Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Time to dust off those auditioning shoes.

Today I thought about another thing that makes me excited and nervous. I'm going to begin auditioning again. My last round of consistent auditions was quite some time ago, and it was in a realm that I was really comfortable in. Ballet companies audition similarly to ballet school auditions. That's one of the things that is wonderful about dance. The class that you take to audition may be stylistically different, but overall, ballet is ballet is ballet. The main difference of course is that when I was auditioning for ballet companies, there was a bit more pressure than trying to figure out who was going to be my roommate for the summer!

I have of course participated in auditions for theatre over the years, but now I'm going to be entering a completely different arena. It doesn't get much more competitive than New York. There are so many people-each one better than the next. It seems a bit daunting from where I'm sitting right now. While I have had some wonderful opportunities to perform theatrically with a nationally recognized theatre here in Kansas City and one in North Carolina, I have had an unusual advantage. I was a part of the ballet. This originally was my ticket in. Fortunately, for now I still have wonderful support from my employer who is helping guide me and push for me, but I know that when I get to the city, it will ultimately be up to me. That's frightening!

As dancers, we live in a bubble. I am proud to be writing about my retirement because I feel that I represent the vast majority of American dancers. I'm clearly talented enough to work for a reputable organization, but I'm not a household name! The sad case is that the time when the general public could name a ballet star is history. Let me explain that statement, and then point out a positive aspect of it. Many people still would know the name Mikhail Baryshnikov or Rudolf Nureyev, even if they didn't know much about ballet. However, outside of New York or the few true balletomanes that are left, the knowledge of current star's names would be few and far between. I promised a positive aspect! The good news in this case is that there are many more dancers now who deserve esteem, and there are many more companies in which these talented dancers can work. American dance is definitely thriving. I just wish it was seen and respected by a wider audience.

Back to the bubble!(Forgive me for going off on a tangent.) As dancers we are safely insulated in our companies. We audition(so to speak) daily for the roles that we will portray, but regardless of our casting, we still get paid! This concept has often been one that my actor friends who go from show to show(and I will hopefully join their ranks soon) find inconceivable. To have a thirty-five week contract?!? To know that we have health benefits year-round?!? Wowsa!!

So, really what I'm saying is-I haven't had to audition in quite a while. It makes me nervous. I'm back to the old stomping grounds of needing the work and relying on my performance in that moment to get it. Another thing that I just thought of with that last phrase is I really do only get a moment in a theatrical audition! At least when auditioning for ballet companies-unless I was cut during the audition which(let's face it, I'm a male) didn't happen that often, I usually had at least an hour to an hour and a half to be seen dancing class and repertoire. Whoever thought that the most perfectionistic art form of them all would have the most gracious audition process! Ahh! Bring on the sweaty palms!

You know, I'm going to abruptly end this right here. I'm going to honest and not try to finish this entry with a "moral of the story" polished ending. There's no point in pretending that I'm comfortable with all of this at the moment. All I can do is prepare as best as I can, blah, blah, blah.....for now, I'm going to go have a cup of tea.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Something I fear.

Sometimes when people know they are going to move away or quit their job or know some big change is coming, they begin to distance themselves from the people around them. This scares me because people have always been an important part of my life. I am extremely social by nature, and when there have been times when I have distanced myself from people, I have felt awful about it in the long run.

On a rough day, it is easy to say, "I don't care what people think of me, I'm leaving anyway..." I hate when this kind of thought comes into my mind. I don't think that is a healthy way to close a chapter in ones life. Of course, there is truth to the matter that not everyone will always be madly in love with me. I am continually learning that at the end of the day, I need to be happy with who I am and live my life accordingly. Those who will be in my life forever simply will, and those who won't, won't! That doesn't mean that I shouldn't continue to try to reach out and make the lives around me as enjoyable as I can while I am still here.

We have such a wonderful gift as artists. Even though it seems we can be easily replaced at the drop of a hat-or the break of an ankle-we are given a brief moment in the spotlight when we can make a difference in the lives around us. As my spotlight dims here in Kansas City, I want to do just that. It isn't easy of course, but I've never done anything that was easy for me.(except perhaps eating.)

If I keep this focus, I don't need to fear that I will distance myself from others. I can keep that fear at bay by focusing outward and seeing how that affects me. It's definitely worth a try.

Monday, September 28, 2009

So Little Time!

I am learning that there is a strange balance to be discovered when preparing for a big move such as mine. I've spoken about trying to stay in the moment and not get too ahead of myself, but sometimes I feel as if I'm in an action series. I'm trapped in a room with a ticking bomb and an oxygen shortage. The only way out is to diffuse the bomb, and all I have to work with is a bobby pin, a rubber band and a swiss army knife. Pretty nutsy feeling.

