Staying in the loop

Once you stake a claim on your own little part of the dance world by becoming a freelancer, you will come to realize that, at times, you will feel more connected to the dance world than ever. On the flip-side, you will find that there are times when you feel more disconnected from dance-happenings than ever. I pass from extreme to extreme. Throwing my Contact event back in October gave me an opportunity to feel closely connected to many artists. But spending three months in Alaska, for instance, watching friend's Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with performance photos and merde wishes can make me feel that all of the excitement of the dance world is flying by thousands of miles from the epicenter of my career. I don't want to fall behind the mark. I don't want to walk into a conversation without an understanding of what is current. I don't want to stop expanding my experience as a dancer. So, I find ways to stay up-to-date on happenings in the dance world.

The art of dance is always evolving. Even when companies are putting masterful classics on their stages, the dancers who dance these works have different training, personalities, and styles that keep even the oldest of works fresh and exciting. One important aspect of the work a freelance dancer must commit to is keeping up with current happenings in their art. The dance world is wildly interconnected and people are more compelled to develop a relationship with you if they can relate to you through common bonds and interests. Dance is already a common bond, so it just needs to be cultivated. The other reason to stay up-to-date is because it improves your ability to market yourself and to search for work.

Important pieces of information to seek in your research include companies and their current programming, who is dancing where, and how companies are being perceived by the public. I find that I spend much of the summer scanning company websites to see which works they have chosen to put on during their coming season. It is always interesting to see trends and to analyze why they are happening. For instance, my first season as a professional with Houston Ballet, everybody was performing Balanchine works. If you weren't in the know, you could easily deduce that there was a reason that so many companies were performing his choreography. The reasoning? If Balanchine were still alive, it would have been his 100th birthday. This was the perfect reason to celebrate the choreographer and put his work on nearly every major and minor ballet company's stage. This season I have been quite intrigued by the multitude of companies that have restaged or premiered a new version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (one of my favorite pieces of music EVER!). I am not
Freshly painted for Tetley's "Rite of Spring" with PNB
aware of the reasoning behind this trend and maybe it will show its' face in the years to come. But it is likely that one company performed this work last season and the company had great ticket sales. Perhaps, a combination of one director's love for this work and the hype of one company's good fortune in the past year or so caught the attention of directors across the country. Or in the case of current up-and-coming New York City Ballet choreographer and newly-promoted soloist, Justin Peck, who recently created a piece for NYCB to rave reviews. He had one successful piece with a handful of promising write-ups and now everybody wants a piece of the pie. Miami City Ballet has already tagged their name onto his fresh success and mentioned that he was working with the company on social media. A few days after posting, they mentioned that he was working on a collaboration with only two dancers from the company. Nonetheless, they wanted to ride on this young choreographer's coat tails. But this is the beginning of a trend and I would put money down that he will be working with multiple companies over the next few years.

My reasoning for constantly checking rosters of dancers hired by companies is three-quarters professional and one-quarter personal. As I mentioned earlier, the dance world is quite small. It is easy to lose touch with friends and former peers. It is not uncommon for dancers to transition between a handful of companies as their careers evolve. I like to keep up with the whereabouts of my friends and to see how successful they have become. But on the professional side of things, it is interesting and helpful to see what kind of dancers directors are looking to hire. Rosters are usually updated somewhere between August and October prior to season opening performances. Scouting out information on dancers, their training, and their experience can help me gauge where I am in my career, where I want to go, where I should seek out work, where I shouldn't waste energy, and much more. You can also see whether a company is entering a transitional period, which may mean that they are more likely to hire freelancers as they regroup. Aside from company websites, I feel it is important to check out features in Pointe Magazine, Dance Magazine, Dance International, and Dance Spirit to see which dancers are being pushed into the spotlight. It is not uncommon for me to perform a Youtube search on these dancers to see how they dance. If I am isolated for a handful of months on a freelancing gig, this is the perfect way to inspire myself. I can look for qualities that I appreciate and take them on as corrections or goals in my everyday class and rehearsals. As dancers, I feel that we are most inspired by other dancers. I don't know one professional that began dancing because they saw a choreographer working. They were inspired by a dancer, who happened to be compelling dancing the work of a choreographer.

