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Gigging around: footloose and fancy free.

Dressing-room talk is different these days: smarter and hipper, more grown-up and realistic. The giddiness is gone, too, along with the "art is life" melodramatics of, say, The Turning Point--not that the seventeen-year-old movie was any model of backstage verisimilitude. Out of necessity the dancers of 1994 have come a long way. After all, the dance boom is over, a national recession has taken its toll on the performing arts, and survival requires everyone to become an independent entrepreneur to have a career. Now one constantly hears dancers from the major ballet companies talking about "gigs," a term borrowed from free-lance musicians meaning a date, an engagement--a job. And layoffs. And now dancers talk more about layoffs and whether they'll have to take charge of their costumes and what kind of floor they'll encounter and whether they should accept this gig or that.

The turf has changed--drastically, for some. This season American Ballet Theatre offers its dancers a mere twenty-six-week contract. Getting to perform only six months of a given year amounts to atrophy, ABT dancers complain--but they have no other option. Unlike a musician or artist or writer, whose career can span half a century (depending on one's longevity), a dancer has a mercilessly brief career. There's also the cold fact that income is determined by time spent on the boards. Not even virtuosity guarantees twelve months' work every year.

But striking out on one's own flies in the face of a principle that George Balanchine, along with Antony Tudor and other ballet gurus, commonly exhorted their dancers to pursue: the collective artistic good. In other words, be a good and loyal company member. Look not to personal gain but go along with management's dictates. Implicit in this thinking is the idea of a paternalistic institution, one that acts on behalf of its charges, cares for them, and frees them to attend to so-called loftier concerns.

Nice work, if you can still get it. Some of the dancers interviewed for this article deny that such a modus operandi existed. "I just don't believe there was much accuracy to it," says twenty-six-year-old ABT principal Jeremy Collins, who, just three years ago, was virtually unknown. "But idealizations like that die hard, I guess. In reality the highs do exist--they come from the dancing that comes from filling your calendar with as many gigs as possible. Some of us have been really lucky. In the last five months I've not been home more than two days at a time."

In what must be a unique coup, Collins has also been named principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet, which arranged a twenty-one-week contract for him in order to satisfy his dual-company membership. (SFB offers its regular dancers forty-two weeks of employment--second only in length to New York City Ballet.) Collins is a paradigm of the contemporary scene--the free-lance dancer with a home base (actually, two of them). It's the free-lance part, however, that has come into focus recently, thanks to several small ad hoc touring groups. They are designed to fill the breach left by the full-scale companies whose reduced budgets have resulted in fewer engagements around the country. Touring, after all, is a deficit proposition for the big leagues, what with their outsize expenses and the falling away of guarantees by theater sponsors who are also hard put. ABT publicity director Robert Pontarelli once explained the company's cancellation of a Los Angeles run thus: "Can we afford to come, as long as coming means extra costs and not gain?"

That situation--which has left presenters with dark theaters and dancers with sparsely penciled calendars--became fertile ground for the enterprising. Robert LaFosse, an NYCB principal, started a group six years ago with Carol Bresner Management called Stars of American Ballet. Another troupe, organized in 1992 by Andrew Grossman, who heads a division of Columbia Artists Management Inc., goes by the name Principal Dancers of New York City Ballet, although it is wholly separate from that company. Traveling to cities from Charleston to San Diego--and in some cases overseas--these operations, which commonly intermingle dancers from various troupes and even give work to those who are unattached, seem to suit all concerned. Collins can count among his colleagues such leading dancers as Susan Jaffe, Jock Soto, Amanda McKerrow, Heather Watts, Leslie Browne, Damian Woetzel, Darci Kistler, and LaFosse. What's more, Collins and Jaffe, who appear in the feature film Angie (directed by Martha Coolidge and starring Geena Davis and Stephen Rea), and some of the others, hire themselves out as duos for galas with various companies.

Any alternative to "dancing every minute" has little appeal, says Collins. "Layoffs are awful--for everyone. They remind us that we're losing precious time and precious ground. Dancers need to dance. Taking class is not a substitute. You must be onstage to get better and build momentum. But being on a constant round of gigs isn't good, either. You need to be with a company for rehearsal periods, for learning new roles and pushing creative boundaries.

