Company Life: Helping Hands—and Feet

March 27, 2014

One evening in November, after a long day of Nutcracker rehearsals, I turned on the news to images of Typhoon Haiyan, which had just struck the Philippines. I found myself extremely upset by the devastation—the sight of the wreckage was heartbreaking. I wondered how many of my Filipino friends were missing family members and asked myself what I could do to make a difference in the recovery effort.

I immediately grabbed my phone to text my friend Erin Fogarty, the director of programming at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, who has been running the Dance Against Cancer benefit with Daniel Ulbricht for the last three years. (I danced in it last year.) The next day, Erin and I discussed the idea of planning a benefit. The details seemed daunting: programs, food and drink, performers, rehearsal schedules, sponsors, volunteers, auction items, choreography rights and more. But I thought, “I can do this.” Something about the project just felt right.

Many people generously jumped at the chance to help, and within 24 hours, I had a lot of the details planned. MMAC executive artistic director Rose Caiola let me use her black-box theater free of charge. (I chose a date just before the new year because it was the last chance for patrons to write off donations on their 2013 taxes.) Lisa Mehigan, a longtime supporter of New York City Ballet, offered to print the programs. And Erin and I created a website that would feature my mission statement, artist profiles and links to reserve tickets and make donations.

Planning a diverse program was important to draw a big enough audience to fill the nearly 200-seat theater, so I contacted close friends, dancers I know from taking open class or those I’ve admired in performance. I called Amar Ramasar, my best friend and one of my favorite partners, and told him he was dancing with me at the benefit. He said, “Okay,” which made me smile because this is typical of us—we each just tell the other when and where and we make it happen. (We ended up dancing Balanchine’s Nutcracker pas de deux.) NYCB soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, who is half Filipino and has family in the Philippines, also happily agreed. Others quickly signed on: Antonio and Kirven Douthit-Boyd from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Michael Trusnovec from Paul Taylor Dance Company and Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside of American Ballet Theatre. I was worried about getting choreography and music rights, since the event included works by Alvin Ailey, George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Paul Taylor. But every organization donated the rights to perform the pieces for free.

Social media was an astounding tool at this stage. With one post on Facebook and Twitter, I filled the rest of my program. I couldn’t believe the outpouring of generosity from our community of artists and art lovers. In the end, the 50 performers ranged from chorus to opera, and ballet to Broadway. Over 50 items were donated to the silent auction: Incredible dance shots by Henry Leutwyler and Gene Schiavone, fashion week tickets, and Amanda Selby’s old sketches of Natalia Makarova, Gelsey Kirkland, Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton with their autographs were all among my favorites.

On the night of the event, I paced back and forth backstage, sweating bullets before my opening speech. I felt overwhelmed. But the joy and pride I felt in my peers quickly overshadowed those nerves. By the end of the evening, “New York Artists for The Philippines” raised over $14,000 for the World Food Programme, providing over 55,000 meals for those displaced by the typhoon. I am so grateful to every person who helped make that happen, and I will absolutely create something like this again in the future. This event showed me how generous the community I belong to can be and taught me about the hard work that goes into producing a performance. Dance has the ability to do much more than make an audience smile.