Why I Became a Dancing "Super Commuter"
What lengths would you go to in order to further your dance career? For some of us, we're willing to build our life and work in two separate cities to make our wildest dreams come true.
I recently learned that there is a term for people like me who travel between two major metropolitan areas. We "super commuters" make the choice to ride regional buses and trains up to six hours round-trip, multiple times a week, in hopes of furthering our careers while maintaining our lifestyles and affordable rents.
This ambitious career style is not for the faint of heart.
I moved to Philadelphia to dance with BalletX in 2011, after seven seasons with Pacific Northwest Ballet. After an injury, the company released me from my contract mid-season. My husband had just started an organizational business after I uprooted him 3,000 miles for this job, so I felt pressure to remain in the city that had only recently become our home. But a lack of opportunity in Philadelphia pushed me to seek work elsewhere. I turned my gaze two hours north to the capital of the dance world, New York City.
I began commuting between the two cities up to five times a week. While this has required a great deal of dedication and caused a fair amount of back pain, the rewards have come back to me ten-fold.
In my first six months of commuting, I was hired at Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center as guest faculty. I also became head of the contemporary dance department at Greenwich Ballet Academy (a 50-minute train ride north of New York). Additional opportunities have come in the form of choreography commissions for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative at Columbia University and chamber ballet company CelloPointe, plus master classes for the Second Avenue Dance Company at New York University, and speaking engagements for the Actors Fund|Dancers Resource, Gibney Dance's D.E.E.P. series and Hunter College.
Rehearsing Columbia Ballet Collaborative. Photo by Eduardo Patino, courtesy Kerollis.
In 14 months of super commuting, I've gained new inspiration that I wasn't finding in my home dance scene.
I've also found that I'm not the only dance artist who does this. After months of sharing the same barre in Nancy Bielski's morning pro ballet class at Steps with a lovely dancer named Catherine Gurr, we ran into each other on my regular 8 a.m. Bolt Bus. She has also been making the trek to stay in shape for auditions while studying comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I wasn't, and still am not, sure what the future would hold, so this is a good way to prepare for a life outside of dancing while also preparing for a dance career," says the former Ballet West trainee. By super commuting, she's gained connections in New York, received greater feedback at auditions and even obtained a few freelance performance opportunities along her way. This summer, she will travel across the country to dance with a regional ballet company where she is being considered for an apprenticeship.
The author and Catherine Gurr after morning ballet class with Nancy Bielski
One common thread found among super commuters is how keen we are in using our time in transit strategically. You are actually more productive when confined to a seat without distraction for hours on end. I use the bus ride to catch up on lost sleep and work on my podcast, Pas de Chát: Talking Dance, and blog, Life of a Freelance Dancer. In fact, I wrote this story while traveling.
Dancers are best known for their physical endurance. It should come as no surprise that our kind also possesses impressive emotional drive as well. Many artists are willing to do most anything to live out their dreams. Though it takes a special kind to travel far and wide.
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: