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By Victoria Looseleaf
4 dancers on their breakthrough gigs
With unemployment still high, these are tough times all around, no less so for a dancer. Competition is stiff, not only because there are more dancers who are better trained (the jump higher/turn faster syndrome), but also because many dance companies are hurting economically, with troupes hiring fewer dancers or folding completely.
But it’s not all gloom and doom: Where there’s a will, there’s a plié! Dance Magazine spoke to four working dancers whose winning combination of talent, timing, and perseverance landed them jobs they love.
Katricia Eaglin, 31, has been a member of Dallas Black Dance Theatre for seven years. A Dallas native, Eaglin had wanted to join the contemporary troupe since she was 14 and first saw them perform. But the road to the 12-member company, founded by Ann Williams in 1976, wasn’t easy.
“I auditioned four times over five years,” recalls Eaglin, who majored in dance at the University of North Texas. She would take class with DBDT whenever possible. “I wasn’t willing to take no for an answer, so I did everything in my power to make it happen.”
Part of that included becoming a charter member of Dallas Black Dance’s second company and performing with them for three years. After graduating college, Eaglin auditioned for a third time, but Williams told her she needed to be “more consistent.”
“I was slightly devastated, but in 2005, my fourth audition, I finally got into the main company,” says Eaglin, who is also in her second year as assistant rehearsal director. “I was relieved and very happy.
“I like that I can do everything I’m capable of,” she adds. “I can dance, I can direct, I’ve been given opportunities to choreograph, and I enjoy the fact that I’m continually finding more ways to grow as an artist. I knew it was the start of a journey.”
The journey for Caroline Diane Wilson was a bit more circuitous. Now in her first year in the corps of San Francisco Ballet, Wilson, 19, began her training in Colorado Springs, but she also attended a 2007 summer intensive at SFB’s school.
“I’d never seen them perform live before, only on YouTube,” recalls Wilson. “I would stand in the doorway and watch them rehearse. That’s when I decided this was the company for me. I kept dreaming about coming here.”
But before Wilson realized her dream, she made a slight detour, to Stuttgart, Germany. After being named a national finalist and scholar at Youth America Grand Prix, she received a full scholarship to attend the John Cranko School. Wilson was then accepted into the John Cranko Ballet Academy, a two-year, intensive postgraduate program.
But it seems the young dancer had left her heart in San Francisco. After sending a DVD and resumé to SFB, she was asked to fly from Germany to take company class for three days. “It was nerve-racking,” admits Wilson, “but after those three days they offered me a job and I signed a contract on my 18th birthday. It was the best birthday present ever!”
Wilson says she missed her graduation performance at Cranko, but that was a small price to pay. “San Francisco Ballet is an amazing company, and I never envisioned it happening. But after I went to their summer intensive, I had a feel for the company. Timing is important, too,” she adds. “Some years companies aren’t hiring or they’re looking for a different type of dancer.”
At 5' 4", Wilson says she might not have snagged a job overseas, as European troupes were looking for taller dancers. As for dancing with San Francisco Ballet, Wilson says the perks are many, including working with fellow dancers she admires. “I watch and learn from them. I also love how appreciative the audience is. I feel connected to them—that we’re providing an escape.”
Wilson also relishes the different styles the dancers are asked to perform, as well as working with visiting choreographers. “This is my first job and there are so many talented dancers out there who don’t get the opportunity. I just feel I was in the right place at the right time.”
Jillian Barrell, a rising star with Ballet Arizona, also acknowledged serendipity as a factor in helping her land a job. She began training in her home state of Delaware, and also took summer courses with various troupes, including Princeton Ballet and Orlando Ballet. When the young dancer was a senior in high school, she was spotted in a spring performance by former Ballet Arizona dancer Judith Adee-Leppek.
“I’d auditioned for a handful of places—Pennsylvania Ballet, the Joffrey, Ballet West,” recalls Barrell. “Then I made an audition video that I sent to loads of companies, including Ballet Arizona. The only offer I received was in 2007 from Orlando Ballet. They said they would give me a scholarship and I should come to their summer program—that they might accept me into their second company.”
Then fate stepped in. Two days before Barrell was to leave for Orlando, Ballet Arizona’s director Ib Andersen called and offered her a job, in part based on Adee-Leppek’s recommendation.
Explains Barrell: “It turns out that at the last minute, Ib needed another woman. He took a chance on me, even though I hadn’t had experience anywhere. It’s kind of unreal and I’m still so happy to be not only dancing every day, but that someone’s paying me to come in, rehearse, and perform. That’s what I like—pushing my body, trying to do this better, that better, do bigger roles.”
And though Ballet Arizona’s dancers aren’t ranked, Barrell, who says she “started at the bottom,” performed Cinderella last October and Aurora in February. Barrell has also been singled out by The New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay for her “radiance and clarity” as Dew Drop and Sugar Plum Fairy.
Now in her fifth season with the troupe, Barrell, 23, says she initially wasn’t aware of what being a professional ballet dancer entailed. “I came from nowhere and still feel like I’m learning how to look like a ballerina, how to perform like one and do the acting part of it. I’m challenged to be better every day.”
Barrell admits that “I didn’t know what to expect when I got here.” But now she says simply, “This is awesome. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Awesome is as awesome does, and for Ramona Kelley, also 23, nothing could be better than dancing the role of Betsy in the touring production of Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away. Kelley grew up in Berkeley, California, and moved to New York in 2006, graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2009. Two years ago she auditioned for the Tharp show, but didn’t get the gig.
Undaunted, Kelley freelanced, dancing for small contemporary ballet companies, as well as taking classes “all over the city.” Meanwhile, in another kismet moment, Laura Mead, a friend who had attended the same ballet school as Kelley (Berkeley Ballet Theatre), and had danced the original role of Betsy on Broadway, put in a good word for her colleague last spring.
“There were two six-hour days of auditions,” says Kelley, “and Twyla was there. I had no idea what part it was for and, in retrospect, I think that was a good thing, because you can get more nervous. I’d seen the show on Broadway and it became obvious they were looking for a Betsy.
“I was surprised and thrilled,” exclaims Kelley. “To be part of this show is huge and also doing Twyla’s choreography. It’s the best of both worlds, Broadway and concert dance.”
Kelley, who says the job will last through the summer and could be extended, adores her ingénue character. “The role challenges me, with lots of floor work and inverted cartwheels, handstands, and ballet technique. This is my first big full-time job,” she says, “and getting the job has taught me that you don’t really know what the offer could be. But when it came, I was ready for it.”
Indeed, these four dancers have much in common. Talent, determination, hard work, and a bit of luck helped them land satisfying, career-making jobs. Oh, yes, there’s one other shared quality: a positive, can-do attitude.
Victoria Looseleaf contributes to the Los Angeles Times and KUSC-FM radio. She also teaches dance history at USC.
From top: Katricia Eaglin of Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Photo by Brian Guilliaux, Courtesy DBDT; SFB’s Caroline Diane Wilson. Alberto Leopizzi, Courtesy Wilson; Jillian Barrell of Ballet Arizona. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy BAZ; Ramona Kelley, touring with Tharp’s Come Fly Away. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy Come Fly Away.