I leap into the wings—and promptly collapse on the floor. Six performances in three days have taken a toll. As a member of American Ballet Theatre I’m used to physically demanding roles, but right now I’m nowhere near our home stage in NYC. I’m performing as the Snow King in The Nutcracker as a guest artist with my old ballet school in Missoula, MT.
Sitting on the floor in white tights, panting like I’ve just finished a marathon, I notice a crowd of children staring at me. From behind their makeup I see their awe at the technical feats my partner and I have just performed onstage, and I suddenly remember being one of those children, just 10 years ago.
Monetary compensation may be the most obvious reward of being a guest artist, but as I sit surrounded by students, I realize why I do it. To have transformed from the awestruck child to the performer eliciting the response is extremely fulfilling.
However, the world of guesting is never clear-cut. While the majority of work available is for classical roles, there are no set guidelines and the differences from job to job can be vast. Maintaining a full-time career while traveling to different cities for extra performances is physically and emotionally draining. Even something as small as a change of altitude can affect your stamina in unexpected ways. Here are a few hints to help you navigate your way.
Getting the Job
It’s no secret that the dance world is a game of six (or even two!) degrees of separation—everybody knows everybody. So when you become a professional and want to land a guesting job, it’s best to start with your closest contacts and work outward.
Schools you trained at may be looking for a known commodity—like you, a former student—that holds sentimental value for the students and the audience. You may even be able to establish a standing gig (like The Nutcracker) that you can rely on every year. However, each school and company has different performance schedules and repertoires. If you expand your circle of contacts, job opportunities will open up in different regions; when one dancer passes on a job from their home studio, they may just throw it your way.
Of course, getting the gig through a friend often means that someone is hiring you sight unseen, which can be nerve-racking for both the dancer and the employer. To be prepared, keep an updated resumé (with training and performance experience) and video reel (with variations, partnering work and a few contemporary roles) handy. The wider range you can show an employer, the better.
If your well of personal contacts runs dry, there are other search alternatives. “In the beginning I got gigs through friends or teachers,” says Melanie Hamrick of ABT, who has guested with Universal Ballet of Korea, Mobile Ballet, Ballet Hawaii and others. “Now I go through an agent who organizes everything.”
While it’s not essential for a dancer to have an agent, there are benefits. Studio bulletin boards can become a giant classified ad seeking guest dancers for various roles. Agents can cut through the clutter and bring the worthwhile opportunities to you. Still, the most reliable way to land a guesting job is to network.
Getting the job may seem like the tricky part, but it’s nailing down the details of the contract that can become overwhelming. Having an agent proves most valuable at this stage.
“The most important things when clarifying the contract are fee, amount of rehearsal, number of performances (and dress rehearsals), travel, lodging and per diem,” says Amanda Cobb, formerly of ABT, who most recently guested with Washington Ballet. If you agree beforehand on what exactly is expected of you, there won’t be any surprises when you arrive to perform. “You want to make sure you’re not signing your life away and doing work without compensation,” Cobb says.
The fee will differ from job to job and from dancer to dancer. Fame holds a lot of weight in the guesting world; principal dancers at leading companies can command as much as five figures per performance! Dancers in the corps can expect to earn between $300–$1,000 a show, depending on their resumé—and on what the hiring company can afford (smaller studios don’t have as high of a budget for guest artists). Regardless of the size of the job, be sure to clarify who will pay for things like costume rentals, hotel rooms and transportation (both to get to the job, and while you are in the city). In most cases, your transportation, room and board will be paid for or reimbursed by the company hiring you.
But it’s not all about the money! I’ve taken lower fees for jobs for several reasons: The gig might hold sentimental value (studios I trained at, etc.); it might afford me the chance to go to locations that I’ve never been to; or the role will enrich my repertoire by giving me the chance to try something new.
The amount of work from ballet to ballet is very different. Full-length works often require rehearsals integrated with the company, versus being able to prepare on your own beforehand. Most of the time, you’ll arrive the week of the show—early in the week if you have more rehearsal with the company, and later if you’re performing a stand-alone pas de deux or variation.
Clarify whose choreography you will be performing. For Nutcracker gigs, the version being danced is usually left up to the guest artists, while full-length ballets often require learning production-specific choreography by video beforehand. If you’re learning new choreography, you should be compensated accordingly. One of the most valuable things to remember is that no matter what choreography you’re doing, you should have a fresh set of eyes watch you run the work before you jet off to the job. If you have ballet masters at your disposal in a company, ask them to coach you. Employers will often have specific details to refine, but get one step ahead of them by arriving as polished as possible.
While money may be a driving force for many dancers when guesting, the experience can be rewarding in other ways.
“Children are so happy to watch and learn,” Hamrick says. “Nothing is more rewarding than going to gigs and spreading the love of ballet to children who don’t make it to bigger cities to see us.”
Inspiring younger dancers goes further than what happens onstage. “If there are events like cast parties, guest artists should try to be in attendance,” notes New York City Ballet principal Sterling Hyltin. “Often these people look up to you, and interacting with them is part of the package.”
No matter where or what the job is, professionalism is of the utmost importance. Many dancers even say they expect more of themselves as guest artists than in their regular jobs. It’s easy to let your ego get the best of you when you’ve been flown in to perform somewhere, but don’t make outlandish demands just because you can; keep the focus on the dancing.
“I grow so much as a dancer while guesting,” says ABT soloist Jared Matthews. “I perform things I might not get the chance to do onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House. I gain confidence and performance maturity. These are all things that I can translate to my full-time job.”
Be sure to reflect not only on what you will be gaining, but what you are sharing as well. Respect every performer involved, no matter what age they are or role they play. Who knows? Ten years from now you might be working alongside one of the children who was watching you in awe.