The Freelance Choreographer - Outside Perspectives

Opposing midnight views as I left Alaska (Top: Moon rising over Chugach Range, Bottom: Denali basking in the midnight sun)
I know it's been awhile since I've posted, but I've just got so many wonderful things going on that I wanted to wait for the 4th of July to pass. Since leaving the eternally sunny days and nights of Alaska a few weeks ago, I was finally asked to teach a Contemporary Technique class as a guest at Broadway Dance Center. This has been a childhood dream of mine since I first took class at this school as a teenager. I'm hoping to make this a regular gig, but as with all things I need to practice perseverance and patience! Beyond this, I am developing a program (that I will announce at some point), have been planning my hubby and my honeymoon to South America this September, and am prepping to teach my first gig at Steps on Broadway (Advanced Intermediate Ballet at 2:30 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, & Fridays from 7/18 - 7/29, as well as Intermediate Ballet at 10 am on 7/18). For once, I finally decided to take two complete days off over the holiday weekend. No work, no email, no media. It was actually more challenging to rest than it is for me to continue working. But I accomplished my mission and feel refreshed and ready to tackle my summer work!

With all of this talk about my work and travel done, I'd like to turn the focus off of myself for the rest of this post and share some information about some of my friends. One of my biggest goals with creating this blog has been to not only get information out about freelancing and to share my experiences. I always hoped that my friends and colleagues would have a chance to share their experiences here, as well. I recently reached out to two amazing freelance choreographers, the recently commissioned to create at the Bolshoi Ballet Garrett Smith, who is returning to dance with Norwegian National Ballet after a long hiatus, and Princess Grace Award winner and former Les Grand Ballet Canadiens Soloist Gabrielle Lamb. I asked these beauties a few questions about their careers as freelance choreographers and I am so excited to share what they had to say here. Enjoy! 

What is their performance background?

Gabrielle Lamb: Winner of a 2014-15 Princess Grace Award for Choreography, was a longtime soloist at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and in 2009 was invited by Christopher Wheeldon to join his company Morphoses in New York. 

Gabrielle Lamb creating at the National Choreographers Initiative (Photo: Ty Parmenter)
Garrett Smith: Currently dancing with Norwegian National Ballet. Former dancer with Houston Ballet.

Garrett Smith in the studio with Houston Ballet (Photo: Amitava Sarkar)
How did you get into choreography?

GL: I first started choreographing when I was a little kid. I was around 10 and would create and direct shows for the other kids in my Montessori school to perform. When ballet training and professional life got more intense, I stopped. I restarted when I was dancing for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal because we had the opportunity to create work on our fellow dancers for annual choreographic workshops. I started out creating solo material for myself, but once I got a taste of creating on other people I just wanted to do more and more.

GS: I started creating solos on myself for competitions when I was 11 years old. As time passed, I developed a big interest for it later and pursued every choreographic opportunity I had from 13 on; whether it was at summer programs at Houston Ballet or choreographic workshops.

Where have you choreographed?

Gabrielle Lamb's Moult - Ballet Memphis
GL: My choreography and dance films have been presented by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Ballet Austin, Milwaukee Ballet, The Joffrey Concert Group, BalletX, Ballet Memphis, Jacob’s Pillow, Sacramento Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Dance on Camera at Lincoln Center, and the American Dance Festival. I won choreographic competitions at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Milwaukee Ballet, and Western Michigan University, as well as, in 2014, the Banff Centre's Clifford E. Lee Award and a New York City Center Choreography Fellowship.

GS: I have choreographed in Europe and America. The companies I have worked with as a freelance choreographer have been New York City Ballet, Houston Ballet, Norwegian National Ballet, Ballet West, and Milwaukee Ballet.

Who/What has been your choreographic inspiration?

GL: I get very inspired when I have the time and energy to walk around and visit galleries. Visual art is a big source of inspiration for me, but nowadays it's hard to make the time to meander and discover art by chance. I also get inspired through writing. I try to make the "morning pages" a habit, and journalling is a big part of my process. I'm also writing my own blog, which helps me clarify my thoughts.  

