Giving Everything for Your Art (or not)

Performing Mary Anthony's Threnody (Photo: Bill Hebert)
When I was a young, freshly professional 19 year old near-child moving thousands of miles away from home to join Houston Ballet, I was a bit of a bunhead. Actually, let's be honest here. I'm still a complete and total bunhead. During my short year with the company, I became great friends with my fellow Apprentice and (now) new Houston Ballet faculty member Alex Pandiscio (proud shoutout). We in our bunheaded glory would sit at his apartment sipping beer, watching ballet DVDs (or VHS :-o), and debate about everything from technique to artistry to production quality. When I left to join Pacific Northwest Ballet, I really missed having a friend that was equally, if not more passionate about our art form.

Once I got into the swing of things at PNB, more often than not, I found dancers trying to fill the gap between living your life as a dancer and living your life and dancing for a living. If I suggested a ballet viewing night, people would tease me. If I wanted to sit down for drinks after work and talk about technique, people would quickly ask to change the subject. Here I was, in one of the most inspiring companies in the country seeking greater inspiration than an 8-hour workday. I found that many of my colleagues didn't want to make dance their lifestyle, which is perfectly fine. But I preferred the opposite. So, when I finally took the plunge and left PNB, it was easy for me to use this as one of the excuses for me to leave. I told myself that I needed to be surrounded by people who would give anything and everything for their art.

After making my way to Philadelphia, my 22-week seasonal contract meant that I would need to seek gigs in between work periods with the contemporary company I was dancing for. My first (and only) foray into the Philadelphia freelance scene was performing for a small modern company that is based on the technique of niche choreographer Mary Anthony. To be completely honest, it wasn't really my thing. But I went into life after PNB with an open mind as to where things would lead me. And for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was surrounded by people who would do anything for our art. Anything!

At PNB, I was used to rehearsing for productions anywhere from a few weeks to a few days before getting onstage to perform. Preparing for this Philly Fringe Festival show, we spent nearly 8 weeks rehearsing (granted it was only 6-8 hours per week) mostly after the sun had gone down. Dancers came into rehearsals late, and it was acceptable, because they had regular day jobs. It wasn't uncommon for heated discussions to happen as the work was restaged. Some dancers were much more vocal than any dancer would be in a ballet studio, while others were so happy to be dancing that they would do anything and everything necessary to be a part of the company. The contrast between strength and submission was great and utterly shocking to my ballet world expectations. Beyond all of this, pay was only guaranteed to most dancers after tickets were sold or grants came through. This meant that some dancers didn't see any compensation for months after the work had been performed.

Some weeks before we performed, our group took a trip up to New York City to work with Mary Anthony herself. She was still kicking (barely) at the ripe old age of 94 years old. We were to have rehearsal with this woman, who cultivated an intensely respectful cult following, at her studios. This rehearsal would be followed by us sharing the work in a fundraising open rehearsal. While a few dancers had dropped hints, nobody prepared me for what I was about to see or experience.

After taking an elevator to the 8th floor of a building between St. Marks and NYU that housed the Mary Anthony Dance Studios (where she was still teaching class twice a week), we were dropped off on her floor and immediately turned right into the dressing rooms. We had been sitting on a Bolt Bus for a few hours, so I had been holding my bladder for a long time. I turned to one of my fellow modern dancers and asked where the bathroom was located. He simply responded, "Walk through the lobby, past Mary's bedroom, and it will be on the left." The comment didn't really add up to me. My first thought, "Oh, Mary lives here? I guess the studio is bigger than I expected." Nope! I walked out of the dressing room and laying right behind the front desk was Mary Anthony resting on her bed. YES, right behind a desk in the lobby.

Mary Anthony lived in her studio. The lobby consisted of a front desk, a bed, a dining room table, and a door to the bathroom. The dressing rooms tripled as a place to put your clothes on, the food pantry, and a litter box area for her cat that roamed the 8th floor. Between the lobby and studio was a small cove for a kitchen. The sacred dance studio was just a dance studio. The place wasn't in disarray, but it wasn't very clean, there were nails sticking out of the nearly plywood dance floor, and there were cans of roach spray in every room.

