Dance Stories: The rise of Creative Choreographer Liam Lunniss
From an Essex boy with distant dreams of being a TV actor, to one of Europe's most in demand creative minds, Liam Lunniss' rise to the top has been nothing short of meteoric. At only twenty-seven years old, Liam has almost a decade of professional dance and choreography experience behind him, and a resume that demonstrates unwavering passion and dedication to his artform. His credits include working on The Voice Italy & UK, The X Factor, the MTV EMA Awards, and with artists such as Camila Cabello, Kesha, Dua Lipa, Shawn Mendes and Katy Perry. One of the youngest choreographer/creatives in the European commercial industry, his background as a successful dancer and performer in his own right has propelled him straight into the spotlight. We chatted to Liam about his training, his incredible career, and the advice he has for anyone passionate about choreography or performing.
"I was never actually interested in dance, that’s the most ironic thing," Liam laughs. "I used to watch soaps on TV and I said to my mum that I wanted to be an actor, so she found a school in Colchester, my hometown, that did an hour of dance, an hour of singing, and an hour of acting," he explains. His focus at that stage was completely on acting, and he even began to work towards acting qualifications and exams. "I obviously had to do the dance part of it, which I really enjoyed," he says, "but I never saw it as a serious career path." A chance opportunity arose when a boy at Tiffany Stage Academy (a stage school associated with the classes Liam attended) fell ill and Liam was asked to step in to dance as part of a competition team. "We won," he laughs, "and after that I just fell in love with dance, and the acting kind of drifted off."
He remembers watching performances and music videos on TV, which inspired his passion for commercial dance. Then he experienced something unexpected. "I had a cancer scare when I was at school," he explains, "and it was all clear and it was fine, but it gave me an awareness of teenage cancer that I never had before." Determined to make a difference, Liam took inspiration from those TV performances and created his own fundraiser event. "There was this thing called Fashion Rocks that used to be put on by Swarovski, and it was for charity," he says. "I wanted to do my own version, so I created a fashion dance show in Colchester in aid of Teenage Cancer Trust and then for the special care baby unit." He was only fourteen. He seems unfazed, perhaps because he is so used to being one of the youngest in his field, but it's an impressive achievement. "That’s where my love for dance and choreography was ignited, because I saw the ability of creativity," he says. "It was madness, I was in year ten at school, fourteen or fifteen, but from then on I knew I wanted to be a choreographer.” Perhaps it is this that makes Liam's story unique. Many people in Liam's position start their careers knowing only that they want to dance professionally, and becoming a choreographer is a much later development. Liam knew even before leaving school that his end goal was to be a creative.
His perspective was altered slightly when he started full time training at Tiffany Theatre College. Although he was always looking for opportunities to assist his teachers and choreographers, an undiscovered talent for musical theatre emerged that shifted his priorities. "They started to pick up loads on my musical theatre side," he says. "I did Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, Rick in A Slice of Saturday Night, and Jesus in Godspell, so my end goal kind of shifted in my brain," he says. "They made me believe in myself with my singing and acting again, and suddenly I wanted to be a musical theatre performer." During Liam's graduation year he was signed to Global Artists to be represented for musical theatre work. He was successful too; he was immediately offered a six month contract as an actor in an opera at the Coliseum, and was down to the final cut for Hairspray and Dirty Dancing. "I was like OK this is my path," he says. Then everything changed again. "I got offered Duffy’s video," he says. "So I spoke with my musical theatre agent, because suddenly all these things were coming in for me commercially." His agent's advice was clear: the theatre world is timeless, but the commercial industry is less forgiving of age. He should pursue commercial dance while he had the opportunity, and come back to musicals when he was ready. Liam starts laughing at the irony of it all. "I had this dream of acting before I danced, then of choreographing before college," he says. "I went to college as a commercial dancer, found this new lease of life in theatre, and then finally ended up going back to commercial."
