4.15.2014

The Frightful First Day of Work

During my first few weeks at PNB
Your first day at a new workplace is often a blur. New faces, new practices, and putting your best foot forward are three of many components that overwhelm most people after joining a new company. While there is a great amount of stress to show that an employer was right to choose you for the job, your first 8 hours on the job are rarely representative of what it will be like to work for a company or what you will be like working for that company. There is a lot to expect on the first day and a lot you want to project into your new environment.

I would call myself the king of the first day. Maybe that is reaching a bit far, but I have experienced more first days of work in the past 3 years than most people will experience in a lifetime. Looking back to my very first day with my first full-time company, I really can't tell you much. I joined Houston Ballet in July of 2003. I had spent a few weeks in the city getting my apartment together and adjusting to an adult lifestyle at the ripe age of 19 years old. I had met a few dancers in the company while getting in shape at the school's annual summer program, but didn't really know what to expect once our actual contract had commenced. I had a little taste of first day jitters when I guested with American Ballet Theatre in their Romeo and Juliet tour to the Kennedy Center while I was still training at SAB (fun side note: I was David Hallberg's 2nd cast when he had to go into the role of Benvolio. He was still in the corps.) But the beginning of your time with a company that could become your home is very stressful.

I had imagined day one of my career like this. The night before the start of my dream career finally arrived. I was really excited and a little bit nervous. My ideal night of sleep included about 8 hours of sleep. I showed up to the studio early. I needed to arrive in time to dress in the perfect outfit that I picked out the night before. I warmed up the best that I ever have. I made sure that I respectfully found the best place at barre that was still available. I didn't forget to smile at every dancer that walked by. People like happy beings, right? Class started and I knew I was going to have the best class of my life. You know, that class where even the long-time principal say, "Wow! That guy is incredibly talented!" After class, I was basking in the excitement that surrounded me. The director hired his new star, the company wanted to talk to the new talent, and my ultimate dream had been realized. Then I realized, that my dream day at my dream job is only a dream. A dream I had been building up for the last 2 years of my training.

Just another day on the job at PNB
None of these things happened on my first day, except for these things; I was nervous and excited that night before, but slept poorly. I must have been experiencing way too many adrenal emotions to actually get a good night of sleep. And I did smile at every person that I encountered. Many did not smile back. The reality of my first day at work was that for most of the people in the company, it was only their mundane return from vacation. It was nothing new or exceptional. And for me, now that I have been dancing professionally for 11 years, I don't even remember what happened on that day.

Luckily, at least for my readers, I have had many first days over the past 3 years to remind me what it feels like to leave your first impression on a boss and coworkers. As a freelancer, you will likely have many first days. And while, I am not completely numb to the prospect of showing a new group of people why I am the best person for the job, I am not as concerned about making an absolutely wholesome, perfect impression on day one.

Last week, I flew to San Francisco to begin working with Oakland Ballet. As with most of my freelancing work, I don't audition for the jobs that I am offered. My friend, Amy Seiwert, suggested that the director, Graham Lustig, take me into consideration to work with the project-based company for 6 weeks. Graham had never met me before and had likely never even heard my name. So, not only did I need to represent myself as a dancer, I needed to show for the person that trusted me enough to put their reputation on the line to get me a job. Since I am such a regular at this first day business, I wasn't too worried the night before.

I've been stuck in a bit of a pickle since I arrived in the bay area and I am still in the process of, hopefully, working things out. Housing isn't provided for this gig (the first time and last time I will accept work this way) and the place that I was supposed to stay fell through. A friend with a loft 1-bedroom condo very graciously offered me a place to crash until I resolved my situation. And while an apartment with no separating walls and a 40-minute commute to work wasn't ideal, I didn't really have any other options.

Oakland Ballet's rehearsal space - Malonga Casquelourd Center
On our first day of rehearsals, I woke up early to take the bus downtown to start my first day of work. After checking Googlemaps, I found that a specific bus would get me to the rehearsal space with 15 minutes to spare before class. I arrived at the bus stop five minutes early and went on to wait a half hour for the bus to arrive. Yes, my bus never showed up and I had to wait until the next one arrived. I tried to hail passing cabs and I seriously considered walking the additional 2 1/2 miles to work. While this was, perhaps, my 10th first day of work this season, I still felt awful and embarrassed when I had to text the artistic director that I probably wouldn't make it to class. Luckily, Graham was understanding of my situation. But if this had been one of my first jobs, I may have had a panic attack.

I arrived for class about 5 minutes late, but made it in time to join in two combinations late. My first thought upon running in to continue barre was, "my coworkers probably think horrible things of me right now." But then, I took a step back and thought back to watching others have a first day in companies that I have danced for. I barely noticed anything about those people on the first day. After class, we started rehearsing a new piece by Sonya Delwaide. Her choreography was fun and quirky and after a short hour-long audition, I was selected to be in her piece. Lunch passed and small talk ensued among us dancers. Half of the dancers work together seasonally and remained in a tightly knit group, but the others quietly sat around trying to connect without showing too many of their true colors. Everybody acts overly tentative on days like this. It makes sense. Nobody wants to be overly excited and everybody wants to be liked by everybody. For this reason, people play it safe on day one.

