Beyond winning So You Think You Can Dance or joining the New York City Ballet, how is a dancer supposed to make a living these days? “Young people are influenced by whatever is on their phones,” says Francisco Gella, founder of New Century Dance Project, an intensive for dancers ages 13-24 being held in Santa Fe Tuesday, Aug. 2, through Aug. 7. “They’re influenced by anything hot and trendy, the latest videos on TikTok or Instagram.”
“Generally, dancers are piecing together a living these days, but they’re smart about it,” adds Jeffrey Hoffman, CEO/managing director of the company. “There is Cirque du Soleil, Vegas, Broadway.”
“In L.A., there are agencies that hire young dancers right out of the Kaufman School (of Dance) at USC,” Gella says. “It’s not just about performing. They work as assistant choreographers on music videos or choreograph for pop stars going on tour with back-up dancers. They get hired off Instagram and social media. A gig shooting a national commercial pays $30,000, plus residuals. A dancer touring with a recording artist makes $2,000-$3,000 a week. Ballet dancers? Unless they’re in the union, which most companies can’t afford, not so much.”
Gella, 49, is distinctly qualified to educate aspiring dancers about the business. After moving with his family from the Philippines to the U.S. during high school, he entered the engineering department at the University of Washington on a full scholarship. Soon, he was missing the physicality of his high school gymnastics team. He enrolled in a dance class and ended up graduating with a degree in dance. Over a 12-year career as a performer, he danced with three repertory dance companies, including Philadanco in Philadelphia, and some smaller West Coast ballet companies.
“I experienced white modern dance, Black modern dance, and classical ballet. I started late, at 19. I’m from the old guard. I’ve had doors slammed in my face, piano books thrown at me. I’ve had choreographers call me ‘big leg man’ or say, ‘You’re too brown to be a ballet dancer.’” He also got involved in teaching and adjudicating in the competitive dance world (think Dance Moms), where organizations like Coastal Dance Rage and 24 Seven Dance Conventions bring together young dancers from dance schools all over the country to compete for trophies, titles, and the chance to compete nationally and internationally.
The New Voices, Amplified, and An Evening of New Works concerts Aug. 4-6 at the National Dance Institute Dance Barns will present the works of high school, college, and young emerging choreographers who applied for a choreography competition sponsored by Gella’s organization. Prizes will be awarded, and adjudicators will include faculty members from the dance intensive, such as Jim Vincent, former artistic director for Hubbard Street Dance and Nederlands Dans Theater; Penny Saunders, a ballet choreographer, winner of a 2016 Princess Grace Choreographic Fellowship and current Artist in Residence at University of South California Kaufman School of Dance; and Pablo Piantino from San Francisco Ballet.
Gella has pushed to include modern dance at the conventions and teaches both ballet and modern classes to hundreds of students in hotel conference rooms, offering them a glimpse of a world of dance they haven’t been exposed to.
Part of the curriculum at the New Century Dance Project is a response to Gella’s own personal challenges in dance, including making up for what he may have lacked in technique with drive. “I’m a cheerleader. I want dancers to know who they are and what they bring to each step. And if they’ve been made to feel bad by mean teachers or felt judged because of their body type, we want to heal them. We’re inclusive and supportive.”
At the end of intensives Gella held in Salt Lake City, Miami, and Austin, he was proud to have parents tell him that their children had changed. “They come home with a spark.”
New Century Dance Project focuses on the elements of choreography that can either inspire young dancers to try their hands at or help performers understand the craft behind the art form they represent. “It’s a place to explore process. The kids get to set short works on each other and then showcase them for each other. We have workshops on choreography, lighting, music selection. Even if they’re focused on becoming performers, it’s an opportunity to understand the art of choreography by doing it.”
On Thursday night, finalists for the high school choreographers competition will show their works. Student finalists include Sophie Biderman and Lucia Rosen from New Mexico School for the Arts. Choreographer contestants who are in undergraduate dance programs include students from New York University Tisch School for the Arts, Boston Conservatory, California University of the Arts, and State University of New York’s Purchase College Conservatory of Dance. Their dances will be performed on Friday night.
On Saturday, the finalists in the Professional/Emerging Artist category will offer choreography by freelance artists from all over the country, including Claude Johnson, from the A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham Dance Company in New York and Zak Ryan Schlegel, a choreographer from El Prado, New Mexico, who is part of the Shen Wei Arts Dance Company in New York. He danced in the HBO series Euphoria.
Zeitgeist Dance Theatre is led by Gella and Yusha-Marie Sorzano, a choreographer and dancer with Camille A. Brown in New York. She also directed and choreographed the recent Broadway revival of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, which makes her the first Black woman to direct and choreograph a Broadway show in 67 years. Zeitgeist will present new works set on 38 pre-professional dancers who were selected to attend a pre-festival rehearsal period July 17 through Aug. 1. They will perform at the final night of the festival, Aug. 6. At this performance, winners of the choreography contest will be announced.
Gella and Hoffman moved to Santa Fe from Los Angeles part-time several years ago and weathered much of the pandemic here. “Santa Fe is a sanctuary for me. There’s something about the place that I can’t describe, but it puts me at peace,” Gella says. Dancers will be flying in from all over the country to participate in the festival, which is one of several summer intensives New Century Dance Project will hold around the country. Gella will create a new work for Zeitgeist based on interviews with young dancers about their experiences over the last few years. “A huge swath of junior dancers quit dance altogether because of COVID,” he says. “Teenagers have not recovered, but hopefully they will come out of this stronger. All I know about this piece is that it will be focused on breath.”