Collin Baja, a dancer and actor who grew up in Northville and Traverse City, is returning to Michigan soon, though not as himself — not even close.
Baja will be seen bounding around on all fours, shrouded in a big reindeer costume as Sven, one of the more physically demanding roles of the touring production of “Frozen,” which comes to the Detroit Opera House Nov. 29 through Dec. 17. Sven, of course, is Kristoff's loyal, sleigh-pulling companion, who helps him and Princess Anna of Arendelle find her older sister Elsa.
The Juilliard grad, who has a bachelor of fine arts in dance, joined “Frozen” in 2019, his first national tour. On Broadway, he’s racked up several credits, including parts in the revival of “Hello, Dolly!,” “Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark” and “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” which starred Nathan Lane. As an animal puppeteer, he was part of the herd in the 2008 revival of “Equus,” with Daniel Radcliffe. Reflecting on the role, he told the San Francisco Examiner: “There was a very choreographed, very intense, climactic scene where I was jumping over [Radcliffe] and kicking by his face with these massive metal hooves and all I'm thinking is, 'Please don't let me kill Harry Potter!’"
In addition to performing, Baja is currently finishing up his master’s in clinical mental health counseling. Between shows on the “Frozen” tour across North America, he sees clients via telehealth. When he arrives in Michigan, that work will continue between playing Sven and seeing family, in addition to rediscovering Detroit. “It's been quite a long time since I've explored downtown,” he says.
How did growing up in Michigan shape you artistically?
Growing up with two older sisters, I got dragged along to whatever extracurricular activity. So dance class, we were all put into it. I gravitated toward it very much and loved it. I was always performing in the living room, but I got bullied a lot in Northville for it, and so I stopped. When we moved up to Traverse City, I felt a fresh start, excited even at 12 to get back into it. Traverse City was very formative; it led to Interlochen, which is really what made me the artist I am today.
Interlochen asked me to come audition for the dance department. I really was not familiar with what it was, even though it was so close. When I got into the dance department, I was nervous because that obviously meant leaving my friends and I was starting to book good roles. Obviously, it was a no-brainer. It's such a good school, but that's how dance took over for a certain chapter as well.
How did you land the role of Sven?
I was doing a Broadway play called “Gary: a Sequel to Titus Andronicus” with Nathan Lane. Our movement coordinator for that play is a friend, a brilliant guy named Lorenzo Pisoni, who works with Disney. He and I did “Equus” together, my Broadway debut back in 2008, both as actors, and so we've known each other for quite a long time.
As “Gary” was coming to a close in the summer of 2019, they were still auditioning for Svens for the tour. I asked if I could come in for it. It came at a perfect point in my life where I was wanting to start sampling other cities and I had just got divorced, so I wanted space and time away from the city.
They have a lightweight, rehearsal version of the Sven head, and they strap you in and you get on the rehearsal stilts, both front and back, and you just have to try and fail. There's no real way to teach it prior to doing it, except that you're going to be in a plank and where to hold your muscles and this and that, but they basically just say, "OK, now walk around, trot, try to lay down, try and smell something, bring life to this as much as you can."
Later, they said that they know pretty much within the first two to five minutes who looks like they have the body awareness, stamina and ability to eventually bring it to life.
Had you walked on stilts before you went into that audition room?
No, I had not done something on this level of puppeteering. Dan Plehal, the other actor I share this role with, comes from more of a circus background. I come from more of a dance background, but we both really had to be put through a puppet bootcamp specifically for Sven because it's so uniquely put together and so brilliant.
What most impresses you about how the movie has been adapted to the stage?
I'm blown away by the level of detail. Truly, I'm not just saying this. I'm still watching “Let It Go” from Caroline Bowman [who plays Elsa] every single night because Caroline blows me away, just the control. It takes a village to put on a show, let alone a touring show. Our crew, our wardrobe, everyone is working so hard and it shows in the results. Sven is a prime example of that, of no matter what it says and how you list it out in the program, everyone's convinced there are two or three people in that puppet at the same time.
I read that your head is actually looking out through the neck.
I have very limited eyesight out of the mesh part of the neck. We're doing our show looking at the other actors basically from their belly button down, so that Sven's eyes are the ones that are obviously making eye contact. We on four stilts in a 60-pound puppet with limited eyesight and limited hearing for two hours.
I get to make my Sven a very different version than Dan makes it. Mine is modeled very much so off of my dog — a little bit more queer, fun, sassy. I studied my dog when I booked this role and the ways that he lays down or stretches, and his little sideways glances. My family's going to make fun of me so much for talking about Balu. [Laughs.]
Your Instagram features lots of shirtless photos that make me think you may have had a modeling past.
Yes, so I lived in New York City for 17 years, and for about 12 of those years, if not longer, I was represented or currently still am with Wilhelmina Models. I modeled for quite a long time and actually used to spend my summers in Europe modeling and then would come back to New York for the school year for whatever Broadway shows.
As someone who doesn’t seem to favor shirts, does it get hot in that Sven costume?
I love clothes, but I'm also very body-positive because I've been a dancer my whole life, and most of the time, any dancer you find is body-positive because we spend our entire lives learning about our bodies.
I think that America has this unique, funny double standard stigma that if you're body-positive, then it promotes a certain kind of sexuality, and I don't think that's true. If you're body-positive and you work hard at it, which I have to, not only for this role, but for every other role I've had in my life or career, I don't think that's something to be shameful of.
As a dancer, I imagine you’re thinking about what your body can do every day.
How can I push its limits? How can I take care of it? This is my one vessel. I'm proud of the work I put into it. If someone has an attachment or idea or projection based on putting a workout photo or a modeling shot online, then that's theirs. That's totally fine, but I think it's a helpful way for people to embrace the fact that you have this one vessel — give it some love.