These dancer from Axis Dance Company will be joining Oakland Ballet in Sonya's piece
After lunch, we began rehearsing with Robert Moses. He briefly and briskly taught 32 counts of choreography. Then he told us to change the order of the steps. Following this, we paired up with another dancer, took our newly crafted solos, and turned them into duets. The only thing, for me, was that one of the dancers was missing because she was driving from Colorado after a weekend performing in Denver. I was partnerless. I couldn't learn the choreography of the duet by myself. And because of this handicap, once Robert started creating his piece, I was left out in the cold.

By the end of the day I was emotionally exhausted and a little unhappy. I was in a new time zone, I was sleeping on a couch, and I was commuting nearly an hour to work on a transit system that was unreliable. The first impression of me was being late. I wasn't immediately loved by every dancer in the studio. And one of the choreographers, the one that I was most excited to work with, didn't even seem to know that I existed. This was my first day and it was shitty. I failed in all of the places I had hoped to succeed on my first day with Oakland Ballet. All of this while being the most seasoned at entering a new workplace.

The reason that I share this story is because it really speaks volumes about what to expect on your first day of work and how much it really means in the long run. Yes, you want to do your best. Yes, you want to make your mark. But the first day is usually a whirlwind and it is rarely a representation of what work will be like, how you will get along with people, and what your true growth potential with that organization will be.

It is only one week later and so much has already changed since arriving to dance with Oakland Ballet. While I may still be figuring out my housing situation, I have figured much out and other things have evolved. My commute is no longer an issue. When I was still at my friend's house, I walked an extra 5 minutes to the BART, a much more reliable mode of transportation. I haven't been late since. Many of the dancers have opened up to me. And while I may have bonded to a degree with one or two people on the first day, the people that took longer to break through to seem to be getting closer with me than those who were more immediately. I am still enjoying Sonya's rehearsals and I have become a much more integral part of Robert's piece.

Many other factors have changed in the short week that I have been dancing with this company. If I had a first day like I did last week towards the beginning of my career, I may have had an absolute meltdown trying to cope with the stress of trying to prove myself worthy of the contract offered to me. But after my recent bad first day, I called my husband and shook it off. With the knowledge and experience I have, I knew that the rest of my experience with this company was not going to be based on all of the first impressions I had and made that day. This is because a first day of work is like a first date. Everybody is on their best behavior. Everybody is trying to look and do their best. Once everybody gets comfortable and things start to evolve, things fall into place and you get to see what the experience will truly be like. So, go into your first day as we all do. But don't go home thinking the best or the worst. Be happy that you had this day in the first place and take your first day attitude into everyday from there on.

Don't feel like this after your first day (Clarion Alley in the Mission District)

How have you felt on your first day of work?

4.01.2014

Travel Post - Extending Your Trip Following a Gig

The freelancing life has many pitfalls and even greater challenges. But it also comes with a few perks. These benefits can range from having more say in your artistic package to being treated like a celebrity (maybe B-list) or getting to see new parts of the world. One of the greatest features of traveling for your work is having the opportunity to stay on location past your engagement. This can allow you to really enjoy being in a new locale without time-consuming rehearsals or worrying about preserving your energy levels.


Sleeping Beauty poster I found in a window downtown

Backstage shot I took of Laura Tisserand
I am currently sitting on my 10th flight in the last 6 weeks while on my way home from New Orleans. This past weekend, I had a fun opportunity to dance in Lafayette Ballet Theatre's production of Sleeping Beauty. One reason that I loved being a part of this performance was that it gave me a chance to perform with some old friends from Pacific Northwest Ballet; Laura Tisserand, Will Lin-Yee, and Joshua Grant. Beyond that, I was surprised to find that another friend and former colleague, Houston Ballet Principal Melody Mennite, would be performing with us, as well. Others on the list of dancers for this production were Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Principal, Nurlan
Abougaliv, and an acquaintance I have danced with in Philadelphia, former Pennsylvania Ballet dancer Yosbel Delgado. For a school production in the south, this was quite an A-list cast of dancers and I was proud to be a part of the show.

LBT flew me in a few days before the performance to rehearse Puss and Boots with one of their students and a suitor in the Rose Adagio with Laura. I have performed Sleeping Beauty at least three dozen times and had already performed these roles before, so the workload was relatively easy for me. This allowed me to take some time to enjoy the local Cajun culture. Beyond experiencing some of Lafayette's food and lifestyle; Will, Nurlan and I drove away from the city to go on a Cajun country swamp tour. On this adventure, we saw a plethora of alligators, turtles, birds, and swamp plants, all whilst lounging in a crawfish skiff with a guy named Butch steering us around the shallow, murky waters. This was really an incredible escape. But even while relaxing in the humid sunshine of an alligator infested swamp, we had to run back to our hotel to grab our dance bags and head off to the theatre. For this reason, I am so glad that I asked LBT to leave me behind in Louisiana for an extra three days after the show.

Alligators out in the swamp sunning themselves
Many freelance dancers don't realize that they have more control over their work than they would expect. We can negotiate different terms in our contracts or let an employer know that certain expectations are out of the range of our comfort zones. One of the best perks that many freelancers don't take advantage of is asking an employer to alter travel plans beyond the period of time that they will be working for them. They are almost always responsible for taking care of your transportation to and from the gig. If you want to stay on-location for a few extra days, it doesn't change the fact that the company brought you out there to work for them. Most companies are more than happy to change your departure date gratis.

