Performing for No Reviews

The Seattle Times - one of PNB's regular reviewing publications
It was Black Friday, November 23, 2007, and it was opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet's The Nutcracker. I was cast in one of my favorite roles, the Sword Doll. And this was one of the first shows of the holiday season, so I hadn't moved into my seasonal Nutcr-apathy yet. I was really hoping to impress the audience in what was one of the few featured roles I had danced at that point in my career. Shortly after this performance, a regular reviewer for CriticalDance, Dean Speer, wrote a review assessing the upkeep of this oft performed production. Towards the top of the piece he stated that the "phrasing is slightly different than in years past – more push and pull; attacking something then letting it resonate. I first noticed this with Barry Kerollis’ Sword-Dancer Doll – punching a sauté développé à la seconde, for example, and then letting it ‘sit’ for a moment before pushing on to the next step. I really liked this, as it allows each thing to read." This was one of my first public mentions. The notice instantly hooked me on getting my name written in any and all publications that came to review our shows.

As a student, the only time you really get a chance to perform publicly are in school shows, lecture demonstrations, and youth competitions. Unless a dancer is in their final years of training, they are unlikely to be involved in any production that get much press beyond small local newspapers and proud parent's Facebook posts. Other than the largest, most prestigious academy graduation performances, reviews are generally non-existent. Once you enter a professional company, it is much more common and appropriate to be publicly scrutinized.

I started dancing with PNB in July of 2004 after spending a year with Houston Ballet. By the time the above review was written, I was already in my fourth season as a professional. It is almost impossible for a Corps member to be called out unless they perform a role that steps out of the group. Could you imagine a dance critic writing, "The 4th flower from the right, Dancey McDancerson, showed great emotion in her developpes." For obvious reasons, it can take awhile for a dancer to get noticed and for critical mention to be publicly addressed. Speer's posting was probably just another Nutcracker article for him, but for me it meant much more. Beyond the fact that I got mentioned positively in a featured role, the interpretation that he was talking about was my own signature. Every year, anywhere from 5 to 10 dancers performed this role. Due to the lack of rehearsal leading into these performances, dancers often had a bit more wiggle room for interpretation. My musicality was uniquely my own and Mr. Speer showed appreciation for that.

After receiving a positive review, many dancers start looking forward to moments that could bring them to the attention of the public and, potentially, the director. The thought in my head was, "If the public notices me, the director must surely see that." And while this may not have been the best way to approach my performances, it definitely offered some great motivation.

As I started to get better roles, more critics in the Seattle area started to take notice of me. I became hungrier for attention. There is a great online forum that is both loved and hated by professional dancers, Ballet Alert. This site is a moderated forum for balletomanes across the world. On the site's message boards, ballet lovers, reviewers, professionals, parents, and more can discuss and debate anything relating to this untouchable profession. PNB had a large base of local fans that were very vocal about dancers and productions (albeit through a computer screen) on this website. Beyond the critiques written in professional publications, Ballet Alert followers often wrote their own reviews and perspectives to discuss and speculate. More often, their words are positive and pensive. But at other times, writings can descend into gossip, speculation, and bullying. As much as company members liked or disliked this forum, many of us kept close tabs on what people were writing.

My next four years passed at PNB and I started to find myself more tied to the reviews I received. I was starting to feel stagnant in the company and assumed that receiving glowing reviews would change my boss' mind. I remember debuting as Mercutio in Romeo et Juliette and waking up each morning to see if anybody had written anything about my performance. The reviews came out and they were quite positive. As the season continued, I added more roles to my resume and received greater reviews. Then, contract time came. I wasn't promoted. And to make matters worse, dancers in the company started coming up to me asking if I had been promoted (most dancers find out that they are getting promoted when they receive their letter of re-engagement). While this was a great compliment, it also left me quite confused. I had performed well all season. Critics and dancers alike had seen my progression. But when it came to the one opinion that mattered, it seemed that I had made no progress.

Studio showing of Maan Singh - Photo: Philip Gardner
After spending one more frustrating year in the same position, I decided to leave my big company roots to try something new. As I started to freelance in medium-sized companies, small organizations, and a variety of projects, I found that I was still eagerly seeking reviews at the end of our production weeks. But now I was performing in less popular venues. At one gig, I performed in a small studio in New York City. And the next was at a performing arts center in Anchorage, Alaska. People were coming to see me perform, but few people were posting about it in print or online.

