Dancers are well known for their singular desire for perfection. Indeed, to be driven to the pursuit of perfection is essential in an art form where it can never truly be attained. The nature of dancers in always striving to improve; to develop; to push the boundaries, is what has kept ballet not just alive, but evolving for over five centuries.
However, this desire for the best at all times, can result in an underlying sense of anxiety amongst dancers, questioning whether they are getting the most possible out of their (relatively) short careers. Nobody wants to waste prime years feeling as though their technical, physical and mental attributes are not being fully utilised.
Human nature itself is given to look at what others have and compare, whether it be envying the neighbour’s garden or coveting your sibling’s car, but when it comes to dance: Is the Grass Always Greener on the Other Side? In the age old question of Contract vs Freelance, is it possible to be content without looking over the fence?
For final year dance students, getting that all-important contract seems like a matter of life and death. Traveling to the ends of the earth and breaking the bank in the process seems like a small price to pay. For emerging students, a company gives the perfect place to learn about the profession, with older and more experienced dancers to take as examples. From a technical standpoint, being in a company means daily training, and a level to achieve and maintain in order to fit in. The attention and amount of corrections received will vary enormously depending on the size of the company, but the facilities and structure to train will always be available, making it easier to ‘stay in shape,’ and even improve. Freelancers, on the other hand, must take responsibility and pay for their own training, through open classes, other forms of exercise such as yoga or gym visits and dogged personal discipline. As a Freelancer, you are in charge or your own career, and no one is going to stand over you to ensure that you are at your best. It is imperative for Freelancers to remain in peak condition, in order to be ready when opportunities come along: a concept that is motivating to some, and daunting to others.
In terms of stability, a full contract is the Holy Grail. Having a set salary and designated holidays enables planning in both schedules and finances, however, the inflexible nature of ‘fitting in’ with what the Contract dictates means very little freedom and control over what time is yours. Similarly, dancer in Contracts have no say over the repertoire or roles they will be dancing. Conversely, Freelancers can chose what work they wish to accept and determine their own availability. Certainly, it is a more risky existence since there may or may not be desirable work available, but the dancer is firmly in charge of what they wish to take on, and when. The financial reward for Freelance work is often proportionally much higher, with Equity suggesting rates of £300-£500 for a featured role in a television commercial and over £140 per performance if participating in an opera as an extra. One must weigh up the benefits of a higher daily rate, against the Freelancer’s costs of training, as well as items such as Physiotherapy, Shoes, Travel, Pension and Insurance, which are far less likely to be covered for those working Freelance than those under contract.
Dancers under contract are most likely in a closed and competitive environment, where the Director’s opinion reigns supreme. In a subjective art form like dance it is only natural for favorites to emerge and for casting decisions to follow accordingly. There is a danger for contract dancers to become either complacent (from being unchallenged in their prime position) or despondent (from being denied opportunities to dance more demanding roles). However, being in a contract is the best way to ensure regular performances and guaranteed repertoire to work on. The very nature of Freelance work is that it is very varied, and therefore exciting. To be able to work with different choreographers is a great luxury, and job opportunities that can seem unorthodox can often make for the most interesting and rewarding experiences. Making the right contacts, remaining financially solvent in dry spells and juggling different jobs into a coherent schedule are challenges that Freelancers may face, but once mastered, the rewards both artistically and financially can abound. Versatility is key, and it may even be necessary to take on non-dancing work such as teaching, assisting a choreographer or else something totally different, but there is nothing to say that these experiences cannot be equally enriching to the dancer.
- Daily training - Not progressing through ranks as hoped
- Structured Schedule - Less varied
- Financial Stability - Possible to stagnate
-Regular Performances and Repertoire - Less control/artistic choice
-Pension, Physio, Pointe Shoes etc - Unable to take up outside opportunities
- Varied and exciting - Risky, due to potential lack of work
- Higher hourly/daily rates of payment - Income is not stable
- Dancer is able to chose what and when - Non-dancing work may be necessary
- Chance to work with various choreographers - Difficult in coordinating a schedule
- Can take advantage of opportunities offered - Must train independently
The truth is, as aspiring dance students, the professional career we dreamed of always looked a certain way: member of a renowned company, rising through the ranks to Principle, international touring and public acclaim. In reality, this fairy-tale becomes reality for very few, but there are many many dancers having fulfilling, diverse and worthwhile careers that look very different from the template.
In the same way that little boys dreaming of becoming a Fireman may find the harsh reality very different, the careers that we end up with often look nothing like the ones we imagined. This does not in any way decrease their value; it is simply a matter of perspective. Looking forward is essential in order to dream at all; looking around is important to ensure that you are making the most of the precious years given to you; looking back is when you truly understand the value of what you had.