A few steps outside of my hotel on Bourbon Street
For the above reason, I asked LBT if they would mind flying me back home through the airport in New Orleans, a few hours east of Lafayette. I had never been to the southern state of Louisiana and I was curious about the Crescent City. After performing in Lafayette on Saturday night, I hopped on a Greyhound bus for the 3 1/2 hour trip. Not only was I getting to explore a new city without booking or paying for my own flight, I now had a few days to vacation without worrying about work. I stepped off my bus into the streets of the Big Easy, booked a cheap hotel on my phone as I walked towards the French Quarter, and launched myself into a different world. Was I still treading on American soil?

I am typically more of a Type-A traveler. I will spend hours on the internet researching all of the must-do's and hunt for hidden secrets that each city holds. I do this in hopes of creating the perfect itinerary. But this time around, I showed up having no idea what I was going to do. Aside from the fact that I figured New Orleans was a medium-sized regional city, I assumed that there was probably a limited amount of options to research. It must also be taken into account that I have been ridiculously busy traveling, rehearsing, and performing. I, somehow, lucked out and booked a cheap hotel on Hotwire right on Bourbon Street. This was the first time I ever booked a hotel on my phone while walking down the street minutes before arriving, but this should have been a sign of what was to come over the next 48 hours.

Musician playing his saxophone on the bar
As I dragged my luggage through the central business district and finally located Bourbon Street, I was baffled by what surrounded me. It was 5 PM on a random Sunday evening. The street was packed, people were drinking, and you could hear jazzy instruments playing down the streets. My luggage skipped and jumped down the sometimes-cobblestoned road as I peeked in the oft open doors of clubs, bars, restaurants, gentlemen's clubs, and more. Alcoholic beverages galore, big bands playing in and outdoors, a saxophone player breaking it down while standing on a bar, and people of all walks of life tipsily tumbling down the sidewalk. Instantly, I had a two-day smile on my face while I drank in this intoxicating atmosphere.

Sipping a hand grenade on Bourbon Street
My first order of business after checking into my hotel was to explore the French Quarter shops, obviously with a drink in hand. From voodoo shops to N'awlins souvenirs, there were more shops in this small neighborhood than many larger city neighborhoods I've been to. But what most shocked me was the strong artistic vibe that buzzed through the air of this town. Beyond music, there were artists selling works in galleries and on the street. Some even created their work while laying in the middle of streets that were randomly closed to traffic for the eve. I am not sure if I have ever been in a city that is so overtly artistic, even more so than New York or San Francisco.

A mansion along St. Charles Ave
Over the next day, I spent lots of time drinking hurricanes and hand grenades, walking past large southern-style mansions, shopping for a voodoo doll, eating Creole and Cajun delights (Jambalaya, seafood, turtle soup, alligator, etc.), absorbing street art, and reveling in the honky tonk street music that saturates the humid air. My sun burnt shoulders reveal a brightness that could only be matched by my grin. And beyond spending time with my good friend, Andrew Brader, whom I met dancing in Los Angeles with Barak Ballet, I spent most of this time smiling by myself. This is one of those rare moments that I had an outwardly quiet and inwardly explosive experience. Legitimate and happy ear-to-ear smiling!
Touring the St. Louis cemetery
As an artist, it is important that we constantly feed ourselves inspiration, digest new life into our core self, and produce a product that is consistent with our being while offering something profoundly fresh. New Orleans is a place that is so distinctly un-American, yet sitting right on American soil (or swamp), that I suggest every artist find a way to get to this city at some point in their artistic career. I promise that you will not be disappointed, aside maybe from your inevitable hangover. But I will tell you this, the memories and inspiration of this place will be the best hangover you have ever had. And it will last a long time.

I am a self-professed city-phile. I am very proud of this fact. I have visited nearly every large city in the country and many other medium-sized ones of note, as well. And while my list of American cities I must visit has dwindled since I began traveling for work, New Orleans was never on my list. I am so thankful to LBT for bringing me into a part of the country that I had little interest in prior to this experience. Freelancing has definitely shown me parts of our great nation that I would never have traveled to on my own dime. Through this, I haven't just expanded myself as an artist. I have expanded who I am as a person; forcing myself out of my comfort zone and allowing interaction with people and communities of different cultures and mindsets. For this, I am extremely grateful. Today, I call myself lucky for having the chance to share and educate audiences around the world about the art of dance and for opportunities to broaden my view of life, living, and humanity as a whole. All of this through dance.

Jackson Square in the French Quarter
(For more photos of my travels follow me on Instagram)

3.28.2014

The Reinforcement Gig


Arts United Center - Home of the Fort Wayne Ballet
Throughout one's freelancing career, a dancer may experience a handful of different work situations. Some may be quite professional, while others may, sadly, burgeon upon frightening. We can do our best to cater our job choices towards a more professional atmosphere. But it is more common to have a middle of the line experience. After one too many rougher gigs, it isn't uncommon for a dancer to start asking themselves why they are holding out as a freelancer. Performing mediocre work for pennies when one could be working for a company or moving on to the next stage of their post-dance career can easily derail anybody's drive. Then, it happens! You jump on a plane, crash blindly into a new company, and have an incredible experience.

