The art of continually reinventing yourself

A new option for my bio (Photo: Shalem Photography)
It is very difficult to market oneself as a dancer. We freelance dance artists are essentially the rebels of dance. The most common avenue to a professional career is to attend auditions or workshops to obtain a company contract. Freelancers may be seeking that, but for the most part they are looking for the next job. I have been asked to attend auditions to get freelancing gigs in the past, but turned down those possibilities of work because it isn't cost effective to pay for travel and accommodations for a potential 3 to 6 week job. For this reason, it is important that I remain a presence on the radar of companies and choreographers across the country. This isn't as simple as it sounds, especially since I don't want to send out the same template email, photographs, and footage each time I recontact an employer. Appearing as a fresh prospect, even if it is your fourth time contacting a company, takes a lot of time and a great deal of thinking outside the box.

I would say that I have contacted a majority of the numerous professional ballet companies and a handful of contemporary companies across the country at least once. While most of the emails I send out are ignored, a handful respond with, "we'll be in contact with you," or, "we would like to discuss using you." Most of those that speak of getting back in contact with me never do. Usually, it is only a company that has an immediate need that will respond. Just because a company didn't contact you doesn't mean that they didn't review your materials. It also doesn't mean that their needs haven't changed. It is the beginning of a new season and many companies are figuring out what they have and what their needs will be for the rest of their season. Also of note, just because a company says that they will keep your info on file if the need arises, doesn't mean that they will remember to contact you when that need does arise. For this reason, it is important to continue sending your information out to remind employers that you are still an available resource when needed. The only thing is that you don't want to appear to be the exact same person with the exact same experience each time you send your information. Dancers are built on the foundation that you must continue to grow and improve. How do you reinvent your marketing tools with limited material?

One of the most important items in your toolbox of marketing materials is your performance reel (You can check out this older post on how to create your own reel). Without any footage of your performance abilities, it will be difficult to obtain a job without going to a live audition or relying on word-of-mouth. As a freelancer, there may be times where you perform in a handful of works that you have easy access to footage from those performances. At other times, you may be working a great deal, but the performances aren't filmed. For instance, I was really hoping to get footage of myself performing as the Sugar Plum Fairy's Cavalier with Rochester City Ballet last season. But due to union rules with the orchestra that was accompanying the production, they weren't allowed to film the performances. Even if you have limited access to footage, your reel doesn't have to remain without an update for years at a time. I have set a loose rule for myself that I will update my reel every 6, or so, months. Not only does this give me an opportunity to add additional footage, but it gives me a chance to feel out what is working in enticing employers or when it isn't reading as effectively as I had hoped.

This past season, I had the wonderful opportunities to dance with Rochester City Ballet, Alaska Dance Theatre, Festival Ballet Providence, in the Philly Fringe Festival, and in a choreographic workshop of a piece that may potentially be Broadway-bound. Of all of these performances, I was only able to obtain footage from two of these organizations. Albeit the limited footage I had access to this past season, the film that I could get my hands on was plentiful. Last week, I sat on my couch and reviewed my previous 3 or 4 reels, evaluating what I did well and what could be improved upon. What I found was that all of my reels took clips of footage that were between 15 and 60 seconds long, which added up to anywhere from 7 to 10 minutes long. While I am proud of these reels, I realize that a potential employer that only watched the first minute or two of the reel would be missing out on the variety of dance works and styles that I excel at dancing. I needed to reinvent my approach to creating my reel and, so far, it seems to be working.

In creating my new reel, I decided that I should take smaller clips of my dancing and fuse them together into one work. What I like to call "highlights." Keeping the original music to these pieces would not be effective, since the music would change every few seconds. I started my 20-something hours of editing by seeking a piece of music that was interesting, but lacked any compelling vocal or moments that would draw you into the music. I wanted the focus to be on my dancing and not on the track that was playing. After finding a piece of music that fit the bill, I started by pulling all of the footage I had that showed me off at my best. I slowly began whittling down the hour of footage and finding moments in the choreography that were exciting or intriguing. This was a challenging process since it can be difficult to differentiate between something that looks great versus something that you had a special emotional attachment to performing. In the end, I was very happy with what I created. Not only do I feel that my new reel shows me in my best light. I feel that I have found a completely different way of showing employers what I can do. When I contact a company for the third time, they will likely recognize some of the footage. But they will be less likely to overlook me as a dancer that they have already seen and more likely to look at my new, fresh packaging.

