The Business of Being Sugar Plum

November 20, 2013

It’s the middle of the suburbs in a drafty high school auditorium. My back is killing me from the rock-hard floors. But as my partner and I make our entrance for Nutcracker‘s grand pas, a swarm of hushed children fill the wings, straining their necks to watch. It feels strange, but humbling. Afterwards, they’ll ask for my autograph and picture, and want to know what it’s like to be a “ballerina.”

Serving as an inspiration for young dancers is one of the greatest rewards of guesting in Nutcracker. These gigs can also provide a valuable chance to perform a principal role. But there’s another major benefit: It can be a financial boon in a career rife with economic insecurity. Case in point: Last year, I danced 16 performances of the Sugar Plum Fairy and was able to supplement my income significantly during a lengthy summer off-season.

But before the curtain comes up on the Land of Sweets, dancers need to develop some serious business savvy. Finding gigs, negotiating contracts and taking charge of your own rehearsals requires negotiation and networking skills that don’t always come naturally. But when approached shrewdly as a business opportunity, Sugar Plum guestings can act as a profitable—and often necessary—boost to your bank account.

Getting the Gig

Directors generally lock in guest artists sometime between late spring and late summer. Finding those gigs takes some hustling. “We don’t advertise auditions,” says Diane Mosier, artistic director of the Central California Ballet’s Nutcracker in Fresno. She prefers to hire new guest artists every year to keep the production fresh, and reaches out to potential Sugar Plums each spring (although sometimes dancers contact her first). “The dance community in the Bay Area is pretty small,” she says. “Everybody knows everybody. It’s just a matter of finding out who’s available.” Jennifer Goodman, a Chicago-based freelance dancer and former Joffrey Ballet member, agrees. “All of my Nutcracker guestings have been through word of mouth,” she says.

Spread the word that you’re looking for Nutcrackers among your colleagues (social media comes in handy here), and contact potential partners. Reach out to local studios and community productions, as well as any connections you have back home. I danced for my old studio, Dancenter North in Libertyville, Illinois, for six years, and acquired two other gigs through former teachers.

Organizing Your Schedule and Finding a Partner

Coordinating a guesting schedule can get a little hairy, especially if your full-time company has its own production. Before she commits, Cincinnati Ballet principal Janessa Touchet first clears possible gigs with her director, who allows her to miss weekend shows during CB’s own Nutcracker run.

While not always possible, it’s easiest to have a regular partner. By performing with fellow CB principal Cervilio Miguel Amador, Touchet is able to dance Cincinnati Ballet’s version of the pas de deux wherever the pair goes. “That way we can rehearse here and be performance-ready,” she says. Sometimes, however, you need to switch out partners between guestings, which requires extra rehearsals. If a director chooses your partner for you, try to meet beforehand to ensure he’s a compatible height and has good partnering skills. If he’s not—and you’re unable to change partners—you may need to alter the choreography.

Amy Brandt. Photo by Rich Murset, Courtesy St. George Ballet Company.

Setting Your Fee

Contract negotiations often force dancers out of their comfort zone. We’re trained as artists, not businesswomen. But it’s imperative to communicate financial terms and conditions up-front to protect yourself and avoid misunderstandings. Some directors offer a flat fee, ranging anywhere from $500 to $1,500 per performance (sometimes higher depending on your background and your company’s reputation, although $750 to $1,000 is typically the average). Other directors will ask how much you charge—and as squeamish as you may feel about putting a price on your head, try not to sell yourself short. An old negotiating rule of thumb is to first request above what you’d like. Consider your budgetary needs, the travel required and your experience level. (See sidebar.) Touchet, an established principal dancer, requests a higher fee, but will negotiate lower if necessary. Also, pre-determine what you consider deal-breakers. For instance, Goodman will turn down a Nutcracker if she’s required to rehearse on location prior to production week. Touchet won’t do a production unless she would make more than at Cincinnati Ballet. Don’t be afraid to ask for a higher fee if the initial offer isn’t enough.

The Rehearsal Process

Touchet dances Sugar Plum for Cincinnati Ballet and already has rehearsals scheduled into her workday, but those who don’t must find time to rehearse during breaks. If you don’t have free access to a studio, you’ll need to rent space, which typically costs $10 an hour in major cities. If your partner lives in a different city, plan to meet up for a rehearsal period a week or two prior to the show.

Most community productions use recorded music. Request a copy so that you can rehearse to the proper tempos, and don’t be afraid to ask the director to adjust them if they seem unreasonable. The Sugar Plum and Cavalier usually make appearances during the opening and finale of Act II, so studying a DVD of the production in advance can help expedite stage rehearsals later on.

What Directors Expect

Directors depend on you to arrive rehearsed and in shape. “I insist that the couple is prepared,” says Mosier. “They can’t come here and wiggle around.” One bonus of guesting is that you can tweak the choreography to suit your strengths. But don’t perform an abbreviated version without consulting directors first.

Signing autographs, posing for pictures or complimenting young dancers’ performances can make a huge impact on the students you’re dancing with. But they can inspire you as well. For them, Nutcracker is the biggest event in their year, and their raw enthusiasm can recharge your own love for dance. “You can’t help but feel good,” says Goodman. “They remind you of why you do this.”

The Fine Print

Make sure you understand what your contract includes before agreeing on a fee.

-Are you required to travel? Make sure flights and lodging are included—this should be non-negotiable. They may house you with a host family instead of in a hotel to save money, so figure out whether you’re comfortable with that.

-Inquire about costumes. Many productions provide their own, but if they don’t, you may have to find a tutu. Ask your company’s wardrobe supervisor if you can use an old tutu from the costume room or check with colleagues and retired dancers to find out if they have a tutu you could borrow. If you have to rent one from another company, ask whether the production will cover the cost.

-Your time is valuable; if you’re required to rehearse on location for an extended period, make sure you receive some sort of compensation.

-Not all productions can afford to offer benefits such as per diem, rental cars and pointe shoes. However, they could be used as bargaining tools if your fee seems low.

– Keep in mind how many performances you’ll have over how many days. A performance fee could add up quickly if you have five shows a weekend—but one matinee might not be worth it.