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I didn’t start freelancing until well into my dance career. I graduated from The Juilliard School in 2001 and was lucky to have a full time job with Hubbard Street 2 in Chicago. After I left the first company in 2007, I went headlong into the freelancing world and haven’t had a full time job with a company since.
Most of the past eight years I have done well and there have been few gaps in my work schedule, but recently I moved back to New York City and even at my age, with my connections, I was ill prepared to be in the New York scene. I have slowly found my way over the past couple years, but the ups and downs can come unexpectedly, regardless of age and experience. I don’t think there is necessarily any way to be totally prepared, just like there is no way to be totally prepared for skydiving, for being a parent, for certain auditions, for being in love or having your heart broken. You must be fearless and you must jump, otherwise, why live?
Freelancing can be a lonely, rough path, but it can also be a wonderful, liberating experience. If you’re ok being on your own and can make enough money, I highly recommend it. Conversely, I highly recommend being part of an institution and experiencing that way of working. In this case, it is important to remember that an immense amount of capital, both human and monetary, goes into supporting a full time position in a company. When you’re on your own, you have to take care of much of that support yourself and it is a hefty responsibility.
When it comes to networking and finding work, putting yourself out there in the smallest way can make a huge difference. Sometimes landing work or projects can hinge on a simple, chance conversation on the street with the right person. Always take the opportunity to connect, even if the person in front of you doesn’t seem that “important.” You never know what might lead to a job. Take classes and workshops, show up at events and parties, try to stay on people’s radar in whatever way possible.
How you behave on social media or out having fun can impact your professional life. Have fun, but always be responsible, aware and act with integrity. Small, seemingly inconsequential actions can leave a negative impression that could keep you on the outs. The impact on your future can be pivotal. Also, don’t sleep with your colleagues. Really. Its so easy for the intimacy we build in the studio to cross over into our personal lives, but most of the time it ends badly and makes life and work harder.
Get a serious hobby as early as possible in your career. As freelance dancers we often must have side jobs. You can wait tables, but that can be hard both physically and psychically. It’s better to find something else that you like to do and figure out how to make money doing it. Teaching dance is an obvious choice, but that isn’t for everyone. My survival as a freelancer would have been totally different if I hadn’t had a second career. It has been a challenge to balance these two different careers, but it allowed me to make ends meet financially while still dancing and has given me a career option after my dance career comes to a close.
Be careful of debt. We live in a culture of immediate gratification, a culture of entitlement. Know what you’re doing to yourself when you slap that credit card down and say, “I deserve this. I can manage it, I’ll make the money back eventually.” You may not.
In dance being yourself is paramount. Often many of us believe we are being ourselves, in rehearsals and onstage. We think we know ourselves. The antient philosophers who coined the sacred phrase “Know Thyself” foresaw it as one of the hardest challenges in life. As a performing artist, you need to bring stuff into the room, but hopefully only the “right” stuff. Don’t hide what is going on inside you. Don’t lie. Don’t dwell on negativity, yet always be right where you are. Use it. If you’re scared, be scared. If you’re angry, be angry. If you’re happy…well that one’s pretty easy. I think we often try to fight what we’re feeling because we think it isn’t right, but that is precisely what will make it worse and in particular, worse for the other people in the room working with you.
A choreographer needs a usable canvas. Not one that is totally blank, but not one that is overly complicated or affected either. Do what you’re told, but doing only what you’re told is boring. Imagine. Inspire. Make things interesting for yourself and the choreographer will most likely find you interesting. Try to tap into their movement style immediately, yet trust your instincts and foster your own, unique sense of movement, something that makes you stand out from the rest of the crowd. This dichotomy is interesting. Complex simplicity.
When we are young, life seems complex. So many things to figure out, about ourselves and the world around us. As we grow older, the world around doesn’t necessarily become any simpler but our concerns and perspectives do.
I like to think of myself as a rock…a dense, heavy, old rock…an eternal rock. I am what I am. I am dark, rough, and massive, yet light, smooth and at the right “temperature,” malleable…physically, mentally and emotionally. I try to adapt to what a choreographer is asking for as quickly as possible, be that a choreographic style or an emotion. Even with this adaptability the core is strong and steady.
When auditioning, bring into the room only what you have to offer at that time. Trying to be something you’re not, or attempting things outside your range of consistency may psyche you out and lead to a less than stellar audition. I’ve seen this before when I’ve auditioned people. Either in trying to prove something, or attempting to be fierce, they show me a spark that catches my attention. I start to think they’d be great for a certain role, but as we get deeper into the work, they can’t sustain whatever it was I saw. An audition is not the time to try something totally new or to do anything more than you usually do in class. Utilize the tools you have readily available in your toolbox. Don’t suddenly try to use a tool you’re not familiar with. If you can relax and be yourself as much as possible, your strengths will shine and magic will be achieved.
Remember also that you’re auditioning the choreographer/director/company/job as well, not just them inspecting you. It is your chance to see how they work and if it’s a good fit for you. This can help in your confidence being in the room. You have a certain degree of power as well.
If you can sing, the game is changed. It’s funny to say, but there is a huge difference in our culture when you open your mouth. The vocal articulation of singers and actors is typically valued far more than the non-vocal articulation of dancers. If you have any talent in either acting or singing and you’re looking for work as a performer, don’t let these talents go unused. As a freelancer, the more you can offer the higher your potential.
It is crucial to spend time figuring out how to deal with rejection. I don’t think it is something that anyone can teach you. You will be rejected. Get used to it. Don’t let it eat you up, but don’t ignore it either. Rarely will you have the opportunity to get feedback on an audition, so being aware of all aspects of how the audition went is important. Properly dealing with rejection shows character and that can go a long way. If you don’t have what the auditioners are looking for, it’s not necessarily a reflection on your talents or your work, but maybe this isn’t the right fit at this time. We all grow and change as time passes, as we have more experiences, so going back to audition again is a good thing. Don’t pester, but keep in touch.
Of course there is no formula for success, except perhaps an unconditional acceptance of life, and what it brings.
I wish I could tell you where to go, but I don’t have a general answer for that question. New York City is vast. There is probably a place here for you, but if you do come with dreams and goals, always check your expectations. Be a realistic dreamer. The dream is out there for the getting, but as much as we live in a democracy where everyone deserves a shot, it is survival of the fittest, and where you fit in can change easily and swiftly. Make the jump. Learn to want what you have. Be responsible. Be open. Be a rock. Be ready for anything. No matter what, keep doing interesting things.
Tobin created a role in the original cast of Trey’s Full Grown Man.