In my culture shock, I walked through the bedroom, past the kitchen, and into the dance studio for warm-up. As I felt a nail poke my foot through the foot-blackening wooden floor, my chest tightened and another dancer must have seen the panic in my heart. She looked at me and said, "No nail here. I'll switch spots." After getting our sweat on while Mary Anthony was awakened and prepped for rehearsal, a quietly stoic figure walked with assistance into her proud home one inch at a time. She sat in rehearsal without changing expressions. When a correction needed to be made, she whispered into her adoring former dancer's ear. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, this woman raised her voice into a boom. She stared at me with eyes dilating, "you are a SAILOR! you've had a HARD LIFE! YOU'RE...TOO...PRETTY!" That was the most she said that day. But it was said that she was most her former self in that one moment.

Performing Mary Anthony's Threnody - Me on the right (Photo: Bill Hebert)
Our open rehearsal had a minimal showing of support. We enjoyed wine and hors d'ouevres in the lobby immediately after performing Ms. Anthony's work. Living to the frail age of 94 must be exhausting, so Mary's assistant put her to sleep. To paint the clearest picture possible, Ms. Anthony lay on her back asleep in her bed, eyes covered with a floral sleep mask as dancers multiple generations past Mary's prime sipped wine and chatted around her frail sleeping form. As I stood over Mary, sipping my dry wine, and appearing to listen to another dancer talk about their next gig, I had an utterly deep realization. Maybe there is such a thing as giving too much to your art.

On the bus ride back to Philly over a smuggled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, the dancers who had shared this experience previously told me about their first venture to the Mary Anthony Dance Studios. I think the thing about most shock is that you can only be shocked by the same thing once. These dancers now saw this experience as commonplace to learning a Mary Anthony work. As stories continued to flow, I learned that many in the dance community considered her a legend in the same realm as Graham and Limon. Mary started her own company, and since many of the dancers whom she hired had difficulty finding work in the prime time of the classical modern dance era, her dancers not only adored the woman but saw her as a motherly idol. Mary was not so nice in her less frail days. But she was passionate and had a very clear vision. She also performed well into her 70's. At one point, as her studio was struggling to survive, Mary was offered a tenured position to teach at New York University. But Mary felt that she would have sold out by taking that position. So, she chose to continue living the life she did. One where the line blurred between studio and home, work and life.

Performing Mary Anthony's Gloria (Photo: Bill Hebert)
Near the end (Mary had impressively lived over 2 years after this experience), it became clear that Mary had completely and utterly devoted her life to her art form. And I have such an incredible respect that she was able to remain so honest to her values as an artist. But meeting and working directly with somebody who had such great dedication and longevity that her life and art fused into one entity without care for quality of life taught me a very valuable lesson.

We all devote ourselves to this beautifully painful art form to one degree or another. Some people leave dance at work, others bring it home with them. And for others, dance is literally their home. I used to be more judgmental about how people that call dance a career chose to make it a part of their lives. But after this experience, I view things quite differently. I'd give most everything in my life to be a part of this art form. And while I don't look down on people who do give absolutely everything to this art form regardless of their well-being, I find that it is best to find a middle ground that makes one feel fulfilled and equally alive as a human being. As we are not dancers living as people. We are people living as dancers.


  1. Thanku so much for sharing in detail such an experience. As a freelance performer we all encounter such different world outside the secure environment of a dance company that it shocks us. And at the same time makes us think about life as a dancer in as different ways as possible. Reading this article actually gave me chills at the end.

    1. My pleasure. I'm glad that it moved you. It was a very striking experience for me. I've wanted to share it for a long time, but I've needed to sit with it for a few years because I didn't want my observation of the experience to appear disrespectful or as mockery. I'm glad that I waited :-)

  2. ho. ly. crap. that's quite a story. this is like your 1000th post or so? you've been holding out on us, Kerollis.