I really can't complain much about my performance season this year. My schedule has generally been booked up. I have danced in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a handful of venues in smaller cities. And while I really enjoyed a great many of these experiences, no single experience shot me over the moon as a whole. As I discussed awhile back, I have been thinking about moving out of freelancing and moving back to company work or attempting to get on Broadway. But then, I had the most reinforcing experience in, of all places, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Around the same time that I got that frantic call to replace injured dancers with Company C Contemporary Ballet, I found an audition notice on Pointe Magazine's job posting page. Fort Wayne Ballet was holding auditions for their 2014 - 2015 season. In my typical search for work, I sent my information in to see if the company had any need for a guest dancer for their productions. Surprisingly, I received an immediate response to my inquiry. An old friend, David Ingram, that I met at Houston Ballet's summer program over a decade ago had taken over the position of Artistic Associate for the company. He called me up and told me that they are looking for a Principal guest art to perform the role of Romeo for their production of Romeo and Juliet. I was available and agreed to fly out a few weeks later.

At first viewing, it seemed like this would be like most of my typical gigs. I would be entering a new atmosphere, staying with a host family, and leaving after a couple of weeks. There were also a few bumps along the way. The first housing situation I was supposed to stay in had dogs, I only had one week to learn an entire full-length ballet, and communication was not always clear. I find that when you go into an experience with lower expectations, your concerns are either going to be reinforced by actions or you will be pleasantly surprised by what can actually happen. I am happy to say that my time with Fort Wayne Ballet was the latter.

I usually have most details lined up before arriving at a gig. Prior to arriving at Fort Wayne Ballet, the frantic period of time I spent salvaging the production with Company C in San Francisco and an unexpectedly bad sinus infection upon returning home to Philly kept me from lining everything up as I typically would. I actually flew to Fort Wayne without knowing the address of my host or if somebody would be picking me up at the airport. For some reason, though, I was calm about this. The moment I got off the plane and walked beyond the secure area of the airport, I saw a tall, nervous-looking blonde woman waving at me and a sweet, but shy-looking 14 year old staring at the floor behind her. I was tired and, in my mind, not at my friendliest, if not a little annoyed that I wasn't given more information about my arrival and accommodations. But my host family instantly began treating me in a way to ensure that I was as comfortable as I wanted and needed to be.

My host family's home
As we drove into the long driveway of my host family's house, I realized that I wasn't staying in a small side bedroom of a city-like home. The house was gorgeous with an arch over the driveway. My bedroom was actually a small apartment above the garage that was attached to the house. If I wanted my own space, I could have it. If I wanted to be surrounded by family, it was readily available. Delicious dinners were generously offered to me and I often took leftovers in for lunch, where lunching coworkers noses lifted into the air and eyes grew big as I started consuming the tastiness. There was a sauna in the basement to rest my weary body and plenty of fun space for some of the other dancers to come over and blow off some steam. But, most importantly, my host family gave me emotional support and a beautifully, familial atmosphere.

This was definitely one of my most stressful gigs. I started rehearsing on March 10th, had my first run-through of the ballet on March 15, had my first dress rehearsal on March 19, and performed two shows on March 21st and 22nd. Looking at that schedule, you can see that I learned the role of Romeo, one I had never performed before, in 5 days. All in all, I learned a little less than an hour of choreography in that short period of time. And while I should have been stressed like no other, my host family made me feel so at home that I was eerily calm. I don't think I could have succeeded in my effort if it weren't for their care.

Not only was my housing situation great, but the group of dancers that are a part of the company and the 10, or so, male guest artists that the company brought in for the production made me feel proud to lead the company. I have rarely felt as much of a support system leading into a production as I did here. My partner, Lucia Rogers, and I connected quickly (not that we had a choice) and developed a strong partnership within about 3 days. And all of the other dancers helped provide levity, emotional support, and information to help streamline the process of leading this production. It was quite heartwarming to see a brand-new community of dancers holding one another up and helping each other out.

The worst part of this gig was the amount of time that I had to get this production together. I sincerely wish that we had more time to delve into this adaptation of Shakespeare's play. But, surprisingly, one of the worst parts of the gig actually ended up being one of the most gratifying things. It was stressful, on my mind and body, to learn so much and perform with so little time or conditioning. But once my partner and I succeeded in completing our performances, my feelings changed greatly. A stressful situation and probable impossibility became a great accomplishment. Never in my greatest dreams did I think I was capable of what I did in such a short period of time. I left our final performance feeling so absolutely accomplished that I am still on cloud nine a week later. Beyond the execution aspect of the performance, I also found a new level of myself as an actor and artist. To share this with my partner, the company, and the audience was revelatory. All-around, I felt that this performance was a great leap for myself as an artist and I am grateful for the opportunity (though did I mention I would like more preparation the next time around ;-).

Bowing after performing as Romeo w/Fort Wayne Ballet
After contemplating leaving the freelance world for the past six months and experiencing gigs that were good but not career-altering, this opportunity is exactly what I needed to reinforce my work as a freelance artist. Getting to live with great people, dance with high-level artists in a supportive and positive atmosphere, and gaining great feelings of accomplishment gives me hope that I can find more opportunities like this that will leave me feeling wholly gratified in my work. We freelance artists must embrace these reinforcing experiences and hold on to them for the times that we feel that it is time to give up on this crazy lifestyle!

3.16.2014

Dancing in Fear

As dancers, we tend to live in fear of many things. The physical pain that we experience and the brevity of our careers often cause great stress and anxiety in the mind's eye of most dancers. In recognition of my 11 years as a professional; dancing through fear, happiness, injury, passion, and much more, I offer you 11 fears that I have coped with over those years. Sometimes, we feel like we are the only individual experiencing some of the most stressful moments. I strongly believe in sharing experiences to help others feel that they are not alone in this career's most stressful moments.

