Things I've learned while freelancing thus far

I'm in a weird mood today and have really been itching to get some content out for my readers. Per my odd mood, instead of writing a regular run-of-the-mill blog, I am going to change it up and serve you with a BList, or Blog List (aren't I ingenious?). Today, I offer you a list of things I've learned while freelancing thus far. Ya know, since I still have so much more to learn and experience. Enjoy!

- Since I don't dance for any company full-time, I don't have the option of company class every morning. If I don't take class every day of the week, I am not going to get out of shape, lose all of the technique I've been working on since I was 2, or get fat.

- If I don't take class multiple times a week, I will get out of shape, find certain areas of my technique are faltering, lose strength, and possibly get fat.

- Just because you are offered to travel somewhere exotic, doesn't mean it is a great offer. For instance, I was offered to go to Hawaii to perform Nutcracker. I would fly the day before the shows and go straight from the airport to rehearsal. And I would fly out the day after the shows. Nothing like a half-day of travel into rehearsal, 6 shows, and then another half-day of travel without getting the glory of seeing this paradise.

- Sometimes it seems you are approaching an agreement with an employer. This doesn't mean you should get excited. It is not uncommon for all communication to suddenly cease and to never hear from said employer ever again.

- Getting to travel to dance around the world is exciting and really cool. Most people you interact with will think it is the most glorious thing ever. Though, sometimes you just want to sleep in your own bed, pet your cats, and spend time with your partner/lover/close friends/family/etc.

- It doesn't matter how small or under the radar most companies are, there are amazing dancers EVERYWHERE! Not just in the largest companies that receive the most press.

- Nobody should EVER be placed with a host family that doesn't have wireless internet. Just saying.

- Usually, at least half of the people that take advanced open classes probably belong in beginner open classes. Also, they have absolutely no spatial awareness. This can present a challenge when you are trying to keep in shape and challenge yourself as your own teacher.

- NEVER negotiate via skype or phone. Get it in writing (usually via email). Also, don't be afraid to make requests that you may feel are out of reach. If they are and the employer is in this negotiation in good faith, they will compromise or explain why they can't agree to certain terms.

10 degrees in Anchorage - I left coat in car to go clubbing
- Alaska isn't a scary place.  (I will be returning to dance with Alaska Dance Theatre for their Winter season this January - April).

- Leaving for a gig that is more than a month is a great reason to throw a party! Which means you get multiple going away parties a year!

-  It is alright if I take a contemporary class for my warm-up/technique class. I won't lose my ballet technique by supplementing other styles and I will expand my reach as an artist.

- Some people will ask you to do things for free. But others will compensate you like a rockstar. Show your appreciation when due. And be prepared to perform like said rockstar!

- You will have better access to footage/pictures of your career than you would ever have dancing for a unionized company.

- If you need something, you have to ask for it.

- New York is the easiest and hardest place to freelance. There are more gigs per capita, which are easily accessible, but most freelancers can't afford to live comfortably on dancing itself in Manhattan, let alone any other safe neighborhood in a different borough

- Some gigs will be horribly unprofessional. Try your best to complete your duties, but don't forget to respect and protect yourself. If you feel like conditions are unsafe, speak up. If you are not getting paid on time/correctly, make the employer very aware that this practice is not acceptable. Be sure to document all of these activities to protect yourself.

- Integrity is everything.

- The internet is your best friend. Along with Google. Go on the search engine, think of a place you want to visit, add the word ballet at the end, and unabashedly email. (I want to visit Atlanta and I love to dance. Google: Atlanta Ballet. Obviously, you will get Atlanta Ballet, but keep searching. Then, email these companies that you are available for work. Before you know it, you could be traveling to Atlanta to work).

- One of the most important tools of the trade are your freelancing friends. Not only can these friends pass work along to you if they are unavailable, but they know exactly what it is like to be a freelance dancer. Nothing beats the support and advice of a friend that has been through exactly what you may be going through.

- Most professional dancers are the same around the world. Amazingly talented and slightly insecure. No matter the front they put up, they really just want to be accepted. Also, nearly all pros really know how to have a good time.


Why "Nutcracker" season is so important

It's mid-August, hot, humid, and not one leaf has changed from green to red. Earlier this week, I was sitting on my couch, shirtless, sweating to save a few bucks by leaving our A/C off when, within 30 minutes, I received a work related phone call and email checking my December availability. Even the heat of summer can't melt the flurry of action towards kicking off yet another Nutcracker season. I would like to pretend that it is not going to happen, but in all honesty, this holiday classic is the most important time of the year for me and most other freelancers.

