Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, many dancers are facing company closures or layoffs. Before the pandemic hit, Dance Spirit had the chance to speak with Laura Osterhaus, who was a full-time dancer with the Minnesota-based Zenon Dance Company when it closed in June 2019. While the dance world was drastically different when Osterhaus coped with the closure of her company, her story might provide insight for dancers facing the shuttering of their companies today. Here's how she overcame that challenge, as told to Cadence Neenan.
I graduated from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in May 2016, and I joined Zenon Dance Company in June 2016. I worked my whole first year at Zenon on an unpaid apprenticeship.
I then danced as a full-time company member for two additional years following my apprenticeship. At Zenon, it was a team effort: If there was a disagreement or a physical problem to solve, we had a level of understanding and a flow of communication that we found really worked for us. We also had an extremely strong sense of community.
I learned about the closing of Zenon in January 2019. I immediately knew that one of the hardest things was going to be the loss of that sense of community.
It was no secret that Zenon was lacking funding. I had heard stories even when I first joined the company, so I knew it was an ongoing struggle. We all saw and felt that—we were seeing less and less of the staff in our office because Linda Andrews, our company director, was able to pay them for fewer and fewer hours.
Osterhaus (far right) and her fellow Zenon Dance Company members in Gregory Dolbashian's Eternal Reveal (Bill Cameron, courtesy Osterhaus)
But as we saw that decline, we all stepped up, too. I took on the role of costume designer, and other company members took on roles of handling social media, or marketing, or putting together the benefits we organized each year. We were all fighting so hard to keep it alive, so I think it surprised most of us when it did happen.
Initially, I think I just cried. I didn't know how to process it. There were a lot of tears, and a lot of phone calls to my partner—like, "What's going to happen?" I think my sense of loss started right then, which was hard, because we had a whole season left. We learned about the closure in January, but the company wouldn't close until June, after a Minnesota-based tour, and our final performance in the spring. So, we had to figure out how to navigate when we could be sad and grieving, and when we could rehearse and embrace our jobs that we loved so much while we still had them.
Everyone in the company stayed on for the final show, and we even had a few guests who performed with us. It was a mad whirl of things—preparing for the show with zero time to recognize what was about to happen. But I have a really clear memory from the final matinee. We were about to open the show with a piece called Storm, choreographed by Daniel Charon. It's a piece we've performed for so many years. We all took our places in the wings, and I think that's when it hit us—that was the last time we would perform Storm, which had been so important for so many people.
Osterhaus performing Wynn Fricke's Just Her Time with Zenon Dance Company (Bill Cameron, courtesy Osterhaus)
After the company closed, I started sending emails to pretty much every person I had a remote connection to—every choreographer that I had worked with in college, or at Zenon, or at a dance intensive. It was a very vulnerable time. I only heard back from about 25 percent of the people I reached out to, most of them saying "It's great to hear from you, I'll let you know when I have something," and that was it.
At the same time, I was also filling out grant applications and applications to present work, because I have my own company, the Slo Dance Company. My long-term goal is to be the artistic director of my own company, so, as Zenon ended, there was a question of whether or not I should make Slo Dance my main focus.
But at the same time, I had just seen Zenon close, I had seen companies fold, or shift to a project-based functioning. I knew I couldn't walk myself into personal debt just to pursue Slo Dance. Plus, I had, and still have, dreams and pursuits that I want for myself as Laura Osterhaus, the dancer.
Osterhaus (left) in rehearsal with Slo Dance Company (Isabel Fajardo, courtesy Osterhaus)
I definitely believe that everything happens for a reason. After Zenon closed, I spent a month in NYC working with a choreographer I know, Sam Kim, and I've been teaching dance twice a week at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts, in St. Paul, MN—those things wouldn't have been an option if I was still full-time.
I'm also working on defining my own version of success. Leaving college, it felt like success meant dancing full-time. I was lucky enough to be one of the people who got that opportunity, which I'm so grateful for, but I'm seeing more and more that I can define my own success. I'm still dancing for the majority of my workday, and for me, that feels like success.