Making it work - My Hurricane Sandy rehearsal experience

Its been awhile since Ive really had a chance to write a serious post. I, initially, was planning on writing about how well my networking event for freelancers went, but this week got a bit crazy and I didn't get around to writing that. Instead, I ended up spending a majority of the week prepping for a hurricane and figuring out how to do my job without getting stranded or putting myself in danger. My next post will focus on my event, but for the moment everybody has got Sandy on their minds.

I took a bus home from NYC on Wednesday night last week flying high on the success of the event that my friend Bennyroyce Royon and I had thrown. My first task upon arrival was to take out the trash for our block. We save money on our rent by helping our landlord out with this chore. After lugging about five trash cans and six recycling buckets around the block, I sat down to take a rest and the news was on. NBC Philadelphia's long-time meteorologist, Glenn Hurricane Schwartz, was talking about a tropical weather system that had just developed into a hurricane. This cyclone's name was Sandy and she was about to make landfall in Jamaica. They had mentioned that the storm's track had the potential to take a turn that nobody had ever seen before. The potential danger was mentioned, but the actuality of it happening was met with a bit of skepticism.

The next day, I started solidifying plans for rehearsals with Ballet Nova near Washington, D.C. I will be performing the grand pas de deux with a student in their Nutcracker in December. Since I leave for Rochester City Ballet this coming weekend, the only time that I had to rehearse was this past Sunday - Tuesday. Things were all set for rehearsal and the forecast still seemed ridiculous. They were saying that a handful of forecasts were pushing Sandy over the Jersey shore, which meant that Philadelphia would receive the brunt of the the wind and rain from the storm. The news said that if this happened, it wouldnt happen until Tuesday evening. Still feeling skeptical about this news, I went about my business as usual; getting back in shape and enjoying some Halloween festivities.

As Friday approached, newscasters were starting to talk about this storm system more seriously. Still with a hint of skepticism, they mentioned that more and more forecast models were sending this storm right at us on a track that has never happened before with a tropical system, especially at the end of October. With all of this uncertainty and a stronger hint of potentiality, I decided it was time to be a bit more proactive with my communication with Ballet Nova. I truly feel that openness and honesty are the best way to deal with any situation and that is exactly how I approached this. I talked to the director of the school and mentioned my concern about the forecast. Being that I need about 5 days to prepare everything to leave for 5 weeks, I absolutely couldn't be stranded in DC. On top of that, if a possibly catastrophic weather event was going to affect Philadelphia, I wanted to be home to protect my partner, pets, and home. Since they were expecting the storm to hit on Tuesday evening, I suggested that we shorten the rehearsal period from 3 days to 2 days. The director was more than understanding of my concern and we decided to remain in contact and make a decision based on the following day's forecast.

When Saturday arrived, news only got worse. Sandy, now poorly noted as Frankenstorm, was really panning out to make history. And not only was she going to make history, she was going to do it a day earlier than yesterday's forecast. Newscasters were starting to make this storm sound really frightening. I fought with myself the entire day to make the right decision for my upcoming rehearsals in DC. My gut told me to completely cancel and just stick around Philly to avoid any complications or danger. But my mind told me that I had to stick with my commitments and remain professional and travel for at least the first two days of the rehearsal period. I had an unfortunate case of dancers syndrome. Even in the face of danger, I wanted to show up, do my best, and not let anybody down. In my mind, anything that wasn't exactly what we had planned on was going to disappoint my employer. Finally, as the evening approached, I made my last ditch effort to make something work out, even though I was absolutely uncomfortable with the prospect. I would take a bus down to DC, rehearse as long as necessary during the day, and take the last train back to Philly that same night. My hopes were that the storm would travel slower than forecast and that we wouldn't feel any effects until I was safely inside my apartment. I felt like I was being overly dramatic and that I was blowing things out of proportion, but in the end I needed to do what I felt I needed to do.

I woke up this past Sunday at about 7 am to get prepared for my trip. It was already raining and it was breezy outside. This didn't put me at ease. I had tried to get an earlier bus down to DC so that I could get back to Philly earlier, but all of the buses were sold out except for a 3 am and 11 pm trip. Way too many people were trying to get home before the storm hit. We jumped on the freeway and the Megabus driver gave us their run-down of emergency procedures, which now included the bus blowing over in wind or encountering flooding. We actually made our trip down to DC in good time considering the weather, but having fewer cars on the roads probably helped.

