By Zachary Frazee
This summer was definitely one of the busiest summers that I have endured… but busy with amazing experiences! Non-stop dancing, adult-decisions, real-life auditions, opportunities and an overwhelming amount of excitement. Coming back for my last semester, I have developed and adapted as a dancer and artist. This has not only affected my movement aesthetic, but also the process of dealing with the physical and mental difficulties (and accomplishments) of stepping outside of the walls of collegiate dance into the realm of dancing professionally.
The summer began by jumping right into rehearsals, as a guest artist, for the New York State Ballet’s rendition of Swan Lake. I felt this was the perfect set up for my summer because it put me in a professional performing mindset as well as a more ballet-oriented focus (in preparation for my adventures in Portland, Oregon). After 3 intense weeks of rehearsals, ending with a weekend of performances, I had a week to rest/panic/pack, and then I was off to Portland, Oregon to begin dancing with Northwest Dance Project!
**Earlier this year, I auditioned for Northwest Dance Project in NYC for a professional program they host every summer called LAUNCH: 9. For the company, this serves as a way to see the current talent in the contemporary dance world in the hopes of hiring new company members and bringing in fresh talent and perspective. They auditioned across the U.S. in 5 different cities and chose 30 of us out of the 800-900 dancers that auditioned.**
I was insanely excited to dance professionally with one of the top up-and-coming contemporary dance companies in the U.S., but I was also dead nervous. Not only would we be dancing for 10 hours a day for 2 weeks straight, but also we would be subjected to constant observation from multiple artistic directors of various dance companies. Some of these people included Sarah Slipper, artistic director of Northwest Dance Project (sidenote: the BEST name for an artistic director for a dance company), James Canfield from the Nevada Ballet Theatre, Lucas Crandall from Hubbard Street Chicago and Helene Blackburn from Cas Public (a touring-focused contemporary dance company in Canada). So essentially it was a 2 week audition with 10 hours of auditioning every day… this was going to be as much of a mental challenge as well as a physical one.
Finally, I arrived in Portland and instantly I fell in love with the city. Vegan/vegetarian restaurants everywhere, local coffee shops and micro-breweries on every corner, waves upon waves of multi-colored hair and herds of hipster looking people who would glare at you if you even so much as looked at something that was too mainstream. This already felt like home.
Once the dancing began, I can honestly say that I have never been more tired or sore in my life. Our schedule consisted of a ballet class in the morning (we had teachers from San Francisco Ballet, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Hubbard Street Chicago, Nevada Ballet Theatre…) directly followed by a 3 hour rehearsal. After this rehearsal we would have a half hour lunch break, and then to end the day, a 4 hour rehearsal. Every day, 9am-6pm with only 1 half-hour break. By the time I got back to my dorm room (they housed us in Portland State University) I would pass out from pure exhaustion around 7pm and not wake up until 7am the next morning, just to start the whole process over again.
During the first week we worked with some of the artistic directors; they would either teach us repertoire from their companies or begin to develop new work on us. James Canfield taught the men in the program a beautiful male solo he choreographed for one of his company’s principal dancers. We performed this by ourselves for him, as well as the other directors present, as an audition into his company. Lucas Crandall taught us original works from Batsheva Dance Company that Ohad Naharin had reset on Hubbard Street Chicago. Helene Blackburn guided us through a series of choreographic projects and tasks as a way to develop new and fresh ideas for the work she is setting on her company. And Sarah Slipper taught us a group work that was set on Northwest Dance Project by Patrick Delcroix (former dancer and choreographer for Nederlands Dans Theatre) as well as an original contemporary pas de deux. I thoroughly enjoyed this process of learning a variety of repertoire. It was like getting one of those cheesecake samplers in which you can try various slices and flavors in the hopes of discovering your favorite.
Throughout the second week, we began rehearsing with 2 emerging choreographers that Northwest Dance Project had selected to work with the LAUNCH: 9 group. It was as much of an audition for them as it was for us because they were being observed as possible contenders as guest choreographers. Eric Handman and Lesley Telford were the 2 choreographers we worked with. Handman, currently a faculty member in the dance department at the University of Utah, was amazing to work with. He had previously worked with Doug Varone, David Dorfman and several other familiar modern dance names that provided some comfort in his process, both in his movement aesthetic and the way he approached rehearsals. His process focused on warping shapes and sculptures in space, both in solo form as well as in partnering large groups. Working with Lesley Telford was a much different process, but still just as eye-opening. A former ballerina and company member of Nederlands Dans Theatre 2, her movement was not as fluid and “liquidy” as Handman’s was, but rather very sharp, articulated and much more specific. The work required a great deal of awareness of each other as well as focused on the specificity of partnered manipulation. At the end of the second week, we performed these works at an informal showing in which Sarah Slipper also facilitated a choreographic discussion.
Then, just like that, it was over. LAUNCH: 9 had ended. I flew home the next day and returned back to “normal” life. I was a little upset because I came home with no company contract, which was the intended goal. Actually, none of the participants of LAUNCH: 9 received a contract. After the final performance and choreographic discussion, I conversed with Sarah Slipper and found out that they do not hire company members after only participating in this program once. It made sense, in that it is a small company so they want to get to know dancers better before hiring. She personally invited me to come back and work with them again the following summer, but I still couldn’t help feeling somewhat defeated.
Luckily, 3 days after arriving home from vegan land, I was hired as a full time company member with the New York State Ballet! I had just been half-way rejected by a contemporary dance company, only to be hired as a full time company member with a classical ballet company. Totally unexpected yet totally welcome. I now rehearse with the company almost every day, as well as teach some classes in the company’s training academy (Ballet Prestige), set contemporary work on the company and competitors in the YAGP, and write/develop grants for the company productions. It is more than I could have asked for.
I have kept in contact with several of the people I became close to in Portland. One of them also joined a ballet company upon her arrival home in Florida; another started up her own company/collective in Portland that will be premiering their first evening length work in March (which I plan on trying to attend). And one of the others dancers joined Nederlands Dans Theatre after participating in their summer intensive and will be performing in Mats Eks Sleeping Beauty over the next couple of months. It is amazing how we can all connect and branch out at the same time. These dancers are not only close friends, but also connections for possible opportunities. You never know where you’re going to end up. I certainly never thought I would be a member of a classical ballet company, but now that is a reality. If I could take one thing away from this summer, it would be that despite whatever is happening currently or has happened in the past, I am nothing but excited and eager to see what lies ahead in my future within the professional dance realm.