The hard slog to success: one dancer’s story

Finding a job as a dancer in today’s economic conditions is extremely difficult.

There are so few contracts and so many dancers stayed glued to their current companies for fear of ever finding another place that might offer more scope for their artistry and ambitions.

Determination is one thing but knockback after knockback at auditions around the world is humiliating, intimidating and maddening.

Sometimes luck plays a big role in finding a place in a company where the artistic director respects your talent and individuality but often it’s a combination of sheer slog and passion that wins in the end.

Matthew Slattery is an example of the “never give up no matter what” dancer.

An Australian, he trained fulltime in Sydney and New York, and was accepted into Boston Ballet II.

But at the time of his acceptance, the company believed he did not have a strong enough case for an O-1 visa, (a non-immigrant visa for an individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics), so his job offer was withdrawn.

At about the same time, Matthew had auditioned in New York for a place at the Royal New Zealand Ballet and was offered a contract by the artistic director, Ethan Stiefel, but he turned this down due to the commitment he had already made to BBII.

When the Boston job fell through, Matthew immediately contacted Stiefel. Too late, the position at RNZB had gone elsewhere.

He returned home to Australia then embarked on an extensive European audition tour.

The result? No contract, not anywhere.

At this point, Matthew told me: “I really thought I would give up. I had gotten my dream job, and lost it, and tried what I thought was every other option and had got nothing. It was really hard to keep going”.

But he did. And his story has a happy ending.

His dancing days began in his home town, Cooma, New South Wales, where he began training at Rosie O’Sullivan’s School of Dance.

His sisters danced and his parents were also involved in the ballet world, with his father managing the lighting for school productions while his mother was stage manager and also made costumes.

When Matthew was 16 in 2006, Rosie suggested that he should move on to a fulltime dance school.

Both his parents are teachers so they weren’t so keen on him dropping out of school.

They decided that he should enroll at the Brent Street dance school in Sydney where he could continue his academic work in the morning and attend ballet classes in the afternoon.

He completed the Brent Street performing arts school’s fulltime ballet and contemporary dance course supervised by Christine Keith.

His family also moved to Sydney where his father, Peter, taught academic studies to the boys who danced in Billy Elliot, the Musical.

(Peter is now academic head of the junior school at The McDonald College of the Performing Arts).

During his time at Brent Street, Matthew followed the usual path by sending an audition video to many schools.

He hoped that he might be accepted into the Royal Ballet School in London but was unsuccessful.

The director, Gailene Stock, suggested he try to find a spot at an American school.

That worked.

“George de la Pena, the director of the Joffrey Ballet School offered me a full scholarship to their summer program”, Matthew said, “and during that time he offered me a full scholarship to train full time”.

De la Pena was artistic director of the school from 2008 to 2010. The current director is the Australian, Robert Ray.

De Pena took Matthew under his wing while another Joffrey teacher, Davis Robertson, “taught me to be a strong dependable partner. He has a really technical eye, and taught me to be an artist”.

When the Boston Ballet II and Royal New Zealand Ballet opportunities fell through, Matthew spoke to the artistic director of Boston Ballet, Mikko Nissinen, who said “he would try to help me find another job”.

Back in NZ, Stiefel offered Matthew a short-term contract for a season of Cinderella, then that contract was extended to the end of the year and on to the next year.

After the RNZB toured to China earlier this year, the company’s dancers had a three-week holiday.

“I went to visit some friends back in the US and took a class with the company (Boston Ballet) and Mikko offered me a contract”.

He hopes to join the company next January

I asked him what advice he might give to dancers still seeking jobs.

“Auditioning is hard. You have to deal with a lot of rejection but you can’t let it get you down.

“I remember my first audition season in New York City. I got cut from almost every audition I did. I was really upset but it made me work harder and the next year I did a lot better”.

“Every time you get knocked down you have to get up stronger and use it to make you a better dancer and a deeper artist”.

Good luck to all the dancers out there who are still on that dreaded audition circuit.

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Matthew Slattery, photo © James Stringer

Matthew Slattery, photo © James Stringer

Matthew Slattery, photo © James Stringer

Matthew Slattery, photo © James Stringer

Matthew Slattery

Matthew Slattery (photographer unknown)