I have been performing the dreadtastic Nutcracker since I was "Fritz" at the age of 9. I've performed every male role possible from a mouse to the cavalier to "Drosselmeyer." For 8 years, dancing with big companies, I performed between 38 and 45 shows of this production a season (not including tech/dress rehearsals). I've progressed from love to excitement, to misery, delirium, and plain apathy over this production. Although Nutcracker is far from the most thrilling time of my freelancing season, like it is for most professional companies, it is a lifeline to survival over the rest of the year.

I can't name one major ballet company in the US that doesn't perform Nutcracker annually. This quintessential holiday classic is the "bread and butter" of most companies, funding dancer salaries and repertory productions for the rest of the season. Millions of people have made Nutcracker as much a tradition as watching the Macy's Thanksgiving day parade, Black Friday, and watching A Christmas Story on TBS on Christmas day. This tradition may be confusing for many, but it is the biggest breadwinner by far for most, if not all, companies. Not surprisingly, this marketing gem has trickled down to schools, film productions, and beyond. Demand for dancers explodes and this is where freelancers come in.

When I danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet, we usually started preparing for Nut around mid-November. This gave us about a week and a half before we were onstage. The first year any dancer prepares this Nutcracker is always daunting. Every year after that is old-shoe (unless learning a new part). I was quite surprised this past June when I received my first phone call for Nutcracker season. We hadn't even reached the peak of summer and the ballet world was already channeling Christmas. Though I'm not completely booked for Nutcracker yet, I already know what my November to Christmas looks like. Ridiculously busy.

Like ballet companies, Nutcracker season is necessary for the survival of freelancers. Where a dancer may receive a smaller salary during other parts of the season, they can make more than double that during Nut. This season can allow a dancer to pay off that credit card they use to pay for classes, save for taxes they couldn't put away because they needed the cash for rent, put away for some down-time to rest their body, or to take a desperately needed (and rarely afforded) vacation. When work can be scarce and harder to find during other periods, throughout this season there is often such demand for dancers that they need to reach out to their freelancing network to help companies and schools fill their casts. For part-time freelancers that have full-time company jobs, this period can be a chance to try out plum roles that they wouldn't get to dance with their home companies.

Nutcracker season can get old and repetitive for dancers, but this production has inspired many of us and many future dancers to start training. The ballet world is lucky to have this over-polished gem to assist us throughout the year. With its charm and cheer, it makes the holiday season the most lucrative time of the year for freelancers. Honestly, without Nutcracker, American ballet may very well be dead. And without the benefits that it brings to freelancers, most of us would not be able to survive for much of the year without it.


Experience Post - "Works & Process" @ the Guggenheim - Avi Scher & Dancers

Performing IT MAKES ME NERVOUS by Avi Scher (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
It's really hard to perform freelancing work when you are dancing on contract for 40 weeks. For this reason, I didn't do much outside work while dancing with big companies. When word started to get out that I would not be returning during my last season with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I received a few facebook messages and emails from people to see if the news was true. One of those people was an old friend of mine, Avi Scher. He checked in to see if there was the possibility that I would be available to work in October. Lucky enough for me, I was.

Avi and I first met during our final year of training at the School of American Ballet. He had been training at the school since he was a young child. He even got to perform as Fritz in New York City Ballet's Nutcracker. Since Avi grew up in New York City, he had always lived at home. Being his final year of training, he chose to really immerse himself in the SAB experience. Although he lived only a few blocks away from the school, Avi moved into the dorms and into one of the rooms in my suite. We were in the same class and we got to know each other during that time, but he left mid-year to spread his wings down at the Miami City Ballet school. Avi has had a varied dance career, dancing as a company member and freelancer with many companies across the country. Though he has enjoyed a stellar dance career, he has also received much acclaim for his skills as a choreographer. He choreographed while at SAB and while moving around the country dancing. Eventually, he slowed down his dance career to focus on choreography and start Avi Scher & Dancers. His company has become best known for bringing in stars of American companies and mixing them with excellent-quality dancers from around the country, while still offering evenings of dance at an affordable price.

Although Avi Scher & Dancers didn't produce the evening of work I would dance in, he had been asked by the Guggenheim Museum to create for their regular educational series Works & Process. This specific series was dedicated to the music of Elliott Carter. The Guggenheim had a pretty fascinating idea to procure an evening of new choreography to his music with two choreographers creating dance on the same piece of music. Emery Lecrone and Avi both offered their choreographic voice while a moderator posed questions and offered the audience to get involved in discussion prior, inbetween, and after the performances. It was a pretty great concept.

