Jobs Guide: Beyond the Strip
Gamblers aren’t the only people who are flocking to Las Vegas. With the Canadian invasion of Cirque du Soleil and Celine Dion, more and more dancers are placing their bets on Las Vegas with the hopes of big money, glamour, and a lifestyle that may be what every dancer dreams of—stability. Is it a mirage? Are they merely blinded by the bright lights? What dance opportunities really lie in that glittering desert of hope? What kind of compromises must a dancer make? In order to discern reality from illusion, let’s take a look at the rapidly changing terrain.
Las Vegas has long been a haven for pretty girls with nice figures and minimal dance training, and older dancers step-touching to make a decent salary. Though Las Vegas has had its own ballet company, Nevada Ballet Theatre, for 25 years, and more recently the modern dance company Threshold Dance Theater, the growth in jobs comes from the entertainment industry. Over the last decade the dance opportunities have broadened in volume and diversity. Sin City has mastered the three R’s: Reliability—for every casino there is a show, and the good ones enjoy longevity; Revenue—the pay is fair to fabulous, and the benefits are better, as they are provided by the venues (usually a hotel-with-casino) not the production; and Routine—with consistent work, a performer can afford a life with style.
In a city that is truly 24 hours, the schedules for stage productions are somewhat codified. Most present 10-12 shows in a 5-6 day workweek. The dancers are in by 6 and out by midnight. Barring rehearsals to restage, clean, or plug a new dancer in, the cast has their days free. They go to school, start second careers, raise children, work out, take class, or chill. With 6-12 month contracts, those who have worked for 2-3 years own their cars and homes. This is the third of the R’s—routine, living a softer lifestyle.
The American showgirl made her Vegas debut 50 years ago when the Stardust Hotel imported her to the desert with the reproduction of Lido de Paris. Donn Arden’s Jubilee at Bally’s Casino, celebrating its 25th year, is a typical Las Vegas show. Though restaged, it is the original production and is all about old glamour: feathers, lashes, and sequins—and a little flesh for fantasy. Jubilee definitely offers the three R’s. “A dancer can have a regular life here, a house, kids, family,” says associate producer, the indefatigable octogenarian Fluff LaCoque.
Dance captain Suzanne Wilham-Swanson met her husband in Jubilee, and they have just bought their first home. A former ballet dancer, she says she misses the variety of a changing repertoire. Though the show requires no great technical feats, it has its own skills sets, like navigating a mountain of stairs wearing plumage. “When people complain about dancing in heels, I think, you haven’t spent the day in pointe shoes.”
Enter the Ingenues
Two recent grads of Marymount Manhattan College who moved to Vegas last summer have had very different experiences. Kimberly Zicherman made it to the final six in Cirque du Soleil’s New York audition. “Cirque is really my dream, but it’s a waiting game. You could get a job tomorrow or it may take four years.” She has no interest in doing a “showgirl” show—“It’s just not my thing.” Currently she bartends and has found an artistic oasis through Stephan Reynolds, a cast member of Cirque du Soleil’s O who teaches a contemporary class at Backstage Dance Studio.
Cheryl Petersen, on the other hand, is not so choosy. Within two weeks of arriving in Vegas, she landed a six-month on-call contract in a showgirl show. “The idea of making a living performing and not having to be a nanny intrigued me,” she said. “My lifestyle is everything I could want, my apartment is four times larger then my studio in Manhattan, and I don’t have to work every hour of the day to survive. I have a social life!” There’s that third R again!
The juggernaut Cirque du Soleil has five shows running in Las Vegas: Mystere, O, Ka, Zumanity: Another side of Cirque du Soleil, and The Beatles LOVE. Although the Cirque employs hundreds of performers, there are only 36 roles for dancers within these five productions.
