When I ponder graduation this coming spring, a vivid image comes to my mind: I’m scaling a treacherous mountain, exhilarated by the challenge of completing the climb, when just as I’m clambering up the final stretch of the summit, I realize that on the other side of the peak is a sheer vertical drop and I’m about to be pushed over. It’s a bleak prospect, but I’m certainly not alone in my apprehension about the uncertainty of a life in the arts. Happily, as an antidote to this likely anxiety, the yearlong senior seminar class for fourth-year dancers acts as a forum to address topics about navigating life after Juilliard.
A few weeks before the 2015 graduation, even though I was a third-year, I was able to sit in on the morning seminar, which consisted of an intimate panel with three dance alums: Gia Mongell (B.F.A. ’14), Nathan Madden (B.F.A. ’09), and Collin Baja (B.F.A. ’08). While most of our opportunities at school to hear from alumni take place in more formal sessions moderated by the administration or faculty, this one just consisted of fourth-year dancers and the alumni, making it more of an informal chat.
While the panelists had interestingly divergent post-graduation stories, all three have been on Broadway (Mongell and Madden can currently be seen in An American in Paris), and all follow passions that involve and yet go beyond the world of contemporary concert dance. A theme seemed to emerge about the ways in which it’s possible to chase Broadway dreams while staying attuned to artistic and personal fulfillment. Baja is achieving this balance by pursuing different projects in his various interests (among them acting, dancing, and modeling), while Madden spoke joyfully of his experience in An American in Paris, and shared his belief that there’s now a greater emphasis on high-level dance and choreography on Broadway. Their viewpoints were an encouraging reminder that even among people who have found ways to nurture similar passions, no individual’s career or life path will look the same as anyone else’s.
Baja took this advice further, sharing the perhaps obvious, but nonetheless necessary, insight that we are the only ones responsible for our own happiness and for determining our life direction. “So stay true to yourself and what you really want to do,” he advised, “and learn the art of turning things down respectfully, without burning bridges.”
The panelists also spoke of the difficulties and rewards of going on tour and the reasons for having an agent, a manager, or both. They wrapped up with a few pieces of advice relevant to any life journey: be fully present in whatever you’re engaged in at the moment; save money (job security just isn’t a reality, especially in this field); make and keep strong connections with the people in your life now and with those who become important to you as you go along; maintain a healthy dose of confidence in what you’re doing (“fake it ’til you make it”); and keep feeding your passions by trying everything that interests you.
They ended with the reassuring reminder that “it’s going to be O.K. even if you don’t have a job the day you graduate.” On what was perhaps a rare day in Juilliard history, the seniors breathed sighs of relief and I, at the end of my third year, did too. The three successful young artists on the panel were reassuring proof that life does exist on the other side of graduation, and that each person gets to define her own notion of success.