In the spirit of the holidays - Part 2 (12 of my favorite moments)

Smedley St in south Philly
For the second installation of my In the spirit of the holidays blog series, I will be sharing a collection inspired by the 12 Day of Christmas. In the spirit of this holiday, I am offering up 12 of my favorite moments while freelancing this year. I'm not really sure why there are 12 days of Christmas in the song (they never taught that in Hebrew school), but what the hell! Here we go!

Rehearsing Othello with PNB soloist Lindsi Dec
1. Dancing Cassio's solo/duet with Iago in Alaska Dance Theatre's Othello. Beyond the fact that Gillmer Duran created this piece on former OBT principal Artur Sultanov and me, he asked for a lot of personal input, making this creation a meaningful collaboration. I've been known to dive into a character, but I have rarely been given the opportunity to portray a character dealing with great internal struggle. Everytime I left the stage at the end of this solo/duet, I felt like I had walked offstage not as an image of Shakespeare's character, but as Cassio himself.

2. Having the opportunity to dance as a principal guest artist with Rochester City Ballet in Leverett's The Nutcracker. I have danced the grand pas de deux in The Nutcracker multiple times with schools as a guest artist, but never with a professional company. Throughout my career, I sat in the wings in my Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Marzipan costumes watching other dancers who had the opportunity to perform along with live orchestra to this iconic piece of music with balconies of theatre-goers falling into the holiday spirit. This was my first time performing the grand pas while leading a company of professionals. On top of that, I got to reconnect with an old friend, Jessie Tretter, whom I had met nearly ten years ago when I was an apprentice with Houston Ballet and she was in the academy. All-around an incredible experience!

3. Being accepted into people's homes as if I was a part of their family. Two of my favorite experiences this year happened far away from home. Anchorage first, then Providence. I had many great host family experiences this year, but these two topped the cake. I was nervous to spend 5 weeks in Anchorage, let alone in a strangers house. This was my first time spending more than a week or so in somebody's space. My Alaska host's were kind, generous, and, most importantly, spatially aware. They gave me a warm home, great conversation, and plenty of space to feel like I had my privacy. My Providence host family didn't know it, but they came into my life just when I needed them. I had recently experienced a great loss and was desperately in need of support and a nurturing environment. We spent so many hours sitting around the kitchen sharing stories, debating topics, and just being familial. My host mother was an amazing chef, my host father was such a gentle spirit, and my host sister was too witty to pass up on a conversation. Her adopted big brother is proud of her progress at the Joffrey Ballet's trainee program since her graduation weeks after I left.

Driving down the streets of Anchorage
4. Moose, glaciers, and 140 inches of snow (all-time record breaking snow). Freelancing brought me many places this past year. I left PNB in part because I wanted to see more of the world while performing. I haven't made it anywhere international quite yet, but getting to dance in Alaska was like visiting another country. I think I took nearly 1,000 photos during my 5 weeks in the last great frontier. When I tell people I went to Alaska in January, most people cringe. My words…Don't knock it til you try it! I had such an amazing experience in Alaska. Yes, the sun was out for about 5 hours, but by the time I left, it was out for nearly 8 hours. Yes, it was -15 degrees the first day I arrived, but other days it was nearly 40. Beyond the dancing, Alaska was just an all-around warm experience!

5. Getting to visit NYC dozens of times. I was raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia. By the time I was 15, I was taking the train to NYC regularly to take classes. By the time I was 18, I was living and training at the School of American Ballet. Once I moved to Houston, then even further to Seattle, my love affair with New York was put on hold. After a year or two in Seattle, I started to miss NYC more than you could imagine. Not only did I miss the city and it's energy, but I missed the connections and the feeling of community in the dance scene. Now that I am living in Philly again (in the city this time), I can easily decide on Friday that I want to go into the city on Saturday, buy a cheap bus ticket, and make a spontaneous trip to my second home.

