The, Sometimes, Life of a Choreographer

I haven't really spoken about my work as a choreographer since I left Pacific Northwest Ballet nearly 3 years ago. When I started freelancing, it took all of my effort to make the dancing part of my career happen, so choreography had to take a backseat for awhile. Beyond that, it is very difficult to find time and quality dancers to work with when you aren't staying in one place for an extended period of time.  I got some good news recently relating to my choreography and when a few friends heard about it, they exclaimed, "I didn't know that you choreographed." While a dancer with PNB, I took part in their annual Choreographer's Showcase, Next Step, that used to alternate between dancers from the company and top level students (Professional Divison, or PD's) in the school. This showcase offers any dancer in the company a platform to test out their voice beyond dancing without the pressure of creating for a serious production. When I first heard about the program, I never really considered partaking, as I didn't consider myself a choreographer. But as my first years with the company passed and I saw other dancers try their hand at creating dance works, I thought that I might give it a try to see if I had any talent. Little did I know that choreographing would become something that I am passionate about and excel at doing.

The first time that I ever had any thoughts on the art of choreographing was back in the year 2000 when I was attending the Houston Ballet summer intensive. My roommate, Joseph Morrissey, was taking part in the student choreography workshop that was presented at the end of the summer program. Sitting around our apartment, he would talk about listening to music and seeing steps in his head as music played. To be completely honest, I just didn't have the same reaction. I had never even thought about dance steps when listening to music. I don't quite remember the piece that Joe made, but I have memories of awe and the thought running through my head that I didn't have the mind of a choreographer. After that summer, I didn't consider choreographing until my 3rd season at PNB, nearly 6 1/2 years later.

Basic Disaster - Maria Chapman w/Josh Spell & Jordan Pacitti (Photo: Rex Tranter)
I don't really remember what inspired me to put my name on that lined piece of computer paper that Peter Boal posted on the dancer call board one morning. I remember walking past the list a few times without even giving it consideration. After a few more passes, I started thinking what could happen if I risked choreographing something. Would it suck? Would I embarrass myself? I never saw dance steps in my head while listening to music, so if that wasn't my natural response I surely couldn't choreograph. Then my typical big company complex started kicking in. What will my colleagues think? Will people think that my ego has grown to big? That, I think I'm an amazing choreographer just by placing my name on a piece of paper. I'm not really sure what the final tipping point was in me putting my name on the list, but I did it and I'm very glad that I did.

The process of creating my first work was very carefully thought out. I didn't want to create a work just for the sake of creating. When I started collecting ideas for the piece, I wanted to build something that inspired me. I have always been fascinated by weather and natural disasters. My nerdy fascination with The Weather Channel assured that I was moderately educated on the topic. Within a week of signing up for the showcase, I had already chosen my music, my theme, and my title. I used Australian didgeridoo music that I was inspired to find after listening to a man play this deep, vibrating instrument along my daily walk home through Pike Place Market. I was going to choreograph a three movement work that drew inspiration from earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. And I would name the piece Basic Disaster. This was not only a nod to my theme, but an offer of some humor in the event that the piece bombed. I figured I had all of my bases covered and started creating movement on my colleagues. I enjoyed the process and while I didn't have enough time to create the entirety of the work (the showcase had to compete with our busy company schedules and had last priority), I was pleased with the work in progress I presented.

Pariah w/students from PNBS (Photo: Rex Tranter)
I ended up creating 4 works total during my time working in PNB's choreographer's showcase. We dancers/ choreographers were very lucky to have this platform. Not only were we given top-notch dancers, our works were put on PNB's regular stage. We were able to utilize the company's lighting designer and costumes were borrowed from the costume shop. Taking part in these productions taught me how to take control of a room of dancers, communicate my own unique movement style clearly, clean my works to performance quality, and budget my time to get the best product possible.

Following these workshops, I was selected to create works for Seattle's Men in Dance festival and the Philly Fringe Festival. Beyond those, I have choreographed works for a few schools, including the Alaska Dance Theatre school and local schools in the Philadelphia area. My final goal is to eventually gain my first full commission for a high-level ballet company.

