43: Dancer, Choreographer, Union Man                                        

If you ran into Kiyon Gaines on the street, the last thing you’d think is “ballet dancer.” Gaines is a compact African American with a chocolate complexion, a biggish head, and the thighs of a speed skater. But he is also a member of the corps of PNB, a developing choreographer, and a union delegate.

Gaines grew up near Baltimore, in Catonsville, Maryland, as “a pretty active child” who joined the drama club, sang, and played flute. “My brother and sister always thought I was a weird child growing up. They’d be watching cartoons and stuff like that, and I’d be watching PBS—like orchestra and ballet. And they’d be like, ‘Mom, what is wrong with him? Why won’t he watch cartoons?’”

When he was ten, his mother was shopping in a mall where she saw a dance troupe that inspired the idea of giving him tap shoes and tap lessons for Christmas. Gaines fell in love with it. When he was twelve his teacher suggested that Kiyon take ballet. “I think it would help him with his tap dancing. Make him a little more fluid and a little more relaxed.”

His mother asked him if he liked that idea. He did. From six to nine after school each day, he would do an hour and a half of tap and an hour and a half of ballet. His mom or his aunt drove him to the studio, “waited there for hours, and then drove me home. Every day. . . . I liked to play outside too, so they would have to come chasing after me: ‘Kiyon! It’s five-thirty! You have to be in class at six o’clock! Why aren’t you ready? We told you to be ready when we came home from work!’”

His teachers recommended him for an after-school program at Baltimore School of the Arts called TWIGS: To Work in Gaining Skills. He auditioned, got in, and added another hour and a half, four to five-thirty, to his daily dance regimen. Homework often got done afterward. “It was a tough schedule thinking back now, but at the time, you don’t think it’s rough. You just do it.”

When high school loomed, Gaines was torn. Academically inclined, he considered going to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute for math and science courses but auditioned for Baltimore School for the Arts. “What happens at the school is that in the morning, from eight until twelve, you dance. And then from twelve until four you do all your academics.” He ended up going there. “And I loved it. It was great, because I got to dance and I got to study.”

Roberto Muñoz, a Chilean-born ballet teacher there, “thought I had a real talent for dancing” and gave him private lessons after school. By the middle of Kiyon’s freshman year, Muñoz also gave him some advice: “If you want to be a ballet dancer, you have to leave Maryland. You’re not gonna be able to get the training that you need here.” Muñoz had just secured a job as ballet master with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and suggested that Gaines study at its school. Still a freshman, Gaines auditioned in Baltimore for Pittsburgh’s summer program and got a scholarship. By the time he arrived, Muñoz was already there.

Gaines didn’t know many male dancers back home. “I think there were three of us in my freshman class.” At the Pittsburgh summer program, “There was a whole class of us, and I was like ‘This is great!’ You know, there are other boys who like to do ballet, this is wonderful, I’m learning so much. And I got to see the company while I was there.” Which was new. Gaines had never seen a live ballet performance in a theater. All he knew of it was what he’d seen at his schools and on TV.

Toward the end of the summer program, the head of the school asked him to stay in Pittsburgh for the academic year. “I called my mom, and I said, ‘Mom, I think that I want to be a ballet dancer.’ And she said, ‘Okay, that’s great. I hope you’re having a good time.’ I said, ‘But I have to move away from home.’” At which point the usual questions came up: Where are you going to live? How are you going to go to school? His single mom had a master’s degree in criminology and worked for the city of Baltimore as a criminal investigator. When she came to pick him up at the end of the summer, she went to a meeting for parents whose kids had been invited to stay and learned how it would work:

Your tuition and expenses are fully covered. You live with a host family. You get up early to do ballet in the morning, you get bussed to high school for second period at nine-thirty, and when school gets out at three-thirty, you take the bus back for ballet from four to eight. “So they answered all the questions, and she said, ‘Well, you know, if this is something you really want to do, I think that you need to leave home and do it.’”

The first year, at the age of fifteen, he lived in a “huge room” in a lawyer’s four-story brick home, where he discovered how to cook and how to do laundry. Gaines loved Pittsburgh. At high school, he was a normal kid going to pep rallies and football games. “It was a nice change of pace for me, and I was getting really good ballet training at the same time.” At ballet school, he had access to tapes of the company’s rehearsals and performances. And the scuttlebutt of the Land of Ballet.

“I learned about the School of American Ballet, which was supposedly the most prestigious ballet school in America. . . . And I said, you know, one day I’m going to go to that school.” In November, when rehearsals began for Pittsburgh’s Nutcracker, he learned SAB would be coming to audition in February. But at the end of the month he did a jump in a class and sprained his ankle. “A third degree sprain. It was my first ballet injury ever. . . . There are three ligaments in the ankle, and I tore all of them.” And broke his fifth metatarsal.

Forget The Nutcracker; the doctors told him he would be out for eight weeks. “I was just devastated. I didn’t know what to do. I had to go to school on crutches. . . . I didn’t have my mom there to take care of me. It was all just a nightmare.”