My first time at the Boston Opera House
6. Getting to see Boston Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada for the first time. I am not the kind of person to arrive in a new place and sit on my ass. If you bring me to Paris, Im gonna go see London, too. I have always wanted to see both of these companies perform live. I have seen the dancers of Boston Ballet, as I took company class there and was offered a contract to dance with Boston Ballet 2 (I took a corps contract with PNB instead). Surprisingly, I never got to see the company dance. My friend, James Whiteside (former BB principal, current ABT soloist, and JBdubs by night) was able to get me tickets to see the company perform in Don Quixote. Since I was only an hour train ride away in Providence, I was able to see the company dance. It was a very special performance for me, as Misa Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio danced the leads. Misa was my partner in our workshop performance at the School of American Ballet (I hadn't seen her dance live since) and Jeffrey is the brother of my friend, BB principal, and LOFD guest blogger, Lia Cirio (he was also promoted backstage to principal at the conclusion of this performance). I also got to see many friends that I have trained and danced with over the years perform. As for NBOC, the company has always had an air of mystery to me. You always hear about how amazing the company is, but most people I know have never seen these foreigners dancers. While dancing with Rochester City Ballet, Jessie was able to get free passes for us to see a dress rehearsal of Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Not only have I been dying to see the company, but I have also been dying to see this production. We barely made it to the show in time, but after a 4-hour jaunt across the border we got to see this luxurious production. The company definitely lived up to its' expectations and the production was amazing. I also got to reconnect with another old friend from my time in Houston Ballet, Mcgee Maddox (currently a first soloist with the company).

7. Throwing my networking event for freelancers, Contact. I am relatively new to freelancing, only having entered this world full-time back in April. I have learned a lot quickly and grown my network just as quick. One thing I realized as I started getting in the flow of this blog was that people were starting to look up to me for my knowledge, experience, and clout. After I recognized this, I decided that I wanted to do something about it. Along with my good friend, Bennyroyce Royon, we were able to put together an extremely successful event, in two weeks no less.

Dan at Niagara Falls on our day trip from Rochester
8. Getting to bring my partner along with me to share in my new experiences. My partner, Dan, and I have been together for quite some time (it will be 7 years come January). He has been so amazingly supportive of my career since we got together. So much that he quit his job, picked up our life, and moved across the country for it. Little did we expect that moving across the country would eventually mean that I wouldn't always be working in one place. But still he has been beyond supportive the entire time. One of the best parts about me traveling so much is that I often take him along with me for some time. He came for a handful of days to Anchorage, Providence, and Rochester. So, not only do I get to see the world, but I get to bring him along for the ride, as well.

9. Dancing the La Esmeralda and Le Corsaire pas de deux in a gala. I hadn't performed a classical pas de deux onstage since 2006 when Mara Vinson (former PNB principal) and I danced the Don Quixote pas de deux in First State Ballet Theatre's Arabesque Festival gala. While dancing at PNB, my rep of leading roles mostly consisted of contemporary works. By the time I had left, I truly believed that I couldn't perform a classical pas de deux well (variations included). Well, I proved myself wrong with these performances. Now, when approached with classical work, I gladly say sure, instead of doubting myself with a demure yes.

10. Connecting with, sharing, and collaborating with amazing artists. One of the reasons I left PNB was because I felt greatly isolated from the dance world. There were great artists in the company and a few in the dance scene, but there was also a level of social climbing and social class in the small network of dancers. Beyond my event, moving to Philly and being in NYC a lot have given me great opportunities to network. The dancers are more open to wildly intriguing (sometimes bordering on nuts) possibilities. But beyond the dancers of the mid-atlantic/northeastern dance scene, those that I met at my gigs really inspired me to think in the box, out of the box, and wherever that next step is outside of that out of the box.

My very first partner, Katie Moorhead & I reconnecting at Contact
11. On the flip side from #10, reconnecting with so many old friends. Not only did I get to dance with an old friend from Houston in my travels, but I reconnected with so many more along the way. From people that I trained with to my first dance partner to teachers and people that I lived with in a dormitory, I can't even count the number of people with whom I have had the chance to reconnect. This right here has been more valuable than most of the experiences I have had in my career.