Since introducing Mystere in 1993, Cirque definitely upgraded the three Rs. Though not union, the compensation is on a par with Equity touring salaries, including five weeks vacation, full benefits, physical therapy, acupuncture and chiropractic services on site. When you’re hired for the creation of a show, you get a standard two-year contract and one-year renewal later. LOVE’s S’fiso Mavuso is enjoying the first two R’s—reliability and revenue—after freelancing for years. “It gives you a bit of freedom,” says Mavuso, who is from South Africa. “When you have a little security you can concentrate on other things.”
Ugandan-Canadian Arthur Kyeyune of ZUMANITY acknowledges the changes. “With shows like ZUMANITY, Celine Dion. and Havana Nights, properly trained dancers from the best schools and companies all over the world bring a true artist’s soul to a city desperate for one.”
Florence Gaillard, a former Béjart dancer now in the cast of Mystere, says the shows are grueling. “You have to be healthy, in shape. If you slip you can forget it, there is too much competition,” But for her life plans, it’s worth it. “I wanted to focus on my future,” she says. “This is the first time I have lived in one place. I have time for myself, less stress.”
If you are part of the larger Cirque network, you can advance within the organization—to dance captain, casting, choreography, or coaching. An internal support program called Crossroads aids performers transitioning to other careers.
The Great White Way has traveled Route 66 and taken up residence on The Strip. Mamma Mia (at the Mandalay Bay), Toni and Tina’s Wedding (Rio), and The Phantom of the Opera (The Venetian) are unionized productions. The only catch is the first R—reliability. These tend to run only two to three years.
Actors Equity contract includes six months of per diem and a one-year housing allowance in addition to the standard benefits. It was enough to entice former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal Donald Williams, now a lead dancer in Phantom. “This is the most consistent dancing I’ve ever done,” he says of the 10 shows a week. “In a ballet company we don’t do ‘runs.’ There are rehearsal periods, touring and breaks.”
Williams is wary of the distractions. “I don’t think I would come here if I didn’t have a job,” he says. “It would be hard to stay focused when all the vices are in your face.” With Phantom’s open contract there’s the option to renew, albeit without the per diem and housing stipend. “This year works for me, but I have a mortgage back home, so I don’t know… .” But he’s loving that Jacuzzi in the morning!
A Seriously Cushy Gig
Is Celine Dion’s A New Day… a new dawn for Las Vegas or is it a Halley’s Comet? Not since Elvis has there been a headliner with more clout. The Franco Dragone production, choreographed by Mia Michaels, demanded high quality on every level. They were ready to pay for it, and finally that included the dancers. Easily the sweetest gig on the Strip until it closes this December, it has a five-day work week, one show a night, 40 weeks on and 12 off (Dion wants her down time), and a salary that is “very competitive.” A chiropractor, masseuse, and physical therapist are on site. Barring restaging rehearsals, the dancers are called at 5:30 pm for notes and walk-through and are out of the theater before 10 pm.
Some cast members don’t know what to do with all the free time. Mark Swanhart says he feels “domesticated.” The cushy lifestyle for him has eradicated the struggle, once the source of his creativity. “Today I did the dishes, mowed the lawn and made a cheese plate for a party; yesterday I weeded.”
However, other New Day dancers have used their free time well. On breaks Alejandro Altamirano often returns to his native Chile to work. The show, he says, “has opened so many doors.” He was asked to choreograph and perform on a Chilean version of American Idol. Naomi Stikeman, in her time off, has made a short film about dance that has been shown in film festivals.
A Budding Cultural Scene
Although the opportunities for dancers in Vegas have mushroomed during the last few years, all shows are not created equal. Hopefully the differences in compensation will eventually level out. Meanwhile, the three R’s have formed the foundation for a community of artists. “The atmosphere of arts and culture in dance epicenters around the world are at its infancy stage in Las Vegas,” says ZUMANITY’s Arthur Kyeyune. “It’s like being in a grassroots dance company.” If you build it, they will come. One has to hope that great dancers who go to Vegas stay in Vegas!
Theresa Ruth Howard is a faculty member at The Ailey School and has been a guest teacher for the cast of
A New Day. She currently dances with Armitage Gone! Dance.