I remember the first time I danced with Houston Ballet and realized that I didn't have any family or friends in the audience. I felt that I had no cheering section for whom to dance. I learned then to dance for myself and not for the accolades I would be showered with after shows. Once I moved to Seattle, I slowly started to create a presence that was recognizable by critics and regular audience members alike. And while I didn't always get press, I had motivation to impress. All of a sudden, I found myself back at square one onstage at the Wortham Theater with no support system in the audience. It was almost as if the reviews had become my support system.

I had a bit of an epiphany back in March when I performed Romeo and Juliet for Fort Wayne Ballet. My performances with the company marked the first time I was brought in as a Principal Guest Artist to lead a full-length ballet for a company. I have been brought in to dance leading roles many places, but never to carry the entire production. After all of my hard work, I spent a couple of days googling my name, Fort Wayne Ballet, and Romeo and Juliet. But nothing showed up. Initially, I was quite disappointed that nobody had been around to record the occasion. The company didn't film any of the shows I did, so I figured the best way to preserve the feeling that I had during and after the performance was to get an amazing review. You can only imagine the let down of putting that much pressure on getting public recognition in a town of 250,000 that is more interested in sports than arts.

A few weeks ago, I did my final search for a review of the performance. It took one last disappointing look for me to finally get it. What I was seeking was a physical memory of my performance because I so enjoyed it and didn't want to forget the experience. But in my efforts to hold on to the memory, instead of relishing the performance, I was seeking validation that it was a good memory. If this performance is as special to me as it was, I won't forget it. I won't forget the first time that I stared into Lucia Roger's eyes and felt that I saw my love for the first time. Or when we danced the MacMillan version of the Balcony pas, a duet that I had idolized as a teenager. Or how I legitimately cried onstage for the first time over the dead body of Mercutio. Or how the audience instantly rose to their feet after we had experienced a wildly realistic rollercoaster of emotions.

What it comes down to is that we have very few records of our careers as dancers. Photographs, footage, and reviews are the few records we will have of our careers when they are over. As a result of this difficult detail, I was relying too heavily on physical record to validate my experience. What really matters in dance, as in life, is how we felt while we were doing the things that we love. And those memories will be with us forever. A review might remind us of how others perceived us, but only we dancers can remember how it truly felt standing in the glow of the spotlight putting everything we have on the line.

Elizel Long and me from an unreviewed performance in Alaska - Photo: Shalem Photography


The Frightful First Day of Work

During my first few weeks at PNB
Your first day at a new workplace is often a blur. New faces, new practices, and putting your best foot forward are three of many components that overwhelm most people after joining a new company. While there is a great amount of stress to show that an employer was right to choose you for the job, your first 8 hours on the job are rarely representative of what it will be like to work for a company or what you will be like working for that company. There is a lot to expect on the first day and a lot you want to project into your new environment.

I would call myself the king of the first day. Maybe that is reaching a bit far, but I have experienced more first days of work in the past 3 years than most people will experience in a lifetime. Looking back to my very first day with my first full-time company, I really can't tell you much. I joined Houston Ballet in July of 2003. I had spent a few weeks in the city getting my apartment together and adjusting to an adult lifestyle at the ripe age of 19 years old. I had met a few dancers in the company while getting in shape at the school's annual summer program, but didn't really know what to expect once our actual contract had commenced. I had a little taste of first day jitters when I guested with American Ballet Theatre in their Romeo and Juliet tour to the Kennedy Center while I was still training at SAB (fun side note: I was David Hallberg's 2nd cast when he had to go into the role of Benvolio. He was still in the corps.) But the beginning of your time with a company that could become your home is very stressful.

I had imagined day one of my career like this. The night before the start of my dream career finally arrived. I was really excited and a little bit nervous. My ideal night of sleep included about 8 hours of sleep. I showed up to the studio early. I needed to arrive in time to dress in the perfect outfit that I picked out the night before. I warmed up the best that I ever have. I made sure that I respectfully found the best place at barre that was still available. I didn't forget to smile at every dancer that walked by. People like happy beings, right? Class started and I knew I was going to have the best class of my life. You know, that class where even the long-time principal say, "Wow! That guy is incredibly talented!" After class, I was basking in the excitement that surrounded me. The director hired his new star, the company wanted to talk to the new talent, and my ultimate dream had been realized. Then I realized, that my dream day at my dream job is only a dream. A dream I had been building up for the last 2 years of my training.