I want so desperately to enjoy my time here in Kansas City, and I am doing a fine job at that. It's just the in between moments when I begin to freak out. I feel as though I have a laundry list a mile long of things I need to accomplish-build a website, repaint my apartment, sell my piano, sell my coffee table, sell my dog-no, no, not the dog-get an agent, save money, learn to wait tables, find an audition workshop, get in touch with approximately a million people, find a place to live, save money, print business cards, SAVE MONEY!!!

I feel I am doing well at keeping myself organized and focused, but it would be dishonest of me not to include the scattered moments when they're here. It's all a part of this process, I'm learning. Even as I write though, an overwhelming belief that this is all going to work out fine is coming over me, but wait-there that feeling went again! Right out the window!

Joking aside, I am nervous but excited. There have been so many people who have done this before, and I am thrilled to be learning about it first hand at last. It reminds me of a boy whose parents drove him across the country with a couple of suitcases, some dance shoes, an air mattress, a unicycle and his juggling equipment. They helped him settle in for a day and then had to turn around and drive home leaving him to begin his new life. I was nervous and excited then too. That seemed to work out just fine, eh? It's time to bring it on again.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Just to clarify...and moving on with more reflection.

I want to clear something up about a statement I made a couple of posts ago. I talked about how as a dancer I'm not "saving lives." I meant this simply as a tongue and cheek phrase that I have used my whole career in order to keep from being too hard on myself. It refers to the literal saving of lives-the doctor at the operating table holding a heart in his hand. (This, I do not do, and everyone is better off for it.) I believe that the performing arts play an extremely vital role in society, and in a world that is consistently cutting funding for the arts and turning it's nose up at people who choose this lifestyle, I will always see the value in what I do.

Now, I would like to reflect a bit on a topic that has recently been pushed to the forefront of my mind. As an artist, I block myself many times from moving forwards. Most of the time it's out of fear of failure, but sometimes I believe it comes from quiet agreements that I've made subconsciously that keep me from succeeding. Let me explain. Who hasn't had someone at some point discourage them from a dream or a goal? Often, people can brush these negative experiences aside, but do they ever really go away?

As a teacher, I have to be careful how I correct and criticize my students because each student may hear what I have to say a different way. I would never want to cripple anyone's chances at success with my words, and yet I'm sure I have been guilty of damaging people in my life at some point in this way. The worst thing a teacher could say to a student would be "Honey, you can't dance." After all, won't the "real world" tell the artist if this is actually true?!? Discouragement is a waste of time and breath.

When we hear a statement as bold as this-or even more subtly spoken, we often make "agreements" with ourselves that cause us believe what was said. These agreements can accrue over time without our even knowing it. As an artist, I am only now becoming aware of some of the agreements that I have made. Overall, I have had instructors who were encouraging to me along the way. But there have been times when I have held onto some hurtful things that were said to me and some of the negative aspects that can come in such a high-stress field such as dance. From there have my mental blocks been created.

I am so happy to be becoming aware of these things because I feel that I can address the issues and "confront my demons" if you will. If I learn to push beyond them and rise above, then and only then I believe, can true success be allowed to be born.

I want to add that knowing ones limitations and having a realistic view of self aren't the same as making the type if crippling agreement I am speaking of. For example, no matter what, I will probably never be as physically flexible or as buff as I would like to be, but those aren't the kind of road blocks that could lead to my mental demise! They are simply challenges to rise above.

In closing, I would like to invite everyone to think about how our words can affect those around us. As a ballet instructor, I would especially like to remind other teachers of this fact. We have such an opportunity to push people towards their goals and their futures, and we can do it in a positive way. I hope that as I continue to learn how to break the critical agreements I have made with myself over the years, that I can learn to be more encouraging and helpful to my fellow artists, my students and anyone else I may come in contact with.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sometimes I forget.

It is nice that although I have the odd feeling that I can see the season's end rushing towards me as every week goes by, I still am able to enjoy what I am doing. I had a week that albeit far from perfect, was extremely rewarding. I found myself having such a wonderful time learning a new work that will be performed later on in the season. Although it remains to be seen who will dance it, I really enjoyed the process. This is a bit rare for me as I tend to be one who likes the finished product more than the work required to get there.

I think that simply being able to relax and be calm in a pseudo zen-like manner really helped this week pass smoothly-at least artistically speaking.

Right now my life outside of work is full of anxieties of the unknown. I'm bustling around trying to prepare for the next step while at the same time maintain my life here and in the moment. It is so easy to get ahead of myself and freak out, but I am finding that it is possible to simply stay calm. I'm extremely confused by this, but I'm just going to go with it for now. My time at the ballet is coming to an end whether I choose to let it drive me crazy or not.

