In the world of professional dance companies, touring is a part of life. Most full-time companies are sustained economically by their out-of-town performances, and they need performers with the physical, emotional, and mental stamina to be on the road for weeks. This is a separate skill set, apart from artistic ability and flawless technique.
The Juilliard School, as a primary provider of the next generation of phenomenal modern dance talent, recognizes this fundamental truth. Through the efforts of Larry Rhodes, artistic director of the Dance Division, the full support of President Joseph Polisi and Christopher Mossey, the associate vice president for artistic and strategic initiatives, and a successful fund-raising effort led by Juilliard board of trustees member Joan S. Steinberg, the Dance Division embarked last June on an ambitious two-week tour to Caen and Paris, France, and Dresden, Germany. Twenty-five dancers and nine staff took part and enjoyed tremendous receptions at every turn, but the educational value eclipsed the applause.
I have been in this business for a long time and have worked for touring dance companies since 1995. Each year, as we walk through the spacious and welcoming Peter Jay Sharp Theater for the first time, I tell the incoming freshmen to drink it in ... this is about as good as it gets. Plenty of stage and wing space, a solid floor, good lighting, incredible sound, stable temperature, dressing rooms nearby; eventually I realize they are politely nodding and I mumble to a close. But it’s true, and there’s more: on tour your hotel may be far away, you may not speak the language, and there may not be a meal for you when you need one.
On the whole, the European tour was a resounding success, but the Juilliard dancers got a nice taste of touring realities. Our first travel day out of New York was brutal but not uncommon by tour standards: a bus ride, two long flights, another bus ride, and a change of several time zones. The stage environments ranged from the 1,000-seat Théâtre de Caen to the 181-seat Conservatoire de Paris to a portable stage in the showroom of Volkswagen’s amazing Gläserne Manufaktur, in Dresden.
Since none of the venues were alike, rehearsal time on stage seemed less about extracting nuance from the performance and more about making sure movement could be seen clearly (Caen) or dancers wouldn’t fall off the stage completely (Dresden). Since the wings in Paris were different than in Caen, entrances required different timing. Further challenges arose in Dresden, where there was no masking at all and the dancers could be seen even while offstage. These things happen on tour.
The company commitments don’t end when the curtain closes, either. There are receptions to attend, some announced at the last minute. Rather than loud, relaxed affairs with friends and family in Studio 321 or the lobby of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, these receptions can involve dignitaries, donors, politicians, and the press alongside audience members who are perhaps seeing dance for the first time. While the food is delicious and the wine is free, decorum and excellent conversation skills are essential. As the primary subjects of attention, the dancers continue to be on stage. After rehearsing all day and performing all night, everyone is exhausted. And yet, the city calls and we answer.
This is another reality of touring: the road is your chance to explore strange places and meet new people, to compare their experiences to what you know and believe. You have a chance to share the space that hosted William the Conqueror in 1066 or to swim along the Normandy beaches; to participate in the artistic rebirth of Dresden and to see Paris and be caught up in its romance. Or maybe you take the opportunity to shop with blazing speed, or slow down and see birds you’ve never seen before. Maybe you make promises to return. Maybe you aren’t exhausted at all and stay out dancing until the sunrise.
The Juilliard dancers, through endless curtain calls, toasts, and smiles, were rewarded by their audiences and assured that their performances were of the usual top caliber. But they also came home with a valuable glimpse of how a big part of their careers will be played out, and each brought back a memory or two that will last a lifetime.