Just another day on the job at PNB
None of these things happened on my first day, except for these things; I was nervous and excited that night before, but slept poorly. I must have been experiencing way too many adrenal emotions to actually get a good night of sleep. And I did smile at every person that I encountered. Many did not smile back. The reality of my first day at work was that for most of the people in the company, it was only their mundane return from vacation. It was nothing new or exceptional. And for me, now that I have been dancing professionally for 11 years, I don't even remember what happened on that day.

Luckily, at least for my readers, I have had many first days over the past 3 years to remind me what it feels like to leave your first impression on a boss and coworkers. As a freelancer, you will likely have many first days. And while, I am not completely numb to the prospect of showing a new group of people why I am the best person for the job, I am not as concerned about making an absolutely wholesome, perfect impression on day one.

Last week, I flew to San Francisco to begin working with Oakland Ballet. As with most of my freelancing work, I don't audition for the jobs that I am offered. My friend, Amy Seiwert, suggested that the director, Graham Lustig, take me into consideration to work with the project-based company for 6 weeks. Graham had never met me before and had likely never even heard my name. So, not only did I need to represent myself as a dancer, I needed to show for the person that trusted me enough to put their reputation on the line to get me a job. Since I am such a regular at this first day business, I wasn't too worried the night before.

I've been stuck in a bit of a pickle since I arrived in the bay area and I am still in the process of, hopefully, working things out. Housing isn't provided for this gig (the first time and last time I will accept work this way) and the place that I was supposed to stay fell through. A friend with a loft 1-bedroom condo very graciously offered me a place to crash until I resolved my situation. And while an apartment with no separating walls and a 40-minute commute to work wasn't ideal, I didn't really have any other options.

Oakland Ballet's rehearsal space - Malonga Casquelourd Center
On our first day of rehearsals, I woke up early to take the bus downtown to start my first day of work. After checking Googlemaps, I found that a specific bus would get me to the rehearsal space with 15 minutes to spare before class. I arrived at the bus stop five minutes early and went on to wait a half hour for the bus to arrive. Yes, my bus never showed up and I had to wait until the next one arrived. I tried to hail passing cabs and I seriously considered walking the additional 2 1/2 miles to work. While this was, perhaps, my 10th first day of work this season, I still felt awful and embarrassed when I had to text the artistic director that I probably wouldn't make it to class. Luckily, Graham was understanding of my situation. But if this had been one of my first jobs, I may have had a panic attack.

I arrived for class about 5 minutes late, but made it in time to join in two combinations late. My first thought upon running in to continue barre was, "my coworkers probably think horrible things of me right now." But then, I took a step back and thought back to watching others have a first day in companies that I have danced for. I barely noticed anything about those people on the first day. After class, we started rehearsing a new piece by Sonya Delwaide. Her choreography was fun and quirky and after a short hour-long audition, I was selected to be in her piece. Lunch passed and small talk ensued among us dancers. Half of the dancers work together seasonally and remained in a tightly knit group, but the others quietly sat around trying to connect without showing too many of their true colors. Everybody acts overly tentative on days like this. It makes sense. Nobody wants to be overly excited and everybody wants to be liked by everybody. For this reason, people play it safe on day one.

These dancer from Axis Dance Company will be joining Oakland Ballet in Sonya's piece
After lunch, we began rehearsing with Robert Moses. He briefly and briskly taught 32 counts of choreography. Then he told us to change the order of the steps. Following this, we paired up with another dancer, took our newly crafted solos, and turned them into duets. The only thing, for me, was that one of the dancers was missing because she was driving from Colorado after a weekend performing in Denver. I was partnerless. I couldn't learn the choreography of the duet by myself. And because of this handicap, once Robert started creating his piece, I was left out in the cold.

By the end of the day I was emotionally exhausted and a little unhappy. I was in a new time zone, I was sleeping on a couch, and I was commuting nearly an hour to work on a transit system that was unreliable. The first impression of me was being late. I wasn't immediately loved by every dancer in the studio. And one of the choreographers, the one that I was most excited to work with, didn't even seem to know that I existed. This was my first day and it was shitty. I failed in all of the places I had hoped to succeed on my first day with Oakland Ballet. All of this while being the most seasoned at entering a new workplace.

The reason that I share this story is because it really speaks volumes about what to expect on your first day of work and how much it really means in the long run. Yes, you want to do your best. Yes, you want to make your mark. But the first day is usually a whirlwind and it is rarely a representation of what work will be like, how you will get along with people, and what your true growth potential with that organization will be.

