Our Big Talent with a Dose of Tenacity and Humility
Matt Lee Represents the True Dance Professional
Interview by Chris Duncan
For most people Matt Lee came to attention more than ten years ago as the fresh, young judge on So You Think You Can Dance Australia. But appearing as a regular on a national TV show is but one of Matt’s amazing career moments. In fact, not many so young can declare success as a dancer, singer, actor, choreographer and presenter in both Australia and internationally, with credits both on stage and behind the scenes, and in film, theatre, TV, radio, music videos and live events. HIs immense and diverse talent has afforded him this success. Most recently he has been working on talent shows The Masked Singer and Dancing With The Stars as well as continuing to gig with Swing On This and teach regularly in leading dance studios. After several years happily working as a creative behind the scenes, Matt was looking forward to returning to the stage in Disney’s long-awaited Frozen The Musical premiere in Australia in the comic role of Olaf this year. But Covid19 put a stop to that for the time being, and Matt has been relishing this enforced downtime to re-connect with what he loves about the dance industry and re-assess his future after being fortunate enough to have been busy working solidly for almost two decades. Matt likes to see this Covid shutdown as a glass half-full ⏤ he is welcoming and enjoying this time to just ‘pause’ from the everyday industry hustle. DanceLife director Chris Duncan had the pleasure of catching up with Matt recently.
Q: What are you doing at the moment during our industry shutdown?
Well, I was teaching at Village Nation at the start of the year, but that came to an end as I was supposed to be preparing for Frozen The Musical. Of course, with that show now postponed until December I am actually enjoying having a break … it kind of came at a great time. I was exhausted from teaching. I’ve been teaching full time, five days a week for the last two years, since I got back from the UK. I was a bit burnt out. (Laughter)
Q: How did you navigate the Covid lockdown?
We were supposed to start Frozen rehearsals in May, and actually… today (July 7) we were supposed to have our first performance! As that’s all been postponed now, we’re hopefully going back into rehearsals in October and our first performance will be on the December 1 at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre. They’re (the producers) pretty confident that that will happen at this stage.
Q: Unfortunately, our industries are ones that are the longest suffering because of Covid.
Yeah, we’re the ones that are going to be shut down the longest, and it’s going to take a lot to get us all back up and back into the swing of things. But I think once we do, I think everyone’s going to be just so ready for it.
Audiences will come back with a vengeance … “Yes, we can finally go and see a show!” I think everyone’s going to be ready to go and enjoy the escapism… Just to get away from the crazy world that we live in for a few hours.
Q: What did Covid personally mean for you?
I just watched my waistline get bigger! (Laughter) As I mentioned, I was feeling a little bit burnt out and so, when it all happened, and it all got shut down, it was a great time for me. It forced everyone to stop, didn’t it? So, it forced us all to stop and just reset. And I think we’re still in the process of resetting. But for me, it just gave me time to recharge my batteries and find inspiration again.
Obviously not being able to go to the theatre … but there’s been so much online, and I just wanted to reconnect with that and find out what makes me tick, and all those things, and I do what I do. It was just a great little reflection moment, I think.
Q: And what do you think it has done for the industry, aside from the devastating effects of shows closing?
In this industry we just go from job to job, and you never want to say no to anything. So the positive to come out of the shutdown was that it forced us all to pause.
In this industry, you’ve got to accept everything. You want to say yes to everything, and so sometimes, you get caught up in not being able to take a break because you’re too worried about saying no to things. And I think it was a great moment for everyone to go, “Well, there’s nothing happening. So, everyone can just have a break.”
Q: How did you fill your Covid shutdown time up?
What did I do? Literally, my partner’s working from home, so I spend most of the day upstairs, while he’s downstairs. And I caught up on all the TV. Now that the gyms are back open, I have to get back, because literally I just don’t recognise myself! (Laughter)
Other than that, it was just connecting with friends and just making sure everyone’s safe and doing the right thing and all that kind of stuff. But yeah, it’s been a lot of Netflix! … There’s been a lot of catching up and bingeing on series.
Q: Did you engage in any online classes?
I think everyone was freaking out in those first couple of weeks; and most put their classes straight online. So I did about three or four weeks of Zoom classes. But Zoom it’s so frustrating … I think the Zoom thing was a novelty for a second.
It was just filling the void of working out how we get through this. How do we get around it? I don’t think it was very productive. Watching everyone dance out of time… everyone’s got different Internet speeds… and everyone’s doing it. But there was no constructive productivity to it, other than just getting a class done. So, I found that hard, because when you put the music on and then you’re just watching a whole screen of kids dancing to the music. But it served a purpose for the dance industry and I think it did its job for the time that it needed to. And now, that everyone’s back in the room I think we’re almost back there … to a point.
Q: What else is in the planning for you?