Me and James Moore performing Romeo et Juliette (Photo: Angela Sterling)
1. Let's get this one out of the way first. Injury. Most dancers biggest fear is that they will get hurt. This is a factor that every dancer has to contend with at some point in their dancing. Whether minor or major, injury is inevitable. The most stressful part of this job having a high potential for injury is timing. Timing is so important in a dance career. Timing of an audition. Timing of a performance. Timing of paying your bills. The closer one gets to these perfectly timed moments, the harder this anxiety can be to contain. I remember being cast to dance Mercutio in Jean Christophe Maillot's Romeo et Juliette. My fear of injury prior to my big debut became so great that I would knock on wood constantly throughout the day. Anytime I had a bad thought or a moment of fear, I would knock on the dance floor, or a ballet barre, or a lighting boom. I must have knocked on wood hundreds of times over those weeks leading up to that show. I knew that knocking on wood wasn't going to change what was going to happen, but it at least helped me cope with this great amount of fear.

2.  One of the best parts about being a dancer is the way that our art sculpts and forms our bodies. The general population is obsessed with the ballet body and people are not shy about openly discussing it with dancers. For me, I can't deny that I enjoy the attention that I get for the physique that ballet training has given me. But with that said, one of my biggest fears is that I will gain weight and the form that I have created over years and years of meticulous sculpting will crumble. I never really had this fear earlier in my career, as my body was different then. But as a freelancer, I am not always taking class daily and rehearsing for 6 hours afterwards. While I am still in the shape I have maintained over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to keep things going when I am in between gigs. This may be a shallow fear, but it is one nonetheless.

3. When I am stressed about something, I have nightmares. I call them drama dreams. One of these recurring dreams is that I have to perform a ballet that was never taught to me. Somehow, I find myself standing onstage waiting for my entrance and was never given any information about the performance that I am about to do. This dream comes from the feeling that I haven't been properly prepared for a performance. In the land of dance art, where funding is low and expectations are high, there isn't always enough time to rehearse a piece until you feel appropriately prepared to perform for hundreds or thousands of people. Nonetheless, it is all too common for dancers to step onstage with a dark, cloudy question-mark about the outcome of their performance. This lack of preparation creates a great amount of fear and stress that it will negatively affect one's performance.

4. This is trivial and silly, but it is a legitimate worry of mine. As dancers, we are often overtly exposing our bodies. Whether wearing tights, or shorts, or even just a dance belt, our art often exposes the body for the public to view and enjoy. While dancers are often viewed as superhuman, we are, in the end, only human. And as humans, we have human functioning. Sometimes, prior to a performance, you aren't feeling that well. But the show must go on. Perhaps, you ate something for lunch that didn't agree with you. One of the most embarrassing things that could happen onstage might just occur before you get onstage. Think along the lines of your digestive system being off and you have to immediately put on a pair of white tights. Or say, a lady is having her time of the month and putting on a white leotard. Ummm....yeah. Enough said!

This was me selling out...
5. One of the main reasons that I decided to leave Pacific Northwest Ballet was because I was afraid that I was selling out as an artist. Often, dancers will take a job that they wouldn't ideally be a part of, but they need a paycheck. At other times, dancers will perform in work that they don't really agree with just to get press. In my final year at PNB, I felt that I was holding on to my contract only because of the great benefits that were offered to me through my union agreement. Looking back, I know now that this wasn't fully, or even half, true. But I was so scared of being untrue to myself as an artist, that it became a driving factor in me leaving the company. In that case, fear won.

6. One fear that I have had to live with is that I will finish my dance career with unfinished business. It is way too often that dancer's careers end early or in a way that the dancer doesn't have a say. Or even, perhaps, they didn't achieve what they thought they could as they entered their career. Nonetheless, I experience great unease about feeling incomplete when I decide to end the performance side of my career. I have seen too many directors and teachers trying to live out their dance careers through their company members and students. I want to leave performing feeling content.

7. The dance community is so extremely connected by people, but so greatly disconnected in practice. One company's culture is going to be completely different than another. Being a freelancer, it can be difficult to remain fluid throughout every gig and within each process. I have stepped out of cultural expectation (sometimes knowingly, other times unknowingly) within a company or two and, sometimes, that leaves people confused, edgy, and/or angry. While my actions may not have been within a company's cultural understanding, I fear that I may burn a bridge that was built over territory with no agreement. Misunderstandings that are purely professional can easily become personal and hurt a person's ability to work within tightly knit social communities of the dance world.

8. I am afraid of being stuck in the warmup class of an old school Russian-style teacher on a performance day. Enough said!

9. One major stress of mine is picking up choreography. Some days I can pick up faster than anybody else in the room. But other days, I swear you could teach the same choreography and I may have trouble latching on. There is nothing more stressful and frightening than being taught a shit ton of choreography and watching everybody else catch on while you struggle your way through the material.
Rehearsing wildly fast & intricate choreography w/ Elizel Long - Choreo: Seiwert (Photo: Gutierrez Phography)
10. It is often taught that you must always continue growing your technique or you are doing poorly. If you are maintaining a certain level of technique, but not improving in any area, you are actually getting worse. I think this is due to the shortness of our careers. But I live in constant fear that I am not getting better, and this was taught. And while we do want to improve, sometimes it is more important to maintain for a period of time than to grow too fast and peak too soon.

