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Dancers improvise to survive in L.A.

The area may not be the easiest place for professional artists to make a living, but the determined often work multiple jobs to make it happen.

January 15, 2012|By Laura Bleiberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Hoffman steers her '98 Dodge Stratus onto a side street to nab a parking space, scrutinizing the parking sign. She reaches into the back seat to grab an oversized bag stuffed with slippers, toe shoes, sweaters, tights and knitted leggings.

Technique class is critical for staying in shape, and Hoffman frequents professional-level classes at three studios. Class has other benefits as well. It provides social interaction and a sense of connection within a far-flung artistic community. Friends from class have passed along job tips too, Hoffman said. On this day, she will be meeting her occasional partner, Cuban-born Raydel Caceres. They have gotten permission to rehearse in the studio after class for a performance of "The Nutcracker" with Santa Clarita Ballet.

"I had envisioned myself trying to get into a large classical ballet company," said Hoffman, speaking about her teenage dreams. "That was always the goal. But I also didn't know about all the opportunities there are to do project work. I think I could never have envisioned my [current] path."

Modern dance threw Chisa Yamaguchi onto an unexpected path. She was enrolled at UCLA and taking classes in Asian American studies, Japanese language and literature. She took a dance class her junior year — then another, just for fun.

"And the just-for-fun hobby became the phone call to my mom that I'm going to audition for the [dance] department," said Yamaguchi, 27.

Her mother wanted to know what Plan B was. Yamaguchi didn't have or want a Plan B. After graduation and six months of dance study in Senegal, she returned to Los Angeles to audition for companies.

"L.A. is not a city that really cherishes concert dance," Yamaguchi said, recalling how she subsisted for a time on Cup O Noodles. "They were only looking for temporary dancers. 'No, I want to do this for a living.' After six months, I almost left. I'd cry after every single audition. I remember having $17 in my checking account. I was thinking, 'How am I going to make this last?'"

But Yamaguchi hit pay dirt when she was invited into Diavolo Dance Theater, one of the city's most prominent troupes. Now, in addition to performing with Diavolo, she wears a second hat as the company's education director. Yamaguchi figures she could live on her Diavolo salary alone. But she has decided to keep her part-time "day" job, teaching gymnastics in Culver City. She figured she hadn't had a full day off in a month.

Holding down several jobs is common. Michael Butler works as both performer and administrator for urban Latin dance company Contra-Tiempo, founded by Ana Maria Alvarez in 2005, after she got her master's degree from UCLA. Raised in New York City and Charleston, S.C., Butler moved to Los Angeles with an eye on its range of dance opportunities. Butler was in the 2007 movie "Stomp the Yard," and like some concert dancers, he is open to doing crossover work in film and television.

"I'm not a strong believer of the starving artist slogan," said Butler, 27. "I wanted to find a way to sustain myself, not just going from gig to gig, to create some stability in my life and continue to do things that I love."

Pay can vary wildly for freelance work, Hoffman noted. Rehearsal pay typically ranges from $25 to $50 an hour, while performance fees vary even more, between $200 and $1,000 per performance. A dancer might be paid for a performance only.

"You have to make a living," she said. "I love dancing, but I'm doing it as a living."

Back at Dance Arts Academy, Olson's ballet class has ended and Hoffman and Caceres begin rehearsing the grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Behind them and off to the side, another couple are practicing a different "Nutcracker" duet. It's an inconsiderate disruption, but neither Hoffman nor Caceres asks the other couple to leave. Still, Hoffman is distracted and the rehearsal does not go well. She cuts it short.

(This "Nutcracker" turned into a lesson in the vagaries of the artistic life. A last-minute cast change was made and Hoffman did not perform after all, although she was paid. "Sometimes gigs don't work out the way you planned," she said. "You have to continue to move forward and grow from the experience, no matter what happens.")

Returning to her car, Hoffman perks up when she sees she does not have a parking ticket. Heading back to Equinox, she grabs a salad in the club's café. She has a 4 p.m. appointment at the Bel-Air home of a Pilates client. The woman hired Hoffman to give private dance lessons to her two daughters and a third girl. While she eats, Hoffman downloads songs to use during the class. After the lesson, she will be done, one of her early days. At least three times a week, Hoffman has Pilates clients until 8 p.m.

Hoffman acknowledged that her life is not terribly secure. But she said in the mix of work, she has found artistic satisfaction. And her love for dancing is as strong as ever.

"I would say I'm happier now than I probably have ever been in my life. It doesn't mean that everything is absolutely perfect. But I think I spent so many years being unsure of what I want. I'm doing what I always wanted — dancing professionally in contemporary [ballet]. With my personality, I wouldn't have been able to do it any other way."

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