GS: My inspiration comes from music that I find, my personal life experiences, and also the excitement I have in developing a concept or idea specifically for bodies in movement with music.

You took a hiatus from Norwegian National Ballet to focus on choreography, what drove you to make this decision?

Garrett Smith's Reveal - Houston Ballet (Photo: Amitava Sarkar)
GS: During my 2nd year in Oslo, I was missing home a bit and I already had a commission with Ballet West lined up. So, I asked our Artistic Director, Ingrid Lorentzen, if I could take permission as we are allowed in the company. This allowed me a year to focus on my my work as a freelance choreographer.

How have you found choreography work? Do you have an agent? Do you book yourself?

GL: I do not have an agent, though I would be open to it under the right conditions. I started finding work by submitting work samples and proposals to various open calls and competitions. Although I don't believe in choreography as a blood sport, competitions have been a way for me to get great experience with companies that might not otherwise be able to take risks on emerging choreographers. Having gone through that process many times, I feel it's time for me to move from emerging to established territory, but it is harder than I imagined. I have to rely more on connections and networking. As a shy person averse to self-promotion, I'm having to leave my comfort zone all the time to look for work. My advice to aspiring choreographers would be, obviously, to submit work all over the place. But also, to invest in great-quality video of their choreography. It makes a difference. Also don't burn bridges at any stage of a career, no matter how tempting it may be. You never know who will resurface later and in what position. You will need every possible ally. 

GS: I have found choreography by pursuing companies, as well as companies that have pursued me by word of mouth. Also, I have a Youtube channel with footage of my work.

Tell me about your first commission.

Q Dance - Royal Winnipeg Ballet (Photo: Vince Pahkala)
GL: My first commission, NeverDidRunSmooth, was with Hubbard Street 2. I was a winner of the National Choreographic Competition, as it was then called. I really didn't have much experience at that point, but a friend had told me that Hubbard Street wanted to take risks on new choreographic voices with their second company. So, I submitted a dance film I'd made in my living room and a duet I'd created for myself and a colleague. Sometimes that "risk-taking" talk is just marketing jargon, but in my case Hubbard Street really did take a risk. I was absolutely terrified to go to Chicago and do the residency, but it turned out to be the best possible experience. The dancers were very humble and open, and I learned a lot. I'd never been able to experience an intensive process before, where you create all day every day as your job. Until then, I'd snatch 45 minutes here and there, on lunch breaks and after work. The HS2 experience opened my eyes to what a choreographic process could be, with proper support. I loved the work we created together, and the company ended up touring it for two years. 

Do you survive solely off of your choreography or do you perform other jobs?

GL: Choreography is my biggest source of income these days, which is a little disconcerting. I do teach (both ballet and contemporary) and am trying to do more of that to bridge the gaps. I used to do lots of video editing for dance companies, but nowadays I mostly just do it for my own choreography.

GS: I survived solely off of my choreography in 2015-2016. I did dance here and there, but my income was from my choreographic commissions. It was crazy because it was my first year doing it, and it worked! I had no idea what would have come of it, but it was an incredible first year as a freelance artist.

How is freelance life different from company life in your experience?

Garrett Smith in rehearsal w/Milwaukee Ballet
GS: The difference is that you are basically a gypsy. You make homes all around you (hopefully). I love the idea of being in a company for a long time because of that family feeling and bond you create with them. It was incredibly hard to leave Houston after 6 years and start from scratch in Norway. Then from there to just leave everything altogether and not have friends around me on a daily basis. I think you have to be a pretty strong individual to be a freelance worker.

At what point did your performance career become secondary to your choreographic career?

GL: Performance has only gradually become secondary to creation, and it has been an organic process. 2013 was the first year that I had more work as a choreographer than as a dancer, and the proportion has been increasing steadily since then. Nowadays, I perform very seldom. It's really only when I am very curious about another choreographer's creative process and want to experience it from inside that I will perform.  

Working as a freelance choreographer vs. dancer, does it get lonely traveling solo?

GS: I don't mind the traveling so much. It can be exciting going to new places. What is great is that you actually have perspective and a true, legitimate comparison. I have worked for many companies now, and enough to know what I can be grateful for and what I won't complain about or take for granted.

