The Replacement Dancer

San Francisco Ballet's home - War Memorial Opera House
I'm sitting in the War Memorial Opera House waiting to watch the dress rehearsal of, my friend, Val Caniparoli's world premiere of his new ballet, Tears, which will debut tonight in San Francisco Ballet's Program 2 of their Winter Season. After a stressful, but rewarding two weeks filling in for two dancers that went out with Company C Contemporary Ballet, this seems to be the most fitting end to my trip to the City by the Bay. While my experience in this amazing city wasn't a smooth ride, it was a challengingly rewarding one. Kind of like a dress rehearsal; not without a few bumps, but also garnering a handful of unanticipated surprises (of the good sort).

Street advertisement in Walnut Creek
A few weeks ago, I received a frantic phone call from Walnut Creek, a suburb of San Francisco, asking what, for most, would be a shocking question. As I was preparing my teaching plans for the next week, Company C Artistic Director, Charles Anderson, wanted to know if I could fly 3,000 miles cross-country the next day. Yes, tomorrow! Disaster had struck the company. After one of their dancers fell extremely ill, another sprained his foot while jumping in class. The company had two productions coming up, one in Walnut Creek and another in San Francisco, and they were on the verge of cancelling both productions.

After a desperate search for two local male dancers that could handle a Principal workload, they came up short by one dancer. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside when the company told me that four people (dancers and choreographers, local and distant) had offered my name to help salvage their production. While I couldn't pick up and fly west the next day due to previous commitments, I was able to leave a week later. And while I just escaped another winter storm in Philly, I was about to enter a storm of a different kind.

Being a professional pinch-hitter is not an easy task. Freelance dancers are often put in this position, as they are the only dancers that are not tied into a contract during most weeks. The moment I entered the studio, I could feel stress and panic vibrating intensely throughout the studio air. "Is this guy who everybody says he is? And, if not, we are really screwed!" Not only does a replacement dancer have to deal with the stress of entering a new environment, learning a large sum of choreography immediately, and adjust to a new partner; they have to bring a sense of calm to an already stressed organization. For me, I had to learn 20 minutes of choreography, cope with extreme soreness after only taking class and going to the gym for weeks prior, and remain healthy throughout this short process. While no dancer wants to get injured, knowing that you have been brought in to replace the injured is more stressful than imaginable. There really is no option to get hurt or go out.

As a replacement dancer, you must step far out of your comfort zone. I find that I must be more vocal about my needs when timing is tight. When filling in with little notice, one doesn't really get a chance to test out an atmosphere or to establish a tone within a work relationship. Things need to get done, and they need to get done fast. If a company's approach is slowing down your process of learning choreography or causing discomfort, the dancer needs to speak up immediately, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to do so.

Our performance venue - Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
I encountered this during my first and only rehearsal week with Company C. The company had been rehearsing months in advance and recently had their Walnut Creek performances. Besides me, every dancer already knew all of the choreography. While a company should rehearse their dancers as they wish, it may not be practical to do so if it doesn't benefit the replacement dancer most. With Company C, once I had learned all of the material, they wanted to jump straight into run-throughs of the ballet. This left out the very important step of repetition and rehearsing. I understood the company's need to run the ballets for their other dancers. And with our impending arrival at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts a few days later, this seemed the obvious next step. But while I had consumed the choreography, I hadn't digested it. I still had to think about what steps were next and my body was extremely sore due to the lack of build into the rehearsal process. While I understood their reasoning for skipping the repetition phase, I had to let the company know that I wasn't prepared to move into full-out run-throughs.

This is quite against the norm in the dance world. A dancer should rarely dictate the way a director chooses to run a company. But this is one occasion where the process needed to be streamlined to the individual dancer. For the first time, I could say, "This is all about me," and not sound like a self-centered, selfish dancer. Not only was I trying to tell the artistic staff the fastest way to get me prepared for their shows, I was the only dancer who didn't really know all of the choreography. It was all about helping them out the best I could.

I was also trying to protect many other aspects of this engagement. The company paid a great deal to fly me out last second, find me housing, provide a rental car, and pay my fee. If they injured me, they would be losing that investment and, again, threatening cancellation of their performances. At the same time, having a lack of preparation and jumping straight into full-out runs of the ballets could lead to me injuring my partner. It also wastes time if I have to constantly stop during the run because the material was too fresh. Beyond all of this, I had to look out for my own well-being. If I were to get injured, the company would have no commitment to me. While their dancers have the luxury of worker's compensation, as an independent contractor, I have no access to those benefits. And if I get injured, I don't get paid. And if I get badly injured, I may not be able to move on to my next gig and continue earning a salary. For all of these reasons, it is important for a replacement dancer to have the ability and tact to respectfully speak up and maintain a vocal part of this expedited process.