February came around. Gaines had just gotten off his crutches and was “completely out of shape, not conditioned.” SAB, he knew, was “sort of notorious” for judging “what your body looks like,” but he did the audition anyway. “I re-broke my fifth metatarsal in the middle of the audition, but I finished the audition class. It was the worst audition I think I have ever done in my career as a dancer. It was awful.” He remembers a woman from SAB looking at him, looking at her list, and putting a bold line through his name. He was sure he wouldn’t get in.

But he healed in due course, and before year’s end, SAB sent him a letter inviting him to the summer program—without a scholarship. “Which is very uncharacteristic, for a male dancer not to get a scholarship. So my choices were to have my mom pay the entire thing for me to go, which was very expensive . . . or to stay in Pittsburgh. So I begged and pleaded and said, “Mom, mom, I have to go. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have to go.” His mother complied. At sixteen, he found himself in New York for the summer.

“SAB was hard for me, because during the year at Pittsburgh I had gained a lot of weight,” and was basically out of shape. “And the whole thing with the summer program is that you want to be asked to stay for the year. So you work real hard. They make you turn in something saying that you’re interested in staying for the year, so that they look at you more.”

Peter Boal recalls, “I taught him for five weeks in the summer course. Every correction I threw out into the room, that kid did. A teacher finds that. . . . And I was looking at him, and he was the wrong shape, and he didn’t really have a neck, and I was thinking I can’t take him into the winter course. All the teachers will say, ‘This is not our aesthetic. He doesn’t belong in our school. He may be a nice kid, a smart kid, but. . .’ I just thought there’s got to be a decent professional dancer in there if somebody works with him.”

At the end of the summer, Boal called him into a conference room. “He said, ‘You know, I think that you’re very talented, and I think that you’re a great dancer, you’re a hard worker, and you’d do well at the school.’” Boal also told him that he didn’t have the right body type to be a ballet dancer, and because of that he might not get the same opportunities as the other boys, like being in The Nutcracker and the end-of-year Workshop. But Boal said he thought Gaines would benefit from SAB’s training.

After mulling it over for a long while, Gaines decided that the training was the most important part, the performance opportunities in essence just perks. He also figured that having SAB on his résumé would help him get a job later on. “So I called home and I said, ‘Well, mom, I want to move to New York.’” When he explained it all to her, “she said again, ‘Okay, if this is something you want to do, we’ll just have to figure out how it’s all going to work out.’”

How it worked out was that SAB offered him a full scholarship, but only a partial housing stipend. “My mom said, ‘Well, Kiyon, here’s the thing. The only way that you can afford to do this is if we start taking money from your college fund. . . . You just have to be absolutely sure, ’cause once you start spending the money, it won’t be there.’”

He was sure. He lived in the SAB dorms. He spent every morning at New York City’s public Professional Performing Arts School. But after getting four or five hours of dance classes every day in Pittsburgh, he was surprised that his only class at SAB was typically Peter Boal’s midday session for an hour and half. Every Wednesday there’d be a partnering class, sometimes there’d be another class on Saturdays, but basically that was it. “Bizarre,” Gaines thought.

“I had a hard time at SAB. . . . I was constantly being brought into the office because I had a weight problem. And as much as I wanted to believe that I wasn’t affected by other people getting opportunities and me not”—the very thing Boal had warned him about—“it bothered me. And I got even more depressed about it. I struggled at SAB a lot. And then there was a special men’s class. And I wasn’t in it, and a lot of my friends were.”

SAB had a weight-training program, but he was taken out of that because the teachers thought it was making him bigger. Yet the school didn’t have a conditioning trainer to help him take the weight off; it was just “lose weight.” Boal told him that. So did Jock Soto. “I finished the year at SAB, miserable, and I needed something to do, so I auditioned for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre summer program” and went back. He “was loving it. I said, ‘I’m not going back to SAB, I’m going to stay here,’ so I was calling and telling all my friends in New York that I’m not coming back.” He made arrangements to stay in Pittsburgh.

“And then at the end of the summer, something said, ‘You have to go back.’” At the very last minute, he decided to return to New York and SAB for his senior year. “Things didn’t really get better. I still got weight talks, and nothing was working.” Boal gave him his evaluation. “He told me in the nicest way possible” that he thought Kiyon was very talented, that he’d fought for him to come to SAB, that he had improved in his time at SAB. But in the end, “You know, you just have a different body type,” and the only way he’d get a job in a ballet company would be to attend its school and “make them see that you’re such a good worker and a hard worker that they can look past how you look.”

It wasn’t going to happen in New York. He took auditions for other companies with no success. But a friend of his was auditioning for PNB one Sunday and invited him to come along. “Why am I going to audition at PNB?” Gaines wondered. “They only want tall dancers. I’m short,” and, at the time, “fat.”  But his friend cajoled him into going.

When it was over, Francia Russell and Kent Stowell said that they didn’t know how many openings they’d have available, but they wanted to see a few people, Gaines and his friend among them. Peter Boal says, “I spoke to Francia about him, and I said, ‘You’ve got to trust me on this kid. You’ve got to take a chance on him.’”