Beyond recreating a reel every 6 months, I try to keep my resume and photos updated as well. It is much simpler to keep these fresh as your career flies by. Try to be patient with your photographs. The biggest temptation when you receive a brand new photo that shows off all of the hard work you've put in is to immediately post it to your Facebook, Instagram (Follow me), or website. Take one or two of these photos and satisfy your social-media urges. But hold a few back for future usage. If all of your photos are out there and you haven't been performing anywhere that has a photographer, you are going to run out of fresh material. These items are new even if they are 6 months old. That is if you don't show them to anybody. As for your resume, I would avoid any attempts to greatly change your format unless you see a friend's CV that you think would be an improvement. While you want to show that you've moved forward within your reel and photos, you want your resume to be easy to read and recognizable.

Me partnering Elizel Long (Photo: Shalem Photography)
The final way that one can reinvent themselves is to find new ways to put oneself out there. Try a new style. Change your look. Find new ways of getting exposure. Show your talents that aren't necessarily dance-related, but that define you as an artist. Make yourself compelling. I've said this before and I'll say it a million times. It is rarely the artist with the best technique that moves forward in the world of dance. It is most often the most competent artist who is most compelling to the general population that moves to the front of the stage and the forefront of people's memories. Don't change who you are to reinvent yourself, but do change your way of thinking. Those who are able to make themselves compelling will make themselves the most hire-able. The best way to remain compelling is to continuously reinvent yourself. It is always reinvention that brings people back to an old, reliable product!


The main pitfall of a freelance dancer

As Life of a Freelance Dancer nears a pivotal marker since its' creation nearly 17 months ago, I feel it is finally time to approach a very important topic. It took me a long time to feel that I could appropriately address this item, as I felt I hadn't had enough experience in the field. For many professionals who have found themselves freelancing after having some length of a career dancing with a company, there is one thought that haunts most of them day in and day out. While work can be quite slow or unfulfilling if one takes a job because they haven't any, being without exciting prospects may make one feel like they are burgeoning on the end of their career. In my time as an advocate for freelancing, I have been told by at least a dozen seasoned professionals that they think their career is driving off into the sunset. So many freelance dancers are burdened by the feeling that the end of their career is happening right now. But, is this statement true?

The first thing that comes to mind when discussing this topic is the innate fear among dancers of the imminent end of their dancing and the lifestyle that comes along with it. The fear of having your dance career stolen from you before you are ready to bury it is ingrained in every dancer from a very young age. Dancers are told to train properly in order to prevent career threatening injuries, even though they don't know if they are even receiving proper training. At some point during every dancer's education/career, somebody in class sustains a traumatic injury. Horrified energy fills the room as that unfortunate dancer usually lays on the floor clutching their injured part. In that dancer's moment of need and privacy, nearly the whole studio surrounds and suffocates that person staring on in horror. Hopefully, they truly do feel bad for the person that is injured. But the truth really is that every dancer in that room knows that it could have been them and wonders if that injury is the big one. The one that ends their career.

I was quite surprised that once I entered the professional workforce, most of the non-dancers I met were only interested in talking about my diet, the probability of getting injured, and how long my career would last. News stories constantly come out stating that ballet dancers are more likely to become injured at work than football players, making us the most injury-prone profession. One of the most common questions I get asked is, "Well, what are you going to do after you're done dancing?" Dancers have to cope with their own fears about their career ending, while the world is constantly reminding them of that possibility. All of this fascination with the idea of recreating oneself between their 20's and 40's can make it impossible to focus on the fact that you are dancing right now. It is difficult being a dancer. Dancers live with a lot of fear. At one point, we will all lose what we have worked a lifetime to gain. And everybody knows it.

This is where freelancing can magnify this truth. All company dancers measure their lifespan by season, kind of like a school year. I am currently in my 11th season as a pro. At Pacific Northwest Ballet, our season consisted of 6 different sets of programming, which didn't include Nutcracker or any touring. Most seasons consisted of 40 weeks of work and anywhere from 80 - 120 performances. Currently, my upcoming season is up in the air. I have worked for 2 weeks already and have set up about 8 weeks of work through December. Freelancing work doesn't always line up beyond a month or two in advance. My current line-up consists of performing in the Barak Ballet launch in Santa Monica in October and a handful of Nutcracker performances that I will mention when contracts have been signed. After the holiday season is over, I have no idea what I will be doing. It may be a lot. It may be nothing. If it is nothing, aside from being a financially challenging winter, it could be an emotionally stressful time as well.