Choreographically, all the jobs stopped. Everything has dried up. Unfortunately for Sydney, a lot of the work … all the live TV and variety shows all moved to Melbourne after Marvel took over the Fox Studios in Sydney. So, Dancing with the Stars, The Masked Singer … everything has gone down to Melbourne. And last year I worked a little those shows, but I’ve lost those jobs this year because they’re in Melbourne, which is a bit upsetting.
But other than that, I’m excited to get back into the theatre, to get back on stage. I navigate my way which I’ve done my whole career on and off stage. I’ll spend a couple of years performing, and then I’ll spend a couple of years behind the scenes choreographing, creating and doing all that. I’ve been creating for the last two years, so I’ll be excited now to get back on stage again in December.
It’s a way to satisfy all my creative juices. Not that I’ve ever been tired of anything I’ve done in my career, but when you go, “Oh I feel like doing something else”, you have that other hat to put on, where you can go, “Right, now I can create and now I can choreograph and now I can work behind the scenes.” And then, “Now, it’s time for me, I want to be back on the stage.” So, yeah, it’s been cool that I’ve been able to do that. It’s lots of fun.
Q: What’s been your favourite part of your career so far? Is it equal between being behind the scenes and on stage performing?
I think they all complement each other, don’t they? I enjoyed all the facets of what I’ve been able to do. Getting a job on the television (judge on So You Think You Can Dance Australia) was interesting, because as a performer, you want to be in the spotlight. You want people to look at you. But then, that whole beast, that whole reality TV show feast was crazy. And then, I found myself not wanting to leave the house, which was very odd.
So, that whole being a face in everyone’s lounge room every Sunday for three months was very bizarre. But also, very cool in being able to highlight and put dancers in the spotlight on So You Think You Can Dance. That’s a big career highlight of mine ticked!
I suppose traveling the world has also been a highlight. I got to do Mary Poppins in the UK, playing Bert, which was brilliant (after the run in Australia). And working for Cameron Mackintosh – who is the biggest musical theatre producer in the world – was awesome.
But also, being able to create work for people like Ricky Martin and Paula Abdul has been incredible for me. I’ve been very lucky to do very cool things. But I don’t think there’s just one thing that I think is my favourite. I think it’s all an amalgamation of everything.
Q: Do you ever sit back, pinch yourself and think “Wow”?
(Laughs) I did a gig the other night at The Reservoir Room, and they asked me the same question… “When was you’re a-ha I’ve made it moment?” And I realised that I don’t think I really had one, because I’ve been very lucky that my family are very grounding for me. But then, on reflection, when I sit back and think, go through my career and what I’ve done … I do sometimes think “Wow!”
Because of the nature of what we do, we just go from job to job to job. So, we’re always thinking about what’s coming up and what you’re going to do next. But I have done some pretty cool stuff. (Laughs)
Q: What do you credit your success to? Is it your mindset? Self-discipline? Your mentors?
I think it’s my tenacity. In this world you have to have A) thick skin … and B) you have to want it more than the other 500 other people auditioning.
But I grew up with very good training, and I was always taught to do everything. You have to make sure that you can do everything so that you are more versatile, and then you’ll be suitable for way more work, which means you will continually work, rather than just being right for that one thing.
My singing teacher always used to say to me, “How many dance classes do you do a week?” And I’m like, “I dance every day.” She’s like, “How many singing lessons do you do a week?” And I was like, “One.” She was like, “Do you see the imbalance?”
That was a light bulb moment for me … I think I was about 15. If you want to get to the professional level you have to give equally to everything, because if you’re just focusing on the one thing, then you’re only going to be right for that one thing. You have to give that same amount of attention to all your skills.
I think my success has been a testament to my training. And I try really hard to do everything, and that’s why I think I’ve been able to be on stage as well as behind the scenes, as well as work in so many different facets of the industry rather than just being right for that one thing. [Matt was one of the original graduates from the original Brent Street.]
My success is also due to the support of my parents keeping my feet firmly on the ground. You have to make sure that you’ve got the right people around you supporting you and helping you. That’s why I’ve always been lucky to try and surround myself with like-minded people, and people that have the same goals and aspirations and things that I do because you just kind of help each other, don’t you?
Q: Going forward, past Frozen, what else have you got on the horizon?
Honestly, it’s all up in the air at the moment because of Covid. But, as a long-term goal, my partner and I are thinking of starting our own business … maybe a little cabaret and cocktail bar one day. But until then, with this industry being so transient … after Frozen I think I might re-assess as I’m getting older and priorities change. I’m 40 this year, and the things that you once prioritised in your 20s and 30, they’re very different as you hit 40. So, I think I will come out of Frozen and look at finding the things that I want and enjoy doing.
But I’m not going away! … I’ll always be in the industry, somehow creatively.
Matt Lee’s Biography is too detailed and lengthy to be summarised succinctly here, so please visit his website for his full career credits: www.mattgrantlee.com