That first job with Duffy was one of the biggest music videos at the time, and Liam recalls a particularly hilarious anecdote around the way he secured the job. "I remember I went to an open dance call, then I got a call from them asking me if could trick," he explains. "I panicked and was like 'yes, I can trick,' and they said the job was ninety-nine percent confirmed." This is where it gets especially funny. "I got off the phone and called my friend James," says Liam, "and I was like 'James, meet me on the field, I need to learn how to trick, because I cannot trick'," he laughs. "He managed to get me outside and teach me a somersault to my hands, and that actually ended up in the video," he says, still in disbelief. "Hilarious," he says, "it’s like Joey in 'Friends' when he writes all that stuff on his CV that he can do but actually can’t. That was me, at eighteen." It worked though, because commercial dance jobs kept coming in for Liam, from Whitney Houston to One Direction to Comic Relief and X Factor. "To be honest now it seems like a blur," he says. "The peak of my performing career, I was nineteen."
Although he has always been ahead of the curve, it's easy to question if he could have gone further as a performer if he had delayed his choreography career for a while. "Yeah, I mean when I look back at it now, he says, "it blows my mind that I was doing those things at that age, but it does kind of explain where I am at now. I think I'm one of, if not the youngest working choreographer/creative in Europe at the moment, so it does all make sense on a timeline, but I do kind of want to relive those young years now," he says, a hint of nostalgia in his voice. "You grow as a person and as a dancer as you get older. I watch back videos of myself now and I find myself so messy," he says, "but I just think it was the energy that I had back then and the vulnerability that was kind of attractive to casting agents, because I had no fear, I just did what I wanted to do because I loved it.”
Liam's transition from dancer to choreographer to creative was fairly smooth. "I’m just very fortunate that I always landed on my feet," he says. "I think my dance training when I was a kid was very technical, a lot of modern and jazz, and stereotypically a lot of commercial dancers don’t really have the strongest technical background. I think it played to my advantage, it helped me with maintaining counts, musicality, positions and shapes," he explains. "I think choreographers found that appealing; my brain was there and ready to remember what they’d just said." He was often assigned as Dance Captain, and sometimes assistant choreographer, which led to some work with creative choreographer Christian Storm. That working relationship led to Liam being signed as a choreographer to Mass Movement agency at only twenty-two years old. "After they signed me, they recommended that I stop my dance career," he says, "because I wasn’t going to be taken seriously as a choreographer if I was working as a dancer. So I just stopped dancing," he says. "I don’t regret it, because I’m very grateful for where I am right now," he says firmly, "but sometimes I miss the feeling it would give me now that I could understand and appreciate it more," he explains, "and the level I could have got to if I had a few more years."
He is strong in his belief that everything happens for a reason. "I’ve missed out on jobs before that I really thought I wanted, and then ended up doing something that’s much more valuable to my life," he says. "I remember Paloma Faith’s team asked me to choreograph her Strictly Come Dancing performance at Halloween, and I was twenty-three," he says emphatically, "so obviously I was enthused. It was Saturday Night prime time, amazing choreography with ten girls, but there was an issue with negotiations, so I didn’t end up doing it." Fortunately, there was a bright side. "I booked a commercial that weekend that gave me like a quarter of my house deposit," Liam laughs. "So I was so gutted about that moment but then I could buy a house." It's easy to see why he believes in everything working out in the end. "If I do everything with my highest energy and commitment and respect of where I’m going as an artist, then everything will work out," Liam says. He knows that as a performer or an artist it's not always easy. "It can become a self-destructive, anxiety-ridden industry and career path," he acknowledges, "but this is what I tell my students; you sweat for hours, you hurt your body, you do things that muggles - I call them muggles because they’re not dancers - don’t do," he laughs. "Financially, yeah we’re not gonna get to the same level as a lawyer," he says, "but the gain that you get in your soul and your heart from being creative and having these experiences, other people would die for, and money can’t buy that."
