You're Fired. Now What?

Losing your contract need not halt your career.
Published in the February/March 2014 issue.

Elice McKinley in Carolina Ballet's "Pinocchio"

The writing had been on the wall for a few weeks: I’d been conspicuously left off the cast list for most of the ballets in the upcoming program, plus I was getting weird vibes from the artistic staff. A new director had just taken over, and I had the sinking realization that my job was in jeopardy. Soon enough, he called me into his office and broke the news: My dancing wasn’t up to his standards, and he was not hiring me back for the following season.

It’s a common scenario—new directors often clean house to make room for dancers who better fit their vision. Still, I couldn’t help feeling humiliated, confused and downright panicked—and I still had three months of my contract left. Each day at the company reminded me that I no longer belonged; every missed pirouette felt like confirmation of my director’s decision. Sometimes it took everything I had not to walk out of his class or to feel swallowed up by resentment towards the apprentice taking my place. The career and friendships I’d spent eight years building at Milwaukee Ballet were now being wrenched away. How on earth was I going to get through the rest of the season?

Fortunately, I did get through it. And I found fulfillment in a new company and can now look back with warmth on my career at MB.
 Losing a contract is one of the most difficult realities dancers face. And unlike other professions, where you can pack up your desk and walk out the door, dancers have to stay on to finish out the season. In the midst of this prolonged rejection, you have to make critical life decisions (Where should I audition? Should I keep dancing? Should I apply for school?) and bone up for the job hunt. The rollercoaster of emotions creates a perfect recipe for bitterness and disillusionment. But while it’s unrealistic to simply “think positively,” you can take steps to manage your negative emotions with dignity and move on to the next step in your career.

Control Your Feelings

For one thing, feeling angry, anxious and sad is completely normal—and you should give yourself time to let those feelings sink in. “The issue is how to manage those feelings,” says Dr. Nadine J. Kaslow, a psychologist who works with Atlanta Ballet dancers. But be wise about the people with whom you share your grievances at the studio. “No matter how much stress you’re under, integrity is really critical,” Kaslow says. “If you start bad-mouthing the company and acting out at the workplace, not only will you leave with a negative reputation, but you’ll end up not feeling very good about yourself.”

Oregon Ballet Theatre principal Brett Bauer had every reason to complain when he lost his contract with San Francisco Ballet in 2010. A longtime corps member, he was getting ready to perform the title role in Petrouchka when artistic director Helgi Tomasson notified him he would not be hired back. “There wasn’t a whole lot of clarity, just that I wasn’t improving the way he wanted me to,” says Bauer. Confused and frustrated, he was nevertheless determined to act professionally. “I could’ve easily taken my 31 sick days and not shown up for work,” he says. “But I had to do my job. Whatever legacy I had there, I wanted to keep intact.”

After the initial shock sets in, make an effort to regroup and plan. “The more you stay stuck in the negativity,” says Kaslow, “the less emotional and physical energy you’ll have to reflect and explore options.” Seek advice from those who can provide practical help. (One of the first people I called was my ballet teacher, who helped me brainstorm ideas and fine-tune my resumé.)  Although it’s difficult, Kaslow recommends reviewing any feedback you received from your director with an open mind to determine if there’s truth to it. Acknowledge areas where you may have fallen short, and let that information guide you towards your next step.

A Strong Audition Package
Job-hunting can restore your sense of purpose. Carolina Ballet corps member Elice McKinley was devastated after losing her contract with Miami City Ballet in 2009, and considered quitting dance altogether. But then she collected herself and went into audition mode. Friends helped her take photos and rehearse variations for her audition video. She spent every free moment outside rehearsal contacting companies, mailing resumés, organizing auditions and coordinating flights. She admits feeling worn down by the whole process. “But it was also a distraction,” she says. “I had a reason to get up in the morning.”

Scheduling auditions around your current job is both exhausting and expensive, with weekends and layoffs spent scurrying to open calls and company classes. When opportunities arise during workweeks, however, you’re faced with the sticky dilemma of negotiating time off with your artistic director—the same one who has said he doesn’t want you to dance for his company. Personal days come in handy during rehearsal periods, but you may not be granted time off if an audition conflicts with performances. You need to be ready to advocate for yourself. If you can’t work out a solution to the conflict—and it’s a promising opportunity—decide whether the consequences of going (such as early termination) are worth it.

Stay Open
Getting out to other companies has its advantages, including fresh perspectives. McKinley felt her confidence improve once she started auditioning. “It was good for me to see other dancers and take different classes,” she says. “Getting positive feedback from other directors pushed me to keep trying.” And an unsuccessful audition doesn’t have to feel like salt in the wound. Bauer adopted a helpful philosophy to keep plowing ahead. “I’d think, ‘It’s this or something better,’ ” he says. “If it didn’t work out, it was okay because there was somewhere else I was meant to be.”

Both advise staying open-minded, since happiness may lie in unexpected places. At first, McKinley focused solely on auditioning for large companies. “But it wasn’t until I tried smaller ones that I found the place I love,” she says, noting that she has better casting opportunities at CB. “It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.” Bauer, too, admits that OBT wasn’t originally on his radar. But once he auditioned, he felt an instant connection. He was hired as a soloist and promoted to principal one year later. “It’s definitely allowed me to reach greater heights.”

Not every transition is seamless—it took several months after I left Milwaukee before I got a job with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. But once I found my new home, I picked up where I left off. “Look at this as an opportunity to have another experience,” says Bauer. “Sometimes one door needs to close before a better one can open for you.”

Amy Brandt writes Pointe’s “Ask Amy” column and is an associate editor at Dance Teacher.




Show Your Strengths

Here are some tips to help project a professional image and save valuable time during the job hunt:

-On your resumé, show you’ve been an asset to your former company by listing featured roles first. In addition, make sure that any major works, choreographers and schools figure prominently on the page. Include awards, scholarships and links to reviews.

-Ask for letters of recommendation from artistic staff, former directors, choreographers and/or well-known teachers you’ve worked with—people who’ll put in an excellent word for you and quell any doubts about your abilities.

-Take advantage of friends, teachers, former artistic staff—anyone with connections in other companies who can help you get a foot in the door—and let them know you’re looking for work.

-High turnover is common in the dance world. Directors know this. However, if one asks why you’re leaving your company, don’t trash the place or play the victim—that just makes you look bad. Be tactful, upbeat and brief, and communicate that you’re excited about the future. —AB