Adapting to Differing Company Practices

I'm currently in Alaska running my annual summer intensive for pre-professional track students. The sun sets a few minutes before midnight and rises around 4 am, but it never gets fully dark. I started this intensive to help enhance these Alaskan student's local training after my tenure as Interim Artistic Director of Alaska Dance Theatre. One of my favorite things about getting to run this program is that I am in complete control of what happens in the studio. If I feel that a student needs to be pushed, I can push them to their limit. If the time has come to pull a student back for their own safety, I do that because I answer to myself. Working like this was a rarity when I held a full-time schedule of performances with multiple companies as a freelance dancer. I was often a slave to company practices, which could mean that I was adjusting to 8-10 different ways of running rehearsals each year. So, getting to make strategic decisions in the studio is a luxury that I really appreciate.

AK-BK Students in Contemporary Technique Class
It can become quite easy to get stuck in one's ways when you have been dancing with a company for any time greater than a year. You wake up in the morning with a general idea of what to expect throughout your day. There may only be cause for concern if a new choreographer or stager is creating/teaching a new work. And, even in these situations, you usually have the protections of an extensively negotiated contract to make sure that there are at least a handful of regular studio practices in place. Some of these luxuries can include a 5-minute break during each hour that you rehearse, an hour for lunch in the middle of the day, a non-mandatory hour-and-a-half warm up class, major issues taken up in private meetings, and more. No matter how functional or dysfunctional a company may be, one often finds a certain level of comfort and expectation in working for one organization. You know what you are getting into from day to day and week to week.

Unfortunately, for freelancers, the above case of comfort and expectation just doesn't exist. I learned this the hard way after dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet for 7 seasons. After experiencing this company's very functional way of running, I found myself struggling to adjust (and sometimes handle) to the multitude of environments in which I was dancing. For instance, the first time I was brought in to dance with Festival Ballet Providence for their production of Swan Lake, I was at a loss for words when I walked into my first rehearsal. I was standing in the middle of the studio preparing to learn the waltz in the first act of the ballet. Due to circumstances, I was only able to enter the studio after most of the company had already learned this piece of the ballet. My assumption, based off of previous experience, was that teaching me the choreography and filling in the gaps would be the priority of this rehearsal. Instead, I was partnered up with another dancer who already knew the choreography. Before I knew it, the music started. I stood staring at my partner, following her around for about 16 counts before I walked off the floor and raised my hand. Instead of the, "Oh, we forgot that we had to teach it to you," response I was expecting, the director told me that he would teach it to me another day and to just stand beside my partner and follow her around for the next hour. If I remember correctly, I left rehearsal and texted my husband, "I'm really concerned about what I have signed up for." This may be an extreme example of the point I am trying to make, but after asking around the studio if this was a common practice, none of the dancers were even slightly phased by what happened to me. This was not an uncommon practice for them.

Throughout most of my freelance career, I have had a different experience with each company I danced for. Fort Wayne Ballet left my Juliet and myself in the studio with a DVD to learn all of a full-length Romeo and Juliet without a ballet master. We had the freedom to make decisions and they trusted that we would make the right ones. Company C Contemporary Ballet wanted to rehearse a 20-minute one-act ballet that I had learned in a flash almost immediately. Other companies I worked with rehearsed 3 hours a day (instead of the 6 hours I was accustomed to at PNB), docked your pay if you missed company class, and even requested dancers perform on public transportation. Instead of experiencing the restricted choices of a unionized company contract, I found myself panicking that these practices were going to injure me or take away from the integrity of my work that I felt I had built during my years dancing in Seattle.

Performing Romeo & Juliet w/ Fort Wayne Ballet - Dancer: Lucia Rogers (Photo: Jeffrey Crane)
I'm not sure if I ever fully adjusted to the malleability that is necessary to function in the freelance world. But I can tell you that I have many friends and colleagues who have learned to just go with the flow and hold no company to any expectations. While some of these dancers have come from major companies, what I have found is that most of these more fluid dancers have never danced in a union company. In this situation, I feel that it can be very beneficial to lack the experience of working for an organization that is structured by a strong contract. It is kind of like eating candy. If you have never eaten candy, you are a lot less likely to crave it. But if you have ever tasted the sweetness of chocolate (or for me gummy bears), and it is kept from you, you will be much more likely to crave that chocolate. In the case of a dancer, if you have ever rehearsed in a more efficient way, it can become stressful to lower your standards to a less efficient approach. Even, if in some cases, that approach is more efficient, but you only want to rehearse the way you are used to.

My greatest suggestion to any dancer that finds themselves struggling with working in differing company cultures is to remember that there is no perfect way to run a rehearsal, treat a dancer, or lead an organization. Of course, there are things that should not be done; like treating dancers poorly, changing rehearsal hours without care or additional pay, etc. But keep in mind that all directors and ballet masters/mistresses have come from a different background and a have had different experiences in and out of the studio. If you were put in the same position to lead the dancers standing beside you, you may find that they dislike how you approach running rehearsals. Yes, there are more and less efficient approaches to teaching. But until you are in a position of leadership, it is actually your job to remain mostly submissive.

Now, if there is a point where you feel that you or your peers are being put in legitimate danger, it is your responsibility to speak up. But, in order to maintain a professional relationship, you may want to wait to speak to whomever is leading rehearsal until after that rehearsal has ended. If you feel that you are being put in immediate danger, of course, you must speak up. But it isn't extremely common to find yourself in a situation where something needs to be addressed at that exact moment in the studio.

One of the most beautiful parts of our dance world is that no company is alike. There are differing reps, a plethora of dance artists, and a range of styles. In the same way, there are many ways that a company can choose to function. Do your best to remain submissive and lead through example. If you become a leader in this way, you may actually be asked to help influence a clearer rehearsal process. Stay true to yourself and speak up if absolutely necessary, but keep in mind that it is leaderships choice how to run a company and its rehearsals. Think of it this way. The first time you learn a role in a ballet, dancers often feel that this is the correct way to perform this piece. If someone comes in a few years later and asks for steps to be executed on different counts or in a different style, the dancers who have already performed the work will say that what is being taught is wrong. But in reality, it is only a different viewpoint of what the work was before. There is no right or wrong, unless it is endangering one's safety or health.

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