Thereby, it was such a pleasure to be able to enjoy my week. Never fear, I still got some complaining in there, but come on! It's ballet! I'm not saving lives! I get paid to play! I get to go to work everyday and still do what I love. Not many people can say that. I want to look back on my life at the Kansas City Ballet and be able to say, "You know what? Overall, I had a really good time!" I'm going to make that happen.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Clear your mind first.

As an artist, something that I struggle with is being overly emotional and reacting to situations before taking a breath. At this point in my life it is important for me to focus on this and try to learn to be aware of emotions that could lead to poor choices. I know myself, and I know this will be a lifelong process that I will fail at more times than I will succeed.

Learning to breathe before making a decision takes practice. There have been times during my career when I wanted to throw in the towel for many different reasons. Work was stressful, I wasn't getting cast in the roles I felt I was right for or perhaps I was just having a bummer of a day. I am happy that I didn't jump off of the boat prematurely.

When I had seasons in which I wasn't used as much as I would have liked to have been, I always gave myself one more year in order to see if situations would change or remain the same. Several times I was delighted by the opportunities I was given, and I cringe to think how awful it could have been had I let my emotions get the best of me and bailed out too early.

Patience is something that everyone can afford to work on regardless of their profession. It doesn't always pay off in the way we would like for it to, but in the end, I believe it is rewarded in some way. Of course, it may take years for that reward to roll around.

For now, I will continue to try to count to ten before making a decision, then run it by the people whose opinions I respect the most and try not to make any irrational choices. Above all, I will learn to breathe.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Food for thought.

I feel that I learn something new every day. Today, I was given a quote that my Grandmother used to say to my Mother.

"Embrace the surprises."

It made me think of how many times in my life I have been "surprised." Some times have been lovely and exciting, and of course some have been terrible and painful. This phrase reminded me of a simple fact of which I am becoming increasingly aware. There is so much out of my control. Practically everything is, so why not go ahead and "embrace the surprises." Good or bad, I want to continue meeting them head on so that at the end of my life I can look back and have no major regrets.

The author C.S. Lewis talked about being "Surprised by joy."

To me, this piggy-backs perfectly on my Grandmother's phrase. I have had many joyful times in my life, and I have had some extreme lows to compare them to. Often, I have felt that the lows have been my fault-my inability to pull myself up and find the "joy" in my life. When I look back and compare the scenarios-joy versus the lack thereof, I find that sometimes the line is thin between the two-yet, the positive times were so much more pleasant. Thereby, if at times it is almost as easy to be miserable as it is to by happy, then why not simply choose to try and be happy?!?

I look forward to and welcome with open arms the surprises that are coming my way. Of course, I hope that they are mostly positive ones, but I know that through the strength I have and people around me to lift me up, I will meet them head on.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

You'll know when it's time.

I used to wonder how long my ballet career would last. As I would ponder this question and run it by other artists who had already or were about to retire, I would often get the same answer:

"You'll know when it's time."

That seemed to me like the most idiotic cop-out of an answer that anyone could come up with. As a younger artist I often poo-pooed this idea. However, there is something to be said for respecting and listening to those who go before you. I have learned that no matter what I may think of someone either from a personality standpoint or an artistic one, I must respect experience. It turns out that I am here today eating my words. It really is almost that simple. When it was time for me, I just knew. Let me take it a step further and say that it really helped that I knew what I wanted to do next, and I believe that as long as artists keep something else to strive for, then they too will "just know" when it is time.

I have had the great fortune to live without roommates in a lovely(and inexpensive) loft apartment for almost six years now. It feels more like home to me than anywhere I've lived. When I first stumbled upon this apartment several years ago I said to people, "One way I'll know that I'm ready to finish and move onto my next career is when I can look at my large apartment full of all my lovely things and say-ok! I don't need this stuff anymore." I feel strong enough now to let this go. I believe that my loft has definitely played an important part in my life, but now I'm ok with preparing to say goodbye to it all.

Another thing I had said was that I would know I was ready to retire when I could look back at all of the roles I've danced and be satisfied. Of course there are things that I know I will never get to do that I would have loved to, but I feel fulfilled enough to let those things go. I think this is just perhaps another tiny part of what I hope is large personal growth. I suppose I could just be in denial, but I don't think that's true.

It's so strange to be rediscovering things that I first said years ago. It helps reassure me that I'm making the right decision. It also makes me feel good to know that I've always had a plan of action-even when I didn't realize it. There won't be any surprises for me because I've always known that a day would arrive when I would stop. I will work to keep this attitude and focus. It helps me enjoy what I'm doing right now. I hope that I will eventually be able to offer young dancers or those who are wondering when to finish a bit more than "You'll just know when it's time," but for now, I'll just smile and tell them to soak it all in-every moment.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A New Type of Excitement.