So, what am I like as a choreographer? I spent 8 years dancing in the Corps de Ballet in two of America's biggest companies. Living that much of my life dancing in large groups really taught me a great deal about moving people around the stage in interesting ways. I've spent a great amount of time dancing Balanchine and contemporary works, as well. Due to my background in these works, many of my creations straddle the line between neo-classical ballet and contemporary dance. I prefer to find my inspiration from a topic or story when I begin creating a work. For instance, one of my last works at PNB was inspired by a few anxieties that I have experienced throughout my life, like being asthmatic. I find that I am especially curious about the exploration of the human psyche and why people respond emotionally to certain topics. I feel that choreographing is fascinating because it is essentially taking something inside my mind and showing people what is happening inside me in a visual way.

Creating my work, Pariah, on students of PNB's school (Photo: Rex Tranter)
As I stated at the beginning of this post, it has been awhile since I have had the opportunity to really focus on my choreography. I am proud to say that I was recently selected to choreograph for the National Choreographers Initiative that takes place at the Barclay Theatre at the University of California in Irvine. During my three weeks at the program, I get to create on dancers that I select out of 16 professionals that are hired for the initiative. I will be joined by three other up-and-coming choreographers, Philip Neal; former Principal with New York City Ballet, Garrett Smith; a dancer with Norwegian National Ballet, and Gabrielle Lamb; a former Soloist with Les Grands Ballet Canadiens. We will be joining the ranks of other choreographers that have passed through this prestigious program, like Val Caniparoli, Edwaard Liang, Amy Seiwert, Melissa Barak, Christopher d'Amboise, and many more.

Many people don't realize that most freelance dancers have many skills beyond just that of a dancer. Freelancers use their skills from choreographing to teaching to video editing and beyond to make a living and express themselves. At the conclusion of this summer, I hope to use this platform to really begin pushing to create works for companies around the globe. I would share my plans for my new work at the Initiative, but if you are really interested, you'll just have to buy some tickets and come to the show. I hope to see you there!

Me w/PNB school students in my cast for The Anxiety Variations


Being the Significant Other of a Freelance Dancer

I've been excitedly waiting for this post for some time. While most of my readers get to see my side of what it is like to be a freelance dancer, there is a very important part of my career and life equation that has been left out of my writing. While I dance on stages across the world, I still have a life and home in Philadelphia. My life partner, Dan Loya, is just as integral a part of my career as my dancing. Without the support and assistance I get from him, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. I asked him a while back to write about what it was like to be with a professional dancer that is often away from home. He very thoughtfully and eloquently wrote about his experience living with, living without, and supporting me from a distance. Read below to hear his unique perspective and role:

My name is Dan Loya and I am the Significant Other of a Freelance Dancer
Many of you have been following Barry's life as a freelance dancer, but none of his posts reveal what it’s like living with a performing artist who is constantly traveling. While everybody here gets to read about Barry's experiences and adventures, those that don't know us personally never get a feel for what's happening behind the scenes. The old adage goes, "behind every good man is a good woman." I consider myself the "good husband" behind the good man. When I look at the pros and cons of being partnered with a freelance dancer, there is a delicate balance that has to be maintained.

Some details of being the significant other of a dancer may be a given. Yes, I don't pay to attend any of the shows he performs in. And I have had the advantage of seeing world-class performances; ranging from the highest caliber companies to avant-garde productions that perform underground shows. Often, I am also surrounded by dancers of all ranks. But the times I get to feel like I’m part of the elite ballet and contemporary dance worlds are sometimes overshadowed by the downsides of my role.

Visiting Portage Bay in Alaska
The roughest part of being in a relationship with someone who travels constantly for work is the time apart. We have learned over the past few years that, indeed, distance does make the heart grow fonder. After Barry's first year of freelancing, I made a comment that we have a “part-time long distance” relationship. That didn’t sit well with him at first. We have managed to make it work, and I travel to visit him in any place he dances for more than 3-4 weeks. So far in the past few years, I have stayed with him in Providence, Rochester, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even as far as Anchorage. Fortunately, since I own my own business as a professional organizer, I often arrange to work with clients in many of the cities where he performs. 

Communication is key to us staying connected. We talk on the phone once a day, if we can. During our conversations, we update each other on events from that day, plan and strategize, encourage each other, sometimes discuss how stressed we are about one thing or another, and, most importantly, listen to each other. Toward the end of each call, I always have some business to discuss and ask for his feedback. One thing I have realized is that when Barry has challenges with a gig (and at times he questions whether or not he should continue freelancing), it has a negative impact on me.

