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When life calls for a Plan B: Guest post by Terez Mertes Rose

When life calls for a Plan B

By Terez Mertes Rose

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There is a certain line of thinking in an ultra-competitive, high-stakes career like ballet or gymnastics, that mandates one to focus on the shining goal alone, and not the what-ifs. “Don’t ever make a Plan B for your life,” more than one elite coach or teacher has told their pre-professional student. “If you do, it’s as if you’re saying, ‘it’s okay if this doesn’t work out.’ Give this your all, and then give more. And more.” It’s an intense philosophy that nonetheless breeds winners, those who will rise to the top of the top and stay there. But the laws of physics are clear: what goes up must come down.

I recently published a novel, Outside the Limelight, which chronicles the journey two professional dance sisters take when life and career don’t turn out quite as planned. For the elder sister, lack of a promotion has meant nine years in the corps, that have increasingly debilitated her body. For the younger, a swift rise through the ranks is halted by a devastating medical diagnosis: a brain tumor. Sidelined in the aftermath of complications from the extraction surgery, her life is no longer at risk, but her career is. Which, to her, feels like one in the same.

Both sisters now grapple with the question that few young elite athletes want to face: what comes next, when the career you’ve trained your entire life for, devoted all your attention and energy to, tries to nudge you out?

I had the opportunity to explore real-life scenarios in conversations with former New York City Ballet dancer sisters Romy and Zippora Karz. Like my younger character Dena, Zippora, a soloist, had to struggle with a challenging medical diagnosis—Type 1 diabetes—that put her health and career at risk every day. “From the moment I first learned how to inject insulin, I questioned how realistic it was for me to continue with the NYCB,” she said. “It was just my third year with the company, but I had already been dancing leading roles. Through the years, as the reality of life with insulin dependent diabetes took its toll on me, and consequently affected my dancing, it became a daily question. Each day I would go to bed thinking that was my last, and each morning I would wake up thinking, just one more show.” (Her journey is eloquently chronicled in a memoir, The Sugarless Plum, published in 2009.)

Love for her art prevailed and she danced for sixteen years with the NYCB, thirteen after her diagnosis. Finally it came time to transition to a Plan B, and with it, a pleasant surprise.

photo by Mark Harmel

photo by Mark Harmel

“I wasn’t really looking to be a teacher. I never wanted to impose or perpetuate the perfectionism I struggled with so much. But as I taught and staged Balanchine ballets, I was brought back to my early years, before my illness, before the stress and pressures of being a professional. I re-experienced the magic and purity of dance, the innocence. I fell in love all over again, but this time it was about giving back. It was a huge relief to be able to focus on others and not always be preoccupied with my own body and how to manage my disease.”

For Romy Karz, a plan B followed nine years in the corps de ballet, with injuries sustained throughout her career. (The NYCB is renowned for its long seasons, high-powered dancing and extensive number of performances, especially rough on its corps dancers.) She was offered a soloist position in a new company, so she left New York for her native California and the newly revived Los Angeles Ballet, a move that backfired when the company failed to take off. Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While pursuing freelance opportunities, a pregnancy caught Romy by surprise, as did the sudden realization that motherhood was something with the potential to be even bigger than dance. She found the experience of childbirth to be so profound, so empowering, that a Plan B unfolded beneath her effortlessly. This was her second calling, then: an advocate for a positive birth experience, as a childbirth educator and later as a doula, and a lactation specialist. It is what she happily devotes her time to now, along with teaching ballet and educating young dancers on how to pursue the craft from a healthier, more holistic point of view than she and her own era had.

For more than one professional ballet dancer (including Rebecca, my fictional older sister dancer), Plan B involves taking college classes. Fortunately, that’s become easier these days, thanks to the help of institutions like St. Mary’s College in San Francisco, which offers a bachelor of arts degree program that caters to dance and other performing arts professionals. Fittingly called LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals), it gives its students the opportunity to work classes into busy performing weeks and seasons. LEAP extension programs can be found in New York and Los Angeles now, as well. New York City’s Fordham University, too, offers close proximity to Lincoln Center and reduced tuition for dancers, and American Ballet Theater affiliates with Long Island University, just as Boston Ballet does with Northeastern University.

