Some performers seek different career path after last dance

| Friday, Jan. 20, 2012

Change might be inevitable. Sometimes, it's even predictable, but managing the transition and adjusting to it emotionally can be challenging.

Dancers retire anywhere from age 20 to 45, says Terrence S. Orr, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's artistic director.

"You go into this profession understanding you're going to be looking at a second or third career. You actually train to be a dancer for a longer period than for becoming a doctor or lawyer, and you're going into an occupation for a shorter period of time."

The exhilaration of dance is difficult to forsake. Many former dancers stay in the field as choreographers, ballet masters or artistic directors of established companies. Some even form dance ensembles.

Yet, others seize the opportunity for a new life.

"One of the things I decided early on was, as much as I loved ballet, I knew I would want to leave it," says Kristen Rusnak, 27, who retired from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's corps de ballet at the end of the 2010 season.

"I loved dance as much as I did as a child, when I saw people who stayed too long and it became work. I didn't want that to happen to me," she says. "I feel I hit (leaving dance) at the sweet spot. I did it young enough that I have time for three or four more lives."

Rusnak began dancing professionally out of high school. Now, she's living in Seattle, pursuing an undergraduate degree. Her transition to life after dance has gone better than she feared.

"I was expecting depression. I was expecting to feel lost, and I was worried about regret. And I really haven't had it," she says. "I've had twinges, moments. At the first 'Nutcracker' last season, sitting and watching all the young kids around me, I thought, 'Oh man, I miss it. I miss performing.' But on a day-to-day basis, I'm happy."

Working toward a clearly defined goal is an essential part of her career transition.

"I'm starting over from scratch. I really would like to be a history professor," she says. "Medieval history has been an incredible passion my entire life. Stopping dancing was huge. It has been a huge part of my identity. All my friends were dancers. I knew it would take another passion to help me through the transition.'

Injuries sometimes force a dancer's career to end. That's why principal dancer Erin Halloran retired in November. She's planning to teach at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School.

Injuries didn't end principal dancer Christopher Rendall-Jackson's career when he left the ballet in 2009, but they did contribute to his thinking about his future. He had three knee surgeries prior to joining the ballet in 2003, and his parents had encouraged him to pursue college.

"When I got to PBT, I had to get a feel for it, establish myself and fit in and be a part of Terry's vision. Then, I realized I had to start thinking long term," he says. "Your whole life is geared to becoming a dancer. When it's over, it's disappointing. It's traumatic, because it's become such a part of your identity. I noticed a lot of dancers who left and were unhappy."

Rendall-Jackson decided to earn his undergraduate degree at Pitt while dancing and save the big debt for graduate school.

Orr encourages dancers to go to college, although when he tried it while dancing with San Francisco Ballet, he didn't make it all the way through to his degree.

"I would go on tour and get kicked out of class," he says. "When I came back, I'd hear, 'Who are you?' "

Orr says it's important dancers don't overload themselves with college classes. "It depends on what they're dancing. I let them out early if their class is at 6, and take cognizance of that in planning the rehearsal schedule so they don't miss anything important."

Evaluating what was special about dance for him led Rendall-Jackson to his choice for his next career. He says he was unusual in not being drawn to dance by a need for the limelight. The technical aspects of building technique and the opportunity to put a whole new idea on a familiar role drove him to be a professional dancer.

After careful evaluation, he decided on law.

"I wanted something pretty technical, and with opportunity for persuasion," he says. "That's why law is a good fit. You build up a theory of how the law works in this area and then persuade the judge and jury. It had what I loved about being a dancer without the physical aspects."

Rendall-Jackson will be 36 when he graduates from Harvard Law School in June. He'll clerk with a judge from Tennessee before joining the San Francisco office of Chicago-based Sidley Austin, an international law firm with 1,700 employees in 17 offices.

Moving back to his native San Francisco with his family will have benefits for Rendall-Jackson and his family. His children will get to know his parents, while they will enjoy their grand new role.

"My mother is still president of volunteers at San Francisco Ballet," he adds. "Of course, San Francisco Ballet is a world-class company. I'm sure I'll want to go see them as much as I can."

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