When Sarah Walborn first joined San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice, the excitement of joining her dream company soon gave way to dread. “I would go into work every day with fear as opposed to the excitement I had in school," explains Walborn, now with Ballet Arizona. “I didn't want to do any roles, much less go in for the workday." Something needed to change.
Acknowledging such negative thoughts can be scary and lonely for dancers, no matter what stage in their career. If you don't feel your company is the right fit, it can affect your motivation, a vital component in a profession that requires 110 percent every day. And yet, contemplating a move can bring up an equal number of anxieties. Luckily, employing a mix of self-reflection and research can help you avoid making a rash decision.
List Your Goals
To facilitate self-awareness and encourage self-assessment, Lauren Gordon, a career counselor with Career Transition For Dancers, recommends writing down an annual checklist of goals that reflects your aspirations in your company, for your overall dance career and for your personal life. How closely does your current experience match your checklist? If it doesn't, what will it take to get the two more aligned?
After some reflection, Walborn realized that she needed more training. “I was too immature," she says of her time at SFB. “I felt intimidated, so I held back and didn't push myself as much as I could have." The next year she reenrolled at her alma mater, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, to regain her confidence. While there, she concluded that she would be more comfortable dancing in a smaller company.
Signs You Should Leave
While fear, such as Walborn described, can be a powerful indicator, there are other telltale signs that it's time to reassess your current environment. For instance, if you're consistently passed over for roles or a promotion that you feel you deserve, you may have better success elsewhere. A hostile or exploitative workplace situation is another indicator that you should move on.
Other times, the reason can be harder to put your finger on. For Jeffrey Cirio, who danced as a principal at Boston Ballet before taking a soloist position at American Ballet Theatre last year, it was feeling too comfortable. “I was getting to the point where I was doing everything opening night and going into rehearsal feeling more nonchalant," says Cirio. “I'd look back on a particular day or rehearsal and wish I would have pushed for more. Even though I was doing well, I needed a different mind-set."
Major company changes can also trigger thoughts about moving on. After dancing with The Washington Ballet Studio Company, Walborn joined Kansas City Ballet, where she felt at home right away. But during her second season, there was a change in the artistic directorship. When she felt KCB changing overall, it no longer felt like an artistic fit and she began to put out feelers. On a recommendation, she auditioned for Ballet Arizona, where she found director Ib Andersen's direct demeanor and approach to technique to be similar to hers.
When to Wait It Out
Of course, no company is perfect, and not every complaint warrants walking away. “It's important to remember that the company is not the bad guy," says Gordon. “It's your responsibility to take care of your own goals and to be able to ask for things." Acknowledging the positive aspects of your work environment can help you assess the negative more clearly. For instance, maybe there is a tour or an exciting choreographer slated for next season, or perhaps your company offers an educational partnership with a local university.
“It can also be smart to stay longer when you aren't sure and need to gather more information," says Gordon. “The knowledge that steps are in motion can help you get through a season, take away the impatience and appreciate the work ahead."
Cirio, who had been in Boston his entire career, made his decision to leave over a two-year period. Aware that he still had great repertoire to dance and opportunities to choreograph, he also realized that if he went to a bigger company, he would probably have to accept a lower rank.
To be sure, he reached out to friends in other companies and consulted his sister, fellow BB principal Lia Cirio, who had made a similar career decision years before. “Be discreet about exploring," advises Gordon, “because it can be taken the wrong way. However, it can be tempting to say 'yes' to an offer without first knowing if it is a good fit. Research ahead of time and your decision will be more rational."
Taking your time can also help with making a graceful exit. “Every culture handles leaving differently," warns Gordon. “A good leave-taking process is important because in this profession everyone crosses paths and either helps or thwarts each other." Once Cirio was fairly certain of his decision to leave Boston Ballet, he sought out the advice of artistic director Mikko Nissinen, who ultimately gave his blessing. At the very least, planning a future move while cherishing your final moments at your current company can help make the transition easier.