 Avi Scher's IT MAKES ME NERVOUS (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
Around the middle of September, I came up to New York to begin preparing this project. Although Avi and I stayed connected through social networking sites and word of mouth over the years, we hadn't seen each other or chatted much since we left SAB, aside from a random, awkward pass-by as he got off a plane I was about board (I had taken an anticipatory sleeping pill for the 6 hour flight and was moderately incoherent). It was great to catch up and to get to know each other as adults. But for the most part, we had to get down to business since we only had about 2 weeks to create/learn choreography to the 6 movements of music. Not only were we short on time, but the music presented challenges. Elliott Carter did not create a typical piece of orchestrated music. The composition was atonal, plucky, and extremely complex to count. This presented a few problems. Obviously, it was difficult to count. It was also difficult to choreograph to and equally difficult to listen to for extended periods of time. I enjoy choreographing as well, but I really give Avi credit for creating his work, IT MAKES ME NERVOUS, to this music. I would have a hard time finding much inspiration in this particular work. Somehow, Avi was able to make it work and created an interesting work that was quite well-received and enjoyable to dance. In fact, Oberon's Grove said, "IT MAKES ME NERVOUS made me want a second look in order to take in all the visual polyphony."

The cast of Avi Scher's IT MAKES ME NERVOUS
Aside from dancing on an important stage in the world of dance education, the best part of this entire experience was getting the opportunity to spend an extended period of time in New York. After spending 8 years away from the east coast, while living in Houston and Seattle, I felt like I had lost many of my dance connections. Aside from getting to reconnect with Avi and meeting the amazing dancers/new friends that were a part of this project, I also had the opportunity to reconnect with a great part of the dance world that I left behind when I moved across the country. I remember the first day that I returned to Steps on Broadway to get warmed up for rehearsal. I must have run into at least 10 people that I hadn't seen in anywhere from 1 to 10 years within minutes of arriving. For this reason, I call Steps the "Cheers of the ballet world." Being so far away and isolated from the core of the dance world for 8 years, I was pretty positive that most people had forgotten who I was or that I even existed. It was exhilarating, rewarding, and heartwarming to see that I still had this great connection with so many great friends and dancers even after such a long hiatus. This experience was a great homecoming. Not only did I have this wonderful dance experience, but I also had a wonderful life experience. Sometimes, living the life of a freelance dancer can be full of great surprises and rewards.


Freelancing her way to a company contract - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Casey Taylor

Performing Western Symphony by George Balanchine (photo: Rex Tranter)
 I'm very excited for this next post. Recently, I asked Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Apprentice, Casey Taylor, to write a post about her story as a freelancer. Casey's story is unique. Unlike most talented dancers that come out of the country's leading ballet schools, she didn't get a full-time company contract or move on from ballet to pursue non-ballet passions. I was pretty surprised that she wasn't offered a job with Pacific Northwest Ballet, considering her strength and versatility. Even though she didn't get a job with any company during her audition year, she really had immense drive and will to find full-time work.

I first saw Casey during my 6th season with PNB. She came into the school with the ideal PNB look, long and tall. Her feet and legs are beautifully shaped and she has great versatility in style. Most Professional Division students at PNBS spend two years in the program. These students don't often get recognized by company members until their second year in the program. For some reason, most of the company knew who Casey was by Nutcracker time her first year in the school. During her second year in the school, she really exploded in confidence and strength as a student. It was quite obvious that she would easily find a job. But hard economic times and her height may have worked against her. Still, Casey pushed on to succeed as a professional dancer. We shared a few facebook conversations, filled with advice and words of encouragement during the year-long period before she was offered a job with PBT. Read below to hear about Casey's freelancing experiences and how they eventually led her to get that company contract she had always dreamed of getting.