It is only one week later and so much has already changed since arriving to dance with Oakland Ballet. While I may still be figuring out my housing situation, I have figured much out and other things have evolved. My commute is no longer an issue. When I was still at my friend's house, I walked an extra 5 minutes to the BART, a much more reliable mode of transportation. I haven't been late since. Many of the dancers have opened up to me. And while I may have bonded to a degree with one or two people on the first day, the people that took longer to break through to seem to be getting closer with me than those who were more immediately. I am still enjoying Sonya's rehearsals and I have become a much more integral part of Robert's piece.

Many other factors have changed in the short week that I have been dancing with this company. If I had a first day like I did last week towards the beginning of my career, I may have had an absolute meltdown trying to cope with the stress of trying to prove myself worthy of the contract offered to me. But after my recent bad first day, I called my husband and shook it off. With the knowledge and experience I have, I knew that the rest of my experience with this company was not going to be based on all of the first impressions I had and made that day. This is because a first day of work is like a first date. Everybody is on their best behavior. Everybody is trying to look and do their best. Once everybody gets comfortable and things start to evolve, things fall into place and you get to see what the experience will truly be like. So, go into your first day as we all do. But don't go home thinking the best or the worst. Be happy that you had this day in the first place and take your first day attitude into everyday from there on.

Don't feel like this after your first day (Clarion Alley in the Mission District)

How have you felt on your first day of work?


Travel Post - Extending Your Trip Following a Gig

The freelancing life has many pitfalls and even greater challenges. But it also comes with a few perks. These benefits can range from having more say in your artistic package to being treated like a celebrity (maybe B-list) or getting to see new parts of the world. One of the greatest features of traveling for your work is having the opportunity to stay on location past your engagement. This can allow you to really enjoy being in a new locale without time-consuming rehearsals or worrying about preserving your energy levels.

Sleeping Beauty poster I found in a window downtown

Backstage shot I took of Laura Tisserand
I am currently sitting on my 10th flight in the last 6 weeks while on my way home from New Orleans. This past weekend, I had a fun opportunity to dance in Lafayette Ballet Theatre's production of Sleeping Beauty. One reason that I loved being a part of this performance was that it gave me a chance to perform with some old friends from Pacific Northwest Ballet; Laura Tisserand, Will Lin-Yee, and Joshua Grant. Beyond that, I was surprised to find that another friend and former colleague, Houston Ballet Principal Melody Mennite, would be performing with us, as well. Others on the list of dancers for this production were Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Principal, Nurlan
Abougaliv, and an acquaintance I have danced with in Philadelphia, former Pennsylvania Ballet dancer Yosbel Delgado. For a school production in the south, this was quite an A-list cast of dancers and I was proud to be a part of the show.

LBT flew me in a few days before the performance to rehearse Puss and Boots with one of their students and a suitor in the Rose Adagio with Laura. I have performed Sleeping Beauty at least three dozen times and had already performed these roles before, so the workload was relatively easy for me. This allowed me to take some time to enjoy the local Cajun culture. Beyond experiencing some of Lafayette's food and lifestyle; Will, Nurlan and I drove away from the city to go on a Cajun country swamp tour. On this adventure, we saw a plethora of alligators, turtles, birds, and swamp plants, all whilst lounging in a crawfish skiff with a guy named Butch steering us around the shallow, murky waters. This was really an incredible escape. But even while relaxing in the humid sunshine of an alligator infested swamp, we had to run back to our hotel to grab our dance bags and head off to the theatre. For this reason, I am so glad that I asked LBT to leave me behind in Louisiana for an extra three days after the show.

Alligators out in the swamp sunning themselves
Many freelance dancers don't realize that they have more control over their work than they would expect. We can negotiate different terms in our contracts or let an employer know that certain expectations are out of the range of our comfort zones. One of the best perks that many freelancers don't take advantage of is asking an employer to alter travel plans beyond the period of time that they will be working for them. They are almost always responsible for taking care of your transportation to and from the gig. If you want to stay on-location for a few extra days, it doesn't change the fact that the company brought you out there to work for them. Most companies are more than happy to change your departure date gratis.

