Lost Your Job? That's Great!

 

 

 

Like looking down the first plunge of a roller coaster, or being on an elevator when the wires are cut—that’s how Holley Farmer describes the sensation of learning in February 2009 that her contract would not be renewed after 13 blissful years with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The executive director told her the decision was based on artistic reasons. But the late choreographer himself let her know privately that letting her go was necessary for the company to stay afloat financially. (Two other lead dancers were also let go.) To Farmer, the rationale didn’t really matter. “I was in torment,” she says. “I felt so betrayed.”

 

Fast-forward to September 2009, when Farmer debuted a principal role in Twyla Tharp’s new musical Come Fly With Me in Atlanta (now titled Come Fly Away; see cover story). “It’s the first time I’ve played a character in over a decade,” she says. “It took a lot for me to step onstage wearing a blue satin dress and a boa!” Farmer credits Tharp for challenging her to expand her artistic horizons—something she never expected to do at this advanced stage in her career. “I had to let go of that identity as a Cunning­ham dancer. It was through her mentoring that I was able to see a differentreality for myself.”

 

Farmer believes getting fired was a blessing in disguise. “After working with Merce all those years, I defined myself that way and felt I was defined by it,” she says. “Now I realize that Merce was just part of my journey.”

 

With the recession causing budget cuts across many companies, layoffs are an ever-present anxiety for dancers today. But even in sunnier economic times, there’s always a chance you could lose your job. As scary as that seems, those who’ve been through it often find it instills resilience and exposes a side of themselves they never knew existed. The key is being open to unforeseen opportunities and trusting the age-old adage that everything happens for a reason.

 

That’s the mantra of Kansas City Ballet member Deanna Doyle. She’s currently in her sixth season with the company, but back in 2003—after being hired and then abruptly fired by Karole Armi­tage (who had not yet founded Armitage Gone! Dance)—she feared she would never dance professionally. Doyle recalls how her “whole world shattered” when she got the news that her contract was being terminated due to a lack of funds. The experience at such a young age (she was 22 and had just graduated from the University of Kansas) was emotionally devastating. Luckily, the relationship she’d cultivated with the director of the dance department at her alma mater paid off. Even though she was no longer a student, he helped her land the lead in a ballet being choreographed by William White­ner, artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, who soon offered her a company spot.

 

Now Doyle sees being laid off in a whole new light. “I’m actually glad it happened because it’s such a better fit for me,” she says of KCB. “I grew up studying ballet, tap and jazz. If I had stayed with Karole, I wouldn’t be able to dance Dewdrop in The Nutcracker and The Cow­girl in Rodeo.” Add to that a principal role in Armitage’s Arctic Song, a new work the choreographer set on Kansas City Ballet (and personally cast) last May. As Doyle puts it, “In this company, I can do it all.”

 

Of course, finding a new job isn’t always so easy. When Lindsay Purrington was let go from Pennsylvania Ballet last February after two and a half years in the corps, she dreaded getting back on the audition circuit. “It was difficult to go to so many cattle calls,” she says. “I was one of the oldest people there, and not everyone is looking for experience.” Purrington estimates she sent her resumé, DVDs, and press clippings to a dozen companies before receiving an offer in June from Carolina Ballet, where she had been a founding member in 1998. Today she is a second soloist and thrilled to be performing more than ever before. “It’s great to be part of new works and create roles,” she says. And yet she recognizes how instrumental her previous jobs were in paving the way. “I wouldn’t be the dancer I am now without Pennsylvania Ballet. I grew technically and artistically.”

 

For Jennifer Goodman, a veteran of the Joffrey Ballet whose contract was not renewed when it expired in June 2009—after 16 years with the company—the transformation was psychological as well as physical. “It’s kind of like going through a breakup,” she says of coming to terms with the decision of Ashley Wheater, who became artistic director in 2007. “I completely understand him wanting to make changes. I represented the old Joffrey.” Still she struggled not to take it personally. Part of what helped her get there was landing a pair of prestigious freelance gigs: She’s been dancing with The Metropolitan Opera in Carmen and Aïda (“There were 300 women at the audition and they picked five—that really boosted my self-esteem”), and the eight-member company BalletX, based in Philadelphia. She also dances with Avi Scher & Dancers in New York. “What I’m loving is that I’m being respected for my age and experience,” she says. She’s adopted a new life philosophy. “I’ve given up on trying to control things. Some people like you and some prefer a different look or style. I used to dwell on what I don’t have. Now I dwell on what I do have.”

 

She continues: “BalletX is more contemporary than what I’ve done, so it’s fun exploring that.” Goodman was so intent on using this experience to stretch herself as an artist that she auditioned everywhere, from Amsterdam’s Het Nationale Ballet to Cirque du Soleil.

 

Farmer can relate: “When Twyla first came to me about the role in Come Fly With Me, I was as bemused as anyone. I had to trust her vision for me, because I couldn’t see myself doing what she wanted me to do. It required a huge leap of faith.” Now she’s reaping the rewards of taking that risk. “On a daily basis I get to do movement that fascinates me.”

 

For these four women, it was a combination of determination, drive, and faith in the future that inspired them to persevere—and catapulted them to a better place. The lesson they learned is that just because a career transition is forced doesn’t mean it can’t be fortuitous. “Anything that happens to you—regardless of whether it was your choice or not—becomes part of your story,” says Farmer. “And this story for me has had a very happy ending.” She pauses, then adds: “And a beginning.”

 

Elaine Stuart, a former dancer, has worked as an editor at Modern Bride and Child magazines.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021