With all of the stress of filling in aside, a handful of items can really be enjoyable when helping save the day/show. The treatment that a last-minute replacement dancer typically receives is great. Companies tend to be much more generous when caught in a pinch. Pay can be higher, benefits may be greater, and the overall attitude towards a dancer is much more gracious than normal. It is not common to receive such praise and positive feedback when dancing for a company regularly. You show up, do your job, and go home. In this situation, I received multiple compliments and constant shows of gratitude. In fact, I wish that there was this sense of camaraderie between dancers and artistic staff all the time. It was rather refreshing.

An artsy shot I took of Jackie McConnell & Michael Galloway in Zhukov's Railroad Joint
Showing up at a moment's notice can be dauntingly stressful. But it is part of the job of a freelance dancer. Be sure to show up as prepared as you can to lower your stress intake. Ask for a video to study prior to arriving and after rehearsing, think about your exact needs to expedite the process, and don't be afraid to express those needs. While being brought in last minute can be stressful, it can also be greatly rewarding. Just prepare yourself properly for the unexpected and do your best to go with the flow. Think of the process as an extended dress rehearsal. I always enter these engagements with this motto; "I have come to bring the calm."


Contract Talk - Important Items to Have In Writing

My current contract with Company C Contemporary Ballet
I don't quite understand why, but most dance contracts that don't fall under the union umbrella are often pitifully executed when it comes to protections for dancers and, even, the employer themselves. Perhaps, low funding prevents companies from hiring lawyers to construct appropriate language. Or maybe there aren't enough people on staff to find the time to craft a proper contract. Whatever the reasoning may be, it is important to know what you really need to have written into an agreement as an independent contractor.

Sometimes, it can be an uphill battle getting a potential employer to put everything you need into writing. No matter what, it is important that you remain patient and get everything written in that you require. Without having all of your needs recorded, an organization is not bound to follow through with any requests beyond the provisions stated in the signed contract.

Most dancers haven't had much experience in contract negotiation and don't even realize what is important to them until they find themselves in a predicament. Since I have experience in both negotiating an AGMA contract and many of my own personal contracts, I would like to share specific items that I have found important to maintaining my comfort, a positive attitude, and protecting my body and pocketbook.

- Dancer fee:

You should always have your fee (salary) and the expectations of the roles you will be paid for written into a contract. If a company is performing a triple bill and a dancer is hired to perform in one piece, that needs to be written. If the dancer is being paid a flat-rate for whatever the needs of the company are, that needs to be in writing. I have seen multiple instances where a dancer is brought in to perform one role, then asked to learn another part. More often than not, the fee should be re-negotiated. If the employer says, "Don't worry...I will take care of you," your idea of being taken care of may differ from theirs. To avoid souring the relationship and maintaining respect, get the new rate in a new contract.

- Accommodations, Transportation, and Per Diem:

These items are an absolute necessity. Are you staying in a hotel or with a host family? If you are staying with a host, will you have your own room and bathroom? Are you being flown in? Will you be given a rental car to get around? Will you be responsible for gas? What about meal money? All of these items are pertinent to have in an agreement. Most of the time these things are taken care of without question. But if something goes wrong, you need to know that the company will find a reasonable fix. (Keep in mind that a dancer's culture and idea of appropriate may be different from the one they are being brought into.)

If you were supposed to stay with a host family and that falls through, a motel down the street from a strip joint isn't a reasonable replacement. I know a dancer that had to sleep on an air mattress in a common area of a house after the company lost their hotel sponsorship. Most companies forget that part of transporting an artist on-site is paying for their luggage. A dancer could bring only a carry-on if they didn't have to pack all of their dance clothes. It is the company's responsibility to pay for baggage (within reason). To ensure this is covered, put it in writing. If a dancer is housed far from the studios and given a rental car, should they have to pay for the gas to and from work? Again, know what you are getting yourself into.

- Rehearsal Schedules:

I have danced with many, many companies. And let me tell you, every company has a different idea of what constitutes a rehearsal week. Some companies only have one day off per week. Other companies change the schedule at the drop of a hat. At times, I have had 3 hours of rehearsal a day. While some organizations have had 8 hours of work daily. If you feel it is unreasonable to work 9 days in a row, make sure you have the work schedule written into the contract. Generally, I think that 2 days off a week (during rehearsal weeks) and 6 hours a day (not including warmup) is reasonable. Just make sure that a lunch break is afforded and that there is limited flexibility.