Liam has undoubtedly experienced more pinch-me moments than your average person. He has a few that he considers his career highlights; one is particularly special. After parting ways with Mass Movement in 2014, he joined AMCK - Europe’s leading commercial dance agency. After meeting with the CEO, Aicha McKenzie, she immediately gave him the challenge of submitting for a creative role, which he booked. "I was hired as the associate creative director of The Voice in Italy. That was the first time someone hired me as a creative, not just a choreographer," he says. “I remember watching the first performance on the monitors backstage, and I cannot explain the feeling I got in my body. I did a piece to Billie Jean, a piano version," he explains, "and I did all the creative; what the dancers were wearing, their style in the choreography and everything. I had a weird feeling of remembering sitting watching these shows as a kid, and then I was watching the monitor like; I’ve done it, I’ve done the thing I always dreamed of." It is a feeling most professional artists hope to experience at some point - that special, indescribable moment where you know you're doing what you were always meant to do. "I feel like some of my best work was on that show," Liam says, "and I was only twenty-four. I look back at it now and I think I wouldn’t do anything differently, and that’s because the creative director Laccio gave me the trust and confidence to be myself. There were no limits or preconceptions of my ability; I was given a blank canvas to paint and I wanted to ensure that it was a beautiful picture, for Laccio, for Aicha, for the show and for myself," he says. "I’ve realised that our skill set as creatives can never decrease, it can only grow; it’s just ensuring you have the right mindset to achieve, and positive influences around you that want to water your ability to grow, not diminish your light."
Liam's biggest piece of advice is to surround yourself with supportive people. "My booker Kathryn and the team at AMCK are now like my family; sometimes I feel like they know me better than I know myself. You have to have the right people around you," he says, "people that are not going to question your creativity or question your ability or your age. Age is just a number," he laughs, "a baby shark is still a shark!" That doesn't mean he hasn't had moments of doubt. "I did a Kesha performance at the EMAs last year," he says, "and I was super nervous. It had already been worked on previously by other choreographers and I was also working alongside the creative director for the show. He wanted to do this rainbow waterfall," he explains, “and I related to the song on a personal level. I wanted to create my own narrative on top of what was already in place, focusing on joy and light overruling the demons in our head. I had this idea that once this joyous rainbow waterfall came down, it took the demonic dancers off their feet and they were sort of climbing up towards her." And despite his experience and his self-belief, Liam found himself apologising for it in rehearsals. "I was very apologetic," he says, "like 'OK I just want to try this, it is a bit weird, just try it with me,' and it actually got into the top five performances in the EMAs, and that singular section is what Billboard commented on." It ended up being a lesson in trusting his instincts. "After that I was like OK, always trust in what I want to do," he says, "because the beautiful thing about our job is that you have free reign to be creative and speak from your heart, and it sounds so stereotypical but I think you have to embrace that and believe in yourself," he says, with genuine conviction. "That’s what makes your work beautiful. I feel like I am the most comfortable I’ve ever felt in my life in my career, and that’s literally the self-respect I’ve given myself," he says.
Perhaps what is most appealing about Liam however, is the respect he gives others, including the dancers he works with. There is one story he shares which makes this abundantly clear. "I’ve worked a couple of times on the MTV EMA awards as the main stage choreographer," he says, "and the second year was a really special one for me because we auditioned hundreds of dancers and over one hundred and twenty of them were booked on the job. Seeing all of those people through from the audition and watching them live their dream as well as living mine was incredibly special," he explains. "All these people came from all over the world to London and danced my choreography," he says. "The feedback I got, the energy in the room, and my Instagram messages, were the kindest words I’ve ever heard, it was so sweet; everyone was so grateful and nice and kind." It's clear that Liam cares deeply about the atmosphere he creates in his audition and rehearsal rooms. "I’m not someone that wants to make people nervous," he says, "I’ll have three or four assistants in the room with me making sure that every person in that room feels confident and able to do the choreography, because I know what it's like to be a dancer." It is this outlook that makes Liam so likeable, despite his success. "I think when I’m in a room auditioning people, I don't put myself at a higher level than everyone else," he explains. "I always look at it as if we are one. I can be inspired by you as a dancer and you can hopefully be inspired by me as a choreographer."
At this stage in Liam's career, things are starting to come full circle. He has recently been working as a movement director, so whilst he's not acting himself, he's found himself surrounded by them. "At the end of last year I was actually working with the movement director on Bohemian Rhapsody," he says, "which is a new biopic about Freddie Mercury and Queen. I found myself in a room with actors who can’t dance," he explains. "It blew my mind!" he laughs, "because it was like I’m back to the start again with actors, not dancers." One might wonder if that little boy watching his favourite soap operas on TV could ever have imagined he would be where he is now. Then again, Liam's success is entirely of his own making, so surely a part of him has always known he had what it takes - immense talent, dedication, and self-belief.
Interview & Article by Emily Newton-Smith
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