From Union Station, the director of the school picked me up and we got to know each other along the drive. Two fun pieces of information I learned driving to the school were that the school used to formerly be the Arlington Center for Dance (where I went to my very first summer program audition for Houston Ballet Academy and eventually attended that program) and that I have a handful of friends that started at that school. Once we arrived, we launched straight away into a full-blown rehearsal. I'm quite glad that I had already learned most of the choreography for the production. I was initially planning on having a nice outline of the choreography, then really digging into it for the 3-day rehearsal period. Once news of the hurricane started to get more serious, I began learning the choreography more seriously. This proved to be a smart move. We were able to fly through the rehearsal process at a fast rate and accomplish nearly as much in 4 hours that we probably wouldve done in the 9 hours I was supposed to be there.

The bread aisle at our local supermarket
Around 5 pm, I got that message that I was praying I wouldn't get. A friend emailed me and told me that all Amtrak trains had been cancelled on the Northeast corridor. We stopped rehearsal immediately and frantically searched to find out if this was true. As is normal in any situation like this hurricane, people sometimes get/give incorrect information. It wasnt clear if this was happening, but it put a fire under our butts to get me back to the station. I suggested we run the entire pas de deux one time and then run to the train station. I'm glad that we did this, as I wanted the student to be as comfortable as possible for my arrival (I dont want to forget to say that she was quite impressive). We ran the grand pas de deux and I jumped in my clothes and we flew on over to Union station. Luckily, the information I had received was incorrect and trains were still running. They had all been cancelled for the following day, but trains for that evening were still running. I was able to change my ticket to an earlier time to assure that I made it on one, as there was still potential to cancel. The train station had a frantic energy and lines were ridiculously long as people attempted to get home before the storm showed its wrath. The interesting thing, though, was that people were friendlier than usual. Perhaps, events like this make people realize the things that are more important to them. Anyway, I arrived home around 10:00 that night (looking at the departure board, I lucked out arriving earlier as trains started to get cancelled/severely delayed) and stopped by our local grocery store as they were closing (I had already been shopping days earlier, but I wanted a treat after all of the drama). I made it home safe and was able to ride out the storm with my partner.

Although the storm was not horribly scary in Philadelphia (we had winds near 70 mph and I swore the tree across the street from us was going to fall on our apartment), it did actually live up to the hype that forecasters had built it up to be. My thoughts are with all of those that suffered the most damage, especially on the Jersey coast and in New York City. For all we know, we could've seen such destruction here in Philly. I learned a few interesting lessons from Sandy this past week. When it comes to your own safety and comfort, you have to follow your gut. Nobody can truly predict what nature has in store for us. Safety comes before dance. And when it comes to your career, you have to do everything you can do to perform your job duties within reason. I feel that the openness of communication I had with the director and the odd, potentially dangerous forecast actually helped create a quicker connection between the two of us. In the end, all was fine here in Philly. A medium sized tree branch hit our building, but there wasnt any damage from it. There are leaves all over the place, as we live across the street from a park. Philly lost a lot of trees, but otherwise seemed to fare well with the storm. I feel that I really went out of my way to make this rehearsal happen and Im glad that I was willing to make it work. And now, I'll have this story to tell my grandkids.


How to make your own performance reel

I know that everybody has been patiently waiting for my next posting. Writing a blog has been on the back burner while I have been preparing my freelancer networking event, CONTACT. Since I have accomplished many of the tasks that I needed to get done, including obtaining some door prizes from some very important dance institutions, I can finally focus on this blog again. What better way to get the ball rolling than to write about one of the most important tools for every freelancer: How to make your own performance reel.

It took me months of research, preparation, and work to finally master the art of creating my own performance reel. The first and, sometimes, hardest step of creating your own reel is obtaining and then choosing video clips that show your strengths, technique, versatility, and artistry. At the beginning of your dance career, you may not have very much footage. If you need extra footage, grab a friend and a video camera (handheld camcorder, phone, Ipad, computer, etc) and dance a work in the style that you are trying to show off (whether it be a variation, your own choreography, or something you learned off youtube). If you dance for an AGMA company, it can be very difficult to obtain footage. For instance, in Pacific Northwest Ballet's contract, each dancer is only allotted 30 minutes of footage during their career with the company and 30 more minutes upon their departure from the company (this is very little if you have danced in multiple full-length ballets). Not only that, but if any footage is over 3 minutes in length, there is a required 3 second blackout. This all probably sounds really weird, but it is in place to protect the choreographer's work. If you have been freelancing for awhile or have worked for non-union companies, access to footage of yourself may be easier to obtain. I am always quite aggressive in getting footage of myself dancing wherever I perform, as I like to have an array of options to choose from.

