Performing for No Reviews

The Seattle Times - one of PNB's regular reviewing publications
It was Black Friday, November 23, 2007, and it was opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet's The Nutcracker. I was cast in one of my favorite roles, the Sword Doll. And this was one of the first shows of the holiday season, so I hadn't moved into my seasonal Nutcr-apathy yet. I was really hoping to impress the audience in what was one of the few featured roles I had danced at that point in my career. Shortly after this performance, a regular reviewer for CriticalDance, Dean Speer, wrote a review assessing the upkeep of this oft performed production. Towards the top of the piece he stated that the "phrasing is slightly different than in years past – more push and pull; attacking something then letting it resonate. I first noticed this with Barry Kerollis’ Sword-Dancer Doll – punching a sauté développé à la seconde, for example, and then letting it ‘sit’ for a moment before pushing on to the next step. I really liked this, as it allows each thing to read." This was one of my first public mentions. The notice instantly hooked me on getting my name written in any and all publications that came to review our shows.

As a student, the only time you really get a chance to perform publicly are in school shows, lecture demonstrations, and youth competitions. Unless a dancer is in their final years of training, they are unlikely to be involved in any production that get much press beyond small local newspapers and proud parent's Facebook posts. Other than the largest, most prestigious academy graduation performances, reviews are generally non-existent. Once you enter a professional company, it is much more common and appropriate to be publicly scrutinized.

I started dancing with PNB in July of 2004 after spending a year with Houston Ballet. By the time the above review was written, I was already in my fourth season as a professional. It is almost impossible for a Corps member to be called out unless they perform a role that steps out of the group. Could you imagine a dance critic writing, "The 4th flower from the right, Dancey McDancerson, showed great emotion in her developpes." For obvious reasons, it can take awhile for a dancer to get noticed and for critical mention to be publicly addressed. Speer's posting was probably just another Nutcracker article for him, but for me it meant much more. Beyond the fact that I got mentioned positively in a featured role, the interpretation that he was talking about was my own signature. Every year, anywhere from 5 to 10 dancers performed this role. Due to the lack of rehearsal leading into these performances, dancers often had a bit more wiggle room for interpretation. My musicality was uniquely my own and Mr. Speer showed appreciation for that.

After receiving a positive review, many dancers start looking forward to moments that could bring them to the attention of the public and, potentially, the director. The thought in my head was, "If the public notices me, the director must surely see that." And while this may not have been the best way to approach my performances, it definitely offered some great motivation.

As I started to get better roles, more critics in the Seattle area started to take notice of me. I became hungrier for attention. There is a great online forum that is both loved and hated by professional dancers, Ballet Alert. This site is a moderated forum for balletomanes across the world. On the site's message boards, ballet lovers, reviewers, professionals, parents, and more can discuss and debate anything relating to this untouchable profession. PNB had a large base of local fans that were very vocal about dancers and productions (albeit through a computer screen) on this website. Beyond the critiques written in professional publications, Ballet Alert followers often wrote their own reviews and perspectives to discuss and speculate. More often, their words are positive and pensive. But at other times, writings can descend into gossip, speculation, and bullying. As much as company members liked or disliked this forum, many of us kept close tabs on what people were writing.

My next four years passed at PNB and I started to find myself more tied to the reviews I received. I was starting to feel stagnant in the company and assumed that receiving glowing reviews would change my boss' mind. I remember debuting as Mercutio in Romeo et Juliette and waking up each morning to see if anybody had written anything about my performance. The reviews came out and they were quite positive. As the season continued, I added more roles to my resume and received greater reviews. Then, contract time came. I wasn't promoted. And to make matters worse, dancers in the company started coming up to me asking if I had been promoted (most dancers find out that they are getting promoted when they receive their letter of re-engagement). While this was a great compliment, it also left me quite confused. I had performed well all season. Critics and dancers alike had seen my progression. But when it came to the one opinion that mattered, it seemed that I had made no progress.

Studio showing of Maan Singh - Photo: Philip Gardner
After spending one more frustrating year in the same position, I decided to leave my big company roots to try something new. As I started to freelance in medium-sized companies, small organizations, and a variety of projects, I found that I was still eagerly seeking reviews at the end of our production weeks. But now I was performing in less popular venues. At one gig, I performed in a small studio in New York City. And the next was at a performing arts center in Anchorage, Alaska. People were coming to see me perform, but few people were posting about it in print or online.

I remember the first time I danced with Houston Ballet and realized that I didn't have any family or friends in the audience. I felt that I had no cheering section for whom to dance. I learned then to dance for myself and not for the accolades I would be showered with after shows. Once I moved to Seattle, I slowly started to create a presence that was recognizable by critics and regular audience members alike. And while I didn't always get press, I had motivation to impress. All of a sudden, I found myself back at square one onstage at the Wortham Theater with no support system in the audience. It was almost as if the reviews had become my support system.

I had a bit of an epiphany back in March when I performed Romeo and Juliet for Fort Wayne Ballet. My performances with the company marked the first time I was brought in as a Principal Guest Artist to lead a full-length ballet for a company. I have been brought in to dance leading roles many places, but never to carry the entire production. After all of my hard work, I spent a couple of days googling my name, Fort Wayne Ballet, and Romeo and Juliet. But nothing showed up. Initially, I was quite disappointed that nobody had been around to record the occasion. The company didn't film any of the shows I did, so I figured the best way to preserve the feeling that I had during and after the performance was to get an amazing review. You can only imagine the let down of putting that much pressure on getting public recognition in a town of 250,000 that is more interested in sports than arts.

A few weeks ago, I did my final search for a review of the performance. It took one last disappointing look for me to finally get it. What I was seeking was a physical memory of my performance because I so enjoyed it and didn't want to forget the experience. But in my efforts to hold on to the memory, instead of relishing the performance, I was seeking validation that it was a good memory. If this performance is as special to me as it was, I won't forget it. I won't forget the first time that I stared into Lucia Roger's eyes and felt that I saw my love for the first time. Or when we danced the MacMillan version of the Balcony pas, a duet that I had idolized as a teenager. Or how I legitimately cried onstage for the first time over the dead body of Mercutio. Or how the audience instantly rose to their feet after we had experienced a wildly realistic rollercoaster of emotions.

What it comes down to is that we have very few records of our careers as dancers. Photographs, footage, and reviews are the few records we will have of our careers when they are over. As a result of this difficult detail, I was relying too heavily on physical record to validate my experience. What really matters in dance, as in life, is how we felt while we were doing the things that we love. And those memories will be with us forever. A review might remind us of how others perceived us, but only we dancers can remember how it truly felt standing in the glow of the spotlight putting everything we have on the line.

Elizel Long and me from an unreviewed performance in Alaska - Photo: Shalem Photography

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