11. My biggest fear in my career is the same fear that most people live with at some point in their lives. After putting so much time into my career and giving everything I have had to make it happen, I fear that it will all be in vain. I don't need to be a star. I don't need to win awards. But I do want to feel like I made a mark, an impression, and moved people with my art. People always say, "Dance as if nobody is watching," or, "Dance for yourself." I never agreed with those statements. I dance because somebody is watching. I dance because it makes me feel good to let others enjoy watching me dance. And if I were to only dance while nobody is watching, I feel my career would have no point. I want to leave this career knowing that I gave something valuable to my art.

What fears have you experienced throughout your career?

3.08.2014

"It's a Freelance Life" video

I was perusing my Facebook feed last night when I noticed an acquaintance, who is a fellow freelancer, posted this fun video to his page. Sometimes, when you work as a freelancer, you feel very alone in your emotions and harshly judge your own lifestyle. For instance, I really associated with the lines in this video, "I hate myself for waking up at noon" and "weekday drinking life." This humorous parody of It's a Hard Knock Life from Annie is a great representation of how I feel a great deal of the time. And you know what, I always feel better when I don't feel like I am the only one in the world experiencing a challenge. So, with that, watch, enjoy, and laugh!


Does this video speak your truths as a freelancer?

3.02.2014

Falling ill as a Dancer - Taking Care of Yourself

I missed class Friday morning and I'm stressed out about it. After my gig with Company C Contemporary Ballet, I spent a few days enjoying the great city of San Francisco. Upon my return home, I let my body have a bit of a rest. After the physical trauma of replacing a dancer at the last second in 2 ballets, my body really needed it. It was pretty wrecked, especially my shoulder, from the lack of build up, so I felt I deserved an easy week. I took two ballet classes, taught a few more (ballet and contemporary), took a yoga class, and went to the gym maybe 3 times.  Yes, that was an easy week for me. Unfortunately, I couldn't have foreseen that by the end of my easy week I'd come down with that bad cold virus that has been going around.

I'm pretty good at gauging how much time I need to prepare for a series of performances. I figured it would take about two weeks to gear up for my next job dancing Romeo in Fort Wayne Ballet's production of Romeo and Juliet. Today, I missed class for the second time in one week. I just felt too horrible to get out of bed. And while I know that my body desperately needed the rest, I still felt guilty and nervous that I won't feel perfectly prepared when I leave in a little over a week.

Sometimes, you just need a few extra hours of rest
The idea of being sick as a freelancer is quite frightening. Beyond having limited funds and, possibly, limited insurance, most independent dance artists don't have the benefit of taking a paid sick day. Between gigs, it may be easier to take time off and get necessary rest. But if performing other work, like the teaching job I hold at Koresh Dance Company's school, freelancers need to be present to collect that income. If one doesn't teach, they don't get paid. If a dancer is in preparation mode and gearing up for a gig, it can be stressful to miss out on the routine that one relies on to prep themselves physically and mentally for the work that is to come. Getting sick while working a gig can be all the worse.

When I was guesting with Rochester City Ballet for their 2012 performances of The Nutcracker, I came down with a horrible case of bronchitis. I resisted going to the doctor for awhile, but, beyond my energy levels being depleted, I could barely breathe my way through rehearsals. I have had pretty severe asthma since I was a little kid. It is much better as an adult, but when I get sick my condition can go downhill fast. I was huffing and puffing through rehearsal, coughing, and barely making it through my short rehearsal days. My mindset was that this company had never seen me dance before and I needed to prove to them that they hired who I said I was. And I was who I said I was, just an ill version of him. I finally went to an urgent care center, where I was diagnosed with bronchitis. I was given a breathing treatment on-site, an extended oral steroid treatment, and some opiate cough syrup to let me sleep. While I felt like death, often struggling to breathe, and felt lightheaded from the steroid medication, I still showed up for rehearsal every day and pretended like everything was fine. In fact, I never even considered asking to take a day off to rest.

Me in the front on the right - I was sick during this rehearsal (Photo: Bill Hebert)
One common issue with freelancing gigs is that the hired dancer is only brought in for a brief period of time. Arts organizations are often cash strapped, so they don't bring in a dancer with a cushion of extra time to ease into rehearsals or in the event of an unforeseen issue/delay (illness, injury, weather, etc.). For this reason, dancers are often only given the exact amount of time that it would take to prepare themselves to learn the choreography and put the product onstage. If I had taken a day off, the company may have felt that they were wasting their financial resources or were losing valuable preparation for their performances. I am sure that if I asked to take a day off, it would have been met with an uncomfortable yes. But it is ingrained in our culture to fight any struggles within our body and push forth for the sake of our art.

While this issue is widespread in the freelance dance world, it is just about as common in the unionized dance world; where companies must provide sick and personal days to their employees. When I danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet, it was almost frowned upon to take a day off if you weren't feeling well. Although the organization did have more money, the dance art's financial mindset remains the same. With more performance programs offered throughout the year and, at times, multiple casts performing, there is still limited rehearsal time for productions. This time-crunch puts a lot of pressure on dancers, who feel that they already have a time-crunch to fit as many roles into their short career as possible. If a dancer feels too ill to come in for a day or two, they often miss strategic rehearsals where choreography is taught. If the artistic staff doesn't feel they have enough time to catch that dancer up, there is great possibility that they may take them out of a hard-earned role. That role could very well be the one that pushes their career forward. For this reason, I have seen dancers, who may be extremely ill and highly contagious, show up to rehearse for a full 6-hour day. And even worse, people often applaud their effort, from a healthy distance, of course.

