A gala can offer career opportunities, artistic growth and one-of-a-kind performance experiences.
For audiences, a star-studded international gala is a treat: a rare opportunity to see high-profile artists from all over the world on a single stage. But these engagements are also invaluable for the dancers who perform in them. “A gala is a great opportunity to see how dancers at different companies approach their work and their artistry,” says Bridgett Zehr, a principal at the National Ballet of Canada, who has performed in Stars of the 21st Century in Toronto, the International Ballet Star Gala in Taipei and Youth America Grand Prix in New York City.
For professional dancers, being in a gala can get you guest artist work, enhance your prominence in the ballet world and even lead to higher-paying jobs. But how do you nab a gala gig? Through recommendations, networking and self-promotion.
Ask for an Invitation
Most gala directors invite dancers with name recognition, but they will also hire performers based on recommendations. “I ask my friends in different companies, and I keep my head in the loop about what’s going on in other countries,” says Larissa Saveliev, co-founder and artistic director of Youth America Grand Prix, which produces galas all over the world. “If I hear that something was a big success or someone stood out in a certain piece, I make a catalog for myself, from which I later put together the gala.”
Don’t let this discourage you from soliciting an invitation, especially if you live far from where the gala takes place. A DVD is the best way to put your name in the hat. “I welcome submissions,” says Denise Roberts Hurlin, founding director of Dancers Responding to AIDS, which produces the Fire Island Dance Festival. She gives preference to companies who do audience appeals for DRA, but also leaves room for emerging artists who may not yet have the big seasons or resources to do so.
Research the gala before expressing interest. Is it classical? Contemporary? Is it a fundraiser, like the outdoor Fire Island Dance Festival? Or is it a glitzy engagement in an opera house? Once you know what a particular gala is after, craft a brief letter of introduction that highlights how you are uniquely qualified. Then put together a package that includes a DVD, your upcoming performance schedule, a resumé, any reviews you’ve received, a letter of recommendation and references.
Make an Impressive DVD
When you put together your reel, select work that showcases your versatility. “Make the DVD short and clear—I’m not going to watch more than 15 minutes,” says Victor Melnikoff, director of Le Gala des Étoiles based in Montreal. He receives 80 to 100 unsolicited DVDs each year. “In order for a new artist to catch my eye, the repertoire should be innovative and fresh—not just Don Qs and Corsaires.”
Repertoire can be one of the biggest factors in a hiring decision. “In high-profile engagements, organizers have to take into consideration what repertoire a dancer will have access to perform,” says Todd Fox of Elitedance Artists Management, which represents high-caliber artists for short-term guest work. If a gala director wants Bournonville, for instance, it will be easier to hire dancers from a company that regularly performs Bournonville ballets, because those dancers are more likely to be able to get the rights.
Network, Network, Network
One of the best ways to receive an invitation is to do projects outside your company (if your contract permits) so your name becomes more visible. Daniil Simkin, a soloist with American Ballet Theatre who has been doing galas since his early teens, says competitions helped him get his first invitations.
Talk to your colleagues. Is there a dancer in your company who does galas? Take him or her aside to ask for advice—and if he or she needs a partner. Are there smaller side gigs you can do in the off-season? Is your director well-connected? Ask for a recommendation. You have to be bold. “Don’t wait for the big galas to call you,” says NBC’s Zdenek Konvalina (Zehr’s partner), who has appeared in the World Ballet Festival in Tokyo, the Diaghilev Festival in St. Petersburg and others. “Start with any project, and if you feel like you have a good DVD, call them up.”
Consider creating a personal website so potential employers will have an easy point of reference. Simkin’s site features video clips and biographical information. He also maintains a Facebook page where his fans can connect with him, and he even tweets. “I get criticized for being so open, but it doesn’t hurt,” he says. “I’ve definitely been contacted through Facebook and by people who saw me on YouTube.”
Working with an agent may also help. Although Konvalina says he gets most of his invitations through recommendations, his agent has secured several opportunities for him in Europe. Just be sure to check your company contract before signing.
Above all, remember to stay positive. Says Fox, “It’s very competitive and it’s very difficult, but then again so is becoming a professional dancer, so don’t get discouraged.”
Kristin Lewis is a frequent contributor to several dance publications.