So PNB’s directors told Gaines, “We think you’re a little young for the company, but we want you to come to our summer course, and then we’ll talk about our PD program.” Gaines accepted. And this time he could tell his mom “they offered me a full scholarship. You don’t have to pay anything.”

He and his friends David Schneider and Josh Spell got an apartment together not far from PNB. “All of a sudden I came here and they liked me, and I was dancing, and I was getting correction, lots of correction. I was getting attention. And it sort of changed me as a person. I started losing weight, randomly. . . . I just felt great. I had the best summer of my entire life. . . . It’s like they wanted me to be here, and I felt wanted, not sort of on the back burner.”

At the end of the summer, the Stowells offered him a full scholarship as a PD and a five hundred dollar monthly stipend. He accepted gladly. And enjoyed himself with “lots of dancing, lots of dancing. But I started gaining weight again.”

Russell called him into her office. “You know, Kiyon, you look a little heavy. I think you should talk to the nutritionist.”

Gaines was dumbfounded. “Nutritionist?” The idea was completely new to him. Peggy Swistak had him keep a food journal listing everything he was eating. Then she told him he wasn’t eating enough, that in his attempts to lose weight, he was basically starving himself. “Your body’s going into shock, and it doesn’t know when it’s going to get fed the next time, so it’s holding onto everything,” she told him. “You’re gaining weight because your body won’t let go of anything.”

They worked out a plan. He began losing weight and feeling good about himself. At Nutcracker time, he was cast in the Dervish role. It was the first time in years that a student had been tapped to do it, and company members were telling him what an honor it was and that they’d bet it would lead to a contract. “I did not come to PNB thinking that I would ever get in the company. I came to PNB because I had nothing else to do and I needed to train and get into shape so I could get a job somewhere.”

Gaines knew he was among the top of his class, and he got to do parts with the company that his fellow students didn’t. Then came time for auditions with other companies. With the first three, “people were calling me up and saying, ‘We like what we see,’ and ‘You’d fit in great with our company.’” But they didn’t follow up, and at later auditions he didn’t even get that far. He felt he was in great shape and dancing well, and people seemed to be watching him and pointing at him. But after five auditions, he didn’t have even the hint of a job offer. He decided “the next person who talks to me, I don’t care what it is, that’s the job I’m going to take.”

The next audition was for Ballet Met in Columbus, Ohio. Gerard Charles, the artistic director, offered Gaines a job. Gaines said he’d take it. But Charles said that Kent and Francia wanted him to wait before sending Kiyon a contract.

“So then I went up and I had a meeting with Francia, and I said, ‘It’s so weird. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m dancing really well, I’m in really good shape, and I see people look at me in these auditions, and I’m not getting offered anything. And then Gerard wanted to offer me a contract, and he had to wait to hear from you guys before he could offer me a contract. What’s going on?’”

Russell let him in on the secret: “This is happening to you because we’re interested in you for our company. And we told them that they can’t have you.” She explained that “we’re very interested in you, and so we told them that they can’t offer you anything until we figure out what’s going on with our budget.” Russell added that “I can’t tell you for sure that you’re going to have a spot. But know that we’re interested, and if there’s money, you’ll have a job here.”

Months went by. One morning, the school’s Denise Bolstad told him that the money issue was still up in the air and that he might want to think about flying to California to audition for San Francisco Ballet. But he figured that if he didn’t get a job at PNB, he’d be okay with the Ballet Met job.

That afternoon, he and Schneider were called from class to Stowell’s office, where they squashed together with Lindsi Dec and Lesley Rausch on a tiny sofa. “We thought we were in trouble or something. . . . They’re like, ‘Why do you look so nervous?’ and we’re like, ‘We don’t know why we’re here!’ Francia looks at Kent and goes, ‘Well, should we tell them?’ and Kent goes, ‘Well, we just figured out that we have enough money to offer you all contracts with the company, new-dancer contracts,’” the equivalent of what are now called apprentices. “And of course, we’re all trying to like, be calm. But inside you want to explode.” Afterward, “we’re barreling out of the office, running down the hallway: ‘Yes! Yes! We got a contract!’ We were so excited. And that was my start. . . . I was making five hundred dollars a week.”

In August 2001, four days into his contract, “I was jumping in class, and I landed, and one of the casings around my nerve in my lower back cut the nerve, and I lost all the feeling in my right leg. All of it.” After class, he walked to the bank, but his leg was giving out, and he had no idea why. “I came back to rehearsal, and I tried to jump, and I could not feel my leg.” He visited Boyd Bender, the company’s physical therapist, and explained the problem. “So he’s touching my leg: ‘Do you feel this?’” Gaines answered no. Bender sent him for an MRI scan. The news came back: He had severed a nerve.