My whole life I have gotten extremely excited whenever I see live theatre of any kind. Consistently, I have felt this way when I've seen stage plays and musicals. I have always envied the people on the stage and hoped to someday make it up there myself. I have felt this way during my professional life when I see dance performances as well. If I was feeling burnt out with work or lacking inspiration or drive, seeing people dancing could pick me up and give me the added push I needed to get back into the studio.

Last season, as I was coming to my decision to finish up this phase, a weird thing happened. As I was attending a performance of the women of Kansas City Ballet, and I found myself completely enjoying what I was seeing simply as an audience member. It really unnerved me. One could point out that this was a performance of women-one that wouldn't necessarily invoke my jealous desire to be on stage, but in the past it hadn't been the gender of the performers that made me excited to dance. It was the dance itself. This was completely different.

This has continued into this year even more so as I've announced my retirement. I have a new found appreciation for the work of those around me. I am finding myself inspired to dance, but now it comes from a more outward focus. I watch my coworkers-both new and veteran, and I am excited to see them where they are at each stage of their own artistic development. I am excited by their accomplishments. It's really helping my competitive nature.

This new experience is bittersweet. It tells me that I am naturally letting go of something that has been a part of me for so long. It doesn't take my love for what I do away, but it does make me a bit sad at times. I don't feel I am doing a good job at describing how I am feeling about this, but I accept that. It is a new and deeply personal evolution from who I was into who I am becoming.

I hope this means that I am continuing to come to peace with my decision. I've said many times now to friends and family that I need this to be my best year. I need my head to be on straight. I need to be excited about the future but really live in the moment and take everything in. I don't want to look back and have any regrets about how I finished. I am still my dramatic self. I know this year will have it's ups and downs like any other year, but I hope that this new found inspiration of enjoying those around me will continue.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Get a life.

I had the most unique commencement ceremony when I graduated high school. Very few people wore cap and gown. As it was a performing arts school, section "8a" in the handbook stated, "Thou shalt act as weird as thou can whilst thou graduateth from the School of the Arts." No kidding, I swear it was in there! Well, perhaps not, but one would have thought it to look at the strange collage of youngsters raring to go out into the world and become "professional starving artists." For example, I wore a cap....with the tassel standing straight up and a clown nose, and I twisted animal balloons throughout the event.

My school is known for having exciting speakers at commencement. My class was no exception. We had an extremely well-known actress whose work I have continued to enjoy over the years. She was witty, sincere and encouraging. The message she had for us was simple.

"Get a life."

She talked about the importance of not taking our work home. As artists, we would need to have interests and social settings that would not be connected to our work as performers in order to lead healthy and balanced lives.

I have had this quote tattooed on my mind ever since. It has saved me on a number of occasions. I cannot imagine what I would do without my interests that have nothing to do with that which I work at thirty hours a week. Oftentimes, It is extremely difficult to leave work at work. I had a co-worker a few years ago who had an interesting way of handling this. When conversation continually shifted towards our job, he would eventually say, "Ok, that's enough shop-talk. We're going to talk about something else now." Every time the conversation would drift back it was, "Nope. No shop-talk!" I love that way of thinking of it.

Like so many things, "getting a life" takes practice. It's frightening to put myself out there. I have always been an outgoing person, and few who know me would ever categorize me as "shy," but when I am out of my element, I freeze. I can crawl into my shell so quickly that one could ask, "who's that mope in the corner?!?" I have found that if I present myself with confidence, self awareness and respect for others, people are likely to meet me at least forty percent of the way. I've always said that as long as someone is willing to give at least that much, I will happily give the other sixty percent and see where it goes. After all, who knows where the next lifelong friendship may be found? The next mentor? The next employer?!? Is it not at least worth it to try and see? Networking is imperative in the performing arts. Some think of it only as a business tool, but I would advise anyone who sees it this way to take the leap and branch out.

I am afraid that one of the stereotypes dancers face is that of being snobby and overly self-absorbed. I know this to be a great misconception because I have come to know many genuinely wonderful and generous people throughout my time with the ballet company. I can see however, where this image comes from. If from an early age, we aren't pushed and encouraged to branch out and open up to others who aren't exactly like us, we have to create this skill later on in life. This is a huge flaw in our isolating training as dancers. I am not sure where or how to solve this, but I do know that I will do my small part and strive to encourage my students(and anyone else for that matter) to move beyond their comfort zone and "Get a life."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Say what you mean/mean what you say.

