Dancing in the last frontier

Today, I'm going to offer a little glimpse into my life. Back in June, when I first left my "big company" life, a colleague I had been dancing with mentioned that her close friends had been appointed to lead Alaska Dance Theatre in Anchorage. They asked her if she knew of any male dancers that would be available to dance in what was to be the company's first residential production. This was a big step for the organization, which is restricted by its isolated location. I was excited by this news, as this was the first time anybody had shown interest in having me freelance.

In June, ADT and I had an initial conversation where we expressed our mutual desire to work together. After months of discussion, I was offered to dance in the company's world premiere production of Othello. I spent much of my career praying that the big company I danced with would show me the world on tour. The funny thing is that it took me leaving for that to finally happen.

As quickly as I became excited for this opportunity is as quickly as my excitement turned into fear. What had I done? I just committed to 5 weeks in Alaska...in the winter! Not only was it going to be freezing cold, but it was going to be dark. And there was going to be a lot of snow. And isn't Alaska a really conservative place for a liberal dancer that lives a more alternative lifestyle. Also, what about my partner? We've been together for 6 years and we have never spent more than 2 weeks apart from each other. How could I have not taken all of these things into consideration?

As the days got closer, I became more and more nervous. I was stepping way out of my comfort zone. I was going to stay with a host family. I would be dancing in a company with a brand new artistic director in a style that I wasn't familiar with. But, being the person that I am, I always calm my fears by being very open and honest about my concerns. This can sometimes be uncomfortable, but there are some things that you must ask if they are important to you. Luckily, ADT's ballet mistress, Dubraskha Arrivillaga, was very helpful in addressing my concerns.

On January 30th, I embarked on my 15ish hour trip to the "Last Frontier." I arrived late in the evening. This was the first time that I had ever been greeted at an airport with my name on a sign. As we drove to my host family's house, I watched smoke and steam rising out of houses at a glacial pace through the bitterly cold air. It was -15 degrees. All of the roads were snow covered and the city felt a bit more suburb than city.

Welcome to Alaska Dance Theatre
I moved in with my host family and had a day to acclimate myself to the time and culture change. Living with a host family can be a great experience. I grew to feel at home with them. After a day off to adjust, a brand new group of dancers converged at the ADT studios to create art and to offer dance to a community that has never had a high-quality, fully professional residential dance company. It was a risk for all involved, but sometimes in the greatest risks come the grandest rewards.

We spent the next 5 weeks with Artistic Director, Gillmer Duran, creating his new production of Othello. We took class every day at 9:30 am and rehearsed until about 4 pm, when the school began classes for the day. One aspect of rehearsals that I really enjoyed was that the choreographic process tended to be equal part choreography being set and equal part collaboration. This production felt like it belonged to both the choreographer and dancers. After rehearsal ended for the day, company dancers were also given the opportunity to share their knowledge by teaching in the school.

Matanuska Glacier
When our work days ended, if we weren't too exhausted, we would hang out with one another. The atmosphere was quite familial and very supportive. I was even able to convince my partner to visit for a week to experience Alaska with me and to make sure that we didn't go 5 weeks without seeing each other. During the weekends, we had time to explore the wondrous beauty that Alaska has to offer. We were lucky enough to have associate artistic director, company dancer, and school coordinator, Sarah Grundwalt, to show us the ways of the biggest state in the U.S. Sarah is a native Anchoragite and she was a tour guide for her brother's Alaskan sightseeing bus company as a young adult. On any given weekend, Sarah would call me up and say, "What do you want to see today." Whether she could partake in the activity or not, she made sure that it happened. Mountains, glaciers, lakes, restaurants, snowshoeing, culture...you think of it, Sarah helped coordinate it.

All in all, the performances went very well. The local audience, which tends to have the attitude of "if it's home-grown, it's not high-quality," was pleasantly surprised. Both shows were extremely well received and very well attended. As a dancer in the production, I was very proud to have the opportunity to share my passion for dance with a maturing arts community. I would not have had this experience had I been tied down to a full-time company. One of the joys of freelancing is that you get to share your art with multiple audiences. Sometimes the audiences are small and uneducated, while at other time they can be large and experienced. In Anchorage, we were teaching a young audience that great dance can happen anywhere in the world, even in the "Last Frontier." This was the most rewarding part of the experience.

