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Socializing with your company's donors
When patrons linger at an after-party to celebrate a performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group, Lauren Grant, who’s been dancing with the company for almost 20 years, shows up to greet them. “I really like meeting donors because they obviously like the work enough to pledge some of their money,” she says. “Not every dancer in this group does that, and we are not asked to do that.”
Once upon a time, dancers were required to schmooze—and more. The dark side of ballet history in particular reeks with century-old accounts of ballerinas who were expected to sleep with their male patrons. Although this extreme policy no longer exists, the uncomfortable “pay for play” idea still lingers in corners of the dance world.
As a professional dancer, you will be invited to social functions where you can interact with donors. While these events are not mandatory, you might feel obligated to volunteer your time and celebrity to cultivate sponsorship. Some artists, like Grant, enjoy these parties. But newer dancers might wonder if they have to go, what to say when they’re there and how to handle inappropriate behavior if a patron crosses the line.
To Go Or Not To Go
When you sign a contract with a professional company, the agreement focuses on your responsibilities in the studio and onstage. But because American dance companies receive little government funding and rely on private sources for financial stability, they market you—the dancer—to help drive interest and contributions. “Dancers are an organization’s most potent resource,” says Janis Goodman, former chairperson of Pennsylvania Ballet. “Funding has become so difficult that companies focus their efforts on individual donors and how to seduce them.”
While dancers are not obligated to help raise money, you might be concerned that refusing to schmooze could negatively affect your career. That’s not entirely so, says Atlanta Ballet executive director Arturo Jacobus. “It could be hurtful if you are aloof and reluctant to engage. But it’s a gray area,” he says. “At the end of the day, the dancer’s career is made by how they dance.” Performers are hired for their talent, but companies want to work with people who are also friendly and willing to go above and beyond to help the organization. Companies cannot overtly criticize dancers for refusing to do so, and the day-to-day consequences for dancers remain unclear. But, the big picture is easy to see: Unsatisfied donors means unhealthy companies, and unhealthy companies means no places to dance. It’s a risk that’s on everyone’s mind.
Perks and Dangers
There are great advantages to attending donor functions. “Connecting with people could lead to future opportunities,” says Vanessa Zahorian, principal at San Francisco Ballet. Through her friendships with longtime donors, Zahorian has broadened her network, met Olympic athletes and posed for a sketch artist whose designs might be used in a future SFB collaboration. Grant has also had positive experiences, exchanging ideas with people who are enthusiastic about her work. “It can be isolating being stuck in the studio all day,” she says. “Donors can give an outside perspective about the pieces you’ve been slaving over.”
But there are times to be wary. “There’s a definite line between donors and dancers,” says Zahorian. “I’ve always been cautious not to tell everyone about my personal life.” Grant knows of a dancer who received excessive, unwanted attention. “It’s tricky because a donor might have access to the people who work within an organization,” she says. “Contact information has to stay private so that dancers are not hounded in any way.”
Be aware of situations that could become extreme, such as stalking or sexual advances. It is okay for patrons to follow your career at the theater and presence on social media; it is not okay for them to smother you or make inappropriate comments. Jacobus remembers an incident in which a dancer reported that a board member was singling her out at events, and he addressed the situation right away. “If you ever feel uncomfortable, tell someone immediately,” he advises. “Go to human resources. It’s management’s responsibility to do something about it.”
Keep Your Eyes Open
Mingling with strangers might be the last thing you want to do at the end of a show or in the midst of a grueling season. Socializing can often feel like another performance. But recognizing the people who support you could be win-win: They appreciate your efforts, and you are showered with flattery.
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.
Onstage, Clifton Brown is a force of nature. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer joined the celebrated company at 19, in 1999. In 2011, he left to dance with Jessica Lang Dance and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company before returning to Ailey last year. Brown has been trying his hand at choreography on the side, but this week his first larger work—a commission from The Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent—premieres on a program of new works by choreographers who still perform.
Brown will take a day or two away from the Ailey company's rigorous tour schedule to see TWB dancers perform his Menagerie, danced to Rossini's Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major, at Washington, D.C.'s Harman Center for the Arts. We caught up with him last week in Chicago.
Once Adriana Pierce caught the choreography bug as a teenager, dancemaking came naturally. More difficult was navigating the tricky situations that would arise when choreographing on classmates and friends. "If a rehearsal didn't go well, I'd worry that people didn't respect me or didn't like my work," says Pierce, who went on to participate in the School of American Ballet's Student Choreography Workshop twice, at 17 and 18. "I had a lot to learn: how not to take things personally, how to express what I wanted, when to push and when to back off."
Choreographing on your peers can feel intimidating. How can you be a leader in your own rehearsals when you're dancing at the same level the rest of the time? How can you critique your cast without hurting feelings? Avoiding pitfalls takes commitment and care, but the payoff is worth it.
Ever since we heard that Michaela DePrince's memoir, Taking Flight, was going to be a movie, we've been on the edge of our seats waiting for more info. Almost three years later, it's been worth the wait—we just learned that the Queen of Pop herself will be directing DePrince's biopic.
"Michaela's journey resonated with me deeply as both an artist and an activist who understands adversity," Madonna said in a statement. "We have a unique opportunity to shed light on Sierra Leone and let Michaela be the voice for all the orphaned children she grew up beside."