I apologize in advance to everybody that owns a PC, as I'm a Mac. At some point in the future, I may have a guest blogger write the same version of this blog for PC owners. But for the time being, I will be instructing all of you how to make a reel on a Mac. The first step to creating your reel is to get your dance footage from a DVD to your Mac. First, you need to check if your computer has a DVD-burner. If it does, then your computer is capable of pulling footage off of a DVD. Unfortunately, most computers dont arrive with software to help you pull, or "rip," footage off of a DVD. Dont worry! You can easily obtain free software online to perform this operation. I personally use the program Handbrake (Click this link to download). Once you've downloaded the software, put your DVD in and open up Handbrake. It will bring up a search window. Click on the DVD under devices and choose the video file you would like to put on your computer. Let Handbrake do its thing and determine the length of the file. Once the application is completed, under "file" you should rename your file to something specific that will allow you to remember what the footage is. Be sure not to change the file type at the end. (For instance, if it says "file:/users/joeschmoe/movies/midsummers.mp4," you would only change "file:/users/joeschmoe/movies/barrykerollispuck.mp4"). Then, click start. This process will happen at nearly the same speed that the footage you are ripping runs.

Now that you ripped the footage off of your DVD onto your computer, you are ready to start piecing together your reel. You are going to create the reel with the IMovie application that comes pre-installed on your computer. Open up the application and click on "file." Under "file" you will scroll down to "import," then "movies." When you click on "movies," find the folder where you placed your footage and select that. It will take a period of time for IMovie to import into and convert your video for the application. I usually try to do something off my computer during this time, as going online or using other aspects of the computer slows down this process. After the footage has loaded into the program, click on "file" again and scroll down to "new project." After you name the project (which should be something anybody can see because if you burn a DVD sometimes it embeds this name onto the title of the DVD). From here, I like to begin with a basic pen and paper list of pieces that I feel show me off best. From there, I watch the footage again and, if something appeals to me, I add the entirety of that clip to the project. You can do this by clicking the mouse on the spot of the clip in the lower half of the screen. A yellow box will appear and you can move the edges, like an accordian, around to encase that clip. After you have encased the clip, click and drag the yellow box to the top half and drop the clip in the "projects" box. I always go through all of the clips I like and drop them in the "projects" box first. If you do this first, you will see the total length of all of the clips and be better informed as to how much footage you need to cut.

Now that you can see how much footage you have, you need to determine a reasonable length of time to make the clip. Sometimes, you are given a specific length for a specific audition/project. Most of the time, it is up to the dancer to determine the proper length of their reel. My general reel is a little over 7 1/2 minutes, but I have made other specific reels, like my video audition for Newsies (which I have reluctantly placed below this paragraph...note...I have very little vocal training) that have been shorter. Some people have told me that the length of my performance reel is a little too long, but I did my best to front-load the reel with what I feel are my strongest roles and show the most diversity in the event that a potential employer gets bored and closes out the video. When paring down footage, I sometimes try to get an outside opinion (and not someone who danced the piece or family, as they are attached in similar ways) of the clips that I have chosen, as it can sometimes be difficult to determine great footage. Often, dancers have an emotional attachment to certain pieces. Even though it may not be the best footage of you, it is hard to detach from how you felt while you were performing the piece. I often go through the entirety of the clips in the project box multiple times and slowly delete or downsize clips that I don't feel belong in the reel or that I feel already have a better representation in the reel.

Since you have pared down the clips to a reasonable length, it is time to start linking your clips together. Start ordering your clips. I prefer to use a clip of my dancing that is very strong, but not my strongest for the first clip. If you give away everything at the beginning, then everything following that will look weak. Don't leave your strongest clip for last or even the middle, but put it somewhere near the beginning in case the potential employer loses interest early. Don't lump one style of dance at the beginning and another at the end. Mix the clips up by double clicking the clip and dragging and dropping them around the "project" box. I would suggest keeping the clips at less than a minute each. Maybe a classical variation at the beginning, a contemporary piece second, some partnering third, and then another variation after that.