I have been fortunate to have many opportunities in my ballet career. Although some seemed literally to fall into my lap, I can honestly say with full confidence that I have put the hours in for what I've received. I feel that I've earned every opportunity. Mind you, "earning" is different than "deserving." I may say it a million times throughout my postings, but I know that I have been extremely blessed, and I take nothing for granted.

One such opportunity came early when "Pointe Magazine" wrote a blurb about me beginning my career. It was a was surreal to think of myself being announced to the dance world, and of course I used the opportunity to say something that would plague me for the remainder of my life.

"Keeping a positive mindset and putting egos on the sideline make a difference in a performance."

I remember first reading the article when it came out and saying to some people, "Oh man, I'm really going to have to live up to that!" Throughout my years with the company, I have thought back to this article on numerous occasions, and it has really helped me.

I would be the first to stand and call myself a liar at this moment if I thought that I was implying that I've had a ten year career without complaining. Get real! I'm a dancer. Dancers and actors are the most passionate and dramatic of all artists, and when we have a complaint, it often isn't the quietest sentiment in the world! I will be the first to admit that I have given my fair share of complaints-some I've dealt with better than others.

Around the time this article came out, I was given the best and most infuriating piece of advice that I have ever received. A senior dancer in the company looked at me one day and simply said, "Matthew, you need to stop complaining." I was speechless. I went home, fumed for a good five minutes and then thought, "Hmmm.....maybe he's onto something." Why would this guy who had nothing against me deliver this statement if it wasn't true? I had a choice to make at that moment. I could say, "Who does this guy think he is?!?" Or, I could take the criticism and try to apply it. Thankfully, I chose the latter. So many times during my years working I've thought back to this when I've found myself complaining or being negative.

My Mother is the most annoying woman in the world when it comes to this subject, and I love her for it. In those early days when I was coming into this career and would have my bouts of complaining, she would simply say, "If you hate it so much-then quit." There is nothing that makes me as a human being angrier than someone speaking truth when I'm being a baby. Knowing that this would be her response has helped me to weigh my love and disdain for what I do many times throughout the years. I've allowed myself to have bad days without beating myself up for them. I allow myself to complain(trying to keep it to a minimum,) but at the end of the day, does my love for what I do outweigh the negative?

I have been so lucky to have numerous people in my life who are able to deliver this kind of honesty. As artists, we need to surround ourselves with these kinds of people. People who will simply coddle and give "poor baby" sentiments do nothing to help us grow. Yes, we need encouragement, but that should go hand in hand with "tough love."

There is another aspect to this issue. I have learned that in order for what I am talking about to work at all, I need to be open and spongelike. There is no other way to be. I cannot be afraid of healthy criticism. Yes, there are people who give advice that really isn't helpful and/or healthy, and the only way to discern the difference between the good and bad is to not instantly go on the defensive. When someone approaches you with something that may be difficult to hear, learn to breathe. This doesn't just apply to artists. As humans, if we allow ourselves to be open, I believe that in time we will become able to tell who to listen to and who to brush off.

This is a daily battle for me! As an artist, I take things so personally, and it only has gotten more difficult as the years have progressed. One piece of advice that I would like to offer to any young professional at the beginning of their career(regardless of the field) is to make a statement that will haunt you. Say something for which you will always have to hold yourself accountable.

I'm not going to say "stop complaining," but I will say that If you have a complaint, take the necessary steps to address and solve the issue. If at the end of the day you can't solve it or you find yourself hating what you're doing, do yourself and everyone else a favor and quit. Find your happiness-make your happiness.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Leggo My Ego

I have a clear understanding of why I do what I do. It's simple. I love it. I love being on stage. I love performing for people and the rush that I get when I take a curtain call and see the audience standing. I have always felt that a performance should take the audience away from their lives. I love the ability to transport someone away from the things that are going on outside of the theatre.

Believe it or not, there are artists who don't feel the same way. Dance is for themselves only. I don't understand this type of artist. I'm not invalidating their experience simply because it is different than mine; I am simply stating that I don't understand their perspective. The performing arts are just that-arts that are meant to be performed! Some people love the time spent in the studio more than being on stage. The "process" of rehearsing has never been my favorite part of the job. Of course I respect it, for without it, the end result would be disastrous, but I live for the stage. I need the energy of the audience. I crave the butterflies that I get in my stomach when I'm waiting for the orchestra to tune. I still get chills when I hear the pulleys rumbling as the curtain goes up. Every aspect works together to give me the excitement of bringing joy to others, and in return, I receive the most joy.