He had no sensation in the leg. The doctors warned him he had to be careful walking, because he could easily take a misstep and break his ankle. “I could walk around; I just had to be conscious of taking steps. I could still move the leg; I just couldn’t feel it. I didn’t know where it was. I would look down at my leg and, ‘Okay, put my foot here and put my foot here,’ and it was so weird. But I think the hardest thing about that was I had just started at the company and I was nervous that I was going to get fired the next year. It was like, ‘They hired me and now I’m injured, they’re going to fire me.’ But they didn’t, and the nerve eventually grew back.”

It took about three months. In physical therapy, “Every day we’d do the standard ‘Can you feel it?’ and I was ‘A little bit.’ And then I would feel it a little bit more, and then I could start to move it.” But because he looked fine, the Stowells and others had trouble comprehending his injury. “I looked fine and they were like, ‘We can’t understand why you can’t dance. You look fine.’ So, I was like ‘Yeah, but I’ll break my leg if I come back, because I can’t feel it.’ It was such a bizarre injury, and they’d never seen anything like it before.”

Gaines knew a lot of the PNB dancers already. Jordan Pacitti and Jonathan Porretta were friends from SAB and “sort of took me under their wing.” And under Kent and Francia, “the company was sort of like a family. . . . While we were at the school, you know, always be courteous to one another, and if you can help someone out, help ’em out. We never had a huge competitive thing here. There was a time when you got what you deserved. There was a hierarchy in place that really worked. And so when it was your turn, it was your turn, and there was no question about it. And so that sort of lessened the competitiveness that other companies have.”

That has changed under Boal: “The great thing about Peter is that Peter brings an amazing rep for us to do. But not a very big rep. If you notice, the ballets are really small in terms of number of dancers.”

Since Boal doesn’t adhere as strictly to the principal/soloist/corps hierarchy, “you get to do more as a corps member. Which is great, but the problem that causes is that a lot of times you don’t know where you stand in the company: Am I getting parts because I’m going to be promoted soon, or am I getting parts just because he likes me in this? But what also happens is you get a lot of disdain. Some people are dancing all the new works, and some people aren’t dancing anything, so that causes the competitiveness to come back, because everyone wants to dance.”

In the old days, “if you’re in the corps for this many years then all of a sudden you start doing solo things, and basically that would lead to maybe a promotion. Now, it’s not like that anymore. Now it’s like pinging: People just go wherever, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but at the same time, a lot of people who’ve been here for a long time, they served in the corps, maybe they’re not getting a lot of opportunities.”

For Gaines, “personally, I’m getting to do lots. . . . I just think the general tone in the company has shifted a little bit. From knowing your place and knowing that if you do your work well for this many years, then there’s a reward that comes with that? That doesn’t exist anymore.”

For next year, Gaines won’t be promoted. He says Boal told him, “I think you’re wonderful in the company, and I love having you here, and you’re dancing so many things, I just think the promotion wouldn’t be the best thing for you right now because I feel like you’d actually dance less than you do now, we couldn’t put in you in the corps stuff, you could only do solo stuff, and there might not be that.” By tradition, dancers are not supposed to do roles below their rank.

“He was like, ‘I feel like you wouldn’t probably get to do as much.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, Peter, if it’s never going to happen, I’m going to think about leaving the company. I’m not threatening you; I’m just saying, if this is something I want and it can’t happen here, I’ll have to go somewhere else.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m not saying it’ll never happen, just not right now.’ And then there’s the budget thing: There’s not enough money to promote everybody who he wants to promote . . . so it’s tricky.”

Nonetheless, Gaines will sign his contract. Boal has been highly supportive of his choreographic career, and the company has commissioned a new work from him for next season. “It’s a tossup. . . . I could leave a place that is supportive of one part of my career and not another part, or I can go somewhere else and start all over, which may or may not be better.” Still, it rankles him. “Basically, I just want the title. Because I’ve earned it. I think that I deserve it. . . . That’s hard personally, and I think that any dancer that you ask would probably say the same thing of themselves. You feel like once you’ve been in a place for a certain amount of years and you’ve done a certain number of roles, then you’ve earned it.”

The tight rehearsal schedules are new too. “We dance by magic a lot here. A lot of the time, we freak out, freak out, freak out, and then all of a sudden by dress rehearsal it’s fine. And we don’t even know what happened. We’re like, ‘How did that even happen?’

“At the moment, we’ve got the week for Midsummer, and we haven’t started rehearsing it yet. But they want to start doing run-throughs Wednesday.” Kiyon is “really excited about Puck, because it’s on the list of things I’ve wanted to do in my entire career. I’m really excited to do it. But I’ve never done it before, and I haven’t had a rehearsal yet for it.” And the days are dwindling. “Wednesday is the open rehearsal. Thursday. Friday is an open rehearsal. We have Monday and Tuesday, two six-hour days, to put an entire ballet together. And then we have the Choreographers’ Showcase.”

He sees his new Showcase piece as “getting there. But we don’t have enough time to be getting there. We need to be there.” He’s resorted to making rehearsal tapes, handing them to his dancers, and telling them “You’ve just got to watch it and get an idea.” Every year, “the time for it gets smaller and smaller. I’m trying not to freak out about it and get nervous about it, because I know we still have a couple weeks. But at the same time, it’s three weeks from yesterday, and I’ve had an hour and a half with two people.”