Now that you have developed some type of order to the clips, it is time to start linking the footage together. In between the upper "project" box and the lower "event library" box is a light gray toolbar. Look all the way to the right, the second little box from the right that looks like an hour-glass (or four opposing triangles with two being light gray and the other two dark gray) will assist you in creating smooth transitions between clips. There are a variety of "transitions" that can be used between clips. Play with these transitions and see what you like. I find the most professional transitions, which I use most often, are "cross dissolve," "cross blur," and "cross zoom." Once you determine your choice, click and drag the transition style that you would like to use up to the "project" box and place it between two separate clips. Once placed, you can double click the tiny transition box and change the duration of the clip. There is a lot of trial-and-error in this process. At times, things can get glitchy as well. Just stick with it and be patient.

The next step in the process of creating a great performance reel is to add a title box to introduce the clip, end credits to close it out, and subtitles if you feel they are necessary (my current reel doesn't have subtitles, as I figured it out after I created it). The "titles" area is one box over to the left of the transitions section with a capitol "T". Again, peruse the array of options and choose what suits you best. Like the transitions, click and drag whatever you want to introduce your reel at the beginning of the clips. You can adjust the background once you drop the box into the "project" area. Then, the screen to the right of the project will allow you to add text. For the introduction, I usually keep it simple and just put my name along with the words "performance reel." When I auditioned for Newsies, I typed in my name and "auditioning for the role of newsie." Your intention for this reel should determine the text. Then, at the end, I go through this same process and add my name and the best way to contact me (I put my email since that seems safest). If you only have a few clips, you can put the name of the piece and the choreographer. That is unless, you want to add those into the clip.

I am cautious about adding the names of the pieces or the name of the choreographer directly into the reel, as for a moment of time, it covers up a part of the screen and distracts from your dancing. But, if you would like to do this, you can achieve this by going back to the "titles" section of the program. The bottom two rows here can all be placed on top of a clip. Click and drag, for instance, "gradient-white" and place it on top of the beginning of the clip you would like to have a subtitle pop up on. Once you have dropped this box on the clip, a small box will appear that allows you to type in text. As usual, you can adjust the length of time by double clicking.

Now that you have created your entire reel, you need to either post it to youtube, another site, or create a DVD. Creating a DVD is another story, so I will save that for another post. Sharing your reel on the internet is streamlined by IMovie. Go to the top of the screen and click on "Share" and click on youtube. Be sure that you already have an active youtube account prior to sharing with IMovie. Once you have clicked there, a screen will pop up allowing you to sign in and to format the title, description, size & quality of video, and availability to the public. Click start and IMovie will take care of the rest for you. Once it is finished downloading, you can start sending people your link, you can post it on facebook, and you can start promoting yourself without directly auditioning.

An updated performance reel is, in my opinion, the most important tool for any freelancer. It is not cost effective to fly around the country to audition for short projects and the same holds true for companies that are looking for short-term dancers. I have gotten many jobs based off of sending my information or word-of-mouth, then sending my reel to solidify the deal. If you have access to a Mac, this tutorial should help ease any computer literate person into making a strong, easy-flowing performance reel. Stay tuned in the future for a tutorial on how to turn your reel into a DVD.


Exciting News from "Life of a Freelance Dancer"

Me performing my own choreography in the Philly Fringe Fest - Gated Lies (Photo: Bill Hebert)

I have some exciting news to announce. When I started this blog a few months ago, I never really expected to get the response and feedback that I have been getting from our community of freelance dancers. Listening to my personal network of friends and freelancers, I have realized that there is a great need for support, connection, and resources in our community. For these reasons, I have decided to host (with my dear friend and fellow freelancer, Bennyroyce Royon, co-hosting) CONTACT: A networking event connecting freelance dancers. Not only will this be a great opportunity to get to know our community, but there will also be great door-prizes that will be invaluable to any freelance dancer. I wish we could hold this event in every city that freelancers exist in, but for the moment we will have to settle for our dance capitol. So, if you are in NYC on October 22nd and available between 7-10 PM, please send me a message through this blog or at BKerollis@yahoo.com and I will send you all of the details you need to RSVP for this event. Since there is limited space, we do ask that only freelancers with one or more years of professional experience attend. Hope to see my fellow freelance dancers there!


