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."

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