A former dancer with Milwaukee Ballet Company, Candice Thompson received her MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She is a co-founder of DIYdancer, and currently based in Atlanta, GA.
Having just returned to New York City after a couple weeks of guesting in Southeast Asia, American Ballet Theatre principal Daniil Simkin is in rehearsal for the lead role in Alexei Ratmansky's latest creation, Whipped Cream. In between this brief rehearsal period and ABT's Metropolitan Opera House season, Simkin will be using any days off to travel for other guest performances. That is, when he's not in production meetings or rehearsing in Chicago or New York for his own project premiering at the Guggenheim in the fall, or preparing his debut as Albrecht in Giselle for an ABT tour.
"If I have an hour break between rehearsals, I try to get my work done for the day," says Simkin. "There are emails, meetings, fundraising, a lot of administration stuff with the Guggenheim project, delegating, checking in—'Will Dior do the costumes?'—and then I might get a guesting invitation and then I have to check my schedule, book flights and hotels."
Daniil Simkin's Intensio project. Photo by Jim Lafferty
Multitasking has become the new normal in the concert dance world. Many dancers, not just international stars like Simkin and Misty Copeland, are adding freelance careers on top of their regular company commitments. It seems like most artistic staffs have come to accept and even embrace this type of branching out, citing artistic growth for the dancers and marketing benefits for the company as their dancers grow more visible.
But the question remains: How much can one dancer juggle while maintaining both health and sanity—and still satisfying their commitments as a company dancer?
Dancers didn't always operate this way. "There was a different culture when George Balanchine was alive," says former New York City Ballet soloist and BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang. "People were extremely focused on their main job and work with Mr. B and Jerome Robbins." Even though big stars were able to guest, there weren't many opportunities for rank-and-file company dancers.
Los Angeles Ballet's Zachary Guthier and Smuin Ballet's Erica Felsch at National Choreographers Initiative. Photo by Dave Friedman.
Today, there are more guestings, galas, pickup troupes and other side jobs available all over the country and abroad. And the thinking inside many companies has evolved to encourage this outreach.
"This career goes so quickly; as much experience as you can get is good," says Liang, who took leave from NYCB to do Fosse on Broadway and dance with Nederlands Dans Theater during his own career. Today, he tries to hook up his dancers with outside projects, like the National Choreographers Initiative, whenever he can. "When they come back they are richer, deeper, more creative, even more engaged in the company."
Anthony Randazzo, ballet master at Boston Ballet, where several dancers like Lia Cirio participate in and manage side projects, agrees. "It is a chance to grow," he says, "and that helps strengthen the company, which is a win for everyone." He admits that there are challenges when a dancer asks for a day off during the season, but is quick to point out that if it can be accommodated, the benefits of the opportunity usually outweigh the extra work required to manage scheduling and rehearsal flow.
For some dancers, performing outside work just makes financial sense. Since few contracts are year-round, summer and side projects can keep up their technique as well as cushion their bank accounts.
But physical therapists warn that taking on too many projects can come at the expense of rest. Dancers have to be careful not to overwhelm their bodies if they already have a demanding rehearsal, performance and touring schedule. However, Simkin feels that the variety of styles his guestings generate has actually kept him healthier and less prone to injury.
Not all dancers go after this extra work. For instance, New York City Ballet principal Sterling Hyltin turns down such offers during the season in order to help preserve her work-life balance. "I can't physically do any more," she says. "I have had seasons where on Mondays I would be doing a photo shoot, or once I flew off to Russia for a weekend gala, but then I wound up without a day off. Some people can operate that way, but it hasn't been good for my body or my mind."
Instead, Hyltin finds ways to further her artistic growth and recharge herself by doing things besides dance—reading, going to museums and walking her dog. While she understands that other dancers in the company find fulfillment in performing on Broadway and elsewhere, she feels completely nourished by the opportunities she already has at NYCB.
Sterling Hyltin, photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB.
Making the most of these career choices comes down to defining what success means to you. "Different dancers have different visions of success, whether it be galas and medals versus being a part of a company, or simply doing fashion photo shoots in their spare time," says Randazzo. "The trick is to find what might have a deeper meaning for you."
