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Flash Book Review, 3-2: The Next Stage
Tales of Transition from Nancy Upper, Edward Villella, Violette Verdy....

By Catey Ott
Copyright 2005 Catey Ott

MILWAUKEE -- The life of a dancer involves extreme dedication, perfectionism, and imagination. The joy of dance and the exhilaration felt from performing onstage is difficult to turn away from. When the time for a dancer's career transition becomes apparent, the shift involved requires delicate handling. Nancy Upper felt drawn to interview 16 dancers at a variety of stages in their journeys after dancing professionally. Several of her subjects were still in the process of establishing new identities, others were well on their way to new endeavors, and a select few were pleasantly looking back on their path and choices. Upper has smoothly wrapped these interviews up into chapters for her book, "Ballet Dancers in Career Transition," published last year by McFarland.

Upper's intention, she writes in an introduction, is to provide encouragement, advice, and a form of moral support to dancers who are facing a transition in their dance lives. Her accounts of these performers' transformations are truly inspiring, even as they realistically address the difficulties they faced while coming through them.

Upper interviewed Edward Villella, Violette Verdy, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Patricia McBride, Ben Stevenson, Nancy Raffa, Michael Byars, Jeff Plourde, Erin Stiefel Inch, Max Fuqua, Amanda Ose, Linda Hamilton, Joysanne Sidimus, Jim Sohm, Christopher Nelson and Robin Hoffman (who is also the webmistress and art director for this publication).

The interviews revealed the pains of the body and heart as each subject faced the end of his or her dance career. Some of the endings were abrupt, prompted by devastating injuries, while others were more gradual departures due to over-use injuries, shifts in energy, and changing desires. The physical and emotional healing process was no easy endeavor, regardless of the closure. The extreme passion exuded through dancing and performing was not easily washed away. The honesty, integrity, and vulnerability shared by this group is admirable. They generously offer up their stories with the intention of helping other dancers to move forward through their lives.

Edward Villella, the former New York City Ballet star, literally wore out his hip after "years of jumping and landing on hard surfaces," Upper relates. A star one day, he turned into "an invalid the next. He became a physical cripple and a mental wreck." After fighting depression for ten years and undergoing hip replacement surgery, Villella went on to be appointed artistic director of Miami City Ballet, where he developed an appreciation for humanity and individuality and created a company atmosphere of togetherness and exploration. After driving himself mercilessly to be a great dancer, he drove himself mercilessly to be a great artistic director, Upper concludes.

In researching the book, Upper came to realize that the very same qualities that brought these dancers success in the world of ballet helped them reach fulfillment in their new careers. Some turned towards a directly related field, becoming teachers, choreographers, and/or company directors. Others chose dance-related fields such as psychology for dancers, dance notation, and counseling other dancers in career transition. A few from the group veered away from their dancing past and redefined themselves in fields such as law, accounting, and parenting.

Linda Hamilton, an advice columnist for Dance Magazine, saw her performing career with New York City Ballet interrupted by injuries to her ankles. She became drawn to psychology while receiving therapy to help her overcome a divorce and injury issues. After asking herself what she liked to do besides dance, she realized that she seemed to gravitate towards helping people in distress, and because of her injuries was "always trying to figure out the mind-body connection." She found clinical psychology, specializing in performing artist issues, to be her answer. She earned a Ph.D. from Adelphi University, and currently practices privately in New York City, also teaching at Fordham University.

Jeff Plourde clearly relayed his internal ballet talents from his career with Fort Worth Ballet, Ballet Dallas, and Ballet West, in building his new career in accounting. "When dancers go through school," he tells Upper, "initially they're just trying to learn steps, trying to learn the language of dance, the positions and the movements. As they get more advanced, they get better at it and try to take the language and express more and more. It is the same with accounting. When you're in school, you're learning all the rules and basics of accounting. But through practice, you can take the basics and the foundation, then see where you can utilize different interpretations to make a financial position change. So accounting just seemed very similar to what I was trying to achieve as a dancer,"

Robin Hoffman formerly danced for the Joffrey Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, and Louisville Ballet. Her career has since involved a series of shifts: first dancing, then dance notation, then training in high-technology and multi-media, then designing for and maintaining Internet media companies, and, currently, pursuing an undergraduate degree at the School of Visual Arts. Hoffman's greatest assets for making her transition, Upper suggests, have been "knowing what she wants to do and having a keen vision of how to get where she wants to go."

Also included in the book are five appendixes filled with guidance. One section includes a map of innovation and transition which graphs out the emotional ups and downs of a major transition. Another compiles helpful transition tips from the featured dancers. The final section provides a variety of career transition resources such as books, organizations, Web sites, and businesses.

"Ballet Dancers in Career Transition" is a gift to look to for a dancer facing the next stage. The biographical stories included encourage reflection, compassion, and inner strength through the struggles involved in rebuilding an identity after soaring through a performance career. Nancy Upper brings a realistic and positive light to the inevitable process of change.

Catey Ott is a graduate student in dance at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She danced professionally in New York for nine years. Highlights of her career were dancing and directing rehearsals for Heidi Latsky, touring with Allyson Green, and working for Soundance Repertory Company. Her choreography, along with the work of Eun Jung Gonzalez, was produced at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church in 2003. Ott reviews dance for Milwaukee's weekly community publication, The Shepherd Express.

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