Performing A Piece in P-I-E-C-E-S 
 by Kiyon Gaines (photo: Rex Tranter)
My gigs all came about in different fashions. In Dresden, I was sent over as part of an exchange program put in place between the schools affiliated with Pacific Northwest Ballet and Dresden Semperoper Ballet. I was finishing up my second and final year in the professional division at PNBS and was offered the opportunity to spend a month in Dresden with the company. I was unaware until I got to Germany that I would be performing "Swan Lake" with the company. It was a great surprise. One of their corps dancers had recently gotten injured and I was available and was asked to fill her place in the white swan corps. I performed in four shows while I was there.
For my job as a guest performer in Pennsylvania Ballet’s "The Nutcracker," I contacted the company myself to see if they had openings in the corps that they needed to fill. I heard from other dancers that I met in Dresden and from friends currently dancing with Pennsylvania Ballet, that the company usually hires out extra dancers for "The Nutcracker." So, I contacted the assistant to the artistic director and arranged an audition. A few weeks after I auditioned, I was informed I was hired.
Lastly, I finished out my freelancing season with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Pittsburgh is my home, so it was where I was living (at my parents house) inbetween jobs. I returned home in January after finishing Nutcracker and was taking class at the studios to stay in shape until I found my next gig. One day the artistic director asked me to meet with him. He offered me a contract for the remainder of the season to fill an extra contract space that was left vacant by a dancer who was too injured to finish out the season and retired.

Fooling around in Dresden, Germany
My experiences were nothing short of fantastic! My time in Dresden is something I will never forget because it was such a different way of living and working. In America, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) mandates the number of hours per day dancers can work and how often they are required to have a break; every hour there is a 5-minute break. In Europe, there was no such thing. The rehearsals would sometimes go two or three hours with no break. Another aspect I wasn’t used to was the limited amount of rehearsal time we had to put Swan Lake together. European companies usually have three or four programs that they will perform on and off for a few months at a time. This means that rehearsals can be quite varied and not often. Before I stepped onstage as a swan, we had run the ballet non-stop only one or two times (As opposed to the week or two of full-length rehearsals I was accustomed to in the US). This meant that I really had to be much more focused and use time on my own to go over things and solidify the steps and counts. It taught me to be very independent and take control of the situation, which included rehearsing and reviewing the material myself. I was responsible for making sure I was comfortable enough to go out and perform because there weren’t weeks of rehearsals to lock it into my muscle memory. As a side note, I had a wonderful time living in Germany and getting to experience the different culture and leading a more European lifestyle.
Harrison Monaco & Casey on tour with PA Ballet in Ottawa
In Philadelphia, I had a much different experience. I was back in America, living in my best friend’s apartment, and dancing a ballet that I have performed nearly every year of my life. The only loophole was that I had to learn all new choreography. I arrived in Philadelphia a little over a month before performances were to begin and right away was in rehearsals learning my new roles. The rehearsals were back to the structure that I was accustomed to, so I knew what to expect and what was expected of me. I learned and performed three different "corps de ballet" roles. One of the most exciting parts of my gig with the Pennsylvania Ballet was touring with the company to perform "The Nutcracker" in Ottawa, Canada. It really helped me bond with my new “family” of dancers and also get the experience of what it is like to go on tour with a ballet company.
It is hard for me to think of my few months last season with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as a gig because I am now a full member of the company. When I signed my contract for those few months of work last season, there was no promise of getting a job for the following season. But due to the combination of hard work put in to show how much I wanted a job and the availability of a contract, I was lucky enough to be offered a spot in the company! Joining the company on my own in the middle of the season was nothing short of intimidating for me. Particularly, if you take into account that I have watched this company for years while I grew up attending the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. I looked up to so many of the dancers and now I was becoming one of them. The first ballet I performed with the company was John Neumeier’s "A Streetcar Named Desire." This was the first time that PBT (or any American company) performed this ballet. John Neumeier himself, along with two assistants, came to Pittsburgh to set the ballet on the company. I must’ve made a great impression on him because, before I knew it, I was getting cast in small featured roles. This was a huge deal for me. It felt like my first time to shine and prove myself as a professional and no way was I going to let that go to waste. I used that wonderful opportunity to show that I was serious and how much I wanted that contract for the next season. Following "Streetcar," I also performed in "Coppelia." A few weeks before the season ended, after the rest of the company returned their contracts and I had traveled around the country to several auditions, I was handed that contract I had been dreaming about. One of the happiest moments of my life. 

For the time being, my life as a freelance dancer is over. I am now an official company member of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. That’s not to say that I won’t return to freelancing one day. But, for right now, I am thrilled with where I am. For some people, making connections and branching out comes very naturally. But I don’t feel like it does to me. It has always been my dream to dance in a ballet company and work my way up through the ranks. I am so excited that I am living my dream and am still amazed every day that I am.