Performing in Ballet Nova's Nutcracker (Photo: Ruth Judson)
The reason that I can foresee a time without work being stressful is because I have experienced it this summer. Aside from 5 weeks during my last season, I spent nearly 7 months traveling between the months of November and May. When I had completed my last job, I knew that I wanted to spend a majority of my summer at home in Philly. I didn't really look for a great deal of dance work aside from my weekly work search and a few auditions (plus there is quite the lull in possible jobs since most people would rather be outside in the sun than inside a dark theatre). Then, we added the stress of a move that we had not prepared for, threw a few events, and I tried to stay in shape while giving myself a physical and mental break at the same time. Aside from the 2-week gig in August, I have not performed for an audience since May. This is quite possibly the longest period of time that I have gone without seeing a stage since I was a student. Now that I have had enough time to rest and reset, I am ready to start rehearsing tomorrow. Unfortunately, I don't have that option. It is quite apparent to me that this is why, lately, I have been struggling with the feeling that my career is ending. What did I do with my summer and, until October, what do I have to look forward to?

Living in this mindset is anything but healthy and I know for a fact that so many freelancers exist in this state constantly. A dancer without a company can't gauge that their career will last, at least, as long as their current contract, barring any devastating injury. A freelancer's career isn't continuing until they have solidified that next job. If it is a slow period, one may not be able to see far enough ahead to realize that their career isn't ending. There is also the fear that if money runs out and a dancer needs to take a normal person job, they may be overwhelmed with the workload and their dancing will suffer? The reality of a professional-level freelance artist is that if you are maintaining a certain level professionally and can maintain your health, you ultimately get to choose when your career is over. You choose when to stop staying in-shape, looking for work, and taking work. It is true that you may not get respectable work opportunities or options that compel you to sign a contract. But only when you stop dancing and seek a new path has your career truly ended.

Just writing this down in a public forum doesn't necessarily help settle the emotional stress that is caused by this additional career fear. But there isn't much more to the career equation. Dancers must trust that their career isn't over until they choose or a doctor tells them (get a 2nd opinion, or 10) that it is truly over. And even if a dancer does decide to retire, they can always make a comeback a la Celine Dion. But all joking aside, most dancers feel their career is over because they are not pleased with the options presented to them. If you have lost the fight to make work happen or to put in the time to make better things happen, then perhaps it is time to hang up your slippers. Being a freelancer requires great dancing, great networking/promotional abilities, and even greater emotional fortitude. Patience and balance are key to this profession. While every freelance dancer will likely feel that their career is coming to an end at some point, those who continue to work through this stress and remain patient can have lengthy and sustained professional careers.

Relax! The sun isn't setting on your career.


Dancers and decisions in their dancing

Performing my work, "Gated Lies," in the Philly Fringe festival (Photo: Bill Hebert)
Have you ever gone to a performance and seen a dancer perform a piece that you are familiar with and thought to yourself, "What were they thinking?" I recently came across a video that a friend had posted on Facebook of Paris Opera Ballet dancer Dorothee Gilbert performing the solo and coda from Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (click the link to watch, Blogger's Youtube feature decided it didn't want to find this video). Any knowledgeable Balanchine dancer or balletomane would watch this video and cringe. The solo is completed, for the most part, as it is typically executed. But when you start to watch the coda, you become acutely aware that Dorothee made some horrible decisions in dancing this piece. For instance, she is trying to be cheeky with the movement of her hips. While Balanchine dancers do lean into their hips to create a falling into the next movement motion, it is not executed with such vulgarity. She also exits in pique arabesques, which is not proper, and she changes the way that the fouettes are typically executed. While most classical pas de deux can be altered to highlight a dancer's strengths, this isn't the case for any Balanchine ballet. All Balanchine ballets are governed by the Balanchine Trust. If you want to alter the choreography, you must get the permission of the Trust or one of their associates. Why did Ms. Gilbert take the liberty to make these unacceptable changes? Lets discuss.