The best example of this is shown in Stephen Manes book, Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear, which catalogs a year in the life of PNB during my third season with the company. While preparing for our company premiere of Jean-Christophe Maillot's Romeo et Juliette,  a flu epidemic struck the company. Due to scheduling and finances, the company only had about 2 1/2 weeks to learn the production, adapt to a foreign style of dance, and fine-tune the choreography. We barely got this production onstage and the company barely survived this illness. I don't remember exact numbers, but at any point during this 3-week period, at least 1/4 of the dancers had spiked fevers well over 102 degrees, lost their voices, had coughing fits, and more. But people still showed up. And if they tried to stay home for a day, like me, they were given a call by the artistic staff begging them to come to the studio to finish learning the ballet. While they didn't force anybody to come in, the pressure was immense. Beyond slowing down each dancer's ability to get healthy, this also risked spreading the highly contagious virus. And boy did it spread!

Dance training is already mildly to aggressively masochistic. But beyond the physicality of the profession, this shows part of the emotional masochism that exists in the dance world. Looking back to my post about emotional training in ballet, it is evident that dancers didn't just happen to turn out and act in this manner. It is taught. We are supposed to sacrifice all for our art. Stories aren't told about dancers who were wildly ill and took a few days to themselves and got better, which allowed them to dance better the next week and prove themselves ready to promote. How common is the story of the dancer that was so sick during a performance that they had to put trash cans in every wing for them to puke into during their exits from the stage? I have heard this same story from so many different dancers, I can't even count on both hands how many times I've been told it. And while the thought of this is gross and repulsive, these dancers tell this story with a sense of pride.

But this experience should not be lauded. I have said this time and time again and I am going to repeat it one more time. We are humans first and dancers second. Our health stays with us beyond our time as dancers. Beyond illness, there is injury. And while this isn't an injury post, it works all the same. The best way I can explain this is through a conversation I had with a friend a few weeks ago. As dancers, we are supposed to be a blank canvas which choreographers can paint a picture of dance on. A painter will never hear the canvas tell them that their brush strokes are too hard. A choreographer expects the same of a dancer. But if a painter pokes a hole through a canvas, they can still hang it on a wall and the canvas feels no pain. Where we differ as dancers is, if the process of our art "pokes a hole" in our bodies or health, we still have to live our lives and experience our non-dancing hours in pain and poor health. It is very difficult to make a reasonable decision about fighting through illness or pain. How does one determine whether it is workable or pushing into a danger zone? It is individual.

As dancers, we can't open up our computer and perform satellite work from home. We need to be present to retain information, study intricate combinations, and gain stamina. The ironic part of the whole situation is that the work of a dancer is one of the most hands-on and communal work experiences available. We touch each other, hold hands, and talk very closely throughout the entire rehearsal process. It would seem obvious that employers should want to keep sick dancers away from healthy dancers to prevent the spread of illness. But in the end, the dancer makes the decision to show up to work ill, and employers rarely send dancers home for being sick. Beyond this, when a dancer is not fully present in rehearsal or lacking energy, they are more likely to injure themselves or their partners. There are many aspects of being ill that would reasonably point to the concept of letting dancers rest at home until they are feeling somewhat better. Employers should want to give an ill employee a chance to get healthy before returning to the studio.

As I evaluate and analyze this issue in dance, I can't say that I necessarily follow my own advice. In the above story about my time with Rochester City Ballet, I obviously worked through a dangerous illness, especially as an asthmatic. As a freelance artist and a performer, I didn't feel that I had a choice in the matter. Over the last week, I was able to take time to let myself rest because of the intermittent period between gigs. But even without the requirement of showing up to work each day, I felt guilty and anxious. This is greatly due to our emotional training. While I did what any sane person would do and increased my chances of getting healthy faster, I couldn't allow myself to rest emotionally. This is one of the great challenges of a dancer.

I was perusing my Facebook this morning and there was a status update that sprung to my attention. The post was about Jenifer Ringer, who recently retired from New York City Ballet as a Principal for many years with the company. She talked about seeing a puddle of snowy slush on the street in New York and contemplated jumping over this puddle that was blocking her path. But then she stopped herself to consider what could happen if she performed such a feat. What if she slipped and fell and hurt herself? But then, instantly, she realized that she was retired and could do whatever she wanted, even if it could potentially cause injury. She stated, "Finally, my body was my own." And how true that statement is. As dancers, we have more control of our own bodies than any other beings on Earth. But as dancers, our career responsibilities and emotional upbringings take away our freedom to do what we wish, or need, to do with our bodies.

2.21.2014

The Replacement Dancer

San Francisco Ballet's home - War Memorial Opera House
I'm sitting in the War Memorial Opera House waiting to watch the dress rehearsal of, my friend, Val Caniparoli's world premiere of his new ballet, Tears, which will debut tonight in San Francisco Ballet's Program 2 of their Winter Season. After a stressful, but rewarding two weeks filling in for two dancers that went out with Company C Contemporary Ballet, this seems to be the most fitting end to my trip to the City by the Bay. While my experience in this amazing city wasn't a smooth ride, it was a challengingly rewarding one. Kind of like a dress rehearsal; not without a few bumps, but also garnering a handful of unanticipated surprises (of the good sort).