Tonight, I went to a performance of the Kansas City Symphony, and I was reminded of something else that I have enjoyed over the past ten years. A tiny bit of fame. I was well out of the normal ballet stomping grounds at a theatre far from where the symphony and ballet usually perform, and within five minutes of entering the lobby I was approached by seven people who recognized me. They ranged from people I had met over the years to people who had simply seen me on stage and wanted to express how they had enjoyed seeing me grow during my time with the ballet. It made me begin to think of how strange it will be not to get stopped in the drugstore and thanked for my artistic contribution to the community by a father buying diapers. After this year I will no longer get to see a child blushing when her mother says, "Look honey! It's one of the dancers!"

After this season, I completely begin again. There has been such safety in being known. I admit, it inflates my head a bit! More than that, I feel honored that my work has been appreciated. At the root of my love for the art, is my love for the audience. I will sincerely miss bringing this attention to Kansas City.

I would like to reiterate that I realize that in actuality, I am not famous! I am one in a company of twenty-six talented individuals who work together daily to bring their passion to the stage. Without them, the little moments of "fame" I receive will quickly dissolve. I'm not afraid of this. More than anything, I'm intrigued. Will I be able to experience this again? I am excited to give it all I have in order to find out.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sometimes, we are given second chances.

Lately, I have been having old memories frequently stir up in my mind. This is one of my fondest. It is the story of how I came to be offered the first and last job that I ever accepted from a professional ballet company.

When I was a senior in high school, NCSA began doing an interesting thing. Around the time of audition season, they invited a few Artistic Directors from various companies to watch us take classes, and participate in a question and answer session with the students. After our morning class, we were prodded to visit with the directors. Most of us were fairly shy, and I can say for myself that I had no idea the weight this opportunity held for us if we took the chance to come out of our shells for a moment.

After class, a gentleman introduced himself to me as the director of the then "State Ballet of Missouri." He was complimentary of my work and asked me what my plans were for the following year. In those days, I had my sights set on one thing and one thing only-I was to attend the School of American Ballet for their summer program. I told him this and expressed that I was hoping to be asked to stay for the following year. To this he graciously gave me his best wishes, and that was the extent of our conversation.

In my time as a dancer, I recall one class where I felt I danced the best I've ever danced. That was the men's technique class that we had later that afternoon. This director was watching again, and I felt great. I could turn, I could jump-it was my best class to date, or so it will always feel in my mind. After class, when we were all changing in the locker room, a classmate of mine-said to another, "He offered you a job?!?" I quickly asked, "What did he say to you?" He replied, "He just asked me what my plans were for next year, and I just said 'I need a job!'" I froze. It was over. I had missed the boat. All I could think was that I had missed my chance at my first job.

I did attend SAB, but was not asked to stay on for the year. As fortune would have it, I attended the Rock School in Philadelphia where I had numerous opportunities to perform both within the school and with the Pennsylvania Ballet. This also put me in close proximity to New York for auditions.

When audition season rolled around again, I was in and out of the city almost every weekend. Not much was opening up for me, and I was beginning to feel nervous. One day, I was at SAB auditioning for the Miami City Ballet when I asked a co-auditioner/friend how auditions had been going for her. She said that Kansas City Ballet(as it was then called) was looking promising, but that she was nervous because the director was there at the Miami audition.

I didn't miss a beat. I walked up to him and reintroduced myself. To my surprise and delight, he remembered me from the year before. Then, he asked me what my plans were for next year. You can guess what my response was this time! The rest, as they say is history.

I am so thankful that I was given a second chance. I know that this doesn't happen often in life, but the existence of second chances makes me believe that if I open myself up, good things can be allowed to happen for me. Now, I am a realist and have no stars in my eyes. I have always been a pragmatist and ever willing to put in the work to hopefully earn what I desire. That said, I feel it is better to attempt walking through life with an open mind and find out that the answer may be a "No" than to close off and be scared of taking risks. I've always said that the answer will always be "No" if I don't ask the question. I might as well take the risk that it could be "Yes."

In this time in my life, the answered happened to be "Yes," and oh what a "Yes" it has been.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Elena Shapiro

As I document this season, at times I may have to write about things that are sad to me. I hope I don't have to write about one this tragic again. This past weekend, I was awakened by a phone call from my Father at around seven in the morning. I hate receiving calls from home this early on a workday because only bad news accompanies the greeting. On this such day, my Father told me that Elena Shapiro had been killed in a car accident. Elena was the daughter of one of the teachers(Brantly Shapiro)from whom my Mother took classes in those early years when I caught the "ballet bug." In those days, I would take classes from her as well when my schedule would permit, and along the way I met Elena. She probably would have been about four or five when I met her, and when I left North Carolina she was ten.

