The New Gypsies
Ballet dancers who call their own shots and carry their own bags.
Traveling by foot, train, and bus, Bonnie Pickard distinguishes herself from the average commuter by her swept-back hair, pointe shoes peaking from her dance bag, and street-meets-dancewear ensemble. In a single day, Pickard dances in three, sometimes four, different studios spread across New York City. In one year, she performs in a dozen companies, including The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, DanceGalaxy, and Chamber Dance Project. Though Pickard calls Washington, D.C., her home, she lives more than half the year out of bags, one of which carries three pairs of pointe shoes. Arriving at a studio in Greenwich Village, Pickard doesn’t waste any time. She selects a pair of shoes appropriate for the choreography and the studio’s scuffed floor. Then, like a bird taking flight, she propels her lithe body upwards and outwards, soaring into an arabesque. In that instant, Pickard demonstrates why the life of a ballet gypsy is enthralling.
Most ballet gypsies forego health insurance, financial stability, and the consistency of daily class in order to satisfy their thirst for new and artistically challenging work. In the past decade, as more ballet choreographers strike out on their own, a growing number of ballet dancers have become freelancers. Yet when these dancers make headlines or grace the world’s stages, seldom are they identified as freelancers. On closer inspection of a Playbill, however, their biographies reveal their multiple company affiliations. “Back in the day,” says Theresa Howard, whose recent credits include dancing for Armitage Gone! Dance, Donald Byrd, and Complexions, “people spent their whole life in one company.” Today, this is no longer the case. In conversations with Bonnie Pickard, Valerie Madonia, Sonja Kostich, Momchil Mladenov, Brian Carey Chung, Theresa Howard, and Sabra Perry, the seven ballet dancers revealed that the freelancing life is possible. (It’s been possible—even necessary—for many modern dancers for a long time.) These dancers serve as their own managers, administrators, and agents, and they are willing to live with uncertainty in order to work with choreographers and directors of their choosing.
“I was looking for something,” says Valerie Madonia, who left a 10-year soloist position at the Joffrey Ballet, “that would push the boundaries.” Today, Madonia dances with Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet in Boulder, Colorado and with Armitage Gone! in New York. Though she resides in Telluride, Colorado, with her husband and two children, she spends several months a year rehearsing and performing away from home. Formerly with American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, and Alonzo King’s LINES, as well the Joffrey Ballet, Madonia emphasizes the relationship between herself and a choreographer as a deciding factor. “Finding a situation where the director is respectful of you,” she says, “is crucial.”
Sonja Kostich agrees. When director Peter Sellars invited Kostich—who had danced with ABT, San Francisco Ballet, and Zurich Ballet—to perform in his opera Nixon in China, she decided to try freelancing. Recalling her experience with Sellars in 2000, she says, “Suddenly the work that I was doing was about the world. It wasn’t just about perfecting the step.” Five years later, Kostich doesn’t regret her decision to leave the safety of these ballet companies. Her experience with Sellars, modern dance choreographer Yin Mei, and Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project expanded her in ways that would not have been possible in a traditional ballet company. The downside, Kostich says, is that while she feels proud of the work that she has accomplished, many people don’t respect her decision to freelance. “In the past I would say, ‘I dance for ABT’ and there were no more questions.”
After performing with Dance Theatre of Harlem for one year, Theresa Howard also questioned a career based with one company. Looking for work that empowered her as both a person and a dancer, Howard left DTH. “I never had any choreographer address my intellect [there],” Howard says. Then in 1997, she worked with Donald Byrd. In Byrd’s rehearsal of Carmina Burana for the New York City Opera, he accused Howard of being unprofessional for stretching in the same space where others were dancing. Rather than apologize, Howard explained to Byrd that she was preparing herself to dance. She also told him that he was out of line. Expecting to be fired on the spot, Howard continued working. Byrd said nothing. “The more you thought for yourself,” Howard says, “the more he respected you.” Never to be mistaken for a shrinking violent, Howard then says, “We have to stand up for ourselves.”
Brian Carey Chung also requires respect from choreographers. His foremost priority, however, is self-respect. “My main goal is doing the right work for me and organizing my life around it,” says Chung, who danced with Alonzo King’s LINES for seven years and recently worked for Complexions, Dances Patrelles, and Armitage. Although Chung says, “I’m a freelancer by necessity,” he underlines that he will not dance for just anyone. Chung would rather forego health insurance and live with a roommate than perform uninteresting choreography. “When it comes to being an adult male in dance in America,” says Chung about his modest financial means, “it is very difficult.” Refusing to conform to conventional standards of success, Chung says, “As an artist you have to be flexible and inventive. You starve—not just physically but emotionally—if you don’t.”
Like Chung, Sabra Perry prefers performing a few months a year with Complexions and Dances Patrelles than joining a ballet company . Moving to New York City when she was 20, Perry left a corps position with the National Ballet of Canada because she found her prospects limited. Standing nearly six feet tall and dancing with a boldness that contradicts her soft voice, Perry supplements her income by teaching at Ballet Academy East. A dancer of few words, Perry says “Absolutely!” when asked if she would make the same career choices again.
“The place to freelance is New York,” says Momchil Mladenov, who came to Manhattan from Bulgaria in 2001. Mladenov remembers going to countless auditions that year, not just to be seen but also to take ballet class for free. A prize-winning classical dancer, Mladenov didn’t stay unemployed for long. While describing his current performance schedule, his black eyes twinkle and his thickly accented speech quickens as he rattles off a tour schedule of about 35 cities in the United States and abroad. Mladenov, who performed as a principal with the Bulgarian National Ballet for six years, says that he loves freelancing. “You have to be a fast learner,” he says, while claiming to have memorized a nine-minute ballet in one day. Despite Mladenov’s zest for travel, ease with living out of a suitcase (thanks to his laptop and cell phone), and joy of working with different choreographers and directors, Mladenov says that he would gladly end his freelance days if Suzanne Farrell’s company offered him full-time employment. “My first priority is Suzanne,” says Mladenov, who has been freelancing for Farrell’s pickup company since 2001.
For now, Mladenov moves from place to place. Last summer he performed throughout Japan with the all-male comedic ballet troupe Les Ballets Grandiva. In October, he rehearsed with North Carolina Dance Theater for a solo role based on Beethoven’s life. In December, he performed in Nutcrackers in a half-dozen cities. Recounting the time that he performed the Cavalier wearing a Hershey chocolate factory suit as his Sugar Plum had Hershey kisses dangling from her tutu, Mladenov says, “Not all gigs are glamorous.” Then he mentions that his performance fee, paid by The Hershey Company, was quite sweet.
When discussing health care, all the dancers’ voices sound tired. “I have to work right,” says Mladenov, explaining that he cannot get injured because he doesn’t have health insurance. Bonnie Pickard and Valerie Madonia, who are covered under their husbands’ policies, describe the stress that previously came from dancing without health coverage. While Theresa Howard, Momchil Mladenov, and Brian Carey Chung try not to dwell on their lack of coverage, Sabra Perry says that she pays a monthly fee for limited insurance through Dance New Amsterdam, a Manhattan dance center (formerly Dance Space Center). If Perry ever develops a need for surgery, however, she knows that she will have to pay for it out of her pocket. Like her peers, Bonnie Pickard, who has been freelancing for seven years, is willing to put up with the risks and inconveniences of the freelance life in exchange for the opportunity to perform interesting work. Regarding the term ballet gypsy, Pickard says, “Call me whatever you want. I’m going to dance!”
Rachel Straus is a dance writer based in New York City.