The Hardest Talk

December 15, 2015

Find the right way to fire a dancer.

Brian Brooks leads a class at Jacob’s Pillow. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Brooks.

Just before his work premiered at the Young Choreographer’s Festival in New York City in 2014, Steven Blandino hired a dancer who had been recommended to him, even though he did not know her. At the last minute, the dancer told Blandino she had another obligation and couldn’t make it to the final rehearsal. “I could either sacrifice some of my piece or I could pull her out and try to fill her spot with a dancer I really trusted,” Blandino says. He let her know that if she didn’t attend the final rehearsal she could not perform in the show. While the dancer insisted she could miss the rehearsal and still do it, Blandino stood his ground and told her that she was not making the show a priority and that made him too uncomfortable to allow her to continue.

Most choreographers will have to fire a dancer at some point during their career, though they may find themselves unprepared to face this tricky task for the first time. “No one teaches you how to handle these situations,” says Blandino, now in his senior year studying commercial dance at Pace University. Often, in larger union companies, there are clear times set in the spring for the delivery of the next season’s contracts. While it is possible for a dancer to be fired mid-season if the infraction is extreme enough, the most common form of firing is simply not receiving a contract renewal. Likewise, in the contemporary-dance world, many smaller companies work from project to project, allowing a choreographer to end the working relationship by simply not asking a dancer to join his or her next project. But sometimes you can’t wait until the end of the contract, no matter how short-term the agreement.

Laura Peterson, whose small contemporary company Laura Peterson Choreography has been making evening-length dances since 2007, recommends beginning the tough talk with a thank-you. Be specific about the reason you
need to let the dancer go, sticking to the professional rather than personal in order to get the message across without crushing them. Keep the meeting as concise and clear as you can and be open to receiving the dancer’s feedback.

For Ana Maria Lucaciu, being fired from the now defunct Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet was sudden and upsetting. After rehabbing from ACL surgery following a debilitating kick to the back of her knee in rehearsal, she returned to the stage for the company’s Joyce season. When the run was over, she was told her contract would not be renewed, but she was welcome to take a job as the company’s receptionist. In hindsight, she feels the company’s encouragement of
her rehabilitation made the reasons for her firing seem disingenuous. “I think that a conversation about their concerns regarding my injury should have taken place and a trial period should have been offered knowing my work ethic and commitment to the place over the seven years I was there,” says Lucaciu.

In an effort to avoid a confused situation similar to Lucaciu’s, Brian Brooks, of Brian Brooks Moving Company, is up front about what a project will require of his dancers. He’s spent the last decade developing a written document that sets up clear expectations and responsibilities for both the dancers and himself. This means setting realistic hours, conduct and communication guidelines as well as what dancers can expect from him as a boss, including payment, feedback and availability. Additionally, he has hired a dancer representative, who acts as a liaison between the company members and Brooks, to help address any minor problems before they balloon into major emergencies. He meets frequently with his dancers to air concerns. This process allows the dancer to know if they are not meeting expectations and gives them a chance to turn it around. When there is a breach of guidelines, the check in time gives him a chance to follow up with the dancer and resolve the issue. “The setup,” says Brooks, “helps the departure if that has to happen.”

While it can be hard to not hurt feelings in the immediate, you can avoid burning bridges if no one is surprised by being let go. “Honor the work,” advises Peterson, “meaning you should be thinking about the dance you are making more than the personalities or other issues.” 

Why Fire? A List of Dancer Do-Nots

While each company is unique in its demands, here are some of the common reasons directors cite for giving the pink slip:

1. Missing rehearsals.
Having to reschedule because of you will ultimately be a financial liability. Unless you are sick, honor your commitment.

2. Chronic tardiness.
Don’t be disrespectful; plan commute time into your schedule.

3. Toxic attitude.
How you work in this collaborative art form counts as much as your soloist abilities.

4. Unpreparedness.
Take extra class, review choreography on your own or cross-train so you can match the pace, strength and skill level of your colleagues.

5. Poor communication.
If a company or project is not a good fit for you or your schedule, be honest and communicate with your director about your need to make a change before you exhibit any of the above behavior. “There are times I have had lovely people in for a short while and it just wasn’t a good fit,” Laura Peterson explains. “That’s how it goes sometimes.” —CT

There Are No Dumb Questions!

Not all choreographers and companies have clear dancer guidelines like Brian Brooks Moving Company. Are you confused about what is expected of you as a dancer and employee? Ana Maria Lucaciu’s bad experience has taught her to thoroughly assess a contract before signing, and ask questions if there is something in the agreement or in the working relationship that is unclear. —CT