Career

They Founded Companies—Then They Moved On. Here's Why.

Trey McIntyre Project's farewell performance at Jacob's Pillow. PC Christopher Duggan.

Starting and sustaining a dance company is not for the faint of heart. It often takes tremendous sacrifice in terms of time, energy and money. But it's not a life sentence. Arts organizations, like everything else, come to an end, and nothing could be more important to an artist's vitality than knowing when to call it quits. Even as the founder of a company, there is a graceful way to move on.


Why Stop?

For some directors, like Dance Exchange founder Liz Lerman, it's simply time to move forward. "I needed more freedom and the organization needed fresh vision and leadership," says Lerman, who left the company in 2011. Trey McIntyre ended his Boise, Idaho­–based troupe in 2015 to have time to expand his own artistic practice to include filmmaking and photography. "I gave every waking moment to that organization, and that is just not sustainable for a lifetime," he says.

McIntyre's company had achieved its aims, like building a base in a non-dance city and bringing dance into public spaces through spontaneous events. "For a nonprofit to end when its mission is completed is a great thing," he says. Sandra Organ Solis also felt she accomplished much of what she set out to do with Sandra Organ Dance Company (later renamed Earthen Vessels) during the troupe's 16-year run. "We fulfilled our mission, which was to educate and diversify the audience for dance in Houston," says Solis, who closed her company in 2014. "I saw that other companies were in place to continue our mission."

The Logistics of Leaving

McIntyre made the announcement several months before the company shuttered, leaving time to plan a farewell tour, give the dancers an opportunity to get new jobs and let the emotional dust settle. They enjoyed a tearful goodbye show at Jacob's Pillow, one of the first places where they performed.

"You can't imagine the number of loose ends that need to be taken care of in the dismantling of an organization," says McIntyre. "And there is a lot less help to get it done. The whole process took me about two years after the company had officially ended."

Lerman's situation was even more complicated as Dance Exchange owned a building, operated a school and ran several educational programs in addition to being a performance company. Lerman began to shift her position to other artists before she left, having them guide day-to-day programming and future visioning. This helped pave the road for a smooth transition, though the process took about 10 years altogether.

Lerman with Cassie Meador, current director of Dance Exchange

Second Chapters

Being free from board meetings, fundraising and keeping a flock of dancers engaged can allow founding artists to flourish in their new chapters. Lerman has started an academic career as an institute professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, where she teaches classes on the creative process. She recently began research for her newest work, with the working title Wicked Bodies, slated to premiere in the next few years.

Having time to do something other than make dances can be a reward in itself. McIntyre's documentary Gravity Hero is expected to appear at upcoming film festivals, and he continues to work on his photography books and his blog on the artistic process. His dance work is still performed all over the country, including a new work for San Francisco Ballet in 2018. He says, "The gift to myself as an artist to be able to make my creative work my priority is remarkable."

Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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A dance career can send you on a roller coaster of emotions, but evaluating reality can help give you perspective. Thinkstock.

I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.

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