For some reason, directors tend to think that their stress and panic is more important than a dancer's ability to rest their hard-working bodies. I have experienced a panicked director adding an extra day of rehearsal or skipping lunch with little notice. If a schedule is put in the contract, the dancer has more control to say yes or no if asked to go beyond a reasonable work schedule.

- Non-dance expectations:

A few years ago, I was dancing at a Nutcracker gig in the middle of my season and performing an exhaustive 6 shows as Cavalier in one weekend. I was approached during the intermission of the first show by the director with a request. "We usually have the leads do a meet-and-greet after each show." I was already exhausted from performing the week before, traveled on my only day off, and performed in 2 dress rehearsals. The director was essentially asking me to add six more tasks to my workload. The next day I was, again, approached during intermission to come to a gala dinner event that same night. While it was their expectation of me to complete these job tasks, I wasn't made aware of these items.

Be sure to ask if there are any events, non-theatre performances, open rehearsals, etc. that will be expected of you. I always say that a dancer is much less likely to be a happy dancer if they are caught off guard with situations that they don't have any say in.

Also, if you are given a rental car, be sure that you you understand your responsibilities. I have been expected to transport other dancers during my time on-site.

- Footage and Photographs:

One of my favorite thing about being a freelance dancer is the access I have to performance footage and photographs. Few jobs that I have taken maintain copyrights on choreography and most have somebody taking photographs. During my 7 years at Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was rarely captured in any stunning photographs and had specific limitations to the footage I could access. In my nearly 3 years of freelancing, I have received an exponentially greater record of my dance career. To ensure that you receive copies of performances, get it in writing.

- Injury:

I struggle with getting this one into a contract. Being a dancer, I will knock-on-wood the moment the word is spoken. Nonetheless, it is important to have a backup plan in writing. While this is more important to the employer than the dancer, it can still benefit the dancer greatly. Different ideas are how a replacement will be found and how much a dancer will be compensated for the work already completed.

- Partner:

If you will be dancing with a partner, especially if you are male, it is important to know that you will be dancing with a partner that is a reasonable size for you (height and weight). A man that is 5' 8'' should not be expected to partner a woman that is 5' 9''. This is unlikely to be written directly into a contract (though it can be), but a conversation should definitely be had about this subject (in writing via email for your records).

While I love dancing w/Lindsi Dec (freshly minted PNB Principal), we're the same height
- Extras:

Additional items you may want to have written into a contract may include comp tickets, teaching company class or in the school, expectations of taking company warm up, company logo wear, gym memberships, yoga classes, physical therapy, and anything else that may be a reasonable request. 

Working alongside Nora Heiber, AGMA National Dance Executive, negotiating Pacific Northwest Ballet's contract
While most dancers hope that each of their gigs go off without a hitch, that is not always the case. More often than not, everybody leaves after a performance feeling pleased with the end result. But even in the best situations, small details can derail a very positive experience. Be sure to protect yourself, whether you are a dancer or an employer. The first job an employer has is to put a production onstage. In our world of art, where financial struggle is common, unfortunately, dancers are often the first to suffer when money gets tight. When putting on a production gets stressful, a director's first thoughts may not be about a dancer's needs and health. Lastly, while you may make a request that you would like to have in writing, it doesn't always show up in the final document. Be sure to read your contract completely to ensure that everything you discussed is in writing.

Is there anything that I missed that you feel is important to get in writing?


Emotional Training in Ballet

After writing about the challenges of success last week, I've had a handful of conversations about success and failure. The world of dance, and beyond, idolizes a story of failure and adversity that opens up unknown doors, eventually leading to hard-won success. Who doesn't love a good cinematic happy ending? Unfortunately, for students in training and professionals with big goals, things don't always turn out that way. For this reason, there are many former and current dancers living jaded with emotional pain, regret, and without closure from the wounds that often go along with such a challenging, strenuous, and personal effort.

Valeska Mosich-Miller in Clara Magazine
While out in Los Angeles prepping to perform for one of my many Nutcracker gigs, I found myself in a conversation consoling a former dancer about her training years. I was staying with my friend and the woman, who was subletting her brother's room while he is out of town working on an FX series, just happened to be a dancer that was in Pacific Northwest Ballet's school during my first few years with the company. Valeska Mosich-Miller and I knew each other from that time, but didn't really interact much. In most schools attached to a company, there is a clear delineation between company talking to school and school talking to company (school students rarely approach company members). Although we had little interaction during that time, I surely remembered her. The reason being that I, and most other company members, recognized that she had stunning looks and a beautiful, tall stature. Many dancers would comment that she should find an agent and become a model. Apparently, we weren't the only ones that felt that way.