Moose in the ADT parking lot
Upon leaving, I was able to reflect on the amazing experience that freelancing brought me. I was pulled out of my comfort zone and Alaska proved me wrong. There were cold days, but there were also warmer days. It snowed a lot and it was dark at times, but Anchorage gained 5 minutes of sunlight everyday that we were there. Even in a state that can be more conservative, people can be liberal, open-minded, and appreciate the arts. I can go to work and there can be a moose in the parking lot. I watched 10 reindeer chase hundreds of people down a city street. I can go downtown and share a cocktail with a political figure, a counselor, a dogsled musher, and a woman with a half dozen roses and baby's breath woven into her hair. And I can be the artist that I am meant to be. My experience with Alaska Dance Theatre really caught me off guard and in the most positive way. I hope that one day I will have the opportunity to return.

Beluga Point, AK (photo credit: Shalem Photography)

   For more information about Alaska Dance Theatre click here


How do I get work?

One of the scariest things for me was learning how to find work on my own. Throughout a dancer's training, especially in the field of ballet, we are taught verbally and by example that one should never be outwardly expressive about their talents and successes. Perhaps, it goes back to the ideals of ballet being a generally silent art form. The culture of most companies impresses a sense of humility upon dancers. This can be a beautiful quality to have as a person, but this mentality can make it quite difficult to promote oneself to potential employers.

I myself struggled throughout my career within a major company with this mentality. I was "only" a corps members. Why would somebody want to hire me to perform leading roles, when my main job was to dance lesser roles. When I left that company to join a smaller company, I really had no choice but to look for freelance work since my contract was merely 22 weeks long. That is unless I wanted to get a side job that had nothing to do with ballet, which I didn't want to do. I wanted to create a plan, but how does one find out who to contact or how to get in contact with possible employers?

I lucked out since I was required to perform 3 work searches a week to maintain certain benefits when I left my previous company. Essentially, this broke the barrier of me being too "humble" to unabashedly email companies and schools to tell them how great I was. So, I first set forth with what I knew. What are the major companies in the country? ABT, NYCB, SFB, PNB, Houston, Boston. Sent. "Greetings. My name is Barry Kerollis. I am a freelance dancer based out of Philadelphia. I recently left 'insert company name' after 7 seasons with the company and have danced with numerous other companies on a freelance basis. I am sending you my information in the event that you need a dancer for any of your company's upcoming productions." That said, most of those companies didn't respond, or already knew me previously, or knew that I was just performing a work search. So, my next step was to email a handful of other companies that I had auditioned for in the past, heard of, knew friends that danced there, or had read about in a magazine. Some companies told me that they would keep my information on file, while others told me that they only hire dancers for a full season.

Once, I had exhausted the resources of my own knowledge, I started looking at materials that were readily available to me. Every month, I check Pointe, Dance Magazine, and Dance Spirit. I don't just look at the informative articles, but I also look at the ads. If a company sounds interesting to me, I find a way to email them. If their website doesn't offer a specific email to send information to for auditions or employment, I will send my information to their general email account and ask that my information be forwarded to the artistic director.

Another great resource is the world wide web. I have found numerous websites that either give audition information, allow dancers to list themselves in a database, or that offer information about companies that I had never thought of. Websites that post audition information include Pointe Magazine, Dance Magazine, Dance Plug, Network Dance, and Dance.net. Some of these websites are more reliable than others. At the same time, some offer varied work in different fields. For instance, Pointe magazine's audition section will be more valuable to a dancer who's focus is in ballet. While most of the auditions/jobs that are listed are for full-time contracts, it doesn't necessarily mean that the company wouldn't be interested in picking up a dancer for a program or need someone to replace an injured dancer for a period of time.

Other websites that can be useful allow you to list yourself in a database. You can do that on Network Dance and Dance Plug, but I haven't had the opportunity to test them out yet. The two websites that are strictly available to market yourself to employers are Need Dancers and Got Prince. On these websites, (sometimes dependent on whether you pay a fee or not), you can list anything from your basic information to a variety of things, including posting multiple photos and a dance reel.

