Free to Be...

Many company dancers find fulfillment—and artistic growth—in side ventures.
Published in the June/July 2013 issue.

Beau Campbell spends the Ballet Arizona off-season at Post:Ballet. Photo by David DeSilva.

Beau Campbell finishes her season with Ballet Arizona in late spring. Then the company takes a two-month summer break, but Campbell, 26, doesn’t. After a short vacation (two weeks in Europe last year), she gets into her Toyota and drives from Phoenix to her native California. Robert Dekkers’ Post:Ballet gets going in San Francisco in late June, and this is Campbell’s fourth year as a guest artist.

Pickup companies and off-season gigs have a long tradition in the dance world. The reasons dancers and choreographers latch onto them go beyond the mixed blessing of being the kind of people who thrive on hard work.

“I feel a lot more free,” Campbell says of dancing with Post:Ballet, a modern-classical-multidisciplinary venture that features Dekkers’ choreography, as opposed to Ballet Arizona, which normally performs full-length ballets and Balanchine repertoire. “The works that I’m doing at Post leave a lot more room for interpretation,” she says. “I don’t feel an obligation to look at past ballerinas doing parts or perform a certain way. It’s easier to throw yourself into something and not be scared of the outcome.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Andrew Bartee agrees. At 22, he is a PNB veteran: He started school there at age 12 and joined the corps de ballet in 2009. But he relishes his work with Olivier Wevers’ Whim W’Him, which focuses on modern movement. “I’m in socks all the time, which I enjoy,” says Bartee, who also works with choreographer Kate Wallich’s The YC, which puts its pop culture credentials front and center. “It feels free to me.”

There’s that word again. But for Bartee, the freedom and variety are also practical steps in his career development. “My work at PNB is a lot more classically based, doing the full-lengths and lots of corps work,” he says. “I feel like I’m growing so much faster than I would be just working on Sleeping Beauty.”

Wevers sometimes choreographs roles specifically for Bartee, including Flower Festival, a duet with Lucien Postlewaite that Bartee loves because it is “very shape-driven and angular.” Bartee, who has choreographed for PNB and presented his first piece for Whim W’Him in May, admires Wevers’ focus on male partnering. “There is an equal give-and-take relationship in that kind of partnership that is very physically satisfying—you feel like you are being supported as much as you are supporting your partner.”

Directing—as well as dancing in—a part-time company has its own appeal, as New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht has discovered. He founded his own pickup company, recently renamed Stars of American Ballet, in 2008. Although the troupe’s mission is developing arts awareness beyond America’s cultural capitals, Ulbricht appreciates his fellow dancers’ situations. “It’s the opportunity to sometimes perform a new role, explore new partnerships,” he says. “It allows them to experiment without the pressure” and expectations of a big company.

As for Ulbricht, he admits that he “fell in love with the process of it—booking travel, acquiring rights.” He had considered returning to school, maybe to study arts administration, but has decided that company management can feel like a university education in itself. “I’m able to stimulate the intellectual and logistical side of my career,” he says. “God only knows what I’m going to be doing 10 years from now.”

This year Ulbricht’s company has tour dates in Texas, Alabama and, thanks to a personal contact, Ulan Bator, Mongolia. But travel is just a bonus. “Variety is really what keeps you going,” he says. “It sparks my dancing and my teaching.”

That makes sense to Gemma Bond, as well. The absence of variety is one thing she doesn’t miss about The Royal Ballet in London, where she danced as a first artist until she joined American Ballet Theatre five years ago. “When I was in The Royal, I wasn’t close-minded,” she says. “I was going to see others dance. But in the corps de ballet, you do the same things over and over.” Plus, The Royal “has shows all year, so there was no time for me to do any other projects.”

Now, thanks to ABT’s schedule, she is able to work with Diana Byer’s New York Theatre Ballet throughout the year. One of her works for the company had its premiere in March. “I just love the process of creating something new,” says Bond, 30. She also will make a piece for Intermezzo, a new part-time company founded by ABT soloist Craig Salstein, who considers his venture something of a cause. “I’m rebelling against the repertoire, the repeating and reviving,” says Salstein, 30.

Of course, ABT has its share of new, often innovative works, many by its artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky, but the bulk of the repertoire is still classical and doesn’t tend to show off the corps as individual dancers. Salstein, who acknowledges that the classical repertoire has been very good to him, says he sees “other people suffering in the corps, because they’re sort of chess pieces” and prone to apathy.

In October, Intermezzo will dance a program choreographed to Giuseppe Verdi’s string quartet in E minor and music from Un Ballo in Maschera at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, celebrating Verdi’s 200th birthday. Eight young dancers will take the stage and each will have his or her moment in the sun in front of a discerning New York audience. Salstein, who has also invited ABT principal Marcelo Gomes to make a work for the new company, says that Intermezzo does not signal a career move and that he doesn’t aspire to be the next artistic director of anything (“I’m not looking for an exit strategy”). It is not an ego-driven decision either, he says, because he does not expect to dance or even choreograph, for now. Freedom comes in many guises.

Anita Gates writes about the arts for
The New York Times.