A few steps outside of my hotel on Bourbon Street
For the above reason, I asked LBT if they would mind flying me back home through the airport in New Orleans, a few hours east of Lafayette. I had never been to the southern state of Louisiana and I was curious about the Crescent City. After performing in Lafayette on Saturday night, I hopped on a Greyhound bus for the 3 1/2 hour trip. Not only was I getting to explore a new city without booking or paying for my own flight, I now had a few days to vacation without worrying about work. I stepped off my bus into the streets of the Big Easy, booked a cheap hotel on my phone as I walked towards the French Quarter, and launched myself into a different world. Was I still treading on American soil?

I am typically more of a Type-A traveler. I will spend hours on the internet researching all of the must-do's and hunt for hidden secrets that each city holds. I do this in hopes of creating the perfect itinerary. But this time around, I showed up having no idea what I was going to do. Aside from the fact that I figured New Orleans was a medium-sized regional city, I assumed that there was probably a limited amount of options to research. It must also be taken into account that I have been ridiculously busy traveling, rehearsing, and performing. I, somehow, lucked out and booked a cheap hotel on Hotwire right on Bourbon Street. This was the first time I ever booked a hotel on my phone while walking down the street minutes before arriving, but this should have been a sign of what was to come over the next 48 hours.

Musician playing his saxophone on the bar
As I dragged my luggage through the central business district and finally located Bourbon Street, I was baffled by what surrounded me. It was 5 PM on a random Sunday evening. The street was packed, people were drinking, and you could hear jazzy instruments playing down the streets. My luggage skipped and jumped down the sometimes-cobblestoned road as I peeked in the oft open doors of clubs, bars, restaurants, gentlemen's clubs, and more. Alcoholic beverages galore, big bands playing in and outdoors, a saxophone player breaking it down while standing on a bar, and people of all walks of life tipsily tumbling down the sidewalk. Instantly, I had a two-day smile on my face while I drank in this intoxicating atmosphere.

Sipping a hand grenade on Bourbon Street
My first order of business after checking into my hotel was to explore the French Quarter shops, obviously with a drink in hand. From voodoo shops to N'awlins souvenirs, there were more shops in this small neighborhood than many larger city neighborhoods I've been to. But what most shocked me was the strong artistic vibe that buzzed through the air of this town. Beyond music, there were artists selling works in galleries and on the street. Some even created their work while laying in the middle of streets that were randomly closed to traffic for the eve. I am not sure if I have ever been in a city that is so overtly artistic, even more so than New York or San Francisco.

A mansion along St. Charles Ave
Over the next day, I spent lots of time drinking hurricanes and hand grenades, walking past large southern-style mansions, shopping for a voodoo doll, eating Creole and Cajun delights (Jambalaya, seafood, turtle soup, alligator, etc.), absorbing street art, and reveling in the honky tonk street music that saturates the humid air. My sun burnt shoulders reveal a brightness that could only be matched by my grin. And beyond spending time with my good friend, Andrew Brader, whom I met dancing in Los Angeles with Barak Ballet, I spent most of this time smiling by myself. This is one of those rare moments that I had an outwardly quiet and inwardly explosive experience. Legitimate and happy ear-to-ear smiling!
Touring the St. Louis cemetery
As an artist, it is important that we constantly feed ourselves inspiration, digest new life into our core self, and produce a product that is consistent with our being while offering something profoundly fresh. New Orleans is a place that is so distinctly un-American, yet sitting right on American soil (or swamp), that I suggest every artist find a way to get to this city at some point in their artistic career. I promise that you will not be disappointed, aside maybe from your inevitable hangover. But I will tell you this, the memories and inspiration of this place will be the best hangover you have ever had. And it will last a long time.

I am a self-professed city-phile. I am very proud of this fact. I have visited nearly every large city in the country and many other medium-sized ones of note, as well. And while my list of American cities I must visit has dwindled since I began traveling for work, New Orleans was never on my list. I am so thankful to LBT for bringing me into a part of the country that I had little interest in prior to this experience. Freelancing has definitely shown me parts of our great nation that I would never have traveled to on my own dime. Through this, I haven't just expanded myself as an artist. I have expanded who I am as a person; forcing myself out of my comfort zone and allowing interaction with people and communities of different cultures and mindsets. For this, I am extremely grateful. Today, I call myself lucky for having the chance to share and educate audiences around the world about the art of dance and for opportunities to broaden my view of life, living, and humanity as a whole. All of this through dance.

Jackson Square in the French Quarter
(For more photos of my travels follow me on Instagram)