Street advertisement in Walnut Creek
A few weeks ago, I received a frantic phone call from Walnut Creek, a suburb of San Francisco, asking what, for most, would be a shocking question. As I was preparing my teaching plans for the next week, Company C Artistic Director, Charles Anderson, wanted to know if I could fly 3,000 miles cross-country the next day. Yes, tomorrow! Disaster had struck the company. After one of their dancers fell extremely ill, another sprained his foot while jumping in class. The company had two productions coming up, one in Walnut Creek and another in San Francisco, and they were on the verge of cancelling both productions.

After a desperate search for two local male dancers that could handle a Principal workload, they came up short by one dancer. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside when the company told me that four people (dancers and choreographers, local and distant) had offered my name to help salvage their production. While I couldn't pick up and fly west the next day due to previous commitments, I was able to leave a week later. And while I just escaped another winter storm in Philly, I was about to enter a storm of a different kind.

Being a professional pinch-hitter is not an easy task. Freelance dancers are often put in this position, as they are the only dancers that are not tied into a contract during most weeks. The moment I entered the studio, I could feel stress and panic vibrating intensely throughout the studio air. "Is this guy who everybody says he is? And, if not, we are really screwed!" Not only does a replacement dancer have to deal with the stress of entering a new environment, learning a large sum of choreography immediately, and adjust to a new partner; they have to bring a sense of calm to an already stressed organization. For me, I had to learn 20 minutes of choreography, cope with extreme soreness after only taking class and going to the gym for weeks prior, and remain healthy throughout this short process. While no dancer wants to get injured, knowing that you have been brought in to replace the injured is more stressful than imaginable. There really is no option to get hurt or go out.

As a replacement dancer, you must step far out of your comfort zone. I find that I must be more vocal about my needs when timing is tight. When filling in with little notice, one doesn't really get a chance to test out an atmosphere or to establish a tone within a work relationship. Things need to get done, and they need to get done fast. If a company's approach is slowing down your process of learning choreography or causing discomfort, the dancer needs to speak up immediately, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to do so.

Our performance venue - Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
I encountered this during my first and only rehearsal week with Company C. The company had been rehearsing months in advance and recently had their Walnut Creek performances. Besides me, every dancer already knew all of the choreography. While a company should rehearse their dancers as they wish, it may not be practical to do so if it doesn't benefit the replacement dancer most. With Company C, once I had learned all of the material, they wanted to jump straight into run-throughs of the ballet. This left out the very important step of repetition and rehearsing. I understood the company's need to run the ballets for their other dancers. And with our impending arrival at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts a few days later, this seemed the obvious next step. But while I had consumed the choreography, I hadn't digested it. I still had to think about what steps were next and my body was extremely sore due to the lack of build into the rehearsal process. While I understood their reasoning for skipping the repetition phase, I had to let the company know that I wasn't prepared to move into full-out run-throughs.

This is quite against the norm in the dance world. A dancer should rarely dictate the way a director chooses to run a company. But this is one occasion where the process needed to be streamlined to the individual dancer. For the first time, I could say, "This is all about me," and not sound like a self-centered, selfish dancer. Not only was I trying to tell the artistic staff the fastest way to get me prepared for their shows, I was the only dancer who didn't really know all of the choreography. It was all about helping them out the best I could.

I was also trying to protect many other aspects of this engagement. The company paid a great deal to fly me out last second, find me housing, provide a rental car, and pay my fee. If they injured me, they would be losing that investment and, again, threatening cancellation of their performances. At the same time, having a lack of preparation and jumping straight into full-out runs of the ballets could lead to me injuring my partner. It also wastes time if I have to constantly stop during the run because the material was too fresh. Beyond all of this, I had to look out for my own well-being. If I were to get injured, the company would have no commitment to me. While their dancers have the luxury of worker's compensation, as an independent contractor, I have no access to those benefits. And if I get injured, I don't get paid. And if I get badly injured, I may not be able to move on to my next gig and continue earning a salary. For all of these reasons, it is important for a replacement dancer to have the ability and tact to respectfully speak up and maintain a vocal part of this expedited process.

With all of the stress of filling in aside, a handful of items can really be enjoyable when helping save the day/show. The treatment that a last-minute replacement dancer typically receives is great. Companies tend to be much more generous when caught in a pinch. Pay can be higher, benefits may be greater, and the overall attitude towards a dancer is much more gracious than normal. It is not common to receive such praise and positive feedback when dancing for a company regularly. You show up, do your job, and go home. In this situation, I received multiple compliments and constant shows of gratitude. In fact, I wish that there was this sense of camaraderie between dancers and artistic staff all the time. It was rather refreshing.

An artsy shot I took of Jackie McConnell & Michael Galloway in Zhukov's Railroad Joint
Showing up at a moment's notice can be dauntingly stressful. But it is part of the job of a freelance dancer. Be sure to show up as prepared as you can to lower your stress intake. Ask for a video to study prior to arriving and after rehearsing, think about your exact needs to expedite the process, and don't be afraid to express those needs. While being brought in last minute can be stressful, it can also be greatly rewarding. Just prepare yourself properly for the unexpected and do your best to go with the flow. Think of the process as an extended dress rehearsal. I always enter these engagements with this motto; "I have come to bring the calm."