Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
The first week of San Francisco Ballet's Unbound: A Festival of New Works was all about new ballets, with 12 world premieres by the likes of Justin Peck, Dwight Rhoden and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. The second weekend provided time to reflect, as artists and influencers gathered for "Boundless: A Symposium on Ballet's Future."
Dance Magazine sat in on two sessions.
The ballet world will converge on San Francisco this month for San Francisco Ballet's Unbound: A Festival of New Works, a 17-day event featuring 12 world premieres, a symposium, original dance films and pop-up events.
"Ballet is going through changes," says artistic director Helgi Tomasson. "I thought, What would it be like to bring all these choreographers together in one place? Would I discover some trends in movement, or in how they are thinking?"
The messages started coming in Monday evening. A concerned teacher was worried about several dancers she knew at American National Ballet—did we know what was going on? Later that night, more information started emerging on social media—and it was clear something was up at the Charleston, South Carolina–based company.
We've been interested in ANB since its debut was first announced in April—not only was it a brand new company, but one with close to 50 dancers, and some major names attached, like Rasta Thomas, Sara Michelle Murawski and Jessica Saund. The founders, Doug and Ashley Benefield, had few ballet credentials but they made an encouraging promise to highlight diversity, hiring dancers of different body types and races. A story in Charleston's The Post & Courier reported that they had a strategic business plan to support the company through for-profit ventures such as a licensing enterprise, a dancewear line and an academy.
Fewer choreographers are hiring from auditions. So what’s the best way to secure work?
Casey Loomis (fourth from right) took three intensives and auditioned twice before Doug Varone hired her. Photo by Jim Coleman, courtesy Varone.
The idea of networking can send dancers into a panic. You’re not sure how to do it, what to say or when to say it. And when you do approach your favorite choreographer and shake their hand, your palms are sweaty and your words of admiration stutter out of your mouth. (That is, unless you are the rare dancer who actually communicates verbally as well as you do through movement.)
Yet as the dance landscape changes, and troupes shrink and shift toward project-based models, choreographers have become less dependent on cattle calls to hire dancers. Instead, many prefer to work with people they know and trust—people with whom they already have a relationship. “Ninety-nine percent of the time I hire dancers I already know,” admits choreographer Doug Varone. “I’ll always hold an audition out of fairness to the dance community, but I usually have my eye on dancers that I’m already familiar with.”
Put Yourself Out There
The first way many dancers think to get in touch with choreographers is over e-mail, with a resumé, head shot and performance reel. But if you haven’t yet established a relationship, your letter will most likely be tossed aside. At best, you’ll get a reply from an assistant about taking an open class.
So take one—or 20. Having your name remembered means showing your face months before audition day, and becoming a loyal presence. Get into a choreographer’s classes, as well as any classes his or her dancers may teach, because their opinions often come into play during the hiring process. Even better, take the company summer intensive.
But once you’re in class, relax, and don’t treat it as an opportunity to impress whoever is at the head of the studio. “If I approached classes as auditions it would deplete me so quickly. It disempowers the dancer,” says Casey Loomis, who joined Doug Varone and Dancers in 2014. “The class has to be for you, too. There’s gotta be a balance.”
Joe Goode suggests interested dancers ask to help out with a project. Photo by Kinsburg Hall Staff, courtesy Goode.
San Francisco choreographer Joe Goode agrees: “Focusing all your attention on me is a bit of a turnoff.” Often, when dancers put networking faces on, they aren’t showing their truest selves. Part of the reason choreographers take their time before hiring a dancer has nothing to do with technique, but with personality and work ethic: how you apply corrections, learn material and work with others.
Make Your Intentions Known
Once you’ve become a regular, go up to the choreographer after class and introduce yourself. Most welcome it—or at least they don’t mind if it’s done appropriately. “In the moment I always think it’s a bit of an annoyance,” admits Goode. “ ‘Oh no, not another person telling me they love my work.’ But in reality, you have to put it in the back of my mind. The one that has spoken to me is the one I remember.” Make sure the conversation is genuine and informed. “Keep up with the work that I’m doing,” says Dwight Rhoden, co-artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. “Know what my old work looked like and where I’m going now.”
As time goes on, stay in touch. But there’s no need to remind them of your presence each week. “I’m a private person, so I usually run away from people who hunt me. And, oh, I’ve been hunted,” says Varone. “There are people who always want to talk to you after class and constantly want feedback.” Asking for special treatment, like taking company class, can be touchy and will depend on the choreographer’s personality. Northwest Dance Project artistic director Sarah Slipper says she generally doesn’t have the time to open up her company class; Rhoden says go ahead and try: “The worst I say is no.”
Show your interest outside of the studio, too. Go see their shows, and if it feels natural, approach them after to tell them you enjoyed the work. “ ‘I particularly
Sarah Slipper: "Don't email me 'To whom it may concern.'" Photo by Blaine Covert, courtesy NWDP.
liked this aspect’ or ‘I was really drawn to the moment when this happened.’ Make some kind of intelligent insight,” says Goode. And “let me know when you’re performing,” says Varone. “Or if you’re a young choreographer, tell me when your work is being shown. That tells me a great deal about your dancing.”
Another way to stay in the loop: “Ask to help with a project. It could be as simple as volunteering to run an errand or help out backstage,” says Goode. “But do it because you’re interested in being near the project, not because it’s your moment to shine.”
Keep Your Options Open
If you feel like you’ve been following a choreographer for a long time without any results, it might be time to move on. “I’m pretty honest with how I feel about a dancer,” says Rhoden. “Maybe their pointe work isn’t strong enough or they’re at a certain age and just haven’t developed to a certain technical level.”
Very few dancers’ paths to their dream companies are short. It took Loomis three Doug Varone and Dancers summer intensives and two auditions with Varone, one for the company and one for the Metropolitan Opera, before he hired her for the Met gig. He asked her to join his company two years later. In the meantime, she says, “have an interest in a lot of different things, or rejection will destroy you.” Keep pursuing your goal, but continue to learn about new artists and expand your net. For a lucky few, longtime dreams come true. But more often, they shift as you grow. Chances are you’ll end up right where you belong.