Forging Ahead: Ashley Werhun
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."
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
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.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
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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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.