Bradley Shelver's Beyond-Busy Schedule as a Working Dancer

February 23, 2009

As a professional dancer, I have to stay in shape, keep my technique up to par, and organize my independent teaching, choreography and guest-artist gigs—and balance it all with my personal life. Because I’m a U.S. immigrant from South Africa, which is neither a member of NATO nor the European Union, every time I travel I have to prove that I’m not only a successful dancer in America, but also in my home country and in Europe, so I’m seen in the U.S. as a higher commodity. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, proving my success means showing that I’m a “dancer of extraordinary ability.” The information they ask for is proof that I have an offer of employment and health insurance, documents that show my prior work history, and the address of someone in the U.S. as a reference, as well as the address of someone in the country I’m visiting. The extra administrative work is extremely time consuming, and hard, because I spend so much time touring.

I was recently preparing for a three-week solo performance tour to Italy in November, for which I had to negotiate with two artistic directors and two choreographers to be able to perform the solos they had created. The rights and royalties differ for every dancemaker. Usually, if it’s a work I’ve performed before and it’s for a gala performance, the royalties are less; many times they donate their work to me. I have to specify the dates of the performances, the venues, the media coverage and an estimate of the audience sizes. I have to make sure I credit the lighting and costume designers correctly, and make the presenters aware of the music rights so that they may acquire them for the performances. It’s easier with my own company, BSD Company, which I’ve run for almost three years, because I’m the director and creator of the work.

While preparing for this tour, Amanda Kay, who is a member of Momix, commissioned me to create a solo for her to perform at international galas. I rehearsed that in the evenings after working all day. The piece was called Nina and was set to music by Nina Simone. When that was finished I went to Columbia, MO, to create a new work on Cedar Lake 2. I had only a week to teach, rehearse and tech a 15-minute ballet. It may not seem so difficult, but dealing with dancers who you’ve never seen, let alone worked with, can evoke worry in any choreographer. Leaving your work in the hands of an artistic director and a group of dancers is also quite scary. My challenge was to create the total package, not just the steps. I mixed the music and composed the sound elements, such as the effects of the rhythms and the instrument composition. I also co-designed the lighting, the sets and the costumes—all in one week. I then caught a flight back to NYC at 6 am. As soon as the plane landed at 10:30 am, I rushed off to the theater at the Fashion Institute of Technology to tech my work for the Elan Awards. With barely any sleep to go on, I staged the piece, performed a run-through and then performed another run-through at 6 pm. I had also not seen my dance partner, Natalia Alonso, in two weeks, so we had to fit in a rehearsal, too. I had to get up the next morning for another rehearsal, without Natalia, and then perform at the gala at 7 that evening.

I spent the next few weeks running around taking care of the details for my Italian tour and getting ready for my tour with Limón to Washington, DC, Boston and Pittsburgh. I also had to get ready for The Nutcracker season with New Jersey Dance Theater Ensemble. Because I would be away for all of November, they asked me to come in to work on the roles of Russian and the Nutcracker Prince.

I’ve never been able to take time off because of my busy schedule, but I realized over this past month that taking time to rest is as important as taking classes. I’ve managed to plan a three-week trip to South Africa. I haven’t been home in three years, and while I’ll have a few teaching gigs and some other meetings while there, it is planned as a vacation.