Ashlee Dupre - NY-based Musical Theatre Freelance Artist

Ashlee Dupre performing in Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out
I spent years training in famed institutions like the School of American Ballet and the Kirov Academy of Ballet (KAB) and beyond. As time has passed, many of my friends, peers, and colleagues have gone on to dance from major ballet companies to contemporary projects to So You Think You Can Dance. Oddly enough, very few of my friends have crossed over into the genre of musical theatre. One exception to that rule would be my friend and former KAB classmate, Ashlee Dupre. As a ballet student, Ashlee had these amazingly steely muscles that propelled her dancing. Something else I learned while training with her was that she also had a huge personality. I have only seen Ashlee dance one time since we graduated from KAB. In 2006, we were both hired to dance in First State Ballet Theatre's annual (and now defunct) Arabesque Festival. We didn't know that we were both hired to perform in this gala until we showed up onstage. Even though we have only seen each other this one time since school, we have always kept up with each other on Facebook. Ashlee is currently working in the Off-Broadway smash-hit Silence! The Musical. Read on to hear what it is like to freelance in the New York musical theatre scene.

Ashlee Dupre
I started dancing at a young age. My mother owned a dance studio. At 13, I was accepted into the Kirov Academy of Ballet, where I finished out all of high school. Right after finishing school, I booked my first job with Colorado Ballet as a corps de ballet member. During my time with the company, I realized that I wasn’t very happy doing just ballet. I felt limited in my movement. I decided to move to NYC the following year. 
Ashlee performing at the Kirov Academy of Ballet

While living in the city, I continued auditioning for various ballet companies. In an audition for Vienna Staatsoper Ballet, out of 200 women I made it to the final four. Alas, I did not make it into the company. Soon after, I became interested in musical theater. My sister got me into it. She encouraged me to audition for the national tour of Movin' Out, Twyla Tharp's musical. 

I had seen the show on Broadway and fell in love with it. Elizabeth Parkinson originated the female lead. She is my idol! The audition process was soooooo long. I seemed to be doing great, though. In the auditions for the show, Twyla would use me to demonstrate combinations. There were about 4 callbacks. In the final one, she announced the cast and I was a part of it!
Ashlee w/Adam Dulin-Tavares in Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out
My role was in the ensemble, but I also understudied both female principal roles. During the 2nd year of the tour, I was promoted to play both principal roles (Brenda 4x a week and Judy 2x a week) in our shows. I can honestly say, if my career ended today, I would be satisfied because I danced my dream role, Brenda! 

When the tour closed, I got back to auditioning and soon landed a role in a new musical choreographed and directed by Lynne Taylor Corbett in China. That’s when I joined the union, Actors Equity. I had speaking lines and had to sing in the production. I found out that I could sing, which opened doors for me. When I returned to NY, of course, I had to continue auditioning. I also started taking voice lessons. I would go to every audition on the Actors Equity website that I could possibly do. I finally got another job, Phantom of the Opera, in Las Vegas. That was incredibly exciting! I felt like I could actually make a career for myself in musical theater. 

It was tough living in Vegas. Even though I was working, I still had to look for my next gig. That’s the thing with musical theater, your job can end before it even begins. I am constantly auditioning. I would fly back and forth from Vegas to NY for invited calls. When Phantom finished I was back in NY. I went to Elizabeth Parkinson and Scott Wise's musical theater summer program as a chaperone, but was able to take all of the classes offered. It was such a wonderful opportunity because I got to network with some amazing people. And I landed my next gig, Where’s Charley?, in the Encores! program at City Center because of it. I was the featured dancer in the program. I LIVED!!! 

A couple months after that ended, I received a Facebook message to join the cast of Silence! The Musical. And here I am today, a working dancer, singer,  and actress in NYC. It is incredibly hard to be a part of this business. It takes a toll on your emotions and body. But in the end, it's absolutely worth it. I learn new things everyday and I'm so grateful to be where I am today.

Ashlee's Advice for Freelancers: "Networking is one of the many challenges of a freelance dancer. It is so important. I have found that half the gigs I have ever done were because someone recommended me. Always be kind and open, you never know who you're talking to or who's listening. Of course, stay true to yourself."