Social media, too, has become an avenue allowing dancers, sidelined or otherwise, to engage with the “outside world” in a way that profits everyone. Former New York City Ballet soloist, Kathryn Morgan, has built a veritable social media empire with her website and YouTube channels, with views in the hundreds of thousands, as well as her posts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook that share the ballet world with countless eager, interested ballet aspirants. The Kathryn Morgan Show is her podcast on the Premier Dancers Network, and she offers advice as “Dear Katie,” an advice column in Dance Spirit magazine. Fans can’t get enough of her.

Was any of this part of her original plan? Decidedly not. While dancing with the New York City Ballet, Kathryn suffered a debilitating illness, an autoimmune thyroid disorder, during a time that should have otherwise been reserved for flexing her considerable talent and growing ever more accomplished. Instead, after two difficult years of fighting against her illness, she headed back to her hometown to heal, a long, long process, as it turned out. Initially, she told me, it felt like the end of the world. But ballet dancers are tough, and their talent and persistence don’t stop easily at a “no.” Plan Bs can incorporate whatever you need, and for Kathryn, this meant staying right there in the midst of the dance world.

Linda Hamilton, in her book Advice for Dancers; Emotional Counsel and Practical Strategies, offers tips on preparation for that inevitable transition, to avoid that rug-pulled-from-beneath-you feeling. “Start early,” she counsels. “It’s better to make a gradual transition than to switch to something new out of the blue.” She encourages dancers to develop their skills through hobbies, or internships. “The sooner you begin, the more prepared you’ll be for your next career,” she says.

Prudent advice. Because there will, some day, be a need for a Plan B. The good news, as the above dancers have revealed, is that your Plan B might pleasantly surprise you.

About the Author

Terez Mertes Rose is a writer and former ballet dancer whose work has appeared in the Crab Orchard Review, Women Who Eat (Seal Press), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales), the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News. She is the author of Off Balance and Outside the Limelight, Books 1 and 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles (Classical Girl Press) respectively. She reviews dance performances for Bachtrack.com and blogs about ballet and classical music at The Classical Girl (www.theclassicalgirl.com). She makes her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband and son.

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5 Dance Exhibits to Love

As February draws to a close there’s no reason to stop that loving feeling. This year brought about a change in perspective for me regarding February; since I’ve never been wild about Hallmark Holidays, why not celebrate love–in all of its forms– for the entire month? Love feels good, doesn’t it? In the spirit of keeping love alive for all of February, I’ve searched for new dance-related things to love. This week we’ll close out the series by looking at 5 Dance Exhibits to Love. Enjoy!

Love Sky/Cielo del amor by CosasdeKike

Love Sky/Cielo del amor by CosasdeKike

Making Art Dance: Backdrops and Costumes From the Armitage Foundation. Karole Armitage, the “punk rock” ballerina, shares a new retrospective of her costumes and set pieces for the ballet, theater and film. Curated by former Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffrey Deitch, the collection highlights innovative choreographer’s collaborations with fashion designers like LaCroix, Jean Paul Gaultier and Donna Karan’s Peter Speliopoulos, as well as with artists and filmmakers including Donald Baechler, Alba Clemente, Jeff Koons, David Salle and Philip Taaffe. Housed at Jersey City’s Mana Contemporary’s Glass Gallery, the show is a short PATH train commute from New York City — and a chance to check out this 50,000 square foot exhibit space designed by Richard Meier that opened last year. It’s also home for Armitage’s current troup, Armitage Gone! Dance. The company took up a residency in Mana Contemporary’s main building adjacent to the gallery.

Through March 13 at Mana Contemporary, 888 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey;manacontemporary.com

National Museum of Dance: Jacques D’AmboiseThis exhibition pays tribute to 2014 Hall of Fame Inductee, Jaques d’Amboise, whose determined spirit saw him through years of ballet training and countless hours of rehearsals with choreographic luminaries such as George Balanchine. His positive outlook has led him to become one of the premiere dance educators in the country. While you’re visiting the museum, take in other ongoing exhibits, including Dancers in Film, a retrospective of some of cinema’s finest footwork, and Richard Calmes’s Dance Magic photography exhibit.

Dance Theater of Harlem’s 40 Years of Firsts. Originally an exhibition at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2009, the exhibit is still just as relevant today….and available to travel. Highlighting Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 40-plus year history, this magnificent exhibition celebrates the history and art of dance with 22 costumes, set pieces, videos, photographs and tour posters from four staged ballets including: A Streetcar Named Desire, Creole Giselle, Dougla and Firebird. This multi-media exhibition captures the majesty of the choreography, the beauty of the costuming, and the dancers who defied gravity and stereotyping, and celebrates the history of Dance Theater of Harlem, a company that began when Arthur Mitchell –inspired by the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–wanted to make a difference; by doing what he knew best. He brought the art form of ballet to Harlem. With a modest beginning, holding classes in a warehouse on 152nd Street, the school has greatly expanded and since grown into a multi-cultural dance institution. Visit the official website of the Dance Theatre of Harlem for further information.