"There were absolutely times I felt left out when I was younger, when I felt like it was a form of competition: how many galas, how many modeling gigs you have," says Hyltin. "You can really get down on yourself, but you have to find a certain amount of healthy exposure. Decide what works for you. If you spread too thin, all your work can become less meaningful."
Luckily for Simkin, his workaholic schedule seems to suit his personality. "I get to do what I love, I get to travel and live a good life," he says. "You can always be too tired and feel like you are juggling too much, but our careers are too short, so I enjoy spreading myself out." However, now that he is scheduled for the next two years, Simkin admits that he's added something new to his to-do list: downtime.
Fog envelops you as swans and sylphs flash right past your shoulder. This is Peter Leung's Night Fall, a new virtual reality 360 dance film featuring Dutch National Ballet. It puts you inside the "white acts" the film portrays as though you were a member of the corps.
Over the past year, ballet companies and premier artists have been creating new work and adapting existing ballets for the virtual reality world via 360-degree video technology. From English National Ballet's Giselle VR, a two-minute adaptation of Akram Khan's new production, to The Royal Ballet's snow scene from The Nutcracker, classical ballet is forging new partnerships with technology and entertainment companies to cross over into this new platform.
360-degree video technology offers unprecedented access and astounding visuals. Using an omnidirectional camera or several cameras, every angle is captured and the resulting footage stitched together. During playback online, the viewer has the option of exploring the entire panorama.
But for choreographers used to the distance of proscenium stages and a clear sense of front and back, working with this new medium poses creative challenges. When Leung began creating Night Fall for DNB, he placed himself in the middle of the studio and choreographed out from the center. "The only way to learn was to do it," he says. "I told the dancers 'Your audience is now the camera.' " Even more challenging than working in the round was figuring out where to be during filming, so that he could see the take but also be out of sight: "There were two cameras, one on a fly bar coming down from out of the sky and another on a tripod at eye level. I hid behind scaffolding and boxes in this large warehouse so I could see parts of the dance."
In a time when entertainment options seem endless and dance companies are eager to court younger audiences, VR 360 offers a fully immersive experience. ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo views this as a necessary part of ballet's evolution. "Ballet, more than any other art form, has the ability to be reinterpreted and transformed, and this is vital to drive our art form forward," said Rojo in a press release. Yet the question remains, Can this technology capture new audiences for concert dance or will it become an art form all its own? For now, the possibilities of both are intriguing. "There is something so sacred about the theater, nothing can replace it, so my hope is that VR can become an access point, a reason for people to go to see a show," says Leung. "But if some people just appreciate it for VR, that is cool, too."
Worried your feet aren't good enough for a professional ballet career?
Good news: Most people, let alone dancers, have enough range of motion to go on pointe, says Mandy Blackmon, a physical therapist for Atlanta Ballet.
"It is almost always a strength problem," she says. "Floppy or flat feet may be the result of weak intrinsic foot muscles."
Strengthening these tiny muscles can help improve your line, as well as your balance, proprioception and the way you absorb the shock of jumps. Here are two of the best exercises to practice:
The Classic Towel Pull
Sit or stand with your feet in parallel, toes on the edge of an unfolded towel. Balancing on your heels, lift all 10 toes and spread them out on the towel. Use your toes to grab the towel and pull it in towards you while keeping your arches lifted. Repeat until all the material has been gathered. You can also try reversing the process—lifting the arches, curling the toes in, and then spreading the towel out as your toes extend.
Sitting or standing with the whole foot on the floor, press down into your smaller toe knuckles and pull your large toe knuckles in a little closer to your heel, causing your arch to lift. Try to keep your toes long and straight.
To make it harder, try doing it with your toes lifted off the ground.
"A better-looking foot is not just a range-of-motion issue," adds Blackmon. "What most dancers are after when they want 'better feet' is more about strength and support of the bony structure."
To that end, Blackmon recommends that dancers stretch their calves as well as pushing their pointe. Having a good range of motion in dorsiflexion (flex) and plantar flexion (pointe) is key to keeping feet and ankles healthy, and tight calves can restrict movement in your ankle joint.