Two years ago, Brantly accompanied Elena to Kansas City to audition for KCB. I couldn't believe my eyes. The little girl I had known only from a distance had grown up into a beautiful young lady and an extremely talented dancer. I had a lovely couple of days visiting with them and hearing Brantly brag about her daughter's accomplishments.

The loss of Elena has shaken me to my core, and I wanted to make people aware of her name and ask for thoughts and prayers to be with the Shapiro family.

Elena, I never had the honor of knowing you well, but I would love to honor your memory by dancing my last year for you. Please know that you will be missed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I'm a control freak.

If there is one thing that I am continuously being reminded of, it is the fact that so little is in my control. This is hard for me to accept. I'm an oldest child(need I say more?) The need to control things is a part of me that I fight on a daily basis. I believe that many in the arts are "control freaks." It's hard not to be. Day in and day out we put ourselves out there for public scrutiny. Thereby, and I'll speak for myself here, I find it hard to let go of things that I cannot control. I have a desire to be perfect, for that is the way I am wired not only because of ballet, but because of my "Type A" personality. I really need things to go my way. Fear not, I don't allow this to dictate my daily life.(completely) I do keep myself in check and surround myself with people who can smack me around from time to time when needed.

As a dancer, I learned early on when I began auditioning for ballet companies, that in this line of work, things were totally out of my hands. The only thing I could do was be prepared as much as possible in order to hopefully be what a director was looking for. It is a scarey and completely vulnerable place to be. When I did finally earn my job, I could breathe for the first time in years.

When I began coming to my decision to be finished I weighed many things. One thing I realized was that since I knew I wanted to move into the world of theatre, I still needed to be able to dance. I needed to be able to be competitive with other dancer/actors and there is so much talent out there. I knew I wanted to move to New York to pursue this while I was still young. But the main thing I needed was and still is this: I needed to protect my ego. I needed to come to this decision myself. I needed to be the one that said, "Thank you. It's time that I bring this chapter to a close." I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to make this decision.

I have always been a person who isn't afraid to share things I'm going through. If I had kept this to myself all season, I would have gone crazy! With the sound counsel of friends, I did give myself enough space from the ballet during my summer break in order to be confident in this.

I wanted to give the people I work for the respect that I felt they deserved after our long standing relationship by not waiting until the last second to tell them. From the introvert to the extrovert, I believe we all need the support of those around us when going through pivotal moments in our lives. I wasn't afraid of losing roles because of my decision. I was and am afraid of not having the support of the people who made the decision to give me a chance in the first place. I feel confident that I made the right decision to tell my employers before the season began.

In closing, I can only say again how happy I am to be able to feel that I played at least some of my cards right. Whether it be that it satisfied my innate need to control my life, or it just helped me to see that honesty is still rewarded, I am glad to have had the chance to handle it in this way.

There it is. My public confession as a control freak.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A bit of background information.

Okay, let's begin. I feel that I need to write at least a little about my personal background in order to continue on dealing with this subject of retirement.

It was clear from an early age that I had to perform. I was five years old, and my first performance was a church musical called "Down by the Creek Bank," and let's just say that I took to the stage like a fish to a toilet bowl. I had a pivotal role. I was some kid's echo. "Hello!" he said. "Helloooooooo!" I answered back. I echoed "Helloooooooo!" two times from the back of the theatre and anxiously waited for the music to begin. Once the music began, I grabbed my fishing pole as directed and happily marched to the stage to join my other cast members. I climbed the steps to the stage, did an about face to the audience and froze. The words were gone. The tune was non-existent. As my face turned white and the tears began to fall, I hopped right off of the stage and into my Father's lap. There I remained in complete terror for the rest of the show. From then on, I knew I wanted to be an actor.

I couldn't get enough of the theatre. I knew I wanted to act more than anything else. I wanted nothing more than to be like my Dad. He loved to act, sing and clown. Seemed like a pretty sweet deal to me. As I got a little older, I decided that I would be a performer. Then Mom threw the curve ball. She took up ballet for the first time since she was fourteen. In Mt. Airy, North Carolina, you had to really want to be a ballet dancer, for there wasn't a school that offered solid classical training anywhere in town. So began the weekly road trips to a dancing school that was about thirty minutes away-then the twice weekly, then more and more. For an eight year old, this was the most awful form of punishment imaginable. So naturally, when my mother asked if I'd like to try it, I jumped at the occasion.

Shortly after my mother began teaching me, I auditioned and was accepted into the pre-professional division at the North Carolina School of the Arts. The school was one hour away. This is where I received eight of my nine years of training.

I hadn't lost sight of the big picture. Ballet would make me agile, so that I could transition into theatre. Here was my plan: Attend NCSA as a dance student until I was a senior in High School, then transfer over to the drama department, graduate and attend college there and become an actor.