Often I function as his business manager, helping him to decide which jobs to take, coaching him on negotiations, reminding him to contact specific people, and encouraging him to make important contacts and to maintain relationships with them. When I am dealing with home stresses without him,
it can make it more difficult for me to fulfill the manager role. We also spend many holidays and anniversaries apart, so we sometimes celebrate them early…or even months later (like Thanksgiving in March).

Celebrating Halloween moments after Barry stepped off a plane
One of the most difficult aspects of remaining connected through phone conversations is noise and distractions on his side. We aren't always in the same time zone. So while I may be getting ready to sleep, Barry may be out eating dinner. Sometimes, I struggle to hear him due to noise; like in a restaurant he’s eating at late night after a show, dogs barking in his host’s home, etc. When he is at the studio or out with other dancers, he will answer their questions or give them updates during our conversation. We Skype whenever we can (this method of conversing is preferred), but the internet connection on his side isn’t always great and the time difference can be barrier.

Doing business w/one of our cats helping
You may be wondering how we maintain all of the tasks that are normally managed by a couple when he’s gone. When Barry is home, we coordinate our schedules by using a Google Calendar and by writing reminders on a dry-erase board. Since he dances, teaches, and choreographs, I have to be incredibly flexible to accommodate his schedule at times. During weeks that he's away and I have to hold down the fort, I usually email him details from certain bills, make deposits for him at the bank,
send out checks on his behalf, clean our apartment, take care of our 2 cats (one that gets sick quite often), run our errands, and wash the piles of dirty dance clothes he doesn’t have time to wash (dance belts included!). This is all in addition to working 40-50 hours a week on my own business. So it can be very stressful at times.

Barry has (jokingly) referred to himself as an “alien” because he travels so much and is away from home so often. We joke that acquaintances and friends I make in Philadelphia don’t believe he really exists until they meet him. When he’s gone, I also maintain social connections on his behalf. Since my partner is a professional dancer, most of our mutual friends (and people who still haven’t met him yet) are often inquisitive about his background, his profession, and where he has traveled to recently.

For those readers out there who are partners or spouses of freelance dancers (or other professions that require frequent travel), I would like to leave you with some suggestions to help you cope with the distance and time apart:

1. Be flexible. Work with your partner as a team to make things work.
2. Check in with each other on a daily basis. Don't underestimate the power of a text. Skype or use FaceTime when possible.
3. Keep yourself occupied by doing things you enjoy when you miss your other half.
4. Approach the relationship as an adventure. It will never be predictable and mundane.
5. Stay connected with your partner’s family when he’s gone. Part of the reason we chose to move to Philly was the proximity to Barry’s family in the suburbs here.

As the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, revealed, “You don't develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.” Barry and I have endured our rough patches. Our relationship started as a long distance romance the first year, and we have been a team ever since we became a couple. What the future holds, I cannot say. But this I know… As long as he chooses to be a freelance dancer, I will be there.

Barry and me at the top of Lombard Street in San Francisco last weekend
What's the longest you've ever spent away from your significant other? How did you cope with the time apart?


How to Approach Issues Appropriately

Why do dancers remain quiet about most issues? (Photo: Bill Hebert)
While we all hope that the leadership of every job we take has the best interest of their dancers and their well-being in mind, this is unfortunately not always the case. In my history, there have been a few occasions where I have felt the need to directly address an issue with a director, staff, or choreographer. But when I do have to speak up, I try to think of it as a delicate art that requires timing, tact, lack of emotion, reason, and a predetermined (yet malleable) solution.

Spending three years as Pacific Northwest Ballet's union delegate taught me a great deal about addressing reasonable issues with a person that holds career power over you. As freelancers, we don't have the luxury of asking somebody else to take care of problems that arise while we are at work. For this reason, independent contractors need to learn how to take care of issues on their own.

The first thing that a dancer needs to do before approaching an issue is to determine whether or not it is valid enough to bring up. We must all acknowledge that there are many, many pieces that make up a dance company. An individual dancer, while valuable and important, is often only one small piece of a larger puzzle. For example, if somebody hurt your feelings in how they spoke to you in rehearsal, it may be better to approach that person directly, instead of calling upon the director to mediate. The director probably has more important things on their plate than dealing with every day interactions between employees.