He did manage to finish the piece. “In December I had time. That’s not when I needed it.” When he had his first rehearsal recently, his dancers said they didn’t remember a single step. “So we put the tape on, watch the tape. So that takes twenty minutes to get back” what they’d learned.

His choreographic career he calls “an accident.” Standing in the back of the room during rehearsals, he’d sometimes spend time making up steps. When the Choreographers’ Showcase came around in 2005, his friends urged him to try it. “I’m not a choreographer,” he told them. But the friends told him that if he signed up, they’d dance for him. He ended up doing a pas de deux, a pas de trois and a dance for eight girls called blitz . . . Fantasy to music of John Adams and Philip Glass.

Stowell and Russell “loved it, and they said I had a talent for it.” They told Boal to nurture his choreographic talents. “Every year since then I’ve been doing the Choreographers’ Showcase. The next year I did a piece called ?{SCHWA}, which was a tango ballet. . . . Peter decided that he wanted to put it into the company’s rep, so I did it at the Celebrate Seattle Festival. And then the next year, I did Infinite Intricacies on the school.” This year his Showcase piece is for five men.

“Aside from me choreographing on a professional level, I also do a lot of choreography on the pre-professional level. . . . There are all these schools, essentially, and they have companies, but they’re students, and they’re all under this umbrella called Regional Dance America.” His friend Debra Rogo owns a school and company in Richland in Washington’s Tri-Cities area. It’s the same school where Patricia Barker, the company’s longtime prima ballerina, got her start.

Gaines began by teaching there and asked if he could choreograph a piece for the company. Rogo “loved it, so she invited me the next year to do a new piece.” An adjudicator—basically a judge and scout for the region—picked that piece as an “emerging work” for the regional festival, which earned Gaines a scholarship to last summer’s Craft of Choreography Conference at the Francia Russell Center in Bellevue.

Eight choreographers work with a director of choreography. “And the director of music gives you a CD with all this music on it, and says ‘You pick one track and create something based on what you learned in choreography class this morning.’ I would go in the morning at like eight and not leave till like nine at night. . . . You work on time, you work on space, you work on kinesphere”—personal space. “You work on theme and variation, all these sort of choreographic tools that you would use, and create a little piece. And each day they choose your dancers for you. . . . Some days you might have fourteen dancers, and one day you might have one dancer. . . and you have to show what you did in your rehearsal at the end of every day. You do that for two weeks.

Gaines gets “a lot of anxiety as a choreographer, because it’s a different nervousness. It’s a different feeling than being on stage.” As a dancer, he can control his own body. As a choreographer, the final result is up to other bodies to whom he ultimately has to relinquish control. “To this day it drives me crazy. I get very nervous to see my work. Because it’s like, okay, I’ve done everything I can, and now you’re the one on stage, you’re the one showing. However, if something goes wrong with the piece, they’re not going to blame the dancer; they’re going to blame the choreographer. . . . You feel vulnerable. It’s like putting a piece of yourself on stage that you can do nothing about.”

Gaines got a commission in Bremerton, across Puget Sound from Seattle. He also worked with Gem City Ballet in Dayton, Ohio, and next he’ll go to Pennsylvania Regional Ballet near Harrisburg to work on a new piece. “Every time I have a layoff, I try to go for something.”

He’s hooked. “Choreography is so amazing,” he says. “It’s hard to explain, because people go ‘Well how did you come up with . . . ?’ or ‘How did you see that?’ or, ‘How did you know. . . ?’ and I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that there are moments in the studio where things just work, and it’s sort of a blur, and then you say, ‘Go back and let me see it,’ and then you look at it and you go, ‘Oh, my God, that’s it. That’s exactly what I thought. I don’t know how I got to this point, it just somehow works.’ Especially when you see it on the big stage. ’Cause in the studio you have a different perspective.

“I have an idea of how things are going to work, but I never know if they’re going to work until I see them. . . . I like choreographing because it gives me opportunity to come up with my own ideas about how I think ballet should be.”

Another first is coming up: choreography on himself. He developed a duet to perform with Lindsi Dec at the Richland school, but she wasn’t able to go, so he’ll be doing it there with Kari Brunson. “But Lindsi still wants to do it, so I’ve asked Peter if I could include that in the Choreographers’ Showcase. And this’ll be the first time that I have ever danced in anything I’ve choreographed.”

Gaines says, “I’m not sure if I’d ever do it again.” In the mirror, “you see what you want to see. . . . You’re like ‘Oh, I see.’ No, you really don’t. And it’s hard for me to see what something looks like if I’m doing it.”

Gaines’s usual process is to begin with the music. “And as I’m listening to the music I’ll come up with a phrase of maybe sixteen counts. . . . If I can go in with sixteen counts, I’m good. Because with sixteen counts, you can cut it in half, you can have people do it at the same time, you can have people do it at different times, you can have the back end go first, you can do the whole thing backwards, you can flip it and take the two count from this and put it here, and then you have ten counts. You know, there are lots of things you can do in that phrase of sixteen counts. And it’s a good jump-off. . . .

