themselves, feel safe, and empowered while also learning self-discipline and moving their bodies. I hope that students always leave my classes/rehearsals feeling better than when they arrived.
Could you describe a moment during the pandemic when you felt particularly challenged and how you overcame that obstacle to continue your artistic work?
During the pandemic, I struggled with getting out of bed in the mornings and maintaining any sort of routine. I temporarily moved back to my parents’ home in France, and there were some days when I would just sleep all day. Like many people, I was very unmotivated and depressed, and at that time, France had very strict COVID rules: We couldn’t leave the house without a signed piece of paper stating why we were outside. I overcame this by taking live online dance classes.
An amazing community called Magnetic Movement created an entire weekly schedule filled with online dance classes and even mental health seminars. Each Sunday evening, I would look at the schedule and plan my week in my diary. Having classes to wake up for, a routine, and joining fellow dancers online who were going through the same thing really helped give me some motivation again and inspiration. Often after the classes were finished, I would spend the next hour or so practicing the routine and dancing my heart out! Moving my body and having a few hours a day to focus my brain on learning really helped me stay creative and inspired.
How do you think the pandemic has changed the global landscape of dance and performing arts, and what role do you see yourself playing in this new context?
I think, like many industries, people realized that a lot more could be done online or digitally. Now, most auditions are self-tapes, where you have to learn a dance routine, script, or song, record yourself, and then send it to the casting team, whereas before the pandemic, most auditions were in person. I think casting teams and creatives realized they could save a lot of time and money by not renting a room for an audition. The same goes for meetings, rehearsals, and classes, many of which are being done online now.
Personally, I started giving private dance lessons to clients and students on Zoom or Skype, and I definitely would like to expand this business venture as a dance educator and choreographer. I have actually met some amazing people through my online classes, from different countries, from Australia to China, and from all walks of life! Being a dance educator is so rewarding; watching my online students grow and improve is such a special feeling, and in turn, they inspire me to work on things that I am passionate about. However, in regard to stage performance and theater, I do believe it should remain and will remain live. There is nothing that can imitate the magic of seeing a live performance; it keeps us connected as humans, and the experience is unparalleled.
Working both in France and Kosovo presented diverse audiences and environments. How did you tailor your choreography and teaching approach to resonate with these different groups?
In Kosovo, the majority of the children had never danced before in a class/rehearsal environment. However, through the power of music and movement, we created dance pieces that were performed at a presentation at the end of the five days. Although I had help from my colleagues to translate from English to Albanian, dance proved to be a universal language in a magical way: often, I would teach a movement by showing it on my body and then have them copy me. Then, we would repeat until the movement was absorbed by their body and brains; words were not essential at all.
In France, I was working with a team of adult entertainers who had little to no formal dance training. I used simple, effective techniques instead of complex choreography to create the dance numbers and worked to the team’s strengths. I would teach them a step they already knew, for example, a step clap, and then place the dancers in an interesting formation so that the step was simple but the formation wasn’t. I would also add layers to simple steps they already knew, such as traveling a step or adding different arms. For example, with a clap step, making them clap above their heads, downwards, in a circle, so the step would look interesting even though it was, in fact, a simple clap step. Some of them were really interested in learning and executing lifts. With their interest on my side, as well as teaching them lifts I already knew, we learned new interesting lifts together from YouTube videos.
As we move beyond the pandemic, how do you envision the future of international dance collaborations, and what role do you hope to play in shaping this future?
That’s a good question! I would say that international dance collaborations are slowly and surely coming back, just as much as before the pandemic. My experiences internationally were actually during and post-pandemic, which I didn’t expect, but I was very lucky to have been offered these opportunities. I really hope to play a pivotal role in international dance collaborations in the future.
I have always loved traveling and come from an international background. I grew up in both the UK and France and have both a British and Dutch passport, as my mother is from the Netherlands. I also studied dance in New York City and am currently applying for a US visa to work as an artist over there. I believe that being open to working in other countries makes you more employable as an artist, and your experience as an artist becomes even more enriched. You meet new people, learn about new cultures, and share your art with the world—that is very special!
My ethos as a creative is to never limit myself, and that includes being boundless when it comes to where I share my art. I want to keep sharing it with the world!