While a handful of situations do not require the need to bring an employer into a conversation, a handful of items may need more serious discussion. While many situations feel like they need to be addressed immediately, that is rarely the case. As with most things, timing is everything. It is often best to wait for emotion to settle before entering into a potentially stressful conversation. I have overlooked and been involved in multiple discussions where emotions were still high. And unfortunately, a person seems less reasonable and logical when they are emotional in the moment, no matter how valid their argument may be. If a dancer would like to discuss casting or something that upset them, it is best to wait a few days to cool down before moving forward with any necessary discussion. This will make you appear more rational and help to avoid awkward unprofessional actions, like tears or yelling.

If you have waited a few days and still feel that an item deserves attention, I suggest that you do one of two things. Either ask for a meeting or email the person with whom you would like to speak a brief note. If you are planning on starting with a face-to-face meeting, make sure that you are prepared to state exactly what you want to say as quickly and clearly as possible. Know that there will likely need to be compromise on the table, but don't feel that you have to be completely submissive to keep a positive working relationship. Dancers are taught to submit. I have seen artist friends that are determined to finally stand up for themselves leave important meetings with their tails between their legs and zero resolution because they simply agreed with everything that was spoken to them in their meeting. The second that the boss starts speaking, they become timid and fearful to disagree. Be prepared for discomfort. Don't push too hard, but don't allow somebody to walk all over you. Especially, when it is something that means a lot to you or could be detrimental to your well-being.

I always prefer to send a preliminary email to address my concerns and follow up with a meeting. This allows me to state my case without the distraction of my nervous, spontaneous reaction to an uncomfortable conversation. This can be a tricky task due to the fact that once an email is sent, it can't be retracted. You want to make sure that you say exactly what you mean and want to say. It is important to keep in mind that an email can be used as evidence against you if you are not wise about your word choice and the information that you put into writing. When I need to bring something up, I like to draft my initial email and let it sit for awhile. This usually allows my emotions to settle and gives me a chance to edit with a more rational mind. I also try to ask somebody that has no stake in the circumstance to review what I write before sending it out.

Emails that I have had to write tend to start with a greeting, followed by an address of my concern/distress, actual examples of the issue, and a request to meet in order to resolve the problem. These correspondences are always very matter-of-fact, lack any direct accusations, lack any emotional or angry tone, and, if possible, offer a resolution. I find that a simple email can resolve most issues without even having a one-on-one discussion in person.

If an issue is not fixed through one of these channels, a dancer really only has three other options; deal with it, continue addressing the problem, or quit. The most disappointing fact to me is that such a high percentage of dancers just deal with issues of safety, conditions, schedule, etc. Of course, this is the easiest and most agreeable option, but I am an advocate of the importance for dancers to stand up for their quality of work, state of health, and free time outside of the workplace. Dancers are superior athletes that too often get treated and paid like slave labor. Respect and care should be expected, not a wish or hope. Of course, this is all within a realm of reason. In the end, though, the more that dancers stick up for themselves, the more this behavior will become the norm. For this reason, I think that continuing to address an issue is the most practical and important option of the three. If a request to speak with management is ignored, wait a few days and try again. If a dancer finds that they were talked out of addressing an issue during a meeting, they should approach the issue again to make sure that it is eventually resolved.  The last option on my list is extreme and an absolute last resort. In the dozens of jobs I have worked as an independent contractor, I have only considered quitting a gig once and this was due to a multitude of factors that were verbally addressed, but continued to be an issue after resolution had already seemed to be met.

Sometimes, you have to approach management a few times (Me & Abby Relic before Cinderella)
Working as a dance artist is a unique profession with a unique culture and even more unique expectations. While most dancers want to work in this field because they are wholly passionate about what they do, this fact does not mean that a dancer can be abused because an employer knows dancers will follow through no matter what. Often with masochistic excitement that they survived an unsafe or overwhelming feat. When it comes to safety, emotional abuse, injury, lack of respect for free time, requirements to perform non-dancer duties, or general happiness, a dancer should learn how to have an adult conversation with their employers to make sure that the organization's vision stays in line with a dancers physical and emotional prosperity. It is rare that management isn't interested in these items. It is only that they often have too much on their plate to be aware of certain issues. This is why it is the dancer's responsibility, especially freelance dancers, to find appropriate ways to approach issues. When this happens, dancers are not only happier, they are healthier and bring more value to a company.