Turning Point: a modern dancer tries to be solvent

July 31, 2007

A few months ago, at a time when I was particularly exhausted from the recurring insolvency of my freelance dancer lifestyle, I thought I had been granted a little monetary relief through an act of divine intervention. I was standing on the subway platform waiting for the downtown A train and absent-mindedly flipping through a local newspaper. Just a moment before, I had been holding the unopened paper over the trash can, but something told me to read it on the ride home. Amidst a flutter of newsprint, a familiar image caught my eye. Alongside a story about Bedell Winery of Long Island’s 2001 reserve merlot, (which was having its celebratory release that weekend), was a picture of the bottle of wine. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was on the label.

It was a watercolor painting after a photograph of me that had been taken by Howard Schatz almost 10 years ago. The artist behind the impressionistic rendition was Eric Fischl, a highly esteemed painter in the contemporary art world. Despite the diluted detail of the figure, I recognized myself immediately. This limited edition was selling for $200 a bottle. Â

I hopped on the train and rode home with a windstorm of thoughts in my head. Does Howard Schatz know about this?  Did he sell Fischl the photograph? What’s my cut?  Maybe I get a percentage of each bottle sold? I was on the label of a $200 bottle of wine! Surely it was not a coincidence that I had reconsidered throwing out the paper. There was money in this for me and a guardian angel was making sure I knew about it. I got home and planned out my phone calls: Howard Schatz, Bedell Cellars, Eric Fischl, and maybe even my cousin, the lawyer.

I called Schatz first. He said he knew about the label and told me that because it was a painting of his photograph and not the photograph itself, by law, it was considered an inspiration. There was no purchase of the photo, no copyright infringement, no money exchanged. At most, I could get a complimentary bottle of wine, but inspiration came free, he said.

I didn’t make any more calls.

As the smoke cleared from my explosive financial fantasy, I felt embarrassed. Eric Fischl was an artist whose work I liked very much. Shouldn’t I simply be honored to be an inspiration to him? Instead, my first thought was how much money I could make. But I couldn’t help it; I’m a 30-something modern dancer.

In other words, I am someone who has spent all of her adult life in a career where the fattest recompense is the one which enriches the sense of self. My closets are full of rolls of dusty concert posters in foreign languages. Swollen scrapbooks are lodged on my bookshelf. My memory stocks an arsenal to combat dinner party lulls. And at the age when most people are just admitting to their dreams, I feel the profound satisfaction of having lived mine. I have invaluable wealth—the wealth of spirit. But now I’m ready to start a family. I can hear the ticking of that biological thing. And I’m broke.

The coarsest ways of making a buck are now appealing to me. For as nice as it is to stare at old pictures of myself or kick back with a glass of complimentary $200 merlot, it doesn’t allay the terror of bringing a child into the world without a permanent job and only $157 in the bank. Joining a dance company is not a viable option. Any modern troupe which pays its dancers a livable salary has to tour at least half of the year. I can’t imagine lugging bags through 10 airports with a baby strapped to my breast and then finding babysitters in all those foreign cities. Nor would I want to leave the baby at home for six months while I travel the world. And what about the pregnancy? What modern dance company has enough money to pay maternity leave? They would sooner grab a 20-year-old who can cut her ties and come on the road than negotiate nausea and doctor’s appointments with the ballooning mommy-to-be. Even if I could find a way to tour with a baby or had a gracious director who was willing to hold my job until I returned, trying to feed a child on a modern dancer’s salary, where there are no contracts or any guarantees, would cause enough stress to rip open an artery. My husband has a permanent job but supporting a family on one middle-income salary isn’t possible anymore.

Two years ago I started tackling this problem by going to Broadway auditions. Getting into a show seemed like the perfect solution to my problem. I could dance, make a lot of money, cushion the nest, quit the show after a few years, and then lie down and birth a happy family. I had only to ignite my pensive modern-dance synapses to fiery jazz dance execution—an easy task, I figured, since my desire for a large paycheck would translate into the ferocity and hunger that casting directors notice. At first, despite the call for “Equity Union Dancers Only,” I would show up hoping to be seen. I quickly learned the ritual from the other non-Equity dancers who had my same steely determination. Non-Eqs (as we were referred to) would start an unofficial sign-up sheet at least an hour before the audition started. It was usually on a piece of paper ripped from the personal agenda of a fellow non-Eq. We would all form a huddle around the paper and jockey our way towards the communal pen in order to scribble our names beside the lowest possible number—an event resembling pigeons in a polite riot for the discarded chunk of bread. We could then only hope that the auditors would accept the unofficial list and see us after every Equity person had had her fair share of time. There were days when five hours would pass from my early arrival at the audition to the time I stepped in front of the table of auditors.