“For me, when you do pieces in movement, once you have them choreographed, to maintain structure and order you have to figure out how to thread them all back together. There has to be a connector, there has to be a point of reference for the audience to say, ‘Okay, these go together, because I’ve noticed . . .’ And I have no idea how I do that. I know I do it, but I have no idea how it happens.”

His new Showcase piece is called Interrupted Pri’si’zh’en because “Everything about it has been an interruption. We had an interruption between when I finished choreographing it and now. There’s a piece of music that really doesn’t belong, so there’s an interruption in the music. And the process was interrupted because I normally come in . . . with my idea, but then I see the dancer do it and I say ‘Oh, I don’t like that on you. Do the same step, but now show me if you did it this way.’ And we sort of play with it and twist it and make it for them.

“This time I came into the studio with nothing—no ideas, just music. And I said ‘Okay, we’re going to work together on this. We’ll see what happens.’” Asked if he’ll try that again, Gaines emphatically declares, “Never. It might work for some people, but for me it’s a harder process, and it gives me too much anxiety.”

His piece for the company next year has morphed. Originally he was thinking Bach. But then “I met a wonderful composer, and I’m going to have commissioned music, which is excellent.”

It happened in New York. “As a choreographer you need to find opportunities that will feed you so that you can grow . . . and experiment and try your ideas out and just practice. ’Cause you get better with practice. And you have to have space,” and time and dancers. Every year Gaines sends out DVDs of his work with résumés and bios. Two years ago, he got responses from Oregon Ballet Theatre and the New York Choreographic Institute, an affiliate of New York City Ballet.

Unfortunately, the Oregon gig conflicted with the company’s first trip to Vail, and Peter Boal vetoed the trip to New York. “It was the first time we were doing Fancy Free, and it was something he wanted me to do, and I couldn’t miss the opportunity, so I couldn’t go.”

The following year, he tried again. Boal urged the New York Choreographic Institute to take Gaines for the April session held at SAB, and Richard Tanner, the co-artistic director, offered him a spot.

In November, they flew him to New York to meet composers. “And I got the best composer, in my opinion. Her name is Christina Spinei, and she’s a Master’s student at Julliard. She finishes her Master’s in Composition in June, and this is her second time doing the Institute. So we just started talking and immediately clicked.”

He listened to her music. She’d seen one of his pieces. “So we just started talking and we came to the conclusion that we both liked things that were energetic, fast-paced. This is just perfect, a match made in artistic heaven. So she and I started working together.” They exchanged files via the Web. “She sent me MIDI files, she sent me a score because I can read music, and I was saying ‘Oh, you know, these measures, I don’t really like the way they feel,’ so swap them out, or take a couple notes out.”

In April the Institute “flew me out, and I stayed at the Hotel Beacon for two weeks, and they gave me a stipend.” By then, he already had a CD of Spinei’s music for string quartet, which would be played live at the show. But arriving at the school and casting his piece, was “actually a nightmare, because you don’t really know what people can do. You see ’em in class, and you don’t really know. I knew that I wanted little people, smaller dancers, who could move quickly, so I watched those dancers. Just ruled out watching everybody who’s tall. And I found these four wonderful girls and these four wonderful boys, and so I did an ensemble work for each dancer in three movements that was ten minutes long.

“And that was an experience too, having to negotiate with the other choreographers. ’Cause after we watched an hour-and-a-half class, we had a session where the director of the institute and the choreographers sat, and we said, ‘Okay, well, Choreographer One, who do you want?’ ‘I want this person, this person, this person.’ ‘Choreographer Two, who do you want?’ ‘Well, I also want this person, this person, this person. But, I want this person, this person, this person.’ . . . You had to negotiate and barter. And compromise.” Of his original eight choices, he got six, but the other two turned out “fine. I think I wrote them off too early, actually. Which I think happens a lot with choreographers.

“That was a huge lesson I learned. Sometimes it’s good being on the other side, because you learn a lot. And the thing that I also learned by sitting in the front of the room is that . . . the people sitting in the front of the room aren’t saying negative things about you when you’re dancing. ’Cause there are people who I saw and I was like ‘Oh, my God, they’re fantastic, but just too tall.’ It’s not that they’re saying like ‘Oh, that’s a bad dancer, I’m not using them because they’re bad.’

“A lot of times, being a dancer, you feel like you’re being scrutinized by the people up there watching at the front. You feel like they’re up there just lashing you, saying all these bad things, but a lot of the time they are saying fantastic things, it’s just that you’re not right for what they’re doing.” Gaines smiles. “It’s nice to know. Now I can sweat a little bit less when I’ve been competitive.”

Rehearsals took place in New York City Ballet’s studios in the Rose Building at Lincoln Center, where SAB is housed. “It was amazing, because you had access to the studio every day for as long as you wanted. Which, in choreography, you can never get. I only had the dancers for three hours, but I had the space . . . unlimited. Starting at noon.” So he could work on himself.

