Drew Jacoby on Becoming Professional
Note: This conversation is courtesy of Trey McIntyre Project. Trey asked Drew her thoughts on transitioning from a student of dance to a professional. To see more of his valuable conversations with professional dancers, follow TMP on Facebook.
WHAT WOULD BE THE BEST WAY TO APPROACH A PARTICULAR COMPANY OR ARTIST?
If a dancer wants to approach a specific company or artist to work for, I say go for it. I made several cold calls to companies and people I wanted to work with. A lot of times it will lead to nothing, but even if one or two opportunities arise from this, it’s worth the effort and frustration of unanswered messages or many “no’s”. To focus intently on one company or artist didn’t really work for me. I don’t want to advise dancers against going after particular dreams, but I would suggest remaining open minded and know sometimes what we want is not in fact what we want…or it’s not the right time yet. That being said, persistence pays off as long as it doesn’t turn into annoying nagging. But planting the seed with an artist or company and staying in their sight will definitely pay off and has many times for me. It’s all about timing. Many of my opportunities came out of the blue sometimes years after making the initial introduction or inquiry. Throw a wide net. And keep trying for the ones that mean the most to you…but keep in mind that once that “dream” comes true, it may come with many disappointments. Stay open.
WHAT CAN A STUDENT DO RIGHT NOW TO BECOME THE KIND OF PERFORMER A PARTICULAR DIRECTOR/CHOREOGRAPHER/ARTIST WOULD WANT TO WORK WITH?
I think today’s choreographers and directors are looking for cooperative and positive energy in the studio. The analytical and perfectionist mind that gives the highly skilled dancer the quality and precision we all admire can sometimes work against them. I found that for myself and have seen how it affects the choreographer or rehearsal director negatively. It’s best to let go a bit when working with someone, and keep the neurosis for your private work. It can create negativity and cause insecurity and frustration for the choreographer. A good lesson for me was teaching and choreographing. It gave me a different perspective, and it was really clear how much impact a dancer’s energy has on the person in front of the room.
YOU HAVE HAD A REALLY UNIQUE CAREER. WHAT WAS YOUR PATH IN MOVING FROM STUDENT TO PROFESSIONAL AND WHAT LED YOU TO THE KINDS OF CHOICES YOU HAVE MADE?
I was like all narrow-minded ballet students. I wanted the classic career trajectory: to get into the company I was in school for (in my case Pacific Northwest Ballet) and become a principal dancer. I was crushed when I was told I was too tall to join PNB. It wasn’t really that I was too tall, but they didn’t want to hire me into the corps de ballet because it would limit them in how they use me. It was more economic for them to hire an average sized girl that could be used for all the ballets, not just the ones where height wasn’t an issue. And at 17, they didn’t want to hire me as a soloist. PNB’s professional division was a great transition into the professional field because they had several artistic directors coming in to watch class throughout the year and talk to students they were interested in. Alonzo King was one of those directors. He invited me to come to San Francisco to work with the company for a few days and subsequently offered me a contract. My first choice would’ve been to join a large classical ballet company, but I did like type of work Alonzo made and realized it was a unique opportunity. I am so thankful that I started my career off with Alonzo. Although, I was still married to the idea of being principal ballerina in a major company. So I kept auditioning throughout the four years I was working with Lines Ballet. I went to Europe and tried all the major US companies multiple times. It was always the same story: “you’re very unique”, “we don’t know what to do with you,” “we have no tall men,” “you would only dance a limited repertoire,” “you wouldn’t be happy here,” “we already have a tall woman,” etc etc etc. I was so frustrated.
In the meantime, I was getting to dance constantly, and Alonzo challenged and pushed me technically and artistically like I never have been. After 4 years of dancing with Lines and continuing to audition elsewhere, I was in Montreal auditioning for Les Grands Ballet Canadiens. It was the director, Gradimir Pankov, that really changed my mind and therefore the course of my career. In a nutshell he told me that I was too special to have an average career and I should open my mind to TV, Broadway, acting, etc. I told him that I really wanted to dance certain roles: The Siren in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, Myrtha in Giselle, and so on. He asked me why I wanted to dance roles that were created by someone years ago and danced by hundreds of dancers. He asked me why I wanted to wait on a director to dictate my career. That day my mind really opened and I decided I would move to New York City in 6 months. I quit my job at Lines, which was extremely scary and sad, and started saving money, building a website, and essentially building my “brand.” My husband is a graphic designer and taught me about the importance of branding. Upon moving to NYC 6 months later, I got a commercial dance agent and joined a modeling agency…while continuing to audition and send materials to ballet companies. I was casting a wide net. I went to auditions for movies, Broadway shows, commercials in addition to the traditional ballet companies. I stopped trying to fit a mold and force my way into a company by trying to fit in. I changed my view of myself and started exploiting the qualities that made me different instead of trying to hide them or blend in.
My freelance career began a couple weeks after moving to New York. My first gig was a creation with Lar Lubovitch, which led to several months at Complexions, which led me to meet my dance partner Rubinald Pronk, which led to us starting Jacoby and Pronk, which led to working with Christopher Wheeldon, Lightfoot Leon, and other high profile choreographers, which led to touring the world, which led to meeting hundreds of artists from all different backgrounds, which led me to joining Nederlands Dans Theater…where I am today. I would say that I didn’t have a lot of choice in the trajectory of my career. If I had had it my way, things would be a lot different, but I am so glad things didn’t go how I wanted because the opportunities that arose out of not getting my way enriched my life and career beyond what I could have imagined. The choices I did make were to never give up, to stay confident, to try to be open minded, and to build and maintain relationships.
HOW DO YOU THINK A DANCER SHOULD APPROACH THEIR FIRST JOB WITH A NEW COMPANY? ARE THERE SPECIFIC ATTITUDES, BEHAVIORS, AND MINDSETS THAT WOULD BE HELPFUL?
Humility, eagerness to go outside of comfort zone, willingness to be vulnerable, ability to laugh at yourself. But these qualities aren’t just for the beginning of your career…but if a young dancer can already strive for them, I think artistic growth will happen faster. Observe the older more experienced dancers. What choices do they make both in their work and character that you admire?
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A YOUNG DANCER ON HOW TO BECOME THE KIND OF DANCER THAT IS HIRED FOR THE COMPANY THEY MOST WANT TO BE IN? SHOULD THIS BE THE GOAL?
I think I covered this in the first answer. I don’t think it’s wrong to have that goal…but it’s important to remain open to different and possibly better opportunities that might come. But hard work and perseverance are effective as well. So I would say if a dancer has their heart set on a specific company, do everything possible to perfect your skills necessary for that company and don’t forget the power of networking and building relationships. It’s all about who you know sometimes, and the dance world is no exception.