Is it ever appropriate to burn a bridge?

A beautiful bridge I found while freelancing in Rochester, NY
Growing up in a small local school, I gained a different perspective than what I may have gotten had I been part of a large institution. Being the only male at my studio over the age of 10 meant that I got a lot more push and direct advice than most dancers get during their training. While I received multitudes of direction throughout the years I spent honing my passion for dance at the Chester Valley Dance Academy, the most repetitious guidance I received was from the director of the studio. "Barry, you must never burn a bridge. The dance world is small and you never know who knows who."

This advice is greatly true, and I fully agree with it. Yet, I disagree, as well. Before I get to my point, let me put myself on the line. Hello. My name is Barry Kerollis and I may be one of the more controversial dancers you have ever met. This statement will take some explaining. While I have always relied on the above advice, I haven't necessarily followed it, albeit unintentionally. Avoiding burning bridges is a priority and fear of mine. Yet, I have done it more than many other dancers. Each time it has happened, it was never my intention. Perhaps, a misunderstanding, hunger for maximum achievement, or out of self preservation. I want to share my honest story openly to explore this subject objectively and help others understand and learn from my experiences. And, is it even possible to never burn one bridge in this dance world?

Perhaps, the first time I ever burnt a bridge, I was a mere 18 years old. I was on the verge of graduating from the Kirov Academy of Ballet. I was kind of an underdog. Upon entering the school, I was technically behind everybody and my body lacked the beautiful classical line of every other male in the school. It came as a surprise when the director of Colorado Ballet came to watch class and offered me a full company, corps de ballet, position for the upcoming season. At the same time, I had finally made it into my dream school, the School of American Ballet, for their summer intensive. Gaining acceptance into SAB is actually what inspired me to focus on ballet at the age of 15. Three years later, it finally happened and I was set on getting the full experience.

As soon as I received my letter of acceptance, I called SAB and mentioned that I had been offered a contract with Colorado Ballet. I told the school that I had dreamed about spending the year there and would turn down the offer to become a professional to have that chance. They told me that acceptance into the summer program didn't guarantee a spot in the year-round program. They suggested I not risk losing my job offer and to sign the contract to ensure that I had something to do the following season. So, I signed my contract, sent it in, and started searching for an apartment in what I thought to be my new home, Denver.

At the end of June, I moved into my summer home in the dorms at Lincoln Center. After the first few days of the program, Jock Soto pulled me into a conference room with Michael Breeden, current Miami City Ballet dancer, and Peter Boal. They told us how much they enjoyed seeing us in class and offered both of us to stay for the year to study with them. These talks usually didn't happen for a few weeks, so the two of us were extremely excited to get "the talk" so soon. For me, I was filled with mixed feelings. Excitement that I had finally achieved a dream and goal of mine, mixed with fear and confusion that I had to choose between my dream of training at SAB or starting my career as a professional. I spent a few days mulling over this decision and determined that I couldn't turn away from what inspired me to focus on ballet in the first place. I called up the director of Colorado Ballet and, as apologetically as I could, broke my contract for the upcoming season. The director told me that he understood my decision, but was very disappointed
Puss & Boots w/ Cassia Phillips - SAB workshop 2003
that I was breaking a promise that I had put in writing. I still feel awful that it had to happen this way, but I couldn't live with the regret that I would have if I had missed this opportunity. In the end, I believe it was one of the best career decisions that I have made. Not only did I get a great school to add to my training experience, but I learned a completely different style of ballet and made new connections that wouldn't have been available to me in a classical company that was more isolated than many other companies.

The second time I burnt a bridge was less complicated than my first. After a very productive year training at the School of American Ballet and doing 14 auditions for companies, I had been offered a handful of contracts. The offer that most piqued my interest was to join Pennsylvania Ballet's 2nd company, as it was the best company I had been offered to dance with and close to home. I emailed the director of the 2nd company and stated that I accepted their offer and asked that they send a contract to me. The day that my contract arrived, I received a call from Stanton Welch offering me an apprenticeship with Houston Ballet. Not only was this a more substantial company, but the position they offered was with the company and not a smaller training arm of a company. I promptly called Pennsylvania Ballet and told them that I was going to accept the offer with Houston Ballet because I had not yet signed the contract to dance with their 2nd company. The response was not the understanding that I expected. I expected there to be disappointment when I called, but I didn't expect to be told that they weren't pleased that I had made the decision and fully expected me to follow through with my word. Being a naive teenager, I thought they would understand why I would take a higher position with a better company. Alas, they didn't. While they didn't completely put me off in the years to come, after auditioning again for the company years later, they eventually stopped allowing me to take company class. Essentially, the term many of us have heard, I am blacklisted.

A few years ago, I had the unfortunate experience where I didn't realize a bridge was being burnt until it had already burnt, collapsed, and fallen into a deep lake of despair. I had experienced an injury with the company that I was dancing with in Philly. They had kept information secret from me that prevented me from getting assistance to recover from this injury. After working through a freelancing opportunity in pain with assistance from that company to get therapy, I returned for the next program still in pain. I made the mistake of remaining quiet and trying to dance through it. I knew I couldn't afford to take care of it and I had already put myself out there asking for assistance. I was put off and learned to stay quiet. At the same time, a less experienced choreographer was creating a piece on us to be performed at a major dance venue in New York City.

