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Animated Edition - Autumn 2008
Critical faculties
In which Donald Hutera loses a job but, ideally, gains some insights into the notion of a career
I recently applied for a job, in dance, that many - myself included - might have thought would be a shoo-in for me. Well, I didn't get it. And you know what? After about two seconds of deep, rug-pulled-out-from-under-my feet disappointment, I felt relieved.

In truth, I'd had my doubts about the post from the start. And that, as a colleague advised, was not the way to head into an interview. 'They'll spot it,' she insisted. 'Believe me, they'll know if you don't really want it.' Such pearls of wisdom could not be ignored. As a result, I so hyped myself into wanting the damn thing that the wanting became almost more important than the outcome. Hence my balloon-like relief upon hearing the 'bad' news. Balloon-like not as in deflated, but with more of a helium quality, as if I might just float away into the ether and never be spotted or heard from again.

On a more practical note, I figured that somebody's gotta not take first place, not win the top prize, not cross the finish line or any number of other metaphors. That night, however, I was grateful for the grounding of a writing gig, a show to review, a responsibility to bear - to the newspaper that employs me, to the readers who might buy or pick up said organ, to the artists in the work I was seeing, and to myself.

All of the above is a preamble to my real theme this issue, which has to do with recent musings on that funny-peculiar beast called a career. The very word brings to mind a line from the classic Stephen Sondheim song 'I'm Still Here,' in which the hardy protagonist warbles on about how we often just 'career from career to career.'
Dear reader, I ask you: did you plan on doing whatever it is you do, or have previously done, to provide yourself with food, clothing and shelter? (Not to mention amusement, let alone joy.) I didn't. It was never my intention to earn my livelihood writing about dance and performance. I was, in fact, a high school drop-out who fell into my first ongoing gig - as freelance film critic for an alternative weekly in my home-town of Minneapolis - knowing absolutely nothing about double-spacing (this was, note, the era of typewriters) and with no professional writing experience whatsoever. Was I lucky or what?

What I did know, and in a completely self-taught fashion, was quite a lot about the movies. They were my passion, and one that eventually albeit gradually extended to other, live art forms. And yet even after I'd been writing regularly and, with eager-beaver energy, for multiple publications about many different aspects of the arts, my parents - a simple bartender and a neurotic housewife - always thought I should seek employment at the post office. Why? Because the benefits were supposed to be good. (As precarious as the freelance life can be, I'm glad I didn't listen to them. If I had, I can easily imagine myself losing it one day and shooting everyone in the mailroom. My defence? Not guilty by reason of gross unhappiness and an undue lack of personal fulfilment...)

Anyway, I persevered, as no doubt so many of us in the arts have done and continue to do. Rolling with the punches; just getting on with it; trying, to employ a film analogy, to be as Cinemascopic and Technicolored in my outlook as possible, without losing sight of what's near to hand - by which I mainly mean the human connections that are possible in the arts. At times it almost feels as if I've got no choice. This is what I do and, I trust, do well. And, for whatever reason, I don't recall experiencing what some in the industry - especially those just starting out or otherwise less established - must face when strangers learn that they're involved in dance. Reactions like, 'Yes, but, what do you do for a living?' or, worse, 'You call that a real job?'

It seems to me that a career in the arts is as real as any other work, and probably a helluva lot more rewarding than many forms of employment I can think of. Still, I wonder how many of us have had to make financial or, perhaps, even emotional sacrifices in order to keep going. Maintaining this dual perspective, there are other questions often rattling around in my head. I ask them of you now: How open-minded, open-hearted and even-handed are you? How do you keep yourself, and your practice, fresh? What does the word sensible mean to you? And, finally, what is it about what you do - or aspire to do - that makes it all worth it?

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now, Animated and many other publications.


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Animated: Autumn 2008