When Trey McIntyre made the announcement last year that his company would soon dissolve, dancer Ashley Werhun felt a wild range of emotions. Mostly, she was terrified about finding a new job in an unsteady dance climate. “I understood that Trey needed to explore other facets of his work, but I was sad," says Werhun. When she joined Trey McIntyre Project in 2008, it was a chance for her to dance for a groundbreaking troupe. Now, it was over.
Looking for a new dance job can be one of the scariest moments of a dancer's career—especially when it isn't by choice. But with a well-thought-out approach, the sudden loss of a job can turn into a welcome fresh start.
The evening that Werhun learned the news, she made a list of places she might want to live and companies located there. Then she reached out to friends through e-mail and Facebook to learn more about the companies' cultures and what the dancers were like, and scoured the internet to watch videos of work they were doing. She also had the support of TMP. Rehearsal director Christina Johnson connected Werhun with her company contacts and McIntyre wrote her a strong recommendation letter. “In the dance world, where opportunities are limited and full-time jobs are a rarity, it was incredible to have that much support from the people around me," she says.
To make initial contact with directors, Werhun sent out personalized e-mails stating why she was interested in dancing there and attached her resumé, photos, letter of recommendation and dance reel. “Companies get hundreds of applications from dancers," she says. “Their time is precious. I wanted to make communication as efficient as possible." Out of the 16 companies she connected with, she visited six for company class auditions. It helped calm her nerves, she says, to look at the experience as an adventure—an opportunity to visit different companies—rather than a series of potentially life-changing auditions.
One company Werhun had interest in was Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, which she grew up watching when they toured to her hometown in Alberta, Canada. Luckily, the company was performing in Philadelphia, where she had set up a few other auditions the next month. “Auditioning is such a tricky balance of being persistent, yet respectful. I knew that BJM had a full day. I wanted to be sensitive to that, but at the same time make an impression," says Werhun. After company class, artistic director Louis Robitaille told her that unfortunately, he had no open spots for women. Regardless, she followed up a couple days later with an e-mail thanking him for the opportunity. Two months passed and she got a call. BJM had room and they wanted to hire her. “You really never know when a company will need someone," says Werhun. “A simple introduction can manifest into something completely different at a later time and place."
For Robitaille, it was Werhun's balance of persistence and respect that made her stand out. “She is a great dancer, very strong, versatile and powerful," says Robitaille. “But she also has a beautiful personality, and that is very important for us because with only 15 dancers, we are a micro-society." She began dancing with BJM in May, one month before the end of her TMP contract, flying back and forth between Canada and the U.S. to learn material with BJM and perform in TMP's final tour.
In the end, Werhun is thankful that TMP's closure gave her a push to pursue the career change. She admits that after six seasons with the company, “I had an itch to try something different. This chapter was close to completion and I was ready for the next opportunity."