When I first entered the professional ballet world, I pretty much did whatever I was told. I was late to the game with my ballet technique and I had to make up a great amount of time in my final two years of training. I would only do what I was told to do, never rebelling or questioning. I never made any choices about my dancing and I was afraid that my intuition was wrong. As my career grew, I realized that, at times, I had a little more leeway in making a few decisions. Perhaps, I chose to execute a step with a certain accent or I emoted a little differently than I was told. But when it came to steps, I didn't feel like I had the privilege of taking even minor artistic liberty. When I entered the contemporary dance world, my mind was blown when I was told that I should do it my own way. I wanted to be told exactly what to do since that was all I knew. It took me well over a year to adjust to this difference. It was difficult for me to pick up choreography because I was so stressed about perfectly replicating the execution of a movement that had no name or clearly defined position. I was eventually told that there was no perfect and that I should decide how it would look. If the choreographer didn't like the decision that I made, they would tell me and I would find a new way to execute. In the end, I ultimately had more leverage in deciding how I would perform a piece. With all of this in mind, as I started to watch other dancers perform, I began to be a little more lenient in my judgement of their decisions, especially on a ballet stage.

Dancing Balanchine's "Rubies" w/Leah Merchant (Photo:Angela Sterling)
With all of this knowledge and experience existing in multiple facets of the dance world, I find that it is hard to put blame solely on dancers for making poor choices in their performances. If I'm in the studio every day and get to see why a dancer makes the decisions that they do, then I feel I have more of a right to be judgemental. For instance, looking at the video of Dorothee Gilbert that I posted above. Did Dorothee teach herself that pas de deux? Did she learn it from a video and change the things she didn't like? Maybe a Balanchine repetiteur set the piece on her and changed the choreography to suit her. Or even, perhaps, after that repetiteur left, Ms. Gilbert's coach felt that they could change the steps. There are so many possibilities that could have influenced the alterations and stylistic choices within the choreography. But in the end, the performance is judged as if she was the only one involved in creating her performance. It is true, she is the one dancing the piece. All of this criticism appears to be a reflection of her and the quality of her dancing.

Unfortunately, for dancers, we are thrown onstage without any of the support that created our performance. Company class teachers, ballet masters/mistresses, artistic directors, stagers, colleagues, and anybody else that influences technique and the performance that happens onstage are largely left uncredited aside from a name and title in a program. When the reviews come out, a critic may say, "Stevie danced an unmusical, mannered performance that lacked emotion and spark. She seemed nervous and had multiple missteps." While the dancer receives and consumes the criticism, nobody points out that the artistic director didn't leave enough time for rehearsals and Stevie, being the 2nd cast, only had one run-through of the piece prior to performing. It wasn't mentioned that her coach told her that her character is generally unemotional or that the conductor played a completely different tempo than what was rehearsed. It is a great stress to dancers who are being told exactly how to perform to make their own decisions, even if they disagree with their instruction. Not only is their reputation on the line, it is also possible that their job may be on the line.

Why am I pondering all of this on a blog about freelance dancing?As a freelancer, aside from having leeway to make decisions about where you work, you have much more freedom to make your own choices within your dancing. Outside of class, most of the work that freelancers perform is fast-paced and transient. There generally isn't enough time to develop the typical submissive relationship between those in charge and yourself that is ever-prevalent in the dance world. It seems to me that there is somewhere around a month-long grace period where everybody is on their best behavior when entering a new workplace. Those in charge are less aggressive during this time and those subordinate are less likely to rebel. For this reason, corrections and style tend to be suggestions, instead of demands. This grace period allows for a dancer to explore their own decision making and to truly dance as they would choose to do so. This means that dancers take greater responsibility for their decisions. It also means that one has the opportunity to truly dance as the artist that they are.

"My version" of the "Nutcracker" variation (Photo: Ruth Judson)
While freelancing allows one to make more choices in their dancing, it can also be frustrating when you feel that you aren't ever getting any coaching. Working for multiple employers doesn't really give enough time for artistic staff to identify the areas of your dancing that need more work. This is why it becomes important to self-regulate and keep up-to-date by doing your homework. I regularly read reviews, see performances, discuss technique with friends, and watch Youtube videos. Dance is founded on replicating movements that are shown to you. Use your best judgement and be vigilant with self-correcting. I would even suggest recording yourself dancing a piece you are working on or performing class work.

It is very freeing to be in charge of what choices you make while rehearsing and performing. Sometimes, a dancer can develop a relationship with a coach that brings out the best in that artist. At other times, an aggressive coach that has too little time with a dancer or is more interested in their own ego than developing an intelligent, confident artist can leave dancers suffering from decisions that weren't even their own. The next time you see a performance that leaves you befuddled, take a moment to think about the whole picture before laying all of the blame on the dancer for their performance. We exist in such a hard career. The more that artistic staff and critics can empower dancers to step out of the eternal student role, the better off the dance world will be as a whole.