Dancers Among Us. Jordan Matter made headlines when he became inspired to search for serendipitous dance moments out in the world. He photographed dancers in showers, snowbanks, New York City streets…even subways. This project became a passion and eventually a book, Dancers Among Us. Matter’s exhibits have since toured the world, most recently Seoul, Korea, and he’s now at work on a book about circus performers. Stay tuned.

 JR. In 2007, (with Marco), he did Face 2 Face, the biggest illegal exhibition ever. He’s known for creating “Pervasive Art” that spreads uninvited on the buildings of the slums around Paris, on the walls in the Middle-East, on the broken bridges in Africa or the favelas in Brazil…. although he isn’t really known: French street artist JR prefers to remain anonymous. He’s come a long way from his humble beginnings– he got into photography after he found a camera in the Paris subway. 

JR was a featured resident artist at Lincoln Center where he photographed the NYCB, and went on to continue working with ballet dancers, this time on the roof of the famous Palais Garnier, one of the homes of the Paris opera in a photo-shoot for the French magazine Madame Figaro. The spread features 40 dancers, over 180 feet above ground, the poses remininiscent of the classic musicals of Bubsy Berkley. 

Most recently, in the three years after he called for a “participatory art project” at a TED conference in Long Beach, California, his Inside Out Project has become one of the most ambitious and appealing art projects in the world. The art project has expanded from the streets and villages across the globe, to installations in places like Lincoln CenterTimes SquareEllis Island and the Paris Pantheon.  

Feeling intrigued? Inspired? Awesome! JR wants you…There’s an open call on his website where anyone can get involved.

RELATED POSTS:

5 Dancers-Turned-Authors To Love

5 Dance Films To Love

5 New Ballets To Love

5 Dancers–Turned–Authors to Love

Continuing with the theme of love in the month of February, I’m pleased to present more new things to love this week!. These 5 dancers–turned–authors to went from rocking it on the stage to rocking it on the page– Hope you enjoy learning about them and find new books to love in the process.

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Zippora Karz. former soloist ballerina with the New York City Ballet (1983–1999), Zippora Karz performed numerous roles choreographed by George Balanchine and Peter Martins, among others. In her memoir, The Sugarless Plum, Zippora shares how she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes just as she was being featured in solo roles, yet found a way to continue to live her dream despite her illness. Her children’s picture book Ballerina Dreams shows kids how to live with diabetes. She is now a diabetes spokesperson and educator who regularly addresses major diabetes conferences and organizations worldwide. She also serves as a teacher and repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing and staging Balanchine’s choreography for a host of national and international dance companies. More about Zippora here from a recent interview.

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C. Leigh Purtill. In her own words, Leigh choreographs books and writes dance. A dancer since she was a little girl, she’s the author of Jennifer Aniston is My Best Friend, and the Fat Girls in L.A. series. Dance is still a big part of her life–she’s a ballet instructor in the Los Angeles area and regularly blogs about ballet at FitBallet. She’s currently putting the finishing touches on a zombie ballet.

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Misty Copeland. While most people may know her from her recent viral video for Under Armor, Misty Copeland has been making headlines while changing the course of ballet history. Copeland recently debuted as American Ballet Theater’s first black Swan Queen, performing Odette/Odile, Swan Lake’s quintessential role. She is the third African-American soloist and first in two decades with ABT and author of Firebird, a picture book for young girls promoting self-confidence, and Life in Motion, her memoir, a story of her rise from incredible poverty to stardom despite all odds.

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Miriam Landis. By eighteen, Miriam Landis was dancing soloist roles with Miami City Ballet; by twenty-two she was ready for a change of direction. While traveling abroad for multiple study programs, Landis turned to writing. She’s since become the author of Girl in Motion, Breaking Pointe and Behind Barres (a collection from Landis and fellow authors Amanda Brice and Leslie DuBois).

