From Classical to Commercial

June 23, 2009

You’re a total bunhead. Whether you live for Swan Lake or worship Jirí Kylián, you can’t imagine life without your pink tights. Except—at the back of your mind—you’ve always wondered about the commercial dance world. What would it be like to dance in a movie or to work with Mia Michaels on an industrial? DS has news for you: Many classically trained ballet and modern dancers are now finding success in the commercial realm, without sacrificing their technique or artistry. Here, five performers offer advice on making the transition.

Use What You’ve Got

There’s no question that classical training will get you noticed during a commercial audition. “When people see Hubbard Street Dance Chicago on my resumé, it’s like a gold star. It’s respected,” says Mark Swanhart, who moved to L.A. to choreograph and dance after a concert dance career that also included River North Chicago Dance Company. The lines, extension and carriage you’ve cultivated will be hard to miss, so flaunt your skills and don’t be embarrassed if your background makes you stick out!

Your training can even be useful for jobs that, on the surface, aren’t about dance. Ballet Hispanico dancer Candice Monet McCall does commercial work in NYC when her company is on layoff. She did an Asics print campaign in which models were asked to jump into the shot. “There were models there that were really awkward,” Candice says. “They couldn’t figure out how to move their bodies. But that’s what I do all the time! Having classical dance training helped me get the gig.”

You may not have been trained to speak and memorize lines, but you’ve probably done your share of ballet mime, which will help you in the acting department. “So much of dance is acting,” says Emaline Green, a former classical ballet dancer who performed with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and is now pursuing commercial jobs full-time. “I did a lot of story ballets growing up, which develops your physical acting. You learn how to carry yourself as a character.”

Supplement Your Skills

If you think commercial work is in your dance future, take these six steps to ease the transition.

  • Try other styles.
    Study jazz, hip hop, contemporary and even tumbling. “As classical dancers, we’re always pulled up, and we can look rigid,” says Kelby Brown, who danced with Hartford Ballet and Les Ballets Grandiva and has since performed in Céline Dion A New Day… and choreographed for Justin Timberlake at the Kids’ Choice Awards. “Studying other styles and learning to improvise will help you become a better dancer, and it fosters creativity,” Kelby says. You may also benefit from singing and acting classes.
  • Put yourself out there.
    “When I first started going to commercial auditions, I went to everything, even if I wasn’t sure I was suited for the job,” says Luke Lazzaro, who danced with San Francisco Ballet, Louisville Ballet and others before moving to Las Vegas to perform in The Phantom of the Opera and pursue commercial jobs. Don’t think of auditioning as an exercise in rejection: “You’ll get a taste of the process and perspective on things you need to work on,” Luke explains.
  • Get representation—but be prepared to rep yourself.
    “Sometimes, if you want to work, you have to be your own agent,” Emaline says. “Read Back Stage and find casting calls yourself.”
  • Learn to network.
    “In L.A., you have to show up at parties and exchange numbers and business cards, because you never know who you’re going to meet,” says Kelby. “Tell people who you are and what you have to offer.” If you feel awkward talking yourself up, remember that in the commercial world, who you know can matter as much as how you dance.
  • Fit the part.
    “You have to give choreographers what they ask for,” says Candice. “If they want a girl with a funky personality or hip-hop style, you have to go in with that attitude even if it’s not you.” This includes your audition attire—don’t show up to a music video or artist tour call in a leotard and tights!
  • Have fun!
    “Ask yourself if you can have a good time doing commercial work,” Luke says. “Decide if hip hop and jazz are things you actually enjoy. If you find a passion for it, you’ll be fine. Then you’re motivated and it isn’t a chore.”

Find Fulfillment

The money might be amazing—a one-day commercial shoot can net you the equivalent of a week’s salary with a concert company—but you’re coming from the world of Marius Petipa, Twyla Tharp, Ohad Naharin and William Forsythe. Can you possibly be fulfilled doing music videos and fast food commercials?

First of all, recognize that today’s commercial dance world is nothing to look down on. Even though many directors and choreographers do still have a “there’s no time to make art” mentality, there are artists (Mark cites Mia Michaels, Vincent Patterson and Wade Robson, for starters) who are raising the bar. If you’re choosy with your projects, look for choreographers who will push you technically and artistically.

Still, Mark advises dancing for a company first, if you can. “Dance eight hours a day and perform works in the repertoire. Find a roommate and make $500 or less a week,” he says. “You’ll be so fulfilled—and it will make you a better dancer, too. Do that first, then move to L.A. There’s no reason not to do it all.” (You can also follow Candice’s lead and begin a commercial career before leaving company life.)

And who’s to say that the commercial realm won’t turn out to be just as satisfying as your previous, classical life? “I’m getting work and loving it,” Kelby says. “I love being on set. I love to hear the word ‘action.’ I love watching the magic happen. I want to live my life on television and film.”

Photo: Vita Limanovic