"And in order to fit everything in you're willing to |red-eye it,' adjust to sleeping on a night flight, performing on arrival, and red-eyeing it back. You also learn how to sleep sitting up in air terminals during layovers." All this is a far cry from the picture of dancer as protected acolyte. "We're more like alley cats," says Collins. "We fend for ourselves."

LaFosse takes a somewhat different tack. Since 1986, when he departed ABT for NYCB, he has been pursuing choreography, modem dance, and even performance art--last fall he took a role in a theater piece by John Kelly at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Like Collins, he talks about his "need to fill every minute" but admits that it results "in very hair-pulling schedules." The sheer difficulty of matching runouts (quick back-and-forth dates not far from home) with a company dancer's calendar can tax even a master calculator.

But these problems can be transcended by schedule mavens with the properly independent mindset. Rosalie O'Connor, an ABT corps member, says that dancers do not necessarily pledge singular allegiance to their companies. In fact, she says, they often have closer ties with each other. "Heather [Watts] remembered me from School of American Ballet and lived next door. That's how I got asked to join the Grossman group. And it couldn't have been a greater windfall--getting to dance Agon and Allegro Brillante, which may not come my way again."

What enables the busiest, best-recognized dancers to go off on these expeditions is a blank week, as in NYCB's Sleeping Beauty run. Those who are not scheduled to dance--Watts and Soto, for instance--actively look for other stage opportunities. And they are not difficult to find, given the popular Balanchine repertoire and the presumed NYCB imprimatur. (Even with the apparent blessing of NYCB chief Peter Martins--costumes and ballets are subcontracted from the company--there have been some questions about the group's entitlement as a separate entity. On this, and all matters concerning his enterprise, Grossman declined to comment.)

LaFosse and Bresner's troupe, however, would seem to invite no conflicts of interest. Although its repertoire includes Apollo, for instance, it is keyed to the less-classical style of LaFosse's works--among them, Fred and Ginger--and others by Margo Sappington and Johan Renvall. Bresner, who says that "there is a vacuum to fill" out in the country, takes cues from presenters seeking "a more pop-oriented" brand of dance. "That's what audiences are looking for, in lieu of the storybook classics that we cannot bring them. But either way we've got as many invitations as we can fill. Robby does a splendid job recruiting dancers, supporting the younger ones, and acting as a real protector."

Not surprisingly, there have been some traffic snarls between Stars and Principal Dancers. Says Bresner, "The truth is, we're in competition for the same turf, for the same dancers."

Those at the top, such as Woetzel, one of NYCB's virtuoso principals, choose carefully from their many offers. "My first priority, of course, is to City Ballet," he says. "I would not let any extracurricular option interfere with that. In fact, it has to be an incredible gig to sacrifice a much-needed week of rest after six months of performance."

But there's always a handsome fee (amount not divulged) and an attractive tour somewhere that Woetzel does not turn down, especially during the two months of company layoff. This year he is scheduled for more than twenty performances with Principal Dancers ("The conditions on these tours are pristine; they are as good as it gets," he says), and last year he went out on roughly a dozen with Stars. Since Woetzel is a highly prized commodity, both groups are willing to wait down to the wire until NYCB makes up its schedule.

All--from the "permanent free-lance" to the much-in-demand star--agree, however, that landing in new locales and confronting new audiences is part of the lure. Wes Chapman. who briefly led a small contingency prior to joining the Munich Opera Ballet, sees another advantage: "Everyone is important when there are only a dozen dancers. And this kind of attention goes a long way if you're [otherwise] buried in the corps of a big company. These outings can be a tremendous boost to the morale." Collins adds that today's ballet dancer does not have to live and die in the corps: "We know that there are alternatives". "That a person can leave and go to a Tharp or a Graham or a Taylor. Virtuosity is something modem dance companies prize. Although with so many talented dancers around, luck still plays a big part."

LaFosse, who cites "a missionary impulse" as one of the enticements to his continuing this sideline, admits that the extra money earned is nothing to write off even for someone with a high-salary status. "It's allowed me to buy some artwork and a summer place. The bottom line, though, is, What are you going to do on a Saturday night when you're not scheduled at State Theater? Sit home or go to Cincinnati?"
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Title Annotation:ballet dancers who seek work as guest performers with other companies
Author:Perlmutter, Donna
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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