Your Career: Should You Start a Company?
How choreographers decide
Jessica Lang sought advice from Mark Morris before launching her company. Photo by Takao Komaru, Courtesy Jessica Lang Dance.
Jessica Lang succeeded as an independent choreographer for 15 years, creating many works on ballet troupes such as Joffrey Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. But she began to wonder how the benefits of having a company would change the quality of her dances. “I wanted to know what it would be like to work with the same group of dancers, who were willing to embody my vision,” says Lang. She got exactly that in 2010 when she won a residency at The Joyce Theater, where she was given time, space and $25,000 to just play. After gathering a group of six dancers, Lang went to work. “I gave all of the money to the dancers, and had 240 hours to pretend to have a dance company,” she quips.
Dancemakers today have endless possibilities for how to structure their careers. The company model still works best for some, and companies now come in all forms, from full-time to pickup, project-based and loosely organized. Other artists prefer to come and go without the added administration of an organization. Understanding the challenges and benefits of each option can help you decide what’s right for you and your work.
Today, Jessica Lang Dance boasts 10 dancers with 30-week contracts, a full-time executive director, part-time staff and a robust touring schedule, which includes a two-week stint at Jacob’s Pillow this August. Recently, they had their Brooklyn Academy of Music debut, performed at the Kennedy Center and traveled to Istanbul. “It’s surreal, and still daunting,” admits Lang, who also continues to work as a freelance choreographer. “At 40, I have the experience as a choreographer. I could not have done this when I was 24.”
Before making the company leap, Lang sought advice from Mark Morris and Nancy Umanoff, executive director of Mark Morris Dance Group. “I knew they created such an incredible organization and I went to them seeking insight,” she recalls. Having and keeping a mentor has proven critical to Lang’s success, but you need more than mentorship to make it work. “You have to enjoy the business end,” she says. “Also, be up on your state laws.”
Philadelphia- and New York-based Gabrielle Revlock, 34, considers herself part of a generation of dancemakers who never seriously considered starting a company. “The trend is to stay independent,” she says. “I want to work on a small scale, keep a light footprint and be available to take on projects that interest me.”
Revlock leads a busy life as a dance artist that includes dancing with Jane Comfort and Leah Stein, in addition to her own work and her collaborative choreographic projects with Nicole Bindler and others. “I apply for a ton of opportunities, because I know that most I won’t get,” she says. Her attention to sustainability permeates the way she structures her rehearsals. For instance, in the past she’s created sections of work that could be rehearsed separately. “Things are always changing in the dance world,” she says. “I want the freedom to jump on whatever is best for me.”
She’s the first to admit that it’s a juggling act, dancing for other people and doing her own shows while managing touring, grants and residencies. “You can’t guarantee how much work you will have, so I made sure early on to establish some savings,” she says. “I also try to not take a job unless I really want to do it. It’s important to keep commitments because many projects lead to other projects.”
For Danielle Agami, launching Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY was about giving her devoted dancers a professional setting and access to a long-term process. “It had a lot to do with the need of local dancers to have a home for their dancing,” she says. She settled in Seattle at first, and after half a year relocated to Los Angeles with six dancers in tow. “Location is key. L.A. has so many opportunities,” she says. “Yet, it’s not overcrowded with dance, either.”
Today, with eight committed dancers, Agami operates with no paid staff and the grace of brave presenters who are willing to give her a chance. Even though the company is project-based, it has remained busy in its hometown, and toured to Moscow, Atlanta, Houston, Portland and Seattle.
Agami is frank about the difficulties of maintaining a company in today’s money-scarce environment. “The lack of staff and funds are problems, but still the hardest task is to sell the tickets,” she says. But for her, the decision to become a professional company came before the funds. “We are like a family,” she says. “It feels natural, yet it’s demanding to run a company. There have been some amazing and maddening moments.”
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
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."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
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.
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."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you: