Few people who are busier during the holidays than corps members of American ballet companies. December is officially Nutcracker season—a company's chance to earn a huge chunk of their revenue for the year, and a dancer's chance to go a little, ahem, nuts, waltzing and swallowing fake snow night after night for weeks on end.
But Nutcracker can also be an opportunity like no other, and for some corps members, it's the highlight of their year. Five dancers told us what helps them get through it all.
There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
Most dancers' second careers involve something like teaching dance. Or choreographing dance, or photographing it. But Travis and Mallory Walker went in a totally different direction.
Yet the couple sees winemaking as an extension of their dance life.
"There's not as much makeup involved and the costumes are a little different, but you still have an audience you hope that you move in some way," says Mallory. "You put a lot of work into it, but when the performance comes, or the wine comes out of the barrels, you never know how it will be received."
Recently, he's been posting clips of Gelsey Kirkland rehearsing Don Quixote, most likely taken a couple years after she joined American Ballet Theatre. You can watch her breaking down each step, working with her ballet coach David Howard as well as a flamenco coach, and giving herself notes by speaking directly to the camera.
Froman says the full footage is about an hour long (he acquired it a couple decades ago when he was still dancing for New York City Ballet). "When watching the entire disc, what becomes obvious is the inexhaustible, obsessive detail work," he wrote me in an email. "She sets the bar extremely high and I'm not sure she was ever equaled. All that Balanchine technique is still alive in her body, and she's very good to bring all the flamenco influences into her interpretation."
These days, it's hard to scroll through social media without seeing a beautifully produced dance video. While artists and companies may have once relied on flyers and posters to promote their performances, video has become the most effective way to reach the broadest audience possible. But with so many high-quality videos competing for attention online, only the most compelling content stands out from the crowd—and converts to ticket sales.
A dancer once contacted me because he was devastated after walking in on his girlfriend with another man. While he was distressed about ending the relationship, he was most concerned about a major performance coming up. They had to dance a romantic pas de deux. When I met with them together, she was afraid he would drop her and he didn't want to look lovingly in her eyes. My role was to help them find ways to make magic onstage and keep their personal difficulties offstage. They ended up dancing to rave reviews.
Dancers are human, which means they're bound to make mistakes from time to time, both on and off the stage. But what happens when those mistakes burn bridges? In an industry so small, is it possible for choreographers and performers to recover?In a moment of vulnerability, three-time Emmy Award winning choreographer Mia Michaels opened up to Dance Magazine about some of the bridges she herself has burned, the lengths she's gone to in order to rebuild and the peace she's made with the new direction her career has taken because of them. —Haley Hilton
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Why is it so hard to find another passion like dance for my next career? I've tried to prepare by taking vocational tests at Career Transition For Dancers and online college courses. But I keep hitting a dead end.
—Life After Dance?, Los Angeles, CA
I don't understand why I've lost my motivation to dance at 20 years old. My parents have always encouraged me to have a life plan and ask continuously how my pre-professional training program is going. I feel crushed by their expectations. I'm actually relieved when I get injured and can't dance, even though I miss it.
—Confused, Nashville, TN
Between long rehearsal days, performances and hectic touring schedules, it can be hard for professional dancers to plan for their post-performance careers while they're still onstage. This fall, that changes for five American Ballet Theatre principals. Stella Abrera, Isabella Boylston, Cory Stearns, James Whiteside and Gillian Murphy have been chosen as the first dancers to participate in Crossover Into Business at Harvard Business School, a semester-long program designed for professional athletes.
Last year, Crossover Into Business program director and HBS professor Anita Elberse was developing a case study on ABT, and reached out to the company executive director Kara Medoff Barnett, an alumna of HBS. "Anita mentioned the Crossover Program as an experience that has been transformative for professional athletes," says Barnett. "We looked at each other and had the same idea: How about inviting the ABT dancers to sit next to the NBA players?"
Few dancers are able to make a comfortable living from their creative pursuits alone. Many rely on non-dance freelance work or multiple part-time gigs, fearing that a full-time job would take too much time away from their dancing. However, plenty of artists manage to balance full-time day jobs with fulfilling dance careers, opting for the security, benefits and opportunity to learn new skills.
Adding another commitment to your already busy schedule may be the last thing you want to do as a college student. But assisting at dance conventions can offer valuable experiences you won't find in a classroom. Convention assistants help students pick up choreography and rub shoulders with industry influencers. For some, it's the perfect addition to their college experience—but balancing the demands of both isn't easy.
