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Animated Edition - Autumn 2008
Sustaining a lifelong career in dance
Scottish artist Kally Lloyd-Jones reflects on the 'self esteem' that guides her journey as an artist
I guess you could say I was in a dysfunctional relationship with dance for a very long time, and now, I am happy to report that the relationship is much healthier. But it is precisely because I didn't know how to sustain this relationship or even quite how to get going, that I have actually spent a good deal of my life trying to figure this out. After breaking up and getting back together several times, I have finally in the last eight years managed to grow and sustain a career of friendship, passion and commitment, which supports me and makes me happy and continually challenged.

Having fallen in love with dance (actually, specifically ballet at that point), aged 2 1/2, I eventually went to ballet school where I discovered basically that not only did I have the wrong body but that I would be bored witless in that world. After that, I variously, did a fair bit of contemporary dance performing and teaching with small companies, independent choreographers and a stint with Scottish Ballet's education unit. I got a masters degree in English Literature and Film Studies, trained as a Benesh choreologist and worked at Royal Swedish Ballet and the Royal Ballet School as well as the Benesh Institute, and was also the general manager of two different large companies in Canada. Many of these roles were attempts at some sort of 'normality'. Finally, I realised that while everything I had done until then was useful, worthwhile and in many ways fulfilling, what I really wanted was to explore my own creativity and commit to a life in dance. At this point I had recently moved back to Scotland and Morag Deyes, Artistic Director of Dance Base, offered me a residency at Dance Base. Basically I have never looked back from that moment, though I have often looked sideways. It took some figuring out, and some luck as to how I was going to progress from there. The fundamental thing about this decision was the fact that I was emotionally ready to take the risk, commit myself to it utterly and appreciate the joy of finally doing what I really loved.

I am the Artistic Director of Company Chordelia, which I began in 2002, although this only ever takes up three-four months of my year, and not always that, depending on whether or not we have funding. So, I have also needed to find ways to earn a living all year round, as well as to continue to learn and grow. I have a continual internal need that drives me forward as a person and as a creator and which I think is an important factor in the idea of a career which continues to interest you: apart from anything else, if you are not interested, I doubt anyone else will be.

In the last few years, I have found myself working increasingly in opera where I have a fantastic time and get to work with brilliant directors and performers, I also do various bits of movement directing and choreographing for theatre companies and some performing outside of my own company. Obviously as I get older, the work that I am appropriate for as a dancer, decreases, but last year I had my first straight acting job, enabling me to learn, and to taste the possibility of moving into different sorts of performing.

The more thought I gave this article the more I thought how complex the subject is because when we talk about sustaining careers, we are really talking about a host of things connected to the nature of creativity: self esteem, reward, integrity, our value, the need to grow and change, be challenged, grow up, grow old, make mistakes, change direction, take risks. We may often think of financial issues as being an over-riding concern, and though I don't dismiss this, because it is of course a serious business, I truly have come to believe that if we act with integrity, if we work towards what really works for us, if we listen to our selves and are honest about that, work, or funding or opportunities will follow.

I think we all have notions of what our careers should look like before we begin, we may also have ideas of what success looks like, but it has been my experience that I am continually surprised and that therefore I must be willing permanently to adapt my blueprint for life, my sense of what I want to do and also my willingness to take risks. Constant reassessment requires an honesty about when it is time to move on from something, or when you need to admit to yourself that a certain phase is over, or whatever new stage, circumstances, emotional shift, injury etc may be affecting your life. And what is the difference between giving up and moving on? I am increasingly aware that aiming for something, working hard for it, being committed to it and fighting for it needs to coexist with learning to let go of what may not turn out to be right for you, and not being unhealthily tied to results, or to old decisions, but more to the process. Sometimes it is something on the outside which has changed - it can simply be that the environment or people change and that changes the nature of the work. But often it is that something on the inside has changed.

When I first started out as a freelancer, my dad gave me a list called freelance workers job criteria. I found it very useful in helping to shape my thoughts about work. I have modified the list a little, but here are the points I think are worth considering:

.    Will the job lead to future opportunities?
.    Will I be learning something useful or interesting?
.    Will it be good for my reputation?
.    Will I be properly rewarded and recognised?
.    Will I enjoy it?
.    Will I be able to be myself at work?
.    Is it a situation where I will be treated with respect and honesty?
.    Do I believe in the work, the choreographer or the company?

As I look at this list now, I think it asks us to evaluate situations and also to look very carefully at our own belief systems, what are our deal-breakers, and what stage of our career are we at. In our twenties we might want to do as much of everything as possible so that we have a context and points of comparison, but then we must take that information to shape our own maps, maps that we will redraw many times in the future.

So, that's a list of eight things. I think it's important to be able to say yes to as high a number as possible, and if not, then to be able to be clear with yourself about why exactly you are doing it. Each of us will have a different response to that list and what for us are the 'deal-breakers'.

In some ways, I have talked mostly about choices in terms of choosing work, but we are also in a position to create new possibilities and paths for ourselves. If we are able to ask ourselves what we want and then what we need, we may be able to get it! It is possible to start your own company, make your own choreography, hire your own dancers, work on your own, learn new skills, have mentors, develop in your own unique way.

Though funding is always short, we are lucky that this possibility exists, and we also inhabit an environment where other sorts of exchanges become possible - swapping your time for classes or workshops, learning by assisting or observing. Depending on what you need, many things become possible. There is a flexibility in our world that allows a creative approach. If you need something, there is very often a way to get it. But you need to search and ask and work hard because you have to do it yourself. People have been very very generous to me in many and varied ways - with moral support (which really should not be underestimated), with studio space, with their time and expertise of various sorts, from accounting to choreographic feedback, as well as obviously with funding and with jobs.

I believe that the desire to create is inextricably linked with a desire to communicate, and so, in that sense, the idea of audience or spectator exists. But I also think if you start creating work which sets out primarily to please an audience in some way, then you are no longer making the work with the same kind of integrity to yourself. In a similar way, I could tell you that survival depends on being adaptable, keeping up with trends, being multi-faceted. But this only works if it suits you and is what you want. The people I have come to most admire and who I consider to be role models of different sorts are those who are true to themselves.

Whether we are freelancers, in a stable job, creating work, teaching or running our own companies, we are never really in charge because we are in an environment which rarely generates income, which means we are rarely truly autonomous. In this sense, we are unlikely ever to be in charge. However, I believe that honesty with the self is at the core of the ability to balance, sustain and manage a freelance career in which you can grow and keep your integrity, both personal and artistic, which is also my key thought in the ability to sustain self-esteem in a sometimes lonely and difficult career.

A couple of years ago, I realised that the work I was doing for my own company wasn't making me proud or happy, so I went about trying to achieve creating the work I want to make now. I'm still in transition, but in trying to shift, I have learned a lot, I have grown as a result and I now feel excited. In order to get there I have risked a great deal, but it feels right for me because I am doing what I need to do and not what I think I am expected to do or what might have seemed safer. I think that if I had continued in spite of my feelings I would have become depressed and filled with self doubt. I think the personal risks we must continually make in order not to grow stagnant are underestimated in our culture as well as our profession and in Scotland where money and resources are scarce, this is sometimes exacerbated. The countries which produce the most exciting work are the countries which invest in artists in the long term, which therefore encourages and supports a very different sense of personal risk. But it is this risk, this sense of what is personally necessary that puts you in charge.

The choices I made have basically revolved around my company to a large degree - funding deadlines, timing of touring etc. But I know that it is unlikely that this will ever be full time and in that sense it also has a limited sense of future. I have therefore wanted everything else that I do to be as important to me in terms of learning, enjoyment and yes, earning power. Over the years I have taught in almost every conceivable situation and gradually came to find that what once felt like a challenge (teenagers in Easterhouse) became soul destroying and so my rule now is that I only ever teach people who have chosen to be there. I don't mind about level but I do mind about enthusiasm. I applaud those missionaries of the dance world, but it isn't me anymore. In the end, your gut reaction tells you everything you need to know. If you have a sinking feeling about something, there is probably a very good reason why. I now avoid something that made me feel like this, once I have worked out why. But I am not necessarily advocating this as the only true course of action. You may weigh up the evidence and decide that something is worth doing for a reason you can clearly identify - whether that's financial, educational, geographical or whatever. I am really only advocating the weighing up of evidence and making very conscious decisions about you.

I have several times referred to self-esteem, by which I don't just mean confidence. I mean having your own belief system, sense of yourself and values by which you essentially live your life. I think this is a way in which it becomes possible to be largely in control of your life so that you can make choices, decisions and plans which are right for you - because if we become something other than ourselves and if we bend ourselves out of shape to fit someone else's criteria, then how are we to be creative as an individual? How can we possibly make art, communicate or teach if we are not able to be ourselves? Sure, we must also bring skill and hard work and dedication but they are empty on their own. Earlier on I spoke about core belief and honesty being at the root of personal and artistic integrity, but I think that in our work we bring our whole selves to what we do. One way or the other who we are and what we do are interconnected, and so I believe that actually personal and artistic integrity are the same thing and that therefore being in charge is the result of that.

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Animated: Autumn 2008