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Terez Rose. Terez is a former ballet dancer who returned to the studio as a student. Her debut novel, Off Balance will be coming out in May 2015…more on that closer to the actual date! In her own words, she’s a lover of all things classical, including ballet and classical music. She’s also an adult beginner on the violin. You can read her musings on all things classical on her blog, The Classical Girl. Her essays have appeared in Literary MamaEspresso Fiction, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Hope you find some new books to love by these great authors!

RELATED POSTS:

Ballet Fiction must-haves

5 New Dance Films to Love

Interview with Stephen Manes, Author of Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear

5 Dance Films To Love

February is the month of love, whether you’re down with the idea or think it’s trite Hallmark trash. This month, in honor of the sentiment of love, (which is a beautiful thing when it’s not being commercialized beyond recognition) I went in search of new things to fall in love with, beginning with this first installment: 5 Dance FIlms to Love. I hope they make your heart beat just that little bit faster, as they did mine.

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artwork © Grier Cooper 2015

Ballet 422. If you’ve ever wondered how ballets are created, this is the film for you. Choreographer Justin Peck has made a name for himself as one of the youngest resident choreographers for New York City Ballet, arguably the most prestigious ballet company in the world. At only 25, Peck was commissioned to create the company’s 422nd ballet( thus the film’s title). He was given two months.

Independent Filmmaker Jodi Lee Lipes takes viewers behind the velvet curtain to reveal Peck’s process. When Lipes shot the film, Peck was still a corps dancer with New York City Ballet, getting a chance to choreograph after showing a rare talent during an institutional workshop. The film doesn’t use interviews and dialogues, and includes only a few pieces of on-screen text to explain who Peck is and what he’s doing. For the most part, Ballet 422 simply gives viewers a fly-on-the-wall approach and leaves it to the audience to figure out what’s going on and how to process it.

Something to look forward to: Ballet 422 will be released in theaters February 11th.

Shapeshifting. Filmmaker Crystal Moselle took ballet to the streets when she created this video for the band Color War, just months before she won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for her documentary, The Wolf Pack. The video centers around three teenage dancers (Cassiel Eatock, Isabel Ball and Elizabeth Van Genderen) who turn the parks, streets and underground parking garages of New York into their own ballet stage.

More about the video and dancers in an interview with director Crystal Moselle here.

Bandaloop Dancers Soar and Swoop on Marin Cliffs. Project Bandaloop dancers have long been taking dance to a new level…literally. Through the use of rock-climbing equipment, the group has performed on Seattle’s Space Needle, Mumbai’s skyscrapers, the cliffs of Yosemite, a cathedral in Mexico and dozens of other unusual public stages around the world—sometimes for audiences numbering in the tens of thousands. For this particular film it was just dancers, seabirds, and KQED’s cameras, on the cliffs of Red Rock Beach, near Stinson Beach, California. This was the first time artistic director Amelia Rudolph and dancer Roel Seeber performed this dance called “Swing Duet” on this rugged stretch of Marin County coast. At times the dancers seem to defy gravity, giving new meaning to how dancers interact and stretch boundaries and limitations in dance. Says Rudolph, “We want to energize urban and natural spaces so that people see these places in new ways,” she says. “We want to spark the imagination of people who would never otherwise experience modern dance—and challenge preconceived notions about what dance can be.”

Rectify. A global music and dance tribute to bring people together in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., featuring the world’s top performing artists: Usher, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Common, La Santa Cecilia, Joan Armatrading, Seattle Symphony, LA Opera, Skillet, Ahmir, English National Ballet, Compagnie Käfig, L.A. Dance Project, Los Angeles Ballet, Houston Ballet, Alabama Ballet, Afghan National Youth Orchestra, South African Youth Choir, the inter-Israeli/Palestinian Jerusalem Youth Chorus, Massar Egbari (Egypt), Beygairat Brigade (Pakistan), and Tanjaret Daghet (Syria).

Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity. Known as the “Evel Knievel of dance”, choreographer Elizabeth Streb says she has always wanted to see humans fly. Watching this film it’s obvious her dancers are not only fearless but on a deeper quest for meaning. As one dancer says in the film, “There is magic. It doesn’t exist everywhere, so you do have to catch it when it comes.” When an interviewer expressed his doubts about Streb’s approach, saying, “It doesn’t sound safe” Streb’s response was: “Anything that’s too safe is not action.”

This film was just one segment of Dance on Camera (Jan 30th -Feb 3rd , 2015), which honors ballet and contemporary dance personalities through documentaries and narrative films to show how dance changes lives. The festival is produced by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.