When Should You Dance for Free?
For a dancer in New York, the chance to perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is hard to turn down. But that's what Jennifer Sydor did last fall, when she excused herself from a callback audition for an upcoming show at BAM—a lone defector among a group of about 15 remaining contenders.
Sydor, 33, was initially excited to audition for the project; she had always wanted to dance at BAM. But as a freelance performer with a BFA from Butler University and a decade of professional experience, she changed her mind when the choreographer explained what would be required, without any mention of compensation.
“A year commitment, 10 hours of weekly rehearsal, helping with workshops, going on residencies, a four- or five-show run," Sydor says, recounting the list of expectations. She decided to speak up and ask what the pay would be. The answer: a nominal stipend that, when all was said and done, would amount to less than $2.50 an hour.
Sydor backstage, as the Fairy Godmother, in Dayton Ballet's Cinderella, Photo: Zachary Leighton, Courtesy Sydor
That idea didn't sit well with Sydor, who earns a more substantial hourly rehearsal rate, in addition to performance fees, through her jobs with David Parker and the Bang Group, The Metropolitan Opera, and the electro-pop band Fischerspooner. “It just feels wrong to ask for that much time and not compensate your dancers," she says. “It breeds resentment. It would be impossible for me to want to give of my artistry fully when my time is not respected."
Fair or not, most dancers, like most artists of any kind, will inevitably work for free—or very little—at some point in their careers. When you're first starting out, an unpaid apprenticeship with a distinguished choreographer can give you valuable experience or lead to future jobs; projects with friends, who might have nothing material to offer but a post-rehearsal cup of coffee, can provide a sense of creative fulfillment; a voluntary gig at a well-known venue can enhance your resumé.
Even if you come away with empty pockets, you might pick up a new movement vocabulary. But in the long run, valuing yourself as an artist and making a living through dance requires a discerning approach to the question of when to dance for free.
For 32-year-old Aaron Mattocks, a New York–based freelancer who has performed with Big Dance Theater, Faye Driscoll, David Gordon, and other contemporary choreographers, the answer has changed with his career path. Feeling frustrated with the audition circuit after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Mattocks accepted a demanding administrative job as the company manager for Mark Morris Dance Group. He continued performing on the side with dance artists he had met in college, but the payback was purely artistic.
“The issue of compensation—I breezed over it," Mattocks says. “I thought that essentially anybody who was willing to put me in their show was doing me a favor, because I was so happy to be rehearsing." If offered a small stipend, Mattocks would often donate it back to the choreographer or put it into a savings account, since his full-time job provided all the income he needed.
Over the years, these peripheral projects led to better-paying performance opportunities, and two weeks before his 30th birthday, Mattocks left office life behind to pursue dancing full-time. Now, even while performing as much as possible, he places a higher value on his time and talent. “What I've realized as a freelancer," he says, “is that I'm actually running a small business. It sounds so cheesy, but I am. This is the only way that I'm earning money, so I have to treat it that way."
In deciding whether to do a certain project, Mattocks consults what he calls a “three-pronged matrix" of freelancer incentives: career advancement, personal satisfaction, and paid compensation. A worthwhile project fulfills at least two out of the three criteria. “If you take the monetary part out of that triangle equation," Mattocks says, “it really has to be either a definite step in your career, or something that's going to be completely emotionally satisfying"—or, ideally, both.
With any new opportunity, Mattocks makes an effort to discuss compensation up front. “It's always good to know in advance that I'm choosing to do something for free," he says, “because then I feel like I have agency around that choice, and I know how to prioritize the rehearsal schedule."
Sarah Cecilia Griffin, a freelance ballet dancer based in Oakland, is even more selective when it comes to dancing for free. “Unpaid work? I can't do unpaid work," states Griffin, 27, who also earns money as an artist's model. From 2006 to 2009, she performed with Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble (a full-time, paid position) before relocating to the Bay Area, where she has danced with Oakland Ballet, Amy Seiwert's Imagery, and a variety of school-produced Nutcrackers (which she calls “the freelancer's friend").
Sarah Griffin, Photo: David DeSilva for Amy Seiwert's Imagery, Courtesy Griffin
“I'm an experienced professional, and I believe in being compensated at least a small amount for any project," Griffin says. She adds that “choreographers can't opt out of paying to rent a studio; they can't opt out of theater fees for performances; so why is it acceptable to opt out of paying dancers?" Even if it means not rehearsing for a month or two, Griffin prefers to spend her time taking class and going to the gym, rather than taxing her body—and risking injury—with work that offers little concrete payment. (She makes the occasional exception for projects with friends that require a low time commitment.)
This wasn't always the case for Griffin. Early on in her career, she took a full-time traineeship at Cincinnati Ballet—which paid her only for performances, not for the eight-hour rehearsal days—hoping it would lead to a contract. It never did. Still, she thinks that pre-professional dancers can gain valuable experience from this kind of traineeship, provided that “you're living at home, or in a situation that allows you to invest your time in that way."
At the other end of the spectrum, there are dancers like Joanna Furnans, for whom money is almost an incidental perk. Furnans, 32, has spent the past 11 years carving out a career in Minneapolis, where she's worked with choreographers like Morgan Thorson, Karen Sherman, and Chris Schlichting. Knowing the fickle state of funding for contemporary dance, she relies on her stable but flexible restaurant job for income. (“Age-old cliché, but it totally works for me," she says.) This gives her the freedom to dance in projects that interest her, regardless of compensation. “Whether or not I do a piece has nothing to do with money anymore," Furnans says. “As long as I'm doing work that fuels me, that's the main thing."
Joanna Furnans in Karen Sherman's One with Others, Photo: Jeff Woodward, Courtesy Furnans
Some would argue that the decision to dance for free goes beyond the realm of individual choice—that dancers who accept little or no compensation do a disservice to the field as a whole, perpetuating the ubiquity of unpaid work by readily accepting it (see “Rant and Rave," Dec. 2012).
But even Sydor, who objects on principle to nonpaying jobs, has a good guess as to why dancers take them: “I think because our careers are so short, we just want to dance. We won't be able to do it forever, so there's this urgency. If you're trying to be a dancer, you most likely really, really love it. And if you love something, you are more willing to do it for free."
When Money Is Tight...
Most choreographers would like to pay their dancers, but especially for those just starting out, financial realities can be harsh. If traditional dollars and cents aren't an option, other forms of compensation can go a long way. Here are three alternatives:
1. Respect for your schedule: “I work to be as structured as possible in terms of time in rehearsal," says Jessie Young, an emerging choreographer in Chicago. “I give my dancers all the rehearsal times, and they tell me what they can and can't do. Because I'm not paying them hourly, if they need to go to work, I say OK, because I understand that they have to go where they need to be for money."
2. Class and home cooking: The cost of dance classes can add up, so Tim Rubel, based in San Francisco, starts his rehearsals by offering a one-hour class. “It's a warm-up that gets us all moving collectively," he says, adding that it gives him a chance to test out choreographic ideas. Getting everyone together for dinner is another way of giving back."
3. Bartered goods and services: Sarah A. O. Rosner, a Brooklyn-based choreographer with a background in arts administration, used to compensate her dancers barter style, through her A.O. PRO(+ductions), which is her consulting business. “I would do admin work for someone who was offering a massage or Alexander Technique lessons," says Rosner, “and I would give those things to my dancers to use, passing along the bartered goods I'd earned." As her company has grown, she's started offering, in addition to performance fees, a low rehearsal wage—$3/hour—which she hopes to increase gradually to $10/hour.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.
It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.