A block in either end of your range—whether flexing or pointing—can be an early sign of injury. Get treated before you develop compensations, says Blackmon. Soft-tissue work in the calves and mobilizations performed by a physical therapist can open up your range of motion and keep your limbs healthy.
Want to try a new summer intensive? How do you find out whether a program will be a good fit if you don't know anyone who went there? “We tell our students that faculty is a big factor, the ratio of students to teacher is important for quality instruction, and performance opportunities are great but not the be-all, end-all," says Nancy Davis, founder and co-artistic director of The Portland Ballet in Oregon. Before you sign up for a new program, research this information to assess whether a school offers what you're looking for.
Suss out the style.
One benefit to a new program can be experimenting with an unfamiliar style. While some intensives state up front that they teach a particular technique, others—particularly those not affiliated with a high-profile school or company—may not flag their stylistic emphasis. But program websites offer a lot of clues. Read the bio of the intensive's director (a good indicator of whether, say, Vaganova or Bournonville lies in their background) and the program's mission statement. Look at the regular faculty's bios to see where they danced. Also take a peek at the repertory. A big draw for The Portland Ballet's program, for instance, is its relationship with The George Balanchine Trust. Dig into its press clips, and you will find that students have performed iconic works like Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.
Read the schedule.
Many students want as much training as they can possibly get in a day. “To pay for six weeks and only get a couple classes a day is not worth their while," says Westside School of Ballet artistic director Martine Harley, whose program in Santa Monica, California, has students dancing four and a half hours a day. Some programs even offer optional classes in the evening, if you are still standing at 6 pm. Generally, schedules are posted on the website. See how many hours of class is standard and whether you can add on extra ones.
Look at classes offered.
Serious about your technique? Be alert to specialty classes like Turns, one of the many offerings on The Portland Ballet's schedule along with music appreciation, dance history and career talks.
Check on class size.
If you are in a studio with 35 other dancers, you may not get the personal attention you need to improve. While most programs do not list their class size, look at the website descriptions and photos (and if necessary, be prepared to call and ask).
Find out if you'll perform.
Some students want stage experience from their intensive. If it is unclear whether there's an end-of-workshop show, or if there is no information about what repertory will be chosen for your level, ask. Even if it feels pushy, it's better to know than end up disappointed. Have your questions prepared ahead, and be polite and professional. You will show your maturity by making clear you take the experience seriously.
Imagine yourself there.
Nearly all the big programs use dorms, which offer camaraderie and social opportunities, not to mention meal plans. Smaller programs sometimes offer host families for out-of-town students instead. Depending on the school's location, there may also be affordable short-term rentals. Make sure you have housing, food and transportation mapped out so that you will have everything you need to concentrate fully on your dancing. Plan with an eye to making sure you will not end up feeling isolated.
Search alum bios.
Where do the school's graduates end up? Are they winning competitions? Getting hired by major companies? Often, some of the more famous alums may show up as guest faculty, such as New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck for the Westside School of Ballet. If a program is relatively unknown to you or your teachers, check out its track record to see where past students have landed.
Katie Gibson remembers a particularly trying time from her early days in a ballet company: “We were rehearsing a story ballet exploring the history of America's addictions," says Gibson, who has most recently performed with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Ballet NY. “I was cast in the '80s section, dancing the mambo and miming doing lines of cocaine, complete with mirrors and little straws." Gibson's younger self was horrified to be pretending to do drugs onstage, especially when in her heart, what she really wanted was to be dancing Balanchine's Concerto Barocco.
Almost every dancer has had to perform work that made them cringe—whether they hated the subject, the movement vocabulary or the piece altogether. These ordeals can challenge even the most professional among us. However, it is part of your job to figure out a way to grin and bear it. “You are not a dance critic, you are a dancer," says Sean Stewart, veteran American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet member. “Your job is not to decide how much you like a piece. Your job is to do it." Yet in order to get it done without going crazy, you may have to dig deeper into your artistic process.