After a year and a half of suffering the courteous glance as an interloper at Equity auditions, I decided to join the union. Since I was eligible for an Equity card through my affiliation with AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists), I only needed to shell out half of the requisite fee, $600, to become a member. Most of it I solicited from my family in birthday presents.

When I went to the Equity Building to get the card, I was handed a packet of all the union rules, which, if violated, could result in my membership being terminated. One of the rules stated that once one is in Equity, she can’t do non-Equity work without a permission slip. I was well engaged in rehearsals for two shows which would be performed in the coming weeks. I didn’t want to risk my new membership, so I told the man who was processing my application. He sent me upstairs to speak to the woman who was in charge of such matters.

“So you are already rehearsing for two non-Equity shows?” she asked as soon as I sat down in her office.

“Yes.” I nodded.

“OK. What shows?” she asked, with pen in hand.

by Noemi Lafrance and Julius Caesar Superstar by Lawrence Goldhuber,” I replied.

“Oh,” she frowned. “Where are they being done?”

“One is at the Whitney Museum at Altria and the other is at St. Mark’s Church.”

“How long do they run?” Her frown was increasing with each question.

“A weekend.”

“What is it?”

“Modern dance.”

“Oh, you can do that,” she smiled. “That’s not even on our radar.”

Right. Modern dance wasn’t on the radar…thus confirming my decision to hand over much-needed cash to join the union which owned this bleeping radar. Perhaps by being on it I could put behind me those days of gasping free-fall when the feather-weight modern dance paycheck suddenly dissolved underneath me.

Six months later I was blinking at the wall beside my bed, trying to pop the sleep seal over my brain that was keeping me from remembering what I was supposed to be doing that morning.

Audition…Broadway…Chicago…ah, yes.
Despite the multitude of auditions I had been to at that point, the idea of getting up to go try out for something remained a fragile thought, easily pushed aside by the most unmemorable trips of the subconscious. The clock read 8:07. Should I get up and start a manic morning ritual (that I really should have started already if I hope to make it in time for the Equity roll call); or should I just stay home and spend another day eating popcorn and scrolling the internet for the miraculous job that will deliver me from financial ruin and artistic vapidity? I got dressed, grabbed my bag and headed to Chicago.

If I had any hope of being selected to be in this beacon of a show, it was dashed the minute I stepped into the holding room. Standing in a cloud of ear-piecing chatter, I surveyed the scene. It resembled the pre-audition site to which I was now accustomed—a dense landscape of women ranging from those perched on one high-heeled leg while yanking the other toward their face, to the ones sitting on the floor, chins forward and eyelids lowered in a serious application of mascara. All were in some variation of black heels, black stockings, and black leotard with two dollops of fleshy breast on top. I had brought faded black sweatpants with florescent green stripes down the sides and a bubblegum pink leotard with chartreuse piping. I sheepishly put it on in the corner, thinking of all the solid black dance clothes I had at home. When we got called in to audition, I tried to walk with all the sexiness I could muster in hot pink and green, but I couldn’t help feeling like a parrot among panthers. I imagined the auditor pulling me aside and saying, “Have you ever

The audition started at 10. By 10:30 I was walking back out the door I came in. I wanted to go up to the panel and plead my case:
“Listen, I just need a little money so I can have a baby. Can’t I stand in the background and shimmy my hands in the chorus or something? I won’t louse up your show. I promise.”
But, when one of the auditors caught my eye, I turned away and obediently walked out the door. Anyway, I could still make the 11 a.m. cut off for egg sandwiches at the deli. There I sat by myself with a long gaze of self-pity and chewed, while my recent auditions scrolled through my memory like end credits: The Lion King, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Color Purple, Aida, Movin’ Out (twice), Ragtime, Good Vibrations, Mambo Kings, A Chorus Line, Spamalot, The Pirate Queen, Wicked, and now… Chicago. Thank you for coming. Have a nice day.