12. Creating this blog. I used to blog when I was a member of Myspace. I was in my early 20's and experiencing a lot of new things in life. I guess you could say I was a little dramatic. Well, I blogged openly about whatever I was feeling. I got a lot of criticism for it, but over a year or so I wrote over 400 blogs and had about 20,000 views. I have been meaning to start a blog again ever since Myspace exploded with spam and I quit the network, but I couldn't find the inspiration. Finally, I found something that inspires me enough to write about regularly. Since I started this blog in my Providence host family's window seat in April, it has received nearly 7,500 views, been shared by another publication, gotten me work, and inspired me to move this resource from the internet to a public place where freelancers can connect with one another.

With that said, I would like to wish each and every one of you a wonderful holiday season. And thank you to all of you who regularly read my blog! This blog is my pride and joy and I can't wait to continue writing for you in the coming year! Cheers! L'chaim!


In the spirit of the holidays - Part 1 (8 wild moments)

Chanukkah bush and the Jewish nutcracker my mom made me
 In the spirit of the holidays, I have decided to make two lists. This first list is written in the spirit of Chanukkah. Being a secular super Jew (maybe that is an exaggeration),  I am quite aware that the Festival of Lights is well past, but lets keep the celebration going. In honor of the 8 days and nights that the oil burnt bright, I am posting 8 wild moments I experienced while freelancing this year from Philadelphia to Alaska and all the way back to South Carolina.

Super Jew???
1.  One of my wildest experiences while freelancing this year happened while dancing with Alaska Dance Theatre in Anchorage. I was set to dance on live television for Alaska LIVE with Bernadette. About 30 minutes prior to airing across the state, I rehearsed a solo that I performed as Cassio in Othello. Nobody noticed that I rehearsed facing the wrong direction. When my live segment was coming up, they finally realized that they had told me to face the wrong way. The new space was very odd and I was dancing on concrete. Let's just say I winged the whole thing very well.

2. During class at one of my gigs, a dancer sprained her ankle. The director leapt out of their office and said, "You will hate me for this, but you must grab a belt, put in your mouth, stand up, go to barre, and do 100 tendues with sprained ankle. NOW GO!" Let's just say I about died and had to leave the room. (PLEASE DON'T DO THIS!)

3. Three words - Disco search lights during the Sugar Plum variation. While I'm on Nutcracker...performing at a mega church, the addition of English, Italian, and a love pas de deux between Clara and Drosselmeyer, the spilling of dry ice onstage and instead of cleaning it up immediately raising the curtain, a drill team of ridiculously talented gingerbabies, instead of the curtain falling after bows Gangnam Style starts playing and the whole cast does the entire dance, and performing 3 shows of Chinese and 15 shows as the Cavalier.

On set - Itchiest beard ever!
4. During class onstage, a chipmunk snuck onstage through an open stage door. It ran amok around and through dancers feet for about 5 minutes. Never heard little girls scream so loud!

5. I swore I'd never mention this, but in the name of fun and good humor, performing in a dance film that was essentially Nutcracker mixed with Alice in Wonderland and a hint of Little Drummer Boy on acid. Think techno-Nutcracker music with elephants screaming in the background in the month of July. Shhhhhh...don't tell anyone I was ever in it!

6. Performing an open rehearsal in New York City at the 3-room studio/home of the 95 year old choreographer. Dressing room = pantry, lobby = bedroom/dining room, dance studio = dance studio.

Preparing for the live taping
7. After performing my solo on Alaska LIVE with Bernadette (#1 on this list), I immediately sat down to be interviewed live by Bernadette herself. When I sat in my stool, it immediately collapsed while somehow landing on the pole that held the seat up. I was able to balance the seat without it falling by squeezing my legs and pushing down as hard as I could. I did this for the entirety of the 4-minute interview. Lets just say that the crew applauded me when we went to commercial and my legs killed me for days afterwards.