Find a Way to Relate
Micaela Taylor, artistic director of The TL Collective in Los Angeles, finds that creating a relationship to the story behind the movement can help you engage with unfamiliar work. While dancing for BODYTRAFFIC, she had trouble connecting to some of the repertory. “I am an African-American woman, and I felt like I couldn't relate to the story historically," says Taylor of a work by an Israeli man. “But I eventually connected to the piece by delving into the physicality of the gestures and creating a strong female character through them."
For Stewart, doing a little research helps him relate to material that may not be speaking to him immediately. “There are a number of reasons why you may not connect with a certain project," he says. “It could be personal or it could be that you haven't been exposed to enough of the inspiration." Educate yourself on the choreographer's body of work, and explore any source material for the piece. There might be something you can use to develop a better relationship to the movement.
During a tech rehearsal, Gibson was able to sit in the audience and watch her peers perform the ballet she had previously dismissed. She could see how entertaining the work was and enjoyed the experience of watching it. “How a ballet feels is totally different than the audience experience, and as a dancer, you are getting only one little piece of it," says Gibson. Taylor uses a similar tactic when she is in the front of the room and can sense her dancers might not be getting it. “As a choreographer, I will sometimes have my dancers step out of the piece one at a time and watch it, to see the whole work and not worry about their eight-count," says Taylor. Changing your perspective could end up changing your attitude.
If none of these tactics work for you, it just might be time to laugh a little. “The easiest way to get through a tough work is with camaraderie," says Gibson. “Don't make fun of it, but find moments to have fun, joke, enjoy, because rehearsals will be horrible otherwise." Even though dance is competitive and requires a lot of focus, try not to take a discouraging project too seriously. “Everyone has moments where they need to release tension and talk about not liking something," says Stewart. But he cautions against dwelling. “The shorter amount of time you complain the better. Most people want to have a good time, and you don't want to be there suffering." Try to find some social time outside of the studio that can help take your mind off work. Your friend with the desk job may even remind you that, love or hate an individual dance, you are lucky to have the opportunity to perform onstage for a living.
When to Call It Quits
“I always try to eliminate my desires and remember that ultimately, it is the choreographer's work and vision," says Micaela Taylor, who has spent several years as a dancer in Los Angeles. “But if the situation still doesn't work, you have to come to terms with it." Consider the consequences if you need to bow out of a particularly negative experience. “When I was younger, I found myself in a place where I couldn't emotionally handle an atmosphere or the personality in charge," remembers ABT's Sean Stewart. “A decision like that certainly redirects your career." Talking to someone you trust can ensure you have explored every other option before making a final decision.
Ballet school heads have shifted in the wake of changing company leadership.
Miami City Ballet School. PC Pavel Antonov, Courtesy MCB.
The change in artistic directors at both The Washington Ballet (where Julie Kent took over this year) and Pennsylvania Ballet (led by Angel Corella since 2014) has set off a chain reaction of new school directorships. Among the transitions this fall, Arantxa Ochoa departs The School of Pennsylvania Ballet to become Miami City Ballet School’s new director of faculty and curriculum and Xiomara Reyes will head The Washington School of Ballet.
The Washington School of Ballet
When it was announced in April that Kee Juan Han would be stepping down as director of The Washington School of Ballet to return to his native Singapore, Kent asked the recently retired American Ballet Theatre principal Xiomara Reyes to apply for the position. Reyes’ husband, Rinat Imaev, a company teacher at ABT, is also joining the school as senior faculty and company teacher. The couple brings with them an international training background (Cuban, Russian and Belgian), and Reyes plans to keep the syllabus an amalgam of influences. “I am very excited and nervous for this challenge,” says Reyes. “But I feel ready and we are prepared to do our best. They have a very good infrastructure, which makes me feel safer, and Kee Juan helped introduce us to how the school works.”
While they do not have plans to make any sea changes yet, Reyes and Kent are interested in forging a stronger connection between the school and company. Reyes adds, “It is very important for the kids to be closer to their idols, the dancers from the company, and to give them that kind of nourishment.”
Miami City Ballet School
After 20 years within the Pennsylvania Ballet organization, as a dancer and then school director, Arantxa Ochoa made the tough decision to leave her home. “I was doing my thing with the school, and Angel and I didn’t talk about making any changes, so my leaving came as a bit of a surprise,” says Ochoa. “But it was time for me. I am extremely thankful to the organization and so proud of the kids; they are the hardest to leave.”
Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez initially approached Ochoa when she was auditioning teachers for the summer intensive and was interested in having Ochoa teach. She later offered her the larger position and Ochoa realized it was a perfect fit. “I remember watching Lourdes when I was at School of American Ballet and she was in New York City Ballet,” says Ochoa. “I think she is an incredible woman making great choices. When I look at those dancers who can do everything and are all individuals, I am inspired to do the same with the school, to create dancers who can dance like that.” Ochoa will be taking on a bigger school, with more students, and a faculty that is mostly unknown to her. Like Reyes, she has a goal of developing more students for the company. Ochoa also wants to make Miami City Ballet School a training destination for the next generation of dancers and plans to maintain her passion for developing theatricality and stage presence.
The School of Pennsylvania Ballet
Anastasia Babayeva and Denis Gronostayskiy will be replacing Ochoa at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet as co-principals. Both are graduates of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Russia and co-founders of the Academy of International Ballet in Media, Pennsylvania. Babayeva and Gronostayskiy are the latest in an array of changes made by Corella at Pennsylvania Ballet in the last year as he seeks to expand the company beyond its Balanchine roots.
It took Taeler Cyrus three tries before she found the right agent. She was performing with Ailey II when she signed with her first. “I got a couple of commercial gigs, but I wasn't able to make it to auditions regularly, so that one let me go," says Cyrus. On a recommendation from a friend, she found a new agent. “I didn't get enough direction from them," remembers Cyrus. “I let them go because of the lack of relationship." On her third try, Cyrus met her match at McDonald/Selznick Associates talent agency. Three years later, Cyrus has booked gigs from “Saturday Night Live" to a Kanye West video to her most recent job dancing in the ensemble of An American in Paris on Broadway.
Dancers of all genres seek out representation to help them find commercial opportunities and book gigs for film, television and Broadway. Finding an agent to represent you—and getting work once you have secured one—has as much to do with talent as it does with hard work and availability. Agents represent performers, submit for auditions and negotiate contracts for dance jobs, while managers deal with overall career management, from leading a public relations team to negotiating contracts for non-dance gigs. Though some managers may act in the same capacity as agents, most work for dancers when their career has appeal beyond the world of dance.
Who Needs Representation?
According to Lakey Wolff, a dance agent with CESD Talent, there are two categories of dancers that can benefit from having representation. The first type are dancers looking for work who are professionally ready. “You have to know that out of 100 people, you will likely be the one to book the job," says Wolff. The second type of dancer is already employed in a professional company for most of the year, but is willing to make herself fully available during any layoff period. Some agents and managers will not work with dancers who have full-time employment with a company, but many do. “If the dancer is 100 percent willing to communicate when she is off and available, I will submit them," explains Wolff.
What Do Agents Do?
Agents communicate with casting directors and are in the know about opportunities, auditions and upcoming projects. They submit your headshot, resumé and other materials to casting and can often schedule invited calls or general meetings beyond the required open calls. If you make it through to the final callback but don't book a job, they will try to get feedback from casting directors to find out why and help prepare you for your next audition. Once a job is booked, they negotiate your contract and make sure you are paid correctly. A talent agency's cut is typically 10 percent of the dancer's total pay. For Cyrus, the advice on headshots she received from her current team at MSA, which includes four dance agents with different areas of expertise, was invaluable. “Getting the right headshot made the biggest difference," says Cyrus. “My agency helped me figure out my look. Now I look a little older and I can do more styles, from sophisticated to sultry." Agents are also there to push you. “It is my job to know a dancer's skills better than they do," says Wolff. “I had a dancer nervous about auditioning for Twyla Tharp, but I pushed her to go and she booked it."