Casey's advice to freelance dancers: 
Don’t ever give up. If dancing is something you are truly passionate about, be sure you make that apparent in your work ethic and artistry. People will notice. Once you begin to make yourself known and make a name for yourself, opportunities will come more easily. At times, it may seem that there are no options for work, but things can change so quickly. Be very conscious of sites that post auditions or work opportunities and don’t be afraid to reach out to fellow dancers to ask questions. We are all in this profession together. Each and every one of us knows how hard it is to get a job and you would be surprised how many dancers are more than willing to help out by giving you advice or making contacts on your behalf.


Freelancer Doesn't Mean Free

I was teaching an open class earlier this week to a handful of adult students. If I'm not rushing off to rehearsal after teaching, I usually stick around for a bit to see if any students have questions about the material from class. While hanging out after that class, a student walked up to me to mention that their friends were producing a music video and that they were looking for ballet dancers to partake in the filming. I asked about the details of project and the first thing they mentioned was, "well, they can't pay you, but it will be fun." I very politely stated that it will be hard to get a dancer of quality without any pay. My student understood, the conversation ended, and the subject for this blog was born.

Anybody who is on Facebook has seen those, what I believe are called, memes. I hate these things, but it is impossible to ignore each and every one that passes on your screen as you peruse your news feed. About a week ago, I was doing just that when one of these pre-made statements in picture form crossed my vision. That particular meme can be seen to the right. Unfortunately, this statement is often true, "I am an artist. This does not mean I will work for free." Even if it isn't completely true, artists work is way to often undervalued on a financial level. For instance, in the year 2009, according to the American Guild of Musical Artists website, New York City Ballet's leading dancers, in one of the country's highest level companies, started out making around $2300 per week (of course many other things come into play, like seniority and overtime). Just using this general amount, even if the dancers worked 52 weeks a year (which they don't), they would make $120,000 (Please keep in mind that this number is not correct and purely speculation). Now, let's look at the leading salary of players on a leading football team, like the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2009, the top 32 highest paid Eagles made more than $1,000,000 while likely working less than 52 weeks. Could you imagine somebody asking one of these players to play a game for free or to do a commercial gratis because it will be fun? It would be highly unlikely. I couldn't imagine any sane person asking this of a pro football player. So why do people assume that dancers, who already make so much less than other high-caliber athletes and artists, should just offer their years of training, pain, and fighting for perfection for relatively little or free?

Why is it so important to avoid offering your services for very little or no pay? My opinion on the subject offers many different reasons. First off, we aren't just artists. As the meme states above, we are real people with real bills and needs. It is a matter of survival. I have also found that unpaid work is usually low-caliber and can be dangerous. If a gig's director understood the work of dancers and respected them, they would provide a safe environment and sufficient compensation for their services. The biggest reason that I believe freelancers shouldn't work for free is due to the risk of injury. If a project can't afford to pay their dancers, how can they afford to ensure that conditions will be safe enough for them to dance?

Another really important reason that freelancers should avoid performing work gratis is one that I have struggled with personally. There are times when I have had as many as five offers for work during the same period. But, at other times, I have had no work lined up and felt desperate to find ways to continue feeding my hunger for artistic growth. When one is feeling desperate, they are more likely to say yes to free or very low paying work. Personally, I have found when I agree to do this type of work, I am usually disappointed with the quality of the gig and the final product. I have left rehearsals and performances feeling low and depressed, as if I had sold out. Also, if you are offering your services for nothing or close to that, you are lowering your value as a commodity. Think of that saying, "If you give away all of the milk, who wants to buy the cow?" So, even if times are tough or work is slow, I offer this advice to resist the temptation to take on free or undervalued work. It will be better for your product and even more important for your psyche.

There are a few instances where it may be appropriate to offer your services for free. If you have absolutely no professional experience, it can be positive to get performance experience on your resume. Just be sure that you are 100% aware of the expectations and requirements of your commitment. Be sure to research the gig to ensure that the producers are being honest about their notariety. Another situation that can be valuable is if the work is way out of your style. It may help you to grow greatly as an artist in a genre where you may not be qualified to seek work professionally. The last situation where I would consider working for free would be to help a close friend or a former association that greatly helped you on your path to become a person/dancer (old dance studio, school, religious institution, etc). In these situations, just be clear about what you can offer and what you need in order to avoid any issues that might sour your relationship if things don't go according to plan.

Unpaid or poorly paid work can be enticing, especially when you are having a dry spell. But there are few times that I feel one should accept this work. Maintaining your value and integrity are integral parts of marketing yourself as a freelance dancer. Respect yourself for the years of hard work you spent cultivating your technique and artistry. Not only will your product be more valuable, but you will feel better emotionally and protect your body along the way.