Agents: Who Has One? Who Needs One?

January 21, 2007

Today more dancers than ever rely on agents to get auditions, guest appearances, and tours.


When classically-trained Kim Craven showed up to audition for talent agency Kazarian/Spencer & Associates in Los Angeles, she had on the standard uniform of her profession: leotard, tights, and a French twist. Perfectly respectable, very Freed of London. At the end of the day, dance agent Victoria Morris approached her, saying, “You’re talented and versatile, but you cannot come in dressed like that.”


In the last 20 or so years, the services of an agent, once thought to be reserved for Hollywood actors and ballet mega-stars, have come to the rescue of Variety-scouring, audition-crashing, bad-outfit-wearing, out-of-work dancers. Today’s performers are finding that whatever job they’re looking for, whether it’s a Gap commercial or a Janet Jackson tour, an Equity show or Nutcracker guesting, they can find an agent who will cater to their needs. The dance agent cares about your technique, cares about your “look,” and cares about finding you a job—a dance job.


So who has a dance agent? According to Craven, now the dance supervisor of the national tour of Movin’ Out and formerly with Pennsylvania Ballet, nearly everyone. “In musical theater, up until about five years ago,” she says, “you could feasibly get an ensemble contract without one. There wasn’t much negotiation, minimum was minimum, and only the stars had agents. But things have become so competitive that now almost every ensemble person is represented. The bottom line is: It would behoove you to have one.”


The same applies in film, television, music video, and musical artist tours, and to a lesser extent industrials, cruise ship and theme park employment. Dancers looking for jobs need agents to get them into “invited calls”—audition notices that go directly to the agencies and not to the trade magazines or dance-school bulletin boards. “It’s about being in the loop,” says pioneering agent Julie McDonald of McDonald Selznick Associates in Los Angeles, the first talent agency to represent only dancers and choreographers (for commercial gigs). “I’m not saying you’re cut out of auditions if you don’t have an agent—most choreographers don’t do that. But if you don’t have an agent by the time you’re 20 or 21, I hate to say this, but you’re probably not that good.”


For ballet dancers, many of whom look for work during off periods, agents represent a small but hopeful move towards the take-charge attitude of the commercial talent agencies. While uber-agent Peter Diggins represents some of the biggest names at American Ballet Theatre—he helped arrange the connection that set up Ethan Stiefel as the new artistic director of Ballet Pacifica in California—other agents dealing with classically trained artists are finding jobs for stars of the lesser firmaments, who are no less eager for extra performing opportunities and the money that comes with them.


“Our main focus,” says Todd Fox, agent and owner of Elite Dance Artists Management, “is short-term engagements—guest artist dancers.” Although Fox’s clients are primarily of principal caliber, the roster has expanded to include all ranks of dancer to meet the demands of ballet companies unable to afford the price tag of more established professionals—everything from students right out of school to corps dancers in small, regional companies. “A lot of dancers who are in companies as corps de ballet and soloists are fantastic, but for whatever reason, haven’t been promoted yet or given that type of respect,” Fox says. “I’m more concerned with how they dance.” That, and if they’re men. The bulk of the requests that Fox gets at the agency are for “tall guys who can lift.”


Besides finding and negotiating guesting contracts, an agent can also arrange airplane tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, and rehearsal time—things that dancers unaccustomed to self-promotion and with little time for logistical details would rather have someone else worry about. “All of that is taken care of by my agent,” says Benjamin Lester, who dances with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. “And to not have that hassle is worth every penny.”


Not having to talk money is also a big motivation for seeking out representation, one that dancers agree is worth their agent’s commission fee (usually 10 percent). “As a performer,” continues Lester, “you don’t want to upset the wrong people by asking for too much. For my agent, it’s nothing personal, it’s business.”


So how does one get a dance agent? Most agents agree on one thing: Get a recommendation. It might be from an established teacher or choreographer, a director or an experienced colleague—someone who can vouch for your talent and work ethic, and preferably someone the agency knows. Ballet agents rarely accept new clients without one. All the dance subdivisions of the major commercial agencies in Los Angeles also ask for a formal submission that includes a cover letter, color photo, resume, and videotape or DVD. Contrary to popular belief, glossy professional photographs are unnecessary. But, according to Kristin Campbell-Taylor, dance director at DDO Artists Agency, a well-written cover letter doesn’t hurt. “It might give me that incentive to look at someone’s materials,” she says. “Especially when we’re seeing so many submissions and so many dancers and there’s so much competition.”


The commercial agencies also hold auditions several times a year. Some are open call, and some are by submission only. Auditioning is a good way to get seen by an agent, especially for dancers without access to recommendations. Terry Lindholm, McDonald Selznick’s dance director, says he usually looks for a few critical elements. “Dance ability, obviously, is the most important thing. But also, do they have a great look? Do they understand how to audition? And how do they interact with people and how are they going to interact with the agent?”


Nikki Pantenburg, whose first job through an agency was a spot on a Janet Jackson tour, cites versatility as one of the keys to getting an agent and being successful in the commercial dance world. “It’s the best way to go if you want to work in L.A. because a lot of dancers can only do one thing—hip hop or jazz,” she says. “And for most of the things I’ve done,” she says, “which include television commercials, music videos, award shows, as well as a recent dance sequence on the TV series, That ’70s Show, I’ve had to know a bit of everything.”

Veteran ballet agent Mark Kappel values seasoned professionalism in clients. “I happen to respect experience,” says Kappel, whose roster includes Nilas Martins of New York City Ballet and Lauren Anderson of Houston Ballet. “I might be sending these dancers to civic ballet companies where there could be less than ideal conditions, and if someone is not experienced, they may not be able to handle those situations.”


Fox, too, demands professionalism in the dancers he takes on, and when he reviews applications, he looks for details that will help him make that assessment. “I always get resumes that list productions, but don’t list artistic directors, coaches, ballet masters—people who I can call and say, this person looks good, but how is his work ethic? I want to be able to assure employers that the dancers I send out know exactly what to expect. They may be dancing with students or what have you, and they’re not going to act like prima ballerinas.”


While dance is obviously an art form, the agents will tell you that it’s also a business. As Lindholm says, “If you want to think about it in the simplest terms, I’m not making money unless the dancers are making money.”


Kim Okamura, a former dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.