Performing my own work - Philly Fringe Fest(Photo:Bill Hebert)
One of the biggest challenges for me throughout my career has been to put less focus on a review/opinion and worry more about how I felt during a performance. This can be a challenge because most dancers want to see their name with stars around it. This is also harder because I have become good friends with a few reviewers for major dance publications with whom I love having lively discussions about performances we have seen. All of that aside, I find it extremely important to see how an educated audience is perceiving the growth or decline of companies. Of course, any review I read is viewed with a grain of salt and with the understanding that it is one individual's (or their small circle's) opinion. But reading multiple reviews of companies and their dancers can give me important information pertaining to what is intriguing, current, off-kilter, compelling, and beyond. Also, the more interest there is in a rising company, the more likely they are to have a multitude of reviews. I know that a performance is being given great weight if New York reviewers are sent away from their hometown to review a company's performance.

Now that I have explained all of the reasons one should stay up-to-date on all things dance, what are the best ways to stay current. First and foremost, staying in touch with your dancing friends. I find a ton of information through phone calls, Facebook/Twitter feeds, and messaging back and forth. If you don't have many friends that are involved in the professional dance world, you can follow dancers that you look up to on Twitter. Beyond that, I regularly check company websites. As I stated above, dancer rosters are typically updated between August and October. Most companies make announcements for their upcoming seasons between March and May. Many also have a press section on their website, where recent reviews and press releases are listed. I frequent the links section of Ballettalk. Each day, this site's administrators post links to reviews and stories in publications about companies large and small. Reviews and features are also posted in Pointe magazine, Dance Magazine, Dance International, Dance Spirit, and other respectable publications. If you know exactly what you are looking for, go to Google and type directly into the search box.

It is easy to fall out of touch with happenings in the dance world. If you don't put in the work to stay up-to-date, you may get behind and fall out of the loop. I always tell people that freelancing is a lot of work. Aside from dancing, teaching, marketing myself, and writing this blog, I put forth great effort in keeping up with current events. Although I am genuinely curious about what is happening out there, the time spent researching these items is work. I consider it a part of my job to put in a great deal of time doing this research. And to be completely honest, it really pays off.


The Mental Game of Freelancing

Look who was recently featured on renowned photographer Jordan Matter's "Dancers Among Us" Facebook page. Although my image didn't make the final cut into his New York Times Bestseller, I was also featured in his blog during the creation of this beautiful book. Being photographed by this man was a wildly unforgettable experience and I hope to be a part of his future projects.

Performing w/Alaska Dance Theatre in Duran's "Cash & Cline" (Photo: Gutierrez Photgraphy)
Now that I've got that out, moving on to this weeks' posting. I have a handful of topics that I want to write about this week, but I always feel more compelled to write on subjects that directly relate to things/emotions I am currently experiencing. One subject that I find comes up most often in conversation with my freelancing friends is whether or not we want to continue freelancing. Finding work on the fly is not only stressful, but often poses the threat of career, relationship, and financial disaster. While these fears are always looming in the back of every freelancers mind, we continue to dance because we love it and we continue to freelance in order to sustain ourselves. A combination of passionate (and sometimes blind) drive and fear for survival often cause nomadic dancers to swing back and forth between the choices of continuing freelancing, finding more stable company work, or quitting altogether.

I have discussed this in past posts and want to revisit the reasons that most dancers begin freelancing. A large amount of people who freelance do so because they were not able to obtain a job with a full-time company. Often, this is due to the fact that they just weren't in the right place at the right time or they were fresh out of school and still developing as a dancer. Another reason that many people start freelancing is because they feel that they have reached a certain point in their career with a company and want to go out on their own to find more fulfilling work. There are also people, like me, who were thrust out into the world of freelancing against their will. After spending a handful of months dancing with a company that I left PNB to join, I became injured during a rehearsal. Details aside, the young company broke my contract when I tried to take time off to heal because they didn't want to support an injured dancer. This happened in the middle of the company's season and right at the end of audition season. I was injured and couldn't get better in time to make myself presentable for company auditions. And at the same time, I didn't want to move from the city that I had just moved to only months before. Thus, I began healing and set out to become an established freelancer. Other reasons for freelancing include change of location for non-career reasons, short seasonal company contracts, and more.

Looking at the list above, you can see that freelancers become who they are for more reasons that are out of their control than those in their control. For those of us that didn't make the choice to freelance, aside from the fact that we knew we wanted dance to continue as the focus of our careers, it can become easy to start questioning the track of our career. Many dancers enter freelancing with a clear intention of joining a company in the future. But as you become more popular in your field and hold a busier schedule, the line blurs and the tendency is to flip-flop between company aspirations and the never-ending quest for the next gig. At what point do you know that you are ready to commit to another season as a freelancer or to start prepping for audition season?

There are many stresses involved in the art of freelancing that can push you in different directions. Dance/work-related stresses include (and are not limited to) finding work, staying in shape, quality of work, continuing to grow as an artist, feeling fulfilled in the work you are doing, and feeling like your value is represented by treatment and pay. Personal stresses include (among others) location, time away from home, works' affect on personal relationships, financial survivability, and work-life balance. Seeking to attain some sort of balance of these stresses can make it very difficult to make the conscious decision to continue freelancing. If a dancer chooses to take a two month gig across the country, how will that decision affect their two year relationship that they are leaving behind at home? Or if a dancer chooses only to seek work with academies and schools because the pay is greater than company work, how does that affect their feelings of fulfillment and growth? What if a dancer risks all of the stresses that are important to them only to find that the work they accepted is not up to par with what they had been expecting? Freelancing is a difficult choice because it carries such great risk and affects much more than your work-life.

Performing "La Esmeralda" at gala (Photo: Dmitri Papadakos)
While I have had some experiences that have brought me to some low places on my list, I have also had my fair share of great highs throughout my career in freelancing. One of my biggest goals I had hoped to accomplish during my dance career was to travel and see the world through my work. I couldn't do that in the companies I was dancing for full-time. I also found out that I have a lot more respect for myself as a classical ballet dancer after performing in a gala for a gig. This was an opportunity that I wouldn't have been offered while dancing at PNB, where I was pigeon-holed into the role of a contemporary specialist. While some of my freelancing experiences have made me feel less than valuable, many more have built my confidence to new levels and offered me experiences that weren't offered to me in my life as a company dancer.

Looking at these abridged lists of stressors that can affect your career as a freelancer, it becomes quite clear that there is great push and pull in the mind of a freelance dancer. At what point does a nomad choose to find more stable living? When does the choice to live wild versus living a normal life become too overwhelming to continue? Obviously, I am not in a place to tell people what their breaking point may be, but I can at least open up this topic for discussion on this forum and let people know that it is absolutely normal to question living the gypsy life. It is in every freelance dancer's best interest to constantly assess their needs, fulfillment, and happiness in order to remain healthy, stay at the top of their game, and to live a sustainable/enjoyable lifestyle. With all of these things in consideration, the mental games that freelancing presents are much easier to understand.


Video Break - Performing as Cassio in "Othello" w/Alaska Dance Theatre

As you all know, I am currently in Anchorage dancing with Alaska Dance Theatre for three months. I am about halfway through my time here. We are currently working on our second program of performances, which includes rep created by the Artistic Director, Gillmer Duran, and a new piece by San Francisco-based choreographer, Amy Seiwert. Everybody has been asking me what it is like to dance in Alaska and what the dance scene is like here at Alaska Dance Theatre. Well, here is a treat for all of those who have been wondering. Here is a clip of me performing alongside Artur Sultanov (former Principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre) in last season's production of Gillmer Duran's Othello. In this scene, I am performing as Cassio, who has just been stripped of his recent promotion to chief lieutenant in the Venetian army that Othello honored him with due to a drunken brawl that Iago had slyly concocted. As Cassio finds himself at a low point, Iago steps in and convinces him to speak to Desdemona, Othello's wife, to ask for her assistance in getting his promotion back. Little does Cassio know that Iago is really planning to incite jealousy in Othello by persuading him that Cassio and Desdemona are having intimate relations. Enjoy!


Take advantage of opportunities

Performing Mercutio w/ James Moore in Maillot's Romeo et Juliette (Photo: Angela Sterling)
There are people that sit on the sidelines because they have been put there and there are people that purposely place themselves there. The main reason I started freelancing was because I felt that I had spent enough time sitting on the benches at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Yes, I had some great opportunities dancing roles like Puck in Balanchine's A Midsummer's Night's Dream and Mercutio in Maillot's Romeo et Juliette. But out of the 7 programs (including Nutcracker) the company danced each season, I often spent about half of them dancing in the corps while other less experienced dancers were given the opportunity to prove themselves in roles that I had already proven I could handle. Personal story aside, I decided that I was tired of sitting on the sidelines. I have never been the type of person to sit back and watch opportunities pass and that is why I feel that freelancing is a great path for me.

I've been so busy dancing, teaching, taking an extended workshop in Safety Release technique, and having an active Alaskan social life that I can barely find any time for my regular life activities. One reason I've taken a short hiatus from posting on here is because I have been taking advantage of an array of opportunities that freelancing in Alaska has brought me. Yes, at times, I feel way too busy. But it is more important for me to build relationships, find new ways to develop my trade, and to see the world. For this reason, I haven't had a moment to sit on the couch and catch my breath.

Alaska Dance Theatre studios
I have found that freelancing gigs typically offer me more than just an opportunity to dance and make a living. Having already established a relationship with Alaska Dance Theatre while dancing with the company during their last season and following the impression that my blog has made on the leadership of the school, I was approached with the prospect of creating a workshop that focuses on career building for dancers for the students of the Alaska Dance Theatre School. Aside from feeling flattered, I was actually quite reluctant to follow through with this daunting task. Dancing 9:30 AM to 4 PM with the company and teaching four to six classes in the school each week were already eating up a majority of my time. I could have easily told the school that my schedule was too full and that I didn't have time to develop four hours worth of material to share with aspiring students. But an opportunity to develop my career in a new direction was presented and I knew that I had to take advantage of it. For the two weeks leading up to the workshop, I devoted many evenings and the whole of my weekends to put together this lecture. Not only did the students respond incredibly well to my workshop, but the push given to create it has given me an invaluable tool that I can bring elsewhere. Now that the groundwork for this workshop has been created, I can offer it to students around the country. I get to share my passion, I get to pass the flag, and I get to add another pathway to enhance my income. If I had chosen to sit in my hotel room and rest watching television, who knows when this opportunity would have presented itself again?

Another thing that shouldn't be taken for granted are social events. Often, after finishing a hard week of work, groups of dancers will get together for dinner and drinks. At other times, a donor may throw an event at their house. No matter the situation, one should do their best to attend a reasonable number of these get-togethers and events. Sometimes exhaustion gets the best of you or you don't have money to burn.  Keeping these things in mind, I have found that a majority of the dancers who don't attend these event just weren't in the mood to be social. This happens to me at times, but I do my best to fight the urge to hang back at my host family's house and sit on my computer. Having an active social life offers a handful of benefits. I find that I am always happier and less homesick when I am surrounded by other people. Many times, I have heard dancers mention that they don't want to hang out with other dancers for reasons ranging from needing work/personal-life separation to discussions that are always centered around work. What one must remember, though, is that the connections made with others in their field can benefit your career more than any other relationships you create while away from home. Lastly, if you take a chance to get to know the support system and community that created the arts organization you are working for, you can make invaluable friendships, connections, and support centers down the road.

Driving down the Seward Highway in Alaska
One thing that boggles my mind is when freelancers are given a chance to travel somewhere they have never been and they sit in their hotel room/host family's house for the entirety of the time that they are not at work. When I tell people that I travel the world dancing for a living, they always respond with envy. They say how they wish their work would take them to the places I have been brought. If you are going to be paid to travel, you might as well get as much out of that opportunity as you can. One example of this would be this past weekend. My partner is visiting me for nearly a month of my three months in Alaska. We decided to take a trip down the beautiful Seward highway (which has often been called the most beautiful drive in the world) to the town of Seward, where the highway originates. We had a two-day weekend and we had just finished an exhausting run of a show, so most people probably preferred to sleep late and hang low while resting their bodies. For me, this was something that just had to be done. We invited all of the dancers to join us, but ended up taking the 2 1/2 hour drive alone. It was definitely an opportunity missed, as it may be one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. When I danced with Festival Ballet Providence, I took advantage of the city's close proximity to Boston nearly every weekend that I was there. While with Rochester City Ballet, I visited Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Toronto. I have gone out of my way to visit cities, sights, and other great landmarks in every place that I have freelanced. Freelancing careers are sometimes short-lived. One might as well take advantage of visiting a new place, especially if your work is footing the bill of bringing you there. Who knows when you will have that opportunity ever again.
Panoramic of Seward, Alaska

Dancing is an exhausting career, both physically and mentally. Many dancers take their time off to rest and recover. Leaving time for recovery is very important, but it is not uncommon for dancers to get stuck in a pattern where they think that they always need to be in recovery mode. These dancers miss out on a great many opportunities because they turn down chances to push themselves as artists, make new connections, and to see the world. Be smart with your time off, but also push yourself to take advantage of as many opportunities that present themselves to you.

At the start of the Iditarod in Willow, AK