“I was in there coming up with my sixteen-count phrases, so that when they came in, I could say ‘We’ve got three hours, let’s go.’ And the funny thing is, when you’re given time consistently, it’s so much easier to create, ’cause people don’t forget. You can actually see where the piece is going a lot quicker, and it was just an amazing experience. In the first three days, I finished one and a half movements.” Even though his piece was ten minutes long and the other choreographers were doing shorter works, he was confident. “After the first three days, I immediately knew the direction of the piece, I’m like ‘I know where this is going.’ But here, sometimes I’m like ‘I have no idea where we’re going to end up in the end,’ because I have an hour here, thirty minutes there.”

He also didn’t have to make the constant mental switch from being a choreographer to being a dancer. “It was so amazing being there just to choreograph. The ideas were fresh, and they were coming to me. I thought, ‘Oh, I love this!’ I could have gone forever.”

Back at PNB, Boal commissioned him to set a piece for a company rep, but it got moved to November 2008 from its original April 2009 date for scheduling reasons. Initially he’d planned on doing research on baroque dancing before doing a piece in that style, but his year of preparation suddenly turned into half a year. “So I packed it up and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to put this on hold for a while.’”

In New York, he told Spinei about the schedule change and having to find new music. She offered to compose it for him. Gaines loved the idea but wasn’t sure if PNB had any budget for her. But she was just graduating from college and felt the PNB piece would be good exposure. “We called Peter, and Peter said, ‘Yes, you can have the composer, as long as she’s not expensive,’ which I knew he would say.” Spinei negotiated a contract with Jennifer Steiner and began working on a piece for full orchestra.

Choreography is not a high-paying business. For his Choreographers’ Showcase pieces, Gaines gets $500; for the one the company added to its festival rep, he got an extra $2,000. Pieces for regional companies typically bring in anywhere from $500 to $1,500 plus expenses. His forthcoming work for the PNB’s fall rep will earn him $7,000.

At last year’s Craft of Choreography conference, Gaines won the Choreography Connection Award, whose winner gets to pick a job from a list of regional companies interested in having an up-and-coming choreographer visit. When he showed Nicholas Ade the list, the Mid-Pennsylvania company “jumped out”; Ade told him the dancers there were really good. But Gaines has no idea of the level he’ll actually find when he gets there.

“Two weeks is plenty for me to go, have a couple of days to assess, and then still have a couple days to put some phrases together while I’m working. It’s a lot easier to work with students, I think. Because with professionals, sometimes you feel like you’re wasting their time if you don’t have material. Because time is money, and with them you can tell when they get bored, you can tell when they’re not interested. And I’m especially sensitive to it because I’m still dancing, so I know what fiddling around means.”

Being a choreographer has elements of being an entertainer. “When I worked with Donald Byrd, he actually pointed out to me, ‘You know, you’re so charismatic in rehearsal, you have such a way about you in rehearsal, it makes the dancers want to work.’ And I never realized that about myself, because I think for me, I’m genuinely excited to be there.”

Gaines has a lot of applications in for summer programs. Boal has asked him to think about applying for a fellowship project from the New York Choreographic Institute. “What they do is they give you money to create a piece on dancers,” PDs in this case, “and the company gives studio space and then they give you some money to do a informal showing.” But Gaines says “next year will be pretty dry. After my premiere with PNB, choreographically it’s looking pretty dismal” except for the annual Showcase.

Gaines wears yet another hat: The company chose him as one of its two union delegates, along with fellow corps member Becky Johnston. Before that, he was on the union committee, which includes eight dancers, two from each of the ranks from principal down to apprentice. Gaines explains that these are the go-to people for “day-to-day stuff” like a smelly bathroom or a lack of hot water. He and Becky, the AGMA delegates, handle the contractual issues: overscheduling, overtime, touring issues, a cold theater, a slippery floor.

Gaines sees it as “a really difficult job, because you have to constantly go in front of the company with issues that need to be resolved. And the harder thing about it is you have to stay neutral about things and try not to pass an opinion. And you have to try not to take things personally, because sometimes the company gets upset at things that management requests,” like waivers for less rehearsal time. “You just have to understand that it’s not your fault, and they’re not yelling at you, they’re just voicing their opinion in a very strong way.”

This year’s big dispute concerned the Vail tour. The contract requires twenty-one days of rehearsal before performances, but to do that with the touring schedule, the company would have to add an extra workweek, and paying dancers for that week would break the budget. When management asked for a waiver, Boal “came in and explained to the company what the waiver was about and let them know where he was coming from about the expense.

“But last year it was two days,” Gaines explains. “This year it’s a week. It keeps getting bigger, and technically, you’re not supposed to do that.” And though in theory “someone else is supposed to come in and play hardball with management,” that job fell to Gaines and Johnston.

