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Winnipeg-born choreographer dancing with success

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Contestants Makenzie Dustman and Paul Karmiryan perform a routine to choreographed by Lindsay Nelko.

ADAM ROSE / FOX Enlarge Image

Contestants Makenzie Dustman and Paul Karmiryan perform a routine to choreographed by Lindsay Nelko.

These are no longer baby steps.

In the career of Winnipeg-born choreographer Lindsay Nelko, the events of the past few months would more aptly be described as big, loud, rhythmic, artistic, ground-shaking steps -- the sorts of advances that can move an individual from the shadows of show business to the spotlight.

"I trained my whole life to get to this place, so I feel I was very well prepared for it," Nelko says from her home in Los Angeles, where her recent workload has included choreographing routines for TV's The X Factor and, more recently, So You Think You Can Dance.

"It's definitely a challenge; you could say things move very quickly. It's a competition and a live show, so being able to conceptualize, construct and choreograph a piece of brilliance in a very short period of time is definitely an exciting challenge. You have to deliver at such a high level, on television, in front of millions of people."

To say that Nelko, 27, was destined for a life in dance is slightly more than an understatement. The daughter of dance instructor and former Royal Winnipeg Ballet performer Shelley Shearer and lawyer Dana Nelko, she literally grew up surrounded by dancers and dance, and never envisioned herself following any other path through life.

"At three years old, while I was teaching classes at my school, she would be learning the dances of my advanced students just by watching," says Shearer, who opened the Shelley Shearer School of Dance in 1986, the same year Lindsay was born. "I was like, 'What is this? How does she do that?' It was very clear that she had a gift."

Nelko agrees the rhythms and movements of dance have fascinated her for as long as she can remember.

"I guess I was born doing this," says Nelko, who was acting as an assistant teacher at her mother's school by age 14 and received her first choreography award at the Manitoba Dance Festival when she was 15. "My mother was a professional dancer and I grew up every day watching her teaching dance. I lived there (at the school), and I wanted to dance. I guess I'm pretty lucky -- not too many people get to live this dream."

Nelko trained and competed in various dance styles from the time she was three until she was a teenager. Once she determined a career as a professional dancer wasn't in the cards, she shifted her focus to other aspects of the art form.

"At first I wanted to dance, but then when I was about 15 or 16 I discovered choreography," she explains. "I loved the creative process, and I love being able to tell my stories, share them with people and inspire people through movement. I think it's a great gift I've been given, and it's the most amazing feeling to be able to do choreography. I'm so blessed that so many people have taken an interest in my work."

Nelko's biggest break came when she was discovered by A-list choreographer/producer Brian Friedman, who has created dance arrangements for the likes of Britney Spears, Beyonc© and Mariah Carey, and has served as creative director for The X Factor and America's Got Talent.

Friedman encountered Nelko's work at the Pulse on Tour Dance Convention, an annual series of events that draws thousands of aspiring dancers and choreographers from around the world to different North American cities. As part of a company from the Shearer School that travelled to the event, Nelko was able to showcase her work in front of some of the dance industry's biggest hitters.

After receiving four prestigious Choreographer's Pick honours between 2010 and 2012, last year Nelko took home the Pulse Featured Choreographer award from the tour's finale in New York City. As a result of her showings at the Pulse events, Friedman took a mentoring interest and hired her for The X Factor, and another famed choreographer, Desmond Richardson, recommended her to producers at So You Think You Can Dance.

Her first choreographed piece on SYTYCD was performed on the series' July 9 instalment, and the dance -- performed by contestants Makenzie Dustman and Paul Karmiryan -- drew rave reviews from the show's judges, including the observation from Nigel Lythgoe that the "choreographer (Nelko) is a true asset to the program, and thank you very much for joining us."

"It was all so surreal," Nelko says of being seated in the SYTYCD theatre, watching the performance and hearing the judges' praise. "They were very complimentary. It felt like a dream -- it was a dream of mine to be on the show, but being Canadian, I never thought it was possible."

Having secured the necessary visa last year to allow her to work in the U.S., however, it became a possibility, and then, very quickly, a reality.

In which showbiz direction will Nelko's carefully chosen dance steps take her next? Well, that depends.

Earlier this month, she was a winner at the Capezio A.C.E Awards (for choreographic excellence) in New York. The prize includes a cash award and a venue in the Big Apple in which to stage a show in 2014.

Back home in the 'Peg, Nelko has also assisted with the choreography on two recent shot-in-Winnipeg movies: American Girl and Strings (on the latter, she acted as assistant to mentor/choreographer Friedman).

Meanwhile, back in Tinseltown, Nelko's success on SYTYCD has translated into many more people in the film and TV business taking an interest in answering her calls and sampling her work.

"I guess you could say there's a lot more interest in my work from producers and directors," she says. "Before (SYTYCD), when my agency in L.A. would submit my work, nobody knew who I was. Now people are asking to see my work for potential jobs. Where before I wouldn't even have been considered because I was too green, now I've had this great exposure and people know who I am. It's very exciting."

Watch video of Lindsay Nelko's debut as a So You Think You Can Dance choreographer here: Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 G1


Updated on Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 6:52 AM CDT: Changes headline, adds video

6:57 AM: Replaces photo

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