Find Your Match
While some agencies have periodic open calls to find new talent for their roster, many agents look for referrals from casting directors, choreographers and other dancers. “I have been lucky in that I have found agents through recommendations," says Cyrus, “but I have been smart about who I've asked for help." Don't approach dancers who would be jealous or feel protective. Instead, ask friends of the opposite sex or colleagues who are not in competition for the same roles as you. Maybe they can recommend your upcoming show to their agent. Make sure you have a headshot ready and a reel that is easily accessible, so that anyone you do happen to meet is able to quickly see what you can do. “It is not just about getting any agent. You want to find the agent that is right for you," says Wolff. “The joke is that it is really like dating or finding a doctor." Agents can be as specialized or versatile as dancers.
Help Them Help You
Your agent or manager can only do so much—ultimately, your success is in your hands. “You have to be someone that people want to work with. I want to know if I send you to an audition, I am going to get great feedback," says Wolff. Be diligent and smart with social media. Go to class regularly and take workshops with choreographers you want to work with. Let your agent know who you've met and who's familiar with your work so they can make connections for you. If you're auditioning for Broadway, make sure you're working on your singing. “Dancers should know choreographers, teachers, who is getting cast," advises Wolff. There is no shortcut to doing the hard work. As Cyrus puts it, “A friend said to me once, 'Your agent only does 10 percent of the work.' "
Squire with Misty Copeland
What About a Manager?
Manager Gilda Squire first heard of Misty Copeland from a friend at a party. Her instincts told her that Copeland's story was unique, and she decided to approach her about signing as a client. It would be two years of nonstop work before their first endorsement opportunity came about. “Some dancers don't have extra time, but Misty is really great at multitasking," says Squire. Managers typically have fewer clients and, because of that, may sign dancers to longer contracts and take a cut larger than 10 percent. If you have both an agent and a manager, that means that 20 to 30 percent of your income will go to representation, so your career needs to be big enough to warrant employing such a team. “When I talk to dancers, I remind them that they must put in the groundwork first," says Squire. “Start building an audience, and use social media to make people more aware of what you are doing."
Angel Corella is moving to redefine Pennsylvania Ballet.
Corella (center) working with PAB principals Arian Molina Soca, Ian Hussey and Alexander Peters on Fancy Free. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.
In April, the ballet world was rocked by the news that nearly 40 percent of Pennsylvania Ballet’s roster would be replaced. Of the 17 dancers departing, 12 were let go. “These dancers have been with me for two years now, and it was a great opportunity to see which dancers would look into the future with me and respond to the new look of the company,” says Angel Corella, who became artistic director in 2014. That new look for the upcoming season will include some premieres for the company, such as Corella’s own Le Corsaire (which he says will be more in the Russian tradition), and new faces in all of the ranks, from international companies such as Ballet Nacional de Cuba (Dayesi Torriente) and American Ballet Theatre (Sterling Baca) as well as Pennsylvania Ballet’s school.
Some of the dancers leaving have questioned Corella’s commitment to the company’s Balanchine foundation. “It’s not the Pennsylvania Ballet I chose to join anymore,” says Lauren Fadeley, a former principal who left to join Miami City Ballet as a soloist. “The new energy revitalized us all, but ultimately the rep and direction were becoming so different from the Balanchine company it was founded to be.”
While Corella is looking to broaden the scope of the company, he says that the Balanchine core will not be lost in the process. He even hired former New York City Ballet stars Kyra Nichols and Charles Askegard as ballet masters last season. “There is a conflict I don’t see or don’t understand between Vaganova and Balanchine technique,” says Corella, who spent three years studying with Stanley Williams, the famous School of American Ballet teacher. “A good dancer is a good dancer. It does not matter the school. You have to be a chameleon.”
The repertoire for the 2016–17 season will include several Balanchine ballets, but they will be programmed into mixed bills with more contemporary choreographers like Nicolo Fonte and David Dawson. “Philly can’t support specialized companies like NYC does,” says David Hoffman, chairman of the board and the selection committee that chose Corella. “We can’t fill a theater with pure Balanchine programs for every show.”
According to Hoffman, Corella’s new approach has been just the change the 53-year-old company needed: Ticket revenue was up for the 2015–16 season, and the audience is getting younger and more diverse. “All the energy I had as a dancer, I have as an artistic director, and I am not letting the company rest,” says Corella. “People like to put everything in a box and say this is going to be like ABT, but the truth is that we are trying to be a unique company, and we have our own unique and demanding vision.”