A final internet option for me is a website that I check daily and for which I have been made fun of by my colleagues for years. This is because there tends to be a lot of gossip and it is a public message board where anybody can post. The name of this board is Ballet Talk. Information on this site ranges from personal reviews of performances and opinions on different aspects of ballet, all the way to gossip about dancers and angry interactions between crazed ballet fans. It can be quite amusing or quite mortifying (especially if you find yourself the target of somebody's rant). Every morning, I wake up and read through the links section like its the daily newspaper and drink my coffee. This part of the board has posts with links to newspaper articles and reviews about what is happening in ballet today. This is how I keep updated on the current state of the ballet world. And I have been known to see an article about a company and email them to see if they need a dancer for anything.

Another option for getting work would be to find an agent. I am not very well versed in the world of agencies, but I am currently listed with DManagement. In order to obtain an agent, a dancer either needs to audition for the agency or have some reference that knows the agent personally to vouch for them. The agent will then send out listings of work that they think may be right for a dancer. They will also take a cut of the deal when they get you work. You can read more about this here: http://pointemagazine.com/issues/aprilmay-2012/company-life-middleman.

Lastly and, in my opinion, most importantly, a freelance dancer can find work through networking and friends involved in the dance world. Honestly, I have gotten the largest percentage of my work through word of mouth from friends and colleagues. This approach, unfortunately, is one that comes with time and experience. But the networking can begin as early as your professional level training. In high level training programs, some of your peers will eventually become professionals. After school, your colleagues can be great advocates. For me, personally, other dancing friends have become lifelines. I have had friends that are unable to do a gig, and they called me up and offered me the opportunity to take that work. When this happens, I am likely to think of that person first when it comes to work that I can't do. It is a greatly reciprocal field. So, be sure to build great connections, maintain them, and help one another. Freelancers know how hard this career can be. There tends to be less competition amongst one another and better level of support amongst one another.

Once you get past the initial phase of developing a system to look for work, there are many other things that need to be taken into consideration. Like what information do you send, who do you market yourself to be, how to build your profile, and much more. Stay tuned for the answers to these question, as well as some personal accounts of my life as a freelance dancer.


What is it like to work as a freelance dancer?

The life of a freelance dancer is a very unique one. It is one of very few occupations that allow one to straddle two widely varied lifestyles, one of luxurious travel and one of poverty and hustling. On one hand, freelance dancers are paid to travel to sometimes fascinating destinations and get treated like royalty. While on the other hand, time in between jobs can be lengthy and destitute and work can be a challenge to find. It is a hard life that is not necessarily easy to maintain, but with lots of hard work and great marketing skills a freelance dancer can lead a very fulfilling lifestyle that few people get the opportunity to experience.

So...Who are freelance dancers? Freelance dancers are artists that come from an array of places during their career. Some are at the beginning of their careers and were not offered a contract with a company, but would still like to dance professionally. Others are seasoned professionals that have spent a period of time with a company and have decided that they don't want the full-time commitment that these companies require. There are also artists that dance seasonally with a company, but their company doesn't offer enough work to meet all of the dancer's artistic and financial needs throughout the year. Sometimes, dancers even freelance to raise their profile as an artist and to give them opportunities that aren't presented to them in their current company.

What do freelance dancers do? The work that freelance dancers do is only limited by the work that a dancer is willing to perform. There are a variety of opportunities that a dancer can make for themselves. For instance, I have danced for pick-up companies that do not have a regular roster of dancers and that hire me for only one production. I have also danced in festivals and galas that consist of only professional dancers. I recently danced in a festival where professionals were brought in to partner the top level students in the school. At the moment, I am dancing with a full-time professional ballet company that needed a few extra men to dance in their production of Swan Lake. Some dancers prefer only to perform in shows where they are the leading characters, while others will dance in anything they are offered. I know some dancers who even perform in art installations or as models. There are also opportunities for dancers to use guestings as an opportunity to have an extended audition for a company. From school shows to company performances, freelance dancers can have many opportunities to grow as artists.

The life of a freelance dancer can be quite varied and is dependent  upon the willingness and availability of the artist. I will be using this blog to offer insight and guidance to artists that aspire to be freelance dancers, as well as to give people a view into my life. I hope that you will follow me and see what an interesting and rewarding career freelance dancing can be.