In this case, the New York union office advised a company vote on the issue. “And the company says, ‘This is outrageous, they keep asking for more and more and more. We’re not getting anything from it, we just keep giving it all away.’” But Gaines and Johnston “can’t pass our opinion and say, ‘Oh, you’re right.’ It’s like, ‘Well, I understand you feel that way, but nevertheless they’re asking for this and we either give it to them or we don’t, how do you want to vote?’ And so we do a secret ballot.

“Some people feel that we have a contract for a reason, and that if we keep giving our rights away, then we’ll end up with nothing. And some people feel like it’s another opportunity to perform, and also it’s a tour, and everybody wants to go on tour, and it will be a full company rehearsal, so why not? What’s the big deal? . . . And so you have a division, and it was scary for a while, because everyone had voted, and it was divided right in half, no and yes.” Some people hadn’t shown up for the meeting, so in the end, they took another vote. “I voted yes,” Gaines said, “because I want to go on tour. We could be off for eight weeks of the summer. It’s too much.” In the end, the “yes” vote prevailed.

“We’re all very involved. We’re very passionate about our union, because it protects us. We’re all in it together. Which is why people were so upset about that waiver. They don’t want to give it away. Which is the right idea, but sometimes you have to make compromises.

“Our contract is very structured,” Gaines says. “It’s ironclad. I mean, there’s no way we can be taken advantage of under this union. And a lot of companies use our contract as a template.” The last contract negotiations began with a weeklong strategy session that included the committee and a visiting lawyer from New York’s AGMA headquarters. “Those meetings last forever, like three or four hours a day.” Then comes negotiation with management in boardroom sessions that the entire company can attend, but in practice, doesn’t. Gaines “was there for all of it. I was actually the secretary the last time. I had a book of notes.” But the lawyer “does all the talking.”

The negotiations won the dancers vacation pay for the first time ever. “We asked for a huge raise, and we didn’t get it.” But they did get a small one on top of the vacation pay. And they got a specific clause for dancers serving as choreographers in the Showcase that “you should be given rehearsal time and breaks and everything just as if you were a dancer.”

The two AGMA reps get extra pay for their work amounting to $63 a week each. Gaines got roped into the job when the existing delegates decided they didn’t want the hassle anymore. It can be a tough spot. Before he joined the company, there was a union flap over the Stowells’ taking attendance at company class. “They’re not allowed to do that, because class is optional because they don’t pay us for it.” The union challenged them, “and then Kent and Francia got upset . . . and from then on, no one wanted the job.”

Even though monthly union-management meetings are “very lighthearted,” the job can get difficult fast. There are times “you know you have to face the company with an issue that you know they’re going to blow up about,” and “people get scared and nervous.”

Gaines himself has accumulated forty-five college credits from the company’s Second Stage program and will finish his freshman year with courses in law and philosophy. How does he do it all? “All of us had to learn at a young age that in order to do well at school, you have to be organized, you have to juggle things, and you have to make sure that everything is in order. So you’ll find a lot of dancers are really, really well organized and can fit lots of things in.”

Like many dancers, Gaines is irked by outsiders’ “misconception that because you’re a ballet dancer you’re immediately poor, and that you must have another job. It’s so weird talking. They go, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ ‘I’m a ballet dancer.’ ‘Oh, well, where else do you work, what else do you do?’ ‘Oh no, that’s it.’ ‘That’s it? And they pay you enough to live?’ ‘Well, yes, it’s a career!’ I think that people still have the notion of being a starving artist. They think that being a ballet dancer’s not a real job.”

Another misconception: “People don’t understand what actually goes into getting the show to stage. It’s like the curtain goes up and they go, ‘Ah! That’s amazing!’ But they don’t really know how it got to that point. . . . I think people think, ‘Oh, you know, you do a few dance steps.’ But there’s a lot of studying that’s involved. Right now I have Midsummer tapes in my bag I have to go home and study, because I don’t know how many rehearsals I’ll have. So I have to make sure that I have a pretty good sketch of the parts, and then when I go into rehearsal I know exactly what’s going on, so okay, I remember that part, I know what it looks like.

“People don’t understand how much extra that a lot of us have to do in order to stay in shape. ‘Oh, you’re a ballet dancer, you’re in good shape.’ It’s like, ‘Well, ballet wouldn’t make me look like this.’” The reality: “Yes, you can eat whatever you want when you’re dancing a lot, but if you’re not dancing a whole lot, you can’t do that. . . . I think I grew up hearing that, oh, you’re a dancer, you can eat whatever you want, and I took it the wrong way. Now I’ve finally realized that yes, you can have whatever you want—within reason. I figured that out, and now I’m quite happy with the way I look. . . .

“I cross-train six days a week. I ride the bike, I run, and then I do light weights, because too much weight training makes me a little bit tight and bulky. I have that sort of frame that I can get really bulky, so I just do light weights, to tone. . . . I get up at seven every morning. At the gym by eight. I work out from eight to nine, and then class at ten-fifteen. . . . I think dancers need to understand that ballet is not enough to keep you in shape. I didn’t learn this until a few years into my career.”