I can look at every Broadway rejection and come up with a myriad of reasons: I wasn’t dressed for the part; or lickety-split, stop-on-a-dime dancing punctuated by whip-speed head turns toward the audience was not inherently in my personality, etc. But deep down inside I know why I have been in the first group out the door at every audition. I don’t really want to be in these shows. I am there only because I want the money. And despite what I may have hoped, financial planning does not translate into voracious dancing. Money is remiss in its ability to ignite the spirit, and my sluggish muscles betray any conscious compensation I may try to make.

Unfortunately, what does ignite my spirit is the impoverished world of modern dance. Since childhood, when I took the Ballet/Modern/Jazz class, (in which all three disciplines were offered in one swoop like a cross section of Neapolitan ice cream) my affinity for modern was obvious. I was a shy, day-dreaming tomboy. The sophistication of jazz and the proprieties of ballet were ill-fitting on me. Modern dance—with its celebration of the individual, its emphasis on expression, its patient successes, and its androgyny—captured my heart. Now, after 20 years the rhythms and principles of modern dance are infused in my being. And some of their strongest indications are in my criteria for seeking work.  “Who’s choreographing?” is habitually my first question. I have to force myself to ask, “How much?” I am well trained to have the lowest monetary expectations and have learned how to make do in the direst circumstances.

And so I am at that juncture where I entertain the idea of a second career. I make courteous attempts to research new fields of study while secretly hoping for a phone call that will deliver me from this painful perusal. I usually end up on the couch with the remote. Every dancer comes to this point eventually, so I try not to see it as a sad event, but rather a matter of fact, like a rainy day. It needs only to be negotiated. Umbrella, galoshes, raincoat, and soon the sun will reemerge. But, like a rainy day, the grayness of it all still seeps inside.

The thing that pains me the most, is that now, in my 30s, I am a better dancer than I ever have been. My muscles have settled down enough to truly embody rhythm. I understand the value of the transition over the destination and the softness of the landing over the height of the jump. After I got my first dance job 12 years ago, I thought I was already a dancer. I went to class religiously, never called in sick to rehearsal, and blithely danced about the grand glory of dance. But I have grown to realize that only by broadening my life and taking time off, by appreciating a home and making time for my family, by falling in love and wanting to give birth, have I become the dancer who has something to dance about.

Today I am not any clearer about how to secure my financial future. I am piecing together a meager income through freelance dance jobs while observing what my colleagues are doing. For the most part these brilliant modern dancers are now tucked into the soft crevices of mainstream employment. They are caterers, gardeners, arts administrators, professors, yoga teachers, and personal trainers. The dance which once consumed their lives is now either a peripheral pleasure for when their schedule allows, or a precious fact about their past. Such wistful sighs I have when I see that their co-workers have no clue about the moments of transcendence they once manifested on stage.

But maybe all of this testifies to the beauty and singularity of modern dance. It retains no marker of its past and is immune to plans for the future. It is the superlative celebration of the present—a consummate engagement in a series of nows, which, once contemplated, are over. Perhaps then it is my mistake in hoping to build some foundation out of this profession. With almost glacial purity it stands outside of society’s design and rebuffs that mired version of adulthood in which reality takes up most of our brain space and monetary success governs our ambition.

I once had a brief conversation about all of this with Rob Besserer, known to many as one of the world’s most unforgettable modern dancers, and to others as a landscaper. At the end of the conversation he looked straight into my eyes and said, “Don’t quit.” I had to blink back the tears. What does it mean to quit modern dance? Am I quitting if I take a desk job, have children and a home, and dance on the weekends? Am I quitting if I sign on to do a year’s worth of step-touch in the chorus of a Broadway show and hold out my hands for the paycheck? Or am I quitting if I remain faithful to modern dance and allow the bitterness over the dreams I can’t afford slide into my spirit? I don’t know yet. But I am realizing that modern dance is inherently youthful, not in the sense that it is a young person’s domain, but in the sense that it requires that crude pearl of youth—inspiration. And, as I am reminded every day that I pass myself on the shelf, arched over that empty wine bottle, inspiration comes free.

Rosalynde LeBlanc is a free-lance performer and teacher in New York City.