What has been most challenging along your journey?

Gabrielle Lamb's Happenstance - Milwaukee Ballet (Photo: Jason Fassl)
GL: It has been very challenging trying to decide whether to try to form a company of my own.  Commissions remove so much strain, so I love to do them. On the other hand, I'd like more continuity, and I want to be able to build on past work through mutual trust with long-term collaborators. I feel like I could take even more risks that way. But I'm also very shy, and I feel pretentious about forming a company. It brings out all the demons.  

What do you do in between choreography gigs?

GL: During those down times, I take other choreographers' classes and workshops in order to get fresh input. And I do a lot of reading, about whatever subject I'm going to create about next. Currently, it's the theme of "water" for Sacramento Ballet. But I continue to be challenged by the periods between intensive creations. Those are the times I should be renewing myself and researching. But it's very easy to fall into pits of self-doubt and to imagine how much more talented and successful everyone else is. Social media fuels a lot of this panic, unfortunately, so I'm trying to impose restrictions on myself. But it's tricky, because social media seems to be a necessary tool for a choreographers. And besides, I quite often find out about interesting, useful stuff via Facebook and Instagram.   

What has been your most exciting choreographic experience and highlights?

Garrett Smith - National Choreographers Initiative (Photo: Dave Friedman)
GL: I am proud of the awards and fellowships I've won, obviously. It's hard to feel legit in this career, but those do help. I'm also proud of the works I've created for Ballet Memphis around themes devised by Artistic Director Dorothy Gunther-Pugh. Those curated programs, and my collaboration with designer Christine Darch, have enabled me to create works I never would have imagined on my own (Moult, Elapse). 

GS: My most exciting moments would have to be with my former home company at Houston Ballet. This was where I had my first big commission and also the second time being asked to come back with incredible designers and a budget that makes you feel like the real deal (haha). It is cool as a freelance worker to be your own employer and boss. You choose what jobs you want, but it is scary because it requires diligence and faith in yourself. There is not guarantee that you will get work and that directors will like you enough to put their faith in you.

Do you have experience writing your own grants for choreography? If so, any advice on the process?

GL: I do write my own grants, and I've had some successes as well as plenty of rejections. My advice would be as follows. Invest time and energy in writing as well as you can. Get somebody to proofread for you. Be clear and honest. No word salads. But sometimes you just have to make stuff up---lots of the time actually. So, don't get freaked out. Just start writing something as fast as you can and edit later. 

Do you have any advice for those who may be interested in a career as a freelance choreographer?

GL: 1) Be kind. 2) Just keep pushing forward with the knowledge that sometimes a rehearsal can switch in seconds. It's normal to feel exhausted, empty, and clueless; but if you can remain open, some little accidental detail may catch your interest and send you down a brand new path. This is unpredictable work that is totally dependent on the creativity and goodwill of other human beings. So be alert, be respectful, be patient. And be kind. 

GS: My advice would be to not doubt yourself and believe in your talent and hard work. There is never a guarantee that a normal job will last. Anything can happen, anyone can get fired (unless you have a permanent contract). But seriously, you might as well just go for your goals and dreams because there really are not guarantees in life either way.

Keep Up-To-Date with these Choreographers:

Gabrielle Lamb: www.gabriellelamb.com

Upcoming Projects:
- New creation for her own company at Baruch College in October (CUNY Dance Initiative: http://www1.cuny.edu/sites/6/about/centers-institutes/dance/2016-residencies/)
- New works for Kansas City Ballet, University of Utah, & Salt Contemporary Dance

Social Media:
Blog: http://www.gabriellelamb.com/#!blog/cx7y
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/gabrielle.lamb.5
Instagram: @gabrielleclamb
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/velvette26
Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/user4502601

Garrett Smith:

Biography: Norwegian National Ballet profile

Upcoming Projects:
- Bolshoi Ballet - 11/16
- Texas Ballet Theatre - 1/17

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Garrett-Smith-Choreography-170571929641189/?fref=ts
Instagram: @GarrettSmithChoreography
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/adelicioustreat 


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