Throughout the process, I was having difficulty with my dance partner, my pain, and the complexities of her style of choreographing that was newer to me than the other dancers in the company. Instead of supporting me through the process, the choreographer switched back and forth between ignoring me and making less than respectful comments towards me. I did my best to deal with the stress silently, as dancers are often taught and expected to do. But after a week of this situation, the pressure came to a helm. The choreographer yelled at me, claiming that I was marking a step that I had not been. The conversation went like this. Choreographer: "What is your problem? Me: "I don't understand what you are asking me." Choreographer: "You are really starting to piss me off." Me: "I really don't understand what you are talking about." Choreographer: "Why are you marking?" At this point, I lost my cool and started fighting back. The pressure of trying to be respectful and trying to respect myself became too much and I defended myself loudly in front of everybody else. After a long private conversation following the outburst, we returned to the studio with the agreement that the choreographer would be a bit more clear in her process. My efforts to ease the situation didn't work. To prove to her that I wasn't marking, I danced beyond my threshold of pain and made my injury far worse. This sped up the process of burning one bridge that eventually burnt many.

That day will always be a big day in my life. I broke dance law. I lost my cool, I lost my submission, and I created a sour relationship with a choreographer, teacher, and repetiteur of works by the very choreographer who inspired me to consider switching my focus to ballet. Not only that, the choreographer and the director of the company were close friends. Throughout all of this, I also came to realize that I really couldn't continue to dance through my injury. It was much worse than it had been prior to this argument and I feared that if I continued to dance, I would have to pull out of the program closer to the performance dates and that I could possibly incur permanent damage. I decided to take myself out of the program, which eventually led to the company unfairly, and I believe illegally, firing me. There were many complications that came out of the burning of this one bridge. But was it right for me to defend myself as a person, not a dancer? Was I valid in defending myself, effectively burning this bridge?

Dancing my own work in the Philly Fringe exploring the situation that led to me losing my job - Gated Lies (Photo: Bill Hebert)
Posing the above question brings up many more questions. When is it appropriate to burn a bridge? If you burn a bridge, how badly will it affect you? And, most importantly, in such a short, competitive career, is it impossible not to burn a bridge or two along the way? I'm still trying to figure all of these things out. When I burnt my bridge with Colorado Ballet, I felt that the company was isolated enough to avoid too much damage to my reputation. In the end, the director was fired from the company and my options grew exponentially from my decision. When I burnt my bridge with Pennsylvania Ballet, I had the chance to dance with 2 of the greatest companies in the country for 8 years. But, at the same time, I am back in Philadelphia without a company to call home, and there is no chance they would consider me to dance with their company as long as their director remains at the helm. In the last situation, I burnt a bridge protecting and defending my integrity and body as a dancer and person. But, in the end, I injured myself further (though revealing that they had been hiding workers compensation from me, which allowed me to get better), lost a potential avenue to working on choreography that inspires me, lost my job, lost some friends who didn't want to be seen associating with me, and lost a handful of opportunities to dance in Philadelphia (since the company directors are so closely tied to a handful of dance organizations in the city).

So with all of this information, I ask if it is ever appropriate to burn a bridge? And returning to the original question: Is it possible to never burn one bridge in this dance world? I feel that it is impossible to give a proper answer. If you burn a bridge for a dream opportunity, is it worth it? If you burn a bridge to protect yourself from somebody that is treating you poorly, should you defend yourself? These are more questions of character than they are definitively yes or no answers. Are we dancers or are we human? When is it right to defend yourself as a human in a dance studio? If you are offered the opportunity of a lifetime, do you let it pass you up to honor a contract that can be filled by another dancer that will value the opportunity more?

What it comes down to is that these decisions are not about a right or wrong answer. Instead, the act of burning a bridge is very personal. And it is unfortunate, that in certain circumstances, one may not be aware that they are burning a bridge until after the moment happens. I will leave my readers with this. While these unfortunate happenings are to be handled at the discretion of each individual dancer, one should not fear burning a bridge if an action is damaging to oneself physically or emotionally. We can only hope that instead of burning a bridge, it can be left damaged and open to repair. For we are only human. Tread lightly.


  1. After reading your article, I had to take a step back and ask myself the very same questions (though I am not in the dance field). Your questions raised here apply to any and every professional field where a powerful, culturally and immaturely secure elite run the show.

    It seems that you never "burned" a bridge - so much as you offended personalities whose egos were such that he/she could not look past being turned down. I am an attorney. "Signed" contracts do not equal "give up a career."

    1. Thanks for responding Warrior. I agree with you, in that I didn't always commit the act of burning a bridge. Each situation was different. With Colorado, I burnt the bridge, but the bridge didn't stand longer than a few years. In Pennsylvania, I did what was best for me and hurt an ego. They burned that bridge. As for the last situation, I defended myself. Instead of having a respectful conversation that led to an understanding, I was deemed the "bad guy" and left out to dry. But in the end, a burnt bridge is a burnt bridge. Even if it wasn't completely my fault or intention, the bridge has been burned and will affect my career to a degree.

  2. One observation: female dancers are much more numerous than male dancers. I would say , conservatively-20 :1. Therefore, men are MUCH more in demand than female dancers. Men gave a LOT more choices of jobs, scholarships than guys. Do women can MUCH less afford to burn bridges than men.

  3. Thanks for your comment Dina. I more than agree with you in this situation. It is easier to speak up for yourself when people are more fearful of losing a precious commodity. Since my perspective is obviously male, I have been hoping to find fellow freelancers that are female to write posts from their perspective. Unfortunately, I have found it difficult to get dancers to commit to writing. I'll keep trying :-)

  4. Ha, fellow bridge burner here, ;) My advice for anyone would be to carefully not commit yourself fully in promise and contract until you have every single detail resolved + that can buy you time to see all the other options presented.
    If your health is at stake, burn the thing without turning back. Nothing is worth your life of dance.