8.05.2012

Freelancing her way to a company contract - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Casey Taylor

Performing Western Symphony by George Balanchine (photo: Rex Tranter)
 I'm very excited for this next post. Recently, I asked Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Apprentice, Casey Taylor, to write a post about her story as a freelancer. Casey's story is unique. Unlike most talented dancers that come out of the country's leading ballet schools, she didn't get a full-time company contract or move on from ballet to pursue non-ballet passions. I was pretty surprised that she wasn't offered a job with Pacific Northwest Ballet, considering her strength and versatility. Even though she didn't get a job with any company during her audition year, she really had immense drive and will to find full-time work.

I first saw Casey during my 6th season with PNB. She came into the school with the ideal PNB look, long and tall. Her feet and legs are beautifully shaped and she has great versatility in style. Most Professional Division students at PNBS spend two years in the program. These students don't often get recognized by company members until their second year in the program. For some reason, most of the company knew who Casey was by Nutcracker time her first year in the school. During her second year in the school, she really exploded in confidence and strength as a student. It was quite obvious that she would easily find a job. But hard economic times and her height may have worked against her. Still, Casey pushed on to succeed as a professional dancer. We shared a few facebook conversations, filled with advice and words of encouragement during the year-long period before she was offered a job with PBT. Read below to hear about Casey's freelancing experiences and how they eventually led her to get that company contract she had always dreamed of getting.



Performing A Piece in P-I-E-C-E-S 
 by Kiyon Gaines (photo: Rex Tranter)
My gigs all came about in different fashions. In Dresden, I was sent over as part of an exchange program put in place between the schools affiliated with Pacific Northwest Ballet and Dresden Semperoper Ballet. I was finishing up my second and final year in the professional division at PNBS and was offered the opportunity to spend a month in Dresden with the company. I was unaware until I got to Germany that I would be performing "Swan Lake" with the company. It was a great surprise. One of their corps dancers had recently gotten injured and I was available and was asked to fill her place in the white swan corps. I performed in four shows while I was there.
          
For my job as a guest performer in Pennsylvania Ballet’s "The Nutcracker," I contacted the company myself to see if they had openings in the corps that they needed to fill. I heard from other dancers that I met in Dresden and from friends currently dancing with Pennsylvania Ballet, that the company usually hires out extra dancers for "The Nutcracker." So, I contacted the assistant to the artistic director and arranged an audition. A few weeks after I auditioned, I was informed I was hired.
        
Lastly, I finished out my freelancing season with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Pittsburgh is my home, so it was where I was living (at my parents house) inbetween jobs. I returned home in January after finishing Nutcracker and was taking class at the studios to stay in shape until I found my next gig. One day the artistic director asked me to meet with him. He offered me a contract for the remainder of the season to fill an extra contract space that was left vacant by a dancer who was too injured to finish out the season and retired.

Fooling around in Dresden, Germany
My experiences were nothing short of fantastic! My time in Dresden is something I will never forget because it was such a different way of living and working. In America, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) mandates the number of hours per day dancers can work and how often they are required to have a break; every hour there is a 5-minute break. In Europe, there was no such thing. The rehearsals would sometimes go two or three hours with no break. Another aspect I wasn’t used to was the limited amount of rehearsal time we had to put Swan Lake together. European companies usually have three or four programs that they will perform on and off for a few months at a time. This means that rehearsals can be quite varied and not often. Before I stepped onstage as a swan, we had run the ballet non-stop only one or two times (As opposed to the week or two of full-length rehearsals I was accustomed to in the US). This meant that I really had to be much more focused and use time on my own to go over things and solidify the steps and counts. It taught me to be very independent and take control of the situation, which included rehearsing and reviewing the material myself. I was responsible for making sure I was comfortable enough to go out and perform because there weren’t weeks of rehearsals to lock it into my muscle memory. As a side note, I had a wonderful time living in Germany and getting to experience the different culture and leading a more European lifestyle.
          
Harrison Monaco & Casey on tour with PA Ballet in Ottawa
In Philadelphia, I had a much different experience. I was back in America, living in my best friend’s apartment, and dancing a ballet that I have performed nearly every year of my life. The only loophole was that I had to learn all new choreography. I arrived in Philadelphia a little over a month before performances were to begin and right away was in rehearsals learning my new roles. The rehearsals were back to the structure that I was accustomed to, so I knew what to expect and what was expected of me. I learned and performed three different "corps de ballet" roles. One of the most exciting parts of my gig with the Pennsylvania Ballet was touring with the company to perform "The Nutcracker" in Ottawa, Canada. It really helped me bond with my new “family” of dancers and also get the experience of what it is like to go on tour with a ballet company.
         
It is hard for me to think of my few months last season with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as a gig because I am now a full member of the company. When I signed my contract for those few months of work last season, there was no promise of getting a job for the following season. But due to the combination of hard work put in to show how much I wanted a job and the availability of a contract, I was lucky enough to be offered a spot in the company! Joining the company on my own in the middle of the season was nothing short of intimidating for me. Particularly, if you take into account that I have watched this company for years while I grew up attending the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. I looked up to so many of the dancers and now I was becoming one of them. The first ballet I performed with the company was John Neumeier’s "A Streetcar Named Desire." This was the first time that PBT (or any American company) performed this ballet. John Neumeier himself, along with two assistants, came to Pittsburgh to set the ballet on the company. I must’ve made a great impression on him because, before I knew it, I was getting cast in small featured roles. This was a huge deal for me. It felt like my first time to shine and prove myself as a professional and no way was I going to let that go to waste. I used that wonderful opportunity to show that I was serious and how much I wanted that contract for the next season. Following "Streetcar," I also performed in "Coppelia." A few weeks before the season ended, after the rest of the company returned their contracts and I had traveled around the country to several auditions, I was handed that contract I had been dreaming about. One of the happiest moments of my life. 

For the time being, my life as a freelance dancer is over. I am now an official company member of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. That’s not to say that I won’t return to freelancing one day. But, for right now, I am thrilled with where I am. For some people, making connections and branching out comes very naturally. But I don’t feel like it does to me. It has always been my dream to dance in a ballet company and work my way up through the ranks. I am so excited that I am living my dream and am still amazed every day that I am.


Casey's advice to freelance dancers: 
Don’t ever give up. If dancing is something you are truly passionate about, be sure you make that apparent in your work ethic and artistry. People will notice. Once you begin to make yourself known and make a name for yourself, opportunities will come more easily. At times, it may seem that there are no options for work, but things can change so quickly. Be very conscious of sites that post auditions or work opportunities and don’t be afraid to reach out to fellow dancers to ask questions. We are all in this profession together. Each and every one of us knows how hard it is to get a job and you would be surprised how many dancers are more than willing to help out by giving you advice or making contacts on your behalf.

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