As a student, Katherine Barkman competed in several prestigious ballet competitions, and even won first place at the Youth America Grand Prix in Philadelphia. But at age 21, already a guest principal dancer with Ballet Manila, she decided to return to the competition stage as a professional. She found herself humbled by an experience at the 2017 Moscow International Ballet Competition.
"I was pretty intimidated, thinking, This is the big leagues, this is the Bolshoi Theatre," says Barkman, who was eliminated after the first round. "You are not just judged on how good you are for your age."
Competitions have long had a place in the training of young dancers, allowing them more opportunities to perform and learn under pressure. But even after you've secured a company contract, there are myriad benefits to putting yourself in front of judges.
Most people assume that for dancers to be successful, they have to be extroverts who feed off of constant attention. They figure that introverts don't enjoy being in the spotlight.
But don't let anyone tell you that just because you're introverted, you can't have a career in dance.
According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, the only real difference between introverts and extroverts is where they get their energy. Extroverts are energized by social interaction and drained by time spent alone, while introverts experience the opposite.
When news reached the Limón Dance Company that Colin Connor was replacing longtime director Carla Maxwell in 2016, the tight-knit group experienced a range of emotions. "Everyone agreed that fresh energy would be a benefit to the company," says veteran dancer Logan Kruger. But the excitement lasted only until the fear sunk in—there would be changes, and some of them might even include saying good-bye.
It's understandable to experience feelings of shock, fear and even abandonment if your director leaves. It's not just that you'll have a new boss—a shift at the top can have a domino effect on casting, programming, rehearsal structure and branding. Here's how to forge a relationship with your new director and take advantage of the opportunities that come from having fresh eyes on your dancing.
For many of today's top dance artists, summer layoff has turned into series of solo tours. We can often catch a peek on their Instagram posts, where their candor about the long hours, sore bodies and early morning flights to and from festivals does nothing to diminish the glamor of leaping through some of the most breathtaking venues. But these summer appearances are a feat of determination.
The dancers themselves meticulously organize these tours. They are in charge of fielding requests aligning schedules and flight itineraries, securing their own costumes and music, and then rehearsing for their guest roles—sometimes with an entirely new partner.
Many of today's savvy dance students are accruing practical skills alongside their bachelor's degrees. In particular, some pursue Pilates certifications to gain a deeper understanding of anatomy and kinesiology as well as the opportunity to earn high wages and work flexible hours. (New Pilates teachers make about $35 per mat class, and master trainers can make more than $100 per private session.) While teacher training at a studio can be expensive and time-consuming, more and more college dance departments are offering deeply discounted certifications.
I always dreamed of being a lead dancer. But since reaching my goal, I feel stuck performing the same bravura roles year after year. I want to do more expressive parts, too. How can I expand my range?
—Typecast, San Francisco, CA
Samar Haddad King lives in Palestine but regularly choreographs on dancers in New York City for her company Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre. While technology has helped her bridge an ocean, she has also found it useful when checkpoints and road closures make travel between Israel and Palestine difficult—if not impossible—for her local company members. Choreographing remotely has allowed her to keep creating despite physical barriers.
Though few choreographers are working with such difficult geopolitics, many are finding that constrained rehearsal schedules and budgets require some amount of remote work. Video conferencing and smartphone apps make it possible to at least share the same screen space. But there are pros and cons to creating this way. Choreographers and dancers can be freed up for more opportunities. Yet almost all would still prefer to be in the same room, collaborating in real time.
Here's how some choreographers are making it happen:
"So You Think You Can Dance" choreographer Christopher Scott woke up one morning last month, rolled over like he usually does to check his iPhone—and found a barrage of text messages and notifications. The very first text he read was from fellow "SYTYCD" choreographer Mandy Moore: "Congratulations!"
It turned out that he'd just gotten his third Emmy nomination for choreography. (Moore had received one, too.) "We find out at the same time as everyone else," says Scott. "Everything official from the television academy comes through the mail weeks later."
The Metropolitan Opera House is a stadium; an ornately lush stadium, but one nonetheless. The 3,800-seat challenge that American Ballet Theatre readily tackles is typically filled to capacity because of the stalwarts: Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, the classics that, without doubt, have stood the test of time and have brought people in droves to the Met.
A new commission is a risk best handled by the choreographers who can produce works that offer seasoned polish and dependability. Rarely is it given to an "unknown." And although, in the history of large commissions, there inevitably exists a freedom of creative impulse, that freedom must not reach too deep, for the fall off the cliff is steep and far. There is simply too much at stake: time, money, reputation.