8. Jumping into Neopolitan in Swan Lake with about 2 minutes notice that the original dancer had injured themselves at the end of the first act. Then the staff realizing there was nobody to perform my other part. I performed both parts in every show.

Stay tuned for a 12 days of Christmas inspired post in this 2-part blog series!


Surviving Nutcracker - Act like a professional, Think like a student

Jessica Tretter and me performing the Grand pas de deux w/ Rochester City Ballet (Photo: Kelsey Coventry)

Although it is Tuesday afternoon, today is the second day of my first two-day weekend in over a month. Time-wise, I am halfway through my Nutcracker season. Performance-wise, I am two thirds of the way through all of my shows. I have 18 shows of Cracked Christmas gloriousness this season and to be completely honest, Im ready to be finished. I am already Nutcracker-jaded from my 7 seasons with PNB, often dancing in more than 40 performances from Black Friday to New Year's Eve. Although, 18 shows is nothing compared to my time in Seattle, the main difference is that I am/have performed the leading male role (Cavalier) in 15 of 18 performances. That is a lot of dancing, partnering, warming up, choreography, etc. With the stress of all these factors, a handful of people have asked me how I keep it together during this time of the year. It is as simple as changing my professional mindset.

Rochester City Ballet's The Nutcracker
I have been blessed with the holiday gift of numerous offerings for Nutcracker work. In fact, I have turned down gigs or passed them on to friends at least 10 times, as I have been booked since the end of October. In total, I signed to work with 4 organizations this Nutcracker season. I began my sugar-plummed journey with the honor of being hired as a "principal guest artist" with Rochester City Ballet. After 3 weeks with the company, I flew back to Philly for less than a day and took a train down to Arlington, VA to perform with Ballet Nova. Tomorrow morning, I will be flying down to Myrtle Beach to perform with Coastal Youth Ballet Theatre. I will finish my Nutcracker tour where it all began for me, Chester Valley Dance Academy, in Lionville, PA. Along with the blessing of work, comes the curse of a freelancer. I am not traveling with a partner. Instead, I am being/have been brought in to dance with leading dancers in each company and school. This means that with each gig, I must perform completely different choreography to the exact same music every week for 4 weeks. My biggest concern has been keeping all of the choreography straight.

What is my trick to keeping the choreography straight? I'm still developing this strategy, but this is what has worked for me so far. I had rehearsals with two of the schools before I left for Rochester, so I had the opportunity to dabble with the choreography and put it in the back of my brain for safe keeping. Once I arrived in Rochester, I stopped focusing on my other gigs. For me, it is more important to focus on the task at hand, then to try to juggle what will be happening down the road fresh in my mind. I didn't study or rehearse any choreography that wasn't related to the Nutcracker that I was performing with RCB. I figured that I was less likely to forget or change the choreography if I focused on my current situation. When I was a student, I hadn't figured out the art of multitasking when it came to learning and retaining choreography. In order to keep things straight, I went back to my youthful ways and stayed on one track. Once I had completed my duties in Rochester, I hopped on a plane and began studying the DVD for my next gig. Although I hadn't reviewed the choreography since our one rehearsal as Hurricane Sandy was coming ashore, the base of the work was still somewhere in the back of my brain. I had just spent 72 hours listening to RCB's orchestra play the Nutcracker soundtrack on a loop that repeated 6 times,  but I had to endure the music to refresh my memory. Once I arrived in Arlington, we had a few refresher rehearsals and then knocked out 6 performances of my favorite holiday classic (note the sarcasm). My next gig will be the most challenging, as I have not rehearsed with the dancer and the choreography is quite different. After I finish that gig, it will be smooth sailing from there. I am reprising my role at the academy that I was raised at. Although we have barely rehearsed, the choreography will come back to me easily since I have performed it before.

Aside from retaining choreography, the biggest challenge for me is to remain excited throughout the multitude of performances (and if not, to at least give off the appearance that I am excited).  As I stated before, I am pretty Nutcracker jaded. Not only do I over-rehearse the role (even though I've already had 12 performances, two of my partners haven't rehearsed with me. This means that I have to rehearse from scratch 4 different times), but after rehearsals and shows I have to venture out into the real world to purchase gifts for family and friends. During my shopping trips, it never fails that Nutcracker music is being blasted on the speakers at malls and stores. And to make matters even worse, if I want to sit down and relax, the Russian Trepak and Sugar Plum Fairy variation play on TV for at least one ad during every commercial break. For me, it is 6 weeks of Groundhog Day.

The Eastman Kodak Theatre, Rochester, NY
Wherever I show up for my next set of performances, I have to somehow become excited for the opening of the production, care about the outcome, and be spirited about the upcoming performances. Again, I have to revert away from my professional way of thinking and remember how it felt as child performing in the Nutcracker. At my most recent gig, the entire cast (which included hundreds of students aged 4-18, their parents, and adult performers) was called into the green room for a pre-performance pep talk. This happened prior to each of the 6 shows. There were always spirited words, offerings of good luck, and smiling faces. At the end of each session, everybody held hands, threw their arms up in the air, and screamed NUTCRACKER at the top of their lungs. The first time this happened, I felt like I was going to throw up in my mouth. The last thing I wanted to do was have a Nutcracker pow-wow and then exalt the Nutcracker gods. I went back into my dressing room and I had a long conversation with myself. I've spent ten years as a professional, surrounded mostly by professionals. All, or most (Jessika Anspach), of these professionals generally despise everything about Nutcracker outside of the fact that it paid our salaries for the rest of the year. So, to be surrounded by a bunch of overly excited students was a shock to my system. In my own personal conversation, I thought back to my first days with Nutcracker. This annual holiday performance was usually one of two or three opportunities that I would have all year to get onstage. Also, even if the theatre only seated 200 people and the audience only consisted of family, it felt like the biggest deal ever. Neither the president of the United States, nor the New York Times were present. But it still felt like everybody in the world was seeing it. Lastly, the Nutcracker is actually the reason that nearly everybody I know started dancing in the first place. My professional mind had become jaded to this, so I had to think with my student brain. With this knowledge, I was able to join the cast in their upcoming pre-show rituals and leave the room with a real smile after shouting Nutcracker.

Another place that I really struggle during the Nutcracker season is in taking class, warming up prior to every performance, and keeping each performance fresh. Even during my Nutcracker tenure with big companies, I found it hard to motivate myself each and every day. I already knew the choreography, my body was exhausted, and sometimes my roles didn't require using any flexibility that might require a warmup. I remember when I was a student, I wouldn't do anything without taking class at the beginning of my day or warming up. I would also go over the steps multiple times to be sure that I remembered the choreography. Today, I try to keep these practices with me. When I am performing, I make sure to take class every day. If class isn't available, isn't to my taste, or doesn't fit in my pre-performance schedule, I make sure to give myself a full barre and a healthy serving of center work. Then, I make sure that I do a mini-barre at least 20 minutes prior to my entrance onstage. To keep the performance fresh, I always go over the choreography prior to the show or at intermission. This helps to keep my brain from going on auto-pilot. It keeps my performance fresh and tricks my mind into thinking that this is a new piece for me. In the end, I believe that all of these things help to protect my body. Dancing without properly warming up can present wear and tear on the body and dancing on auto-pilot can lead to simple mistakes or injury.

Whether you are performing in 40 shows with one company or 20 shows at multiple venues, surviving Nutcracker can be a great challenge. Aside from remembering choreography, multiple performances in multiple settings can provide physical and mental challenges. When I was a student, I was excited for everything. As many of us professionals gain experience and grow older, we forget about the joy that Nutcracker brought to us and how it led many of us to performance careers. If we all remember what it felt like to be a student, we can help pull ourselves out of Nutcracker doldums, do our jobs well, and pull through the season healthy.

My Sugar Plum (Jessica Tretter) and me after our last show for Rochester City Ballet's Nutcracker