Valeska Mosich-Miller in Marie Claire
Valeska left PNB's school to train elsewhere for a short period of time. After a handful of unsuccessful auditions, she stopped searching for a company to call home because she started getting picked up by multiple modeling agencies across the world in places like Brazil, South Africa, London, and Los Angeles. While spending a week living with Valeska and catching up on where we are in our lives, we went out to dinner and had a very striking conversation. While Valeska has had great successes that most people could only dream of having, she was still struggling with the loss of her ballet career and her perception of wasted effort that was put into so many years of training.

I could tell that nearly 5 years of time away from ballet had not healed the emotional trauma and wounds of rejection that the ballet world can place upon dancers. Being that I am very interested in teaching future generations of dance artists, I have put a lot of thought into the whats and whys of a ballet career and how training affects young dancers. And what I have determined is that ballet training is essentially survival of the fittest.

Classical ballet instruction is extremely harsh on the body. Aside from the physical requirements of natural flexibility, accurate proportions, strength, and aesthetic; a dancer needs emotional fortitude to truly make it in this career. How is a dancer going to cope with casting that isn't in their favor? Will a dancer be able to continue with a performance after receiving bad news? What does a dancer do if they mess up onstage? Each one of these items can really challenge a dancer's ability to handle the stresses of a dance career. The physical demands of training will prepare one to execute the most difficult of feats with ease. While the emotional aspects of training ensure that a dancer doesn't fall apart in high stress situations. Unfortunately, the concept of emotional training is rarely revealed to students throughout their studies.  Perhaps, because teachers aren't even aware that they are teaching it.

Very few of my teachers really explained much about the emotional challenges of dancing other than saying, "Ballet is hard," "People get injured," or, "You don't want to be stuck in the corps."  That is until I started training under Jock Soto at the School of American Ballet. One day I particularly remember, Jock had stopped class after a student was having a mini-breakdown over the failed execution of a partnering combination. Trying to calm the student down and keep their head in the game, he stated, "Your grandfather just passed away and you got a phone call minutes before you step onstage to premiere the lead in Theme and Variations. That gray-haired lady seated in the orchestra paid $200 for her ticket and has no idea about your troubles. No matter what happens you must always perform to your best abilities because all the audience knows is that they paid a lot of money to see a good show." This comment seemed utterly heartless having never heard anything like it before. I remember many conversations after class where we tried to validate that what he had been saying was just downright heartless. But I can now tell you from experience, I have watched this exact story happen. I've experienced traumas and performed while reeling through an emotional life experience. It is a part of the job and our training helps us deal with this. Now, if only, as teenagers and young adults, we knew that a handful of the comments and experiences we have on the road to success are a part of the training, and not always teachers and directors playing mind games.

It is very common for students who never become professionals and professionals who never become principals to focus their anger and bitterness towards the last organization or two that they feel let them down or kept them from achieving their dream. I don't think this is avoidable and, sometimes, agree with these dancer's feelings. Unfortunately, though, these dancers got weeded out by ballet's survival of the fittest training. If your body is too weak, it will break down often. If your body doesn't fit the aesthetic, and dancers go to dangerous lengths to fit the mold, they will not make it through the training. I am always asked about anorexic and bulimic dancers, as is every professional in the field. I typically respond that there were some sick dancers while I was training. But for the most part, the career is too challenging to maintain that lifestyle and those dancers with eating problems fall apart before they finish their training or within a year of obtaining a job. If a dancer's technique isn't strong enough and they audition for years and years and eventually give up, they have been weeded out. If a dancer had everything going for them and obtains a job, but quits a year or two in because they didn't have a fairytale rise to the top, they have again been weeded out. There are so many challenges that ballet presents to dancers that make sure that the last dancers standing are those onstage and selling tickets.