Yeah right.

Ballet was the hardest and most unnatural of all activities for my body! I couldn't even touch my toes. The pain I felt cannot be described. It was clear that I wasn't cut out for this and had the worst chances of ever making it in this field. Naturally, I was hooked. I was ten years old. By the ripe-old age of twelve I knew I wanted to become a professional dancer.

-I need to make a note here. Dancers are a different breed of people. I know now that knowing by age twelve what I would be when I grew up is not the norm! It has taken me years to finally admit this.-

Let's fast forward. After eight years training in N.C. and one in Philadelphia, I actually "made it." I landed my job with the Kansas City Ballet as an apprentice. Within my first year, I was made a full company member. In that first year I performed two principal roles. I was off to a great start. I was one of the blessed few to make it in this field.

I have always been a goal oriented guy. I love projects. I love the feeling of working for something and seeing the end result. I love a challenge. The harder the better. I had definitely found the most challenging fit for me! I have always seen my career in a series of milestones. I decided, "the first year was great-let's shoot for two." The second went so fast I thought I'd try and see if my body would make it to five. Five came and went painlessly, and I thought I'd see if I could go ten. So far so good-knock on wood.

The reason I have shot through this so quickly is because that is how quickly it felt like it went by. I'm a flash in the pan in this world. I want to be clear that this is not set up to be my memoirs(although I reserve the right to pepper in stories and experiences as I document this phase.) I want talk about the transition. I hope to capture for anyone reading what it is like to go through this-at least what it will be like for me. There will be many opportunities to come for me to delve into the meat and potatoes of how this is affecting me, but for this entry, I wanted to give a general overview of the odd childhood that is common to many in this field.

Perhaps I am also stalling. No matter how excited, enthusiastic and prepared I am feeling at this moment, I am scared of what it will be like to face this chapter in my life. What will it really be like when I take my final bow. Who retires in their twenties anyway? Can't we come up with a less horrifying word? I'm letting go of my first-well, my second dream in order to pursue my first. That's weird. I have the strangest feelings of being both calm and terrified at the same time.

I guess it couldn't be worse than "Down by the Creek Bank."

Who is Matthew Donnell, and why is he doing this?

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Matthew Donnell, and I have announced that this will be my tenth and final season with the Kansas City Ballet. I have spent nearly my whole life preparing and maintaining myself to be a professional ballet dancer. In this field, we are taught from an early age that we must be focused, disciplined and perfect. We are given the tools to succeed from masters in our art form, and from there, we either "make it or break it." Then, one day comes something that many of us weren't taught to deal with. RETIREMENT. One definition states it:

Retire: to give up one's regular work because of advancing age.

Some dancers make it to their forties before they "retire." Some rare ones have made it even longer. However, many finish in their thirties and below. Regardless of the age one decides to, is asked to, or simply has to retire because of unforeseen circumstances, the dream can feel like it is over. We spend so much time, blood, sweat and passion to make it this far, and with one curtain call, it's over. Going into this field we know that we have a short time, and just like death, "retirement" is inevitable. This comparison may sound dramatic, but to many who have spent their entire lives focusing on this one passion, it can be quite daunting.

So, what is the point of this? Why am I blogging-I've always been one who thinks that "Facebook statuses" are obnoxious and overly informative. I'm not doing this to let people know every time my dog goes for a walk or I get up to change the channel. Here it is:

During my career, I've watched people come and go. I've seen short careers and very long ones. I've read stories in the major dance publications and newspapers bidding farewell to the stars as they gracefully bow out. What I would like to do is document my year and my journey towards "The Big R!" I am not a star. I have not graced the cover of "Dance" or "Point" Magazine. I simply have been fortunate to have had ten great seasons(almost) with a wonderful company, and I'd like to write about the fears, excitement and anxiety that is going to be a part of my life this year. My goal is to inspire others in this field to look towards the big picture: Dance is a way of life, but it cannot be our life. I hope that instructors-both those currently teaching and those who will someday fill those roles-will continue to encourage the budding artist to focus and live in the moment but also give them a healthy sense of reality. This career will end, but there can and will be life after. Finally, I want to show a very "human" side to what we as artists(and this isn't limited to dancers) go through.

I welcome anyone along for the ride. I am excited to share about this transitional phase in my life. If only one person finds it remotely helpful and/or interesting, that will be enough for me. (Thanks ahead of time, Mother.)

Matthew Donnell

*"Merde" is a French term that dancers use instead of "good luck" or "break a leg." Feel free to look up it's translation. I promise it will be the only word of it's type used throughout this blog.