SALT LAKE CITY — At an age when most folks are still working their way up the ladder, ballet dancers are retiring.
Their career track usually begins before they own a driver’s license, embarking on an all-consuming occupation that will lead them to the sparkle of the stage but will expire sometime in their 30s.
A retiring dancer faces a crossroads. Some continue in the field, helping to run ballet companies, teach or choreograph. But knowing if they’re cut out for a life behind the curtain can be tough to determine.
Ballet West’s annual “Innovations” program helps dancers answer those soul-searching questions as they plot second careers.
“I started ‘Innovations’ six years ago as a way for my dancers to test the waters and their own abilities long before they retire,” says artistic director Adam Sklute of the program, which this year will open May 17 at the Rose Wagner Theatre.
Featuring fresh-faced pieces by a handful of company dancers who show promise in choreography, it seems everybody wins. The company says audience response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The Rose Wagner is an intimate venue, which gives the audience an up-close-and-personal experience,” Sklute says. “It’s also a bit of a window into a dancer’s soul, which fans love.”
Soloist Adrian Frye won a commission with the company for his work “Spun,” one of four premieres during the program.
“I hope to be able to stay in the field after I retire,” says the 26-year-old, who’s danced in professional capacities for 15 years. Sklute describes Frye’s abstract work as “inventive” and believes Frye is heading in the right direction by flexing some new muscles.
Also on the docket for the season-closer is Easton Smith’s “Mechanism,” Christopher Anderson’s “Behind Closed Doors” and a revival of Christopher Ruud’s “Trapped,” as well as a work by guest choreographer Jodie Gates titled “Mercurial.”
“Some have strong themes but all are ultimately abstract,” says Sklute of the bill.
For these hopeful choreographers, it’s often more than just testing the waters, it’s a foot in the door for life after the stage.
But what of the many dancers who reach retirement and aspire to something new?
Recently retired principal dancer Michael Bearden is a self-described planner. Although his course seems to be set — he’s helping grow Ballet Arkansas part time while teaching in Utah, for many years he watched the uncertain path of colleagues interested in working outside the dance world.
“We have these back-breaking work habits, this fierce sense of discipline, but we’ve been totally focused on ballet. It’s a little scary to leave that,” says Bearden. Several years ago he assisted in creating the Artists Resource Fund to help fellow dancers offset the cost of college while still in the thick of their careers, attending classes incrementally in order to earn a degree.
Former principal dancers Seth Olson and Tonia Stefiuk retired from Ballet West in 2007 with degrees from the University of Utah. Now living in Stefiuk’s hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in Canada, both husband and wife work in health care, Stefiuk as a registered nurse in a postpartum unit and Olson now in pursuit of a similar degree.
“I was always interested in science and I wanted to do something valuable to help people. It just seems like a good match,” says Olson. Stefiuk agrees.
“After the birth of our son, the nurses helped me so much. I decided I wanted to do that as well,” she says. As for whether she misses dancing, she says, “Only when people like you come a-knocking, reminding me of it all. What a wonderful time we had, what a privilege to perform and enjoy that stage of our lives. We owe a lot to Ballet West.”
Former dancer Aaron Orlowski, who retired in 2010, took classes at Salt Lake Community College while dancing full time. This spring, he graduated from the University of Utah with his bachelor’s degree and started a master's program in social work.
“Ballet taught me the importance of being passionate about what I do,” he says of his new interest. He still teaches and guest performs on occasion, but enjoys watching his wife, principal dancer Katherine Lawrence, light up the stage.
Former Ballet West artist Emily Harrington, who retired in 1999, didn’t have the luxury of utilizing the resource fund while dancing, but she pursued degrees in both biology and chemistry all the same. A master’s degree in public health soon followed, and now the once-ballerina is an epidemiologist, working in a public health consulting firm and raising a lively 2-year-old girl.
“Although I don’t miss dancing professionally, I’ve learned that dance has to be part of my life,” she says.
Most former dancers echo her sentiment.
Even former principal dancer Jessica Harston of Orem still finds time to dance while raising four children. Retiring in 2004 at the height of her career wasn’t part of her original plan, but holding her new baby girl for the first time changed her mind.
“I knew how much time and commitment would be required, and I just couldn’t do it,” she says, saying her choice was a personal one, and notes that many of her contemporaries who became mothers have done an excellent job of balancing work and family. Although fans were disappointed at her quiet, unexpected retirement, Harston has no regrets.
“I still dance almost every day,” she says of teaching at the ballet school part-time where her two daughters train. “And now I get to do it with my girls.”
Until quite recently, discussing life-after-ballet was taboo in the ballet world. It meant your focus was off. It meant you had covert intentions of leaving before your time. Artistic directors who saw dancers studying textbooks in the dancer’s lounge felt they could justifiably see the writing on the wall.
Today, directors like Sklute are realists. In many ways, he is a father figure at Ballet West — after all, everyone agrees it’s nearly as tight-knit as a family. And like any good father, he wants what’s best for his dancers. “Innovations” is proof of that.
If you go
What: Ballet West’s “Innovations”
Where: Rose Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
When: May 17-18; May 22-25
How Much: $45
More information: call 801-355-ARTS or visit www.ArtTix.org or balletwest.org