It is rare to find a teacher or director that is so especially harsh that they seek to destroy a dancer's love for ballet. There are exceptions to the rule, but it isn't common. Most leaders want a dancer to succeed at what they are doing. The misinterpretation of emotional training is often the downfall of many potential dance careers. When one is involved in a school or institution, that one place becomes the dancer's entire world. My favorite example of this takes place at the dance academy where I was raised. Every year when Nutcracker casting is posted, parents call the director shouting, "WHY DIDN'T MY DAUGHTER GET CLARA." In a fair-sized school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, like clockwork, parents freak out because their child wasn't handed a role just for showing up and paying their tuition. Within days, studio gossip ensues and one small performance becomes a big ordeal, as if it is the make it or break it moment of their child's life. People forget that somebody is always going to be at the top and somebody is always going to be at the bottom. It is like this in school and it is like this in a company. It can become difficult to remember that there are hundreds of schools and companies across the country. And if a dancer is truly unhappy, they can always look elsewhere for an improved situation. Rejection and disappointment tend to be one of ballet's first emotional lessons.

If a dancer is truly talented and being overlooked, it may be time to try somewhere new or to understand that sometimes you are the best and sometimes you are the worst. And sometimes it is all a matter of needs and timing. Dancers often forget, like Valeska did, that ballet is based purely on opinion. Casting decisions and class placement often upset people because there is no formal basis to judge technique, artistry, and performance. Maybe a director put a dancer onstage for a specific role because they thought big eyes would look good in that role. Perhaps, she doesn't have the best technique, but she is intriguing to look at and intrigue sells more tickets than technique. And if the same group of dancers travel from state to state, school to school, or company to company whilst performing the same work, different opinions and choices may put completely different dancers onstage at every institution. There is no best dancer. There is, instead, I prefer this dancer.

What it comes down to is that ballet is often full of political opinion. The end goal of an institution is to put productions onstage as best they can and to please its' patrons and donors. Dancers are just pieces of a puzzle that need to be fit together. If a dancer doesn't fit in a certain part of the puzzle, then they don't fit. A company can't be so concerned about hurting a dancer's feelings that the quality of a production becomes a secondary priority. While dancer's feelings may get hurt, it is rarely personal. Ballet doesn't remember that dancers are human beings with emotions. But people do (and should). For this reason, it is the human side, or artistic staff, of an organization that is responsible in ensuring that there is still humane treatment towards a dancer who may be disappointed by casting or has been left out of a performance during their integral final years of training. This is often where emotional training fails. Instead of having a hard, potentially disappointing conversation, many company and school directors prefer to keep quiet about their reasoning. This leaves dancers to make assumptions that may be far from the truth. Maybe staff feels that they don't owe the dancer an explanation for putting them in the second cast of the corps after giving them a leading role in the last production. Or perhaps, that corps member isn't being cast well to test and see if they can handle performing less, which often occurs during the first years after promotion to soloist. Why can't a dancer just be told that they are being tested, instead of creating circumstances and sitting back to watch their reaction. Directors owe the human being, not the dancer, a reason for casting disappointments, frustrating circumstances, and mixed signals.

A great amount of emotional training happens every day in dance. I have found that, more often than not, the higher powers of dance organizations don't even realize that they are taking part in this important aspect of training. Since ballet is passed on by oral tradition, there is no text book on the exact way to train a dancer. My teachers taught me what their teachers taught them and so on and so on. Every generation tries to take the best part of their training and pass it on, while attempting to avoid passing on the worst parts of their training. But, sometimes, the harshest parts of their training were to make sure that they could survive in our stressful profession. Unfortunately, there are often better ways to go about things and those with power aren't even aware that they are doing more than just training the physicality of a dancer. If students are more aware of the emotional tests that they will be put through, they may have greater lasting power. It is really confusing for a teenager to understand that there are tests in our training, beyond how high one can developpe or how many pirouettes one can execute, if they are not made aware of it. Emotional strength is just as important a factor as technique in becoming a successful dancer.

Valeska Mosich-Miller (Photo: Patrick Fraser)
I felt for Valeska while we talked out her training trauma over tasty pork bao at a trendy L.A. eatery. And at the end of our conversation, she was shocked that she may have been ignored in school as a test to see if she could handle being ignored in a company. Or maybe she just didn't fit into the intricate puzzle of the school that year. Years and years of resentment didn't disappear, but she seemed more at ease with what was a very disheartening and hurtful time of her life. Over the last decade there has been a greater push to help preserve the bodies of dancers through proper maintenance, cross training, and better body awareness. Today, I would like to call upon the dance world to do the same thing with the dancer's mind. We need to start treating dancers with respect, openness, and honesty. There needs to be more support for teenagers who are working as high-level adults, often living on their own, and dealing with insane amounts of pressure. Bringing awareness and structure to the emotional training that is necessary to have a successful career will be the next step in extending the life of a dance career.

What do you think we can do to improve the emotional struggles that dancers experience in their training?