By Barry Kerollis
The period between Black Friday and Boxing Day is commonly the most financially rewarding time of year for big and small businesses alike. It is not ironic that this season shares similarities with the ballet world. During this period, ballet companies across the country throw their biggest annual holiday party again and again as if it were Groundhog’s Day. This holiday exploitation doesn’t only spread festive cheer, it also pays a majority of these companies’ bills, providing essential operating funds for the rest of their seasons. Just as big and small businesses benefit from holiday spending, freelance dancers like me can benefit from The Nutcracker in the same fashion as ballet companies.
While August is hot and humid, it is not uncommon for a freelance dancer to start receiving calls to chasse among snowflakes by summer’s end. By the time fall arrives, most professionals already have a good idea of what, where, and how many times they will be performing The Nutcracker come December. This is a relief to freelancers who tend to be running low on hard-earned cash by Labor Day. Due to a general slump for dance work in the warmer months when many companies go on hiatus, savings can dwindle. Dance jobs often only begin to pick up by the end of September. That makes The Nutcracker season the most important for freelance ballet dancers; it is not uncommon to earn between one-quarter to half one’s yearly income in this four- to five-week period. This boom can give dancers a savings cushion to boost them through the holiday season, rest a weary body, or to save up for the next “summer slump.”
While financial security may seem like the biggest benefit to dancers cracking multiple Nuts, many other benefits arise. First and foremost, this is one time of the year when dancers have multiple chances to gain performing experience. While financial security may seem like the biggest benefit to dancers cracking multiple Nuts, many other benefits arise. First and foremost, this is one time of the year when dancers have multiple chances to gain performing experience.A dancer may get to perform a challenging role that he hasn’t tackled yet. Beyond that, artists get multiple opportunities to perform these roles on a stage and in front of an audience. The first time that a dancer premieres a role onstage can be nerve wracking. Having numerous performances in the same role allows additional time to explore and grow in a role, as well as master the technical challenges required for it. There’s less pressure than a “one-shot” chance.
Other benefits while freelancing one’s way through the holiday season include opportunities to travel to venues not typically included in a dancer’s touring season. In these more out-of-the-way locations, the audience is likely to have less experience watching dance. Don’t underestimate the ability of these performances to inspire children to dance, influence adults to donate to dance organizations, or promote regular ticket sales for regional companies. Getting to freelance on stages, whether small or large, shows a variety of audiences, unlearned and educated, the joy and magic of dance. In these performances, as a dancer I can inspire the next generation of professionals to start training or influence those studying to work harder.
It is not uncommon for multiple freelance artists to perform in the same production making Nutcracker season a great time to forge and renew relationships with other dancers. From meeting other freelancers who may lead to new connections, to directors of companies that may hire you for future productions, to schools that can hire you to guest teach, to students who may need mentoring, there are great opportunities, professionally and personally. Beyond these connections, most guest artists visiting small towns receive luxury treatment that includes meals, accommodations, excited fans, and more.
On the flip side, while fielding offers and negotiating contracts, a dancer will often be dealing with novice negotiators. Sometimes, an organization with a potential offer fails to respond to emails and phone calls. It can be difficult to decide when one should continue to pursue communication or whether to look for new options. At times, even though most dancers’ intentions in negotiating are in good faith, a potential employer can become defensive. This most commonly occurs when a dancer doesn’t accept an initial offer and counters with a new request for a deal, which can lead to tense conversations, misunderstandings, and general uneasiness in signing a contract to work with an organization.
Sometimes a freelance dancer has the good problem of too many offers. How does one respectfully turn down an offer that has been made, without burning bridges, when a better paying option suddenly arises? It is best to mention that you will not make any decisions about other offers until you speak to the person who made the initial offer. This builds trust between the dancer and potential employer, while making it easier to negotiate greater payment if you are given a better offer.
The closer one gets to a gig, the more challenges can arise. For dancers who perform in multiple productions of The Nutcracker, they may need to learn various pieces of choreography. It is not uncommon, for instance, to perform the grand pas de deux with four different partners dancing four different versions of the choreography. When Tchaikovsky’s music starts, it can be easy to go on autopilot and dance last week’s steps. To keep from getting off track, dancers should spend some time studying each different set of choreography prior to Nutcracker season. Once the season arrives, remain focused on the current production being danced and tune out the others. As soon as those performances are over, it is time to start refreshing your mind for the coming week’s choreography. In an ideal situation, dancers can stick with one partner and travel from gig to gig as a package performing the same choreography.
Freelance dancers become masters of adjusting to new environments, even when conditions are not completely acceptable or easily adaptable. Most non-professional stages are as hard as concrete. Marley floors can be icier than skating on a frozen lake. The onset of winter can leave auditoriums frigid and unforgiving. Proper dressing rooms or theater calls can be non-existent. Dancers must deal with these conditions in the most professional, but self-protective way possible. If the stage is too slick, bring your own rosin or alter the choreography. If it is too cold, travel with multiple layers. If there are no calls, ask the crew to notify you at half hour and places.
The difficulties of Nutcracker season include maintaining one’s inspiration, staying in shape, and avoiding the exhaustion of travel during peak season and performance. Performing to the same music and choreography for years can, at times, lead to Nutcracker burnout. Performing in multiple productions for weeks on end can leave the body and mind exhausted. While all of this is happening, it is not uncommon for dancers to have little to no access to proper technique classes, a gym, or even an appropriate warm-up space. This can mean that dancers give themselves a short barre warm up before rehearsals and shows without taking the time to really check in with their bodies to ensure that they are in a safe, high-performance state. Dancers need to make sure that they take at least one day off a week and create a system to maintain themselves in performing shape.
While there are certainly challenges throughout the Nutcracker season that can make a freelance dance artist feel like it would be better to stay home sipping hot cocoa under the warm glow of holiday lights, the benefits of this seasonal experience can greatly outweigh the pitfalls. Even with its challenges, The Nutcracker is the single most important program of the dance calendar year. Without it, freelancers like me would most likely be relinquished to waiting tables or filing paperwork full-time while dancing as their side job. If dancers are smart about choosing gigs and taking care of themselves throughout the season, every holiday season can be the most wonderful -- and lucrative -- time of the year.
Photos: Top, Kerollis in one of his many recent "Nutcracker" performances, by Glenn Mata; headshot belowby Shalem Photography, courtesy Barry Kerollis
Barry Kerollis is a freelance dancer, teacher, and choreographer based out of Philadelphia. Barry began his training in Lionville, Penn., and continued on scholarship at the Kirov Academy of Ballet and the School of American Ballet. He began his career in 2003 with the Houston Ballet and joined Pacific Northwest Ballet the following year, where he danced for seven seasons.
Kerollis has danced leading and featured roles in works created by a wide range of choreographers, including Balanchine, Barak, Caniparoli, Dove, Forsythe, Maillot, Martins, McIntyre, Morris, Petipa, Ratmansky, Robbins, Seiwert, Stroman, Tharp, Welch, and Wheeldon. He is featured in the dance documentary Dancing Across Borders; the dance book Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear; Jordan Matter’s blog for The New York Times Best Seller, Dancer’s Among Us; and Bob Rizzo’s instructional dance video, Ballet with Style. In 2001, he was selected as a finalist in the Youth America Grand Prix competition.
Barry maintains a blog documenting his work: Life of a Freelance Dancer. Kerollis writes using his vast experience dancing with some of the country’s leading companies and smaller organizations, representing PNB’s dancers for three years as an AGMA representative, and acting as liaison for five seasons to PNB’s young professional patron group, Backstage Pass.
For more information, visit Barry’s website at BarryKerollis.com.
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