{Dd} Exclusive with Matthew Powell: How to survive freelancing in NYC

 In Archives, Dd Exclusive
Matthew Powell

Matthew Powell
(Photo: Nir Slakman)

In New York City, success can come and go at the drop of a hat.

There is no shortage of dancers, choreographers, and instructors, and it is crucial to continually reinvent oneself in order to stay current with the ever changing trends and fads of our industry. How does one do so and maintain personal and professional integrity?

In September of 2012, {DIYdancer} interviewed Matthew Powell, who after only a short time in the city had begun making a name for himself as a teacher, choreographer, and performer.

Since then, his career has continued to take a number of twists and turns.

{Dd} decided to catch up with him again and chat about the subjects of artistic and personal evolution. Powell expanded on how important it is for dancers to reach outside of their comfort zone.

{Dd}: You’ve spent your career as classical ballet dancer, but you’ve made it a priority to explore different facets of the art outside your comfort zone. Why do you think this is important for dancers? 

Matthew Powell: I’ve always been a firm believer in lifetime education, and I think seizing opportunities outside your comfort zone is a principle that not only speaks to dancers, but to the human experience on the whole. The best gigs I’ve had are where I have equal parts something to offer and something to learn.  As a choreographer, I want to have the biggest possible reservoir of material available to me when I create. Stepping into another world, even if it means taking on a huge learning curve, just makes my pool that much bigger.

Powell on set of Flesh and Bone (Photo: Starz)

Powell on set of Flesh and Bone
(Photo: Starz)

{Dd}: Last time we spoke you were establishing and refining yourself as a teacher in several NYC schools. What’s new over this past year or so?

MP: It’s been an embarrassment of artistic riches , and I’ve had a blast. I guest taught for Matthew Bourne, the Trey McIntyre Project, Juilliard, Ballet Hispanico, Karole Armitage, did three months of touring as associate ballet master with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, two choreographic commissions with Broadway Dance Center, another for Hamilton College in Upstate New York, and a premiere at Regional Dance America (for which he won an award for his choreography). I also taught a “ballet in musical theatre” workshop at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, and was the assistant director for “The Daughter of the Regiment” at Fort Worth Opera. These days, I’m working as ballet master for “Flesh and Bone,” an amazing new drama series on the Starz Network from Moira Walley-Beckett (“Breaking Bad”). Then I’m off to join the Royal New Zealand Ballet as guest ballet master from September through December. I’m practically bruised from pinching myself.

{Dd}: You moved back to New York in 2008 to go to college through the LEAP program at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. Do you think a college education is necessary for dancers wanting to reach out of their comfort zone? 

Matthew Powell

Matthew Powell
(Photo: Nir Slakman)

MP: Actually, no, I don’t. I might be stirring a hornet’s nest by saying this, but for me to say that the only way to get an education is by attending college would be just as closed-minded as saying that dancers should always stay within their comfort zone. Life experience is every bit as useful as a degree. With that said, I found college to be an extremely valuable tool, and for me, the LEAP program was a perfect fit. I knew that, as a freelance artist, I would need to know how to reach out to prospective clients, manage finances, and broaden my skills outside the ballet studio. I studied marketing, web development, statistics, and even did an internship with a branding agency in SoHo. Talk about stepping out of my comfort zone.

{Dd}: Do you feel that ballet schools and professional companies are doing enough to educate, prepare, and aid dancers for the inevitable moment when they must transition from the stage to another career? 

MP: It has certainly changed for the better over the years, but there is always room for improvement. More and more companies are reimbursing dancers for transitional training, offering choreographic workshop opportunities, and I think the stigma that dancers are only good for dancing is finally starting to fade. I’d love to see this proactive approach continue not just in our companies, but also in our ballet schools. Young dancers dream of their first bow in front of that sweeping gold curtain at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan, but the reality of our field may lead us down a very different path. I think it’s important for our teachers to make their students aware of all the possibilities out there from a young age. Just like good parenting, teachers carry the responsibility to empower their students to think outside the box, and these kids should be allowed to do so without fear or judgment. Our next generation of dancers should be trained not only in technique, but also in artistry and intellect.

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