Alexandra Farber shares about not just what 2020 deprived her of, but also her lessons learned, as well as what it brought her. She shares her perspective as an artist, a producer, and a choreographer, and also a creator outside the studio.
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Perfectionism as procrastination a conversation with Alexandra Farber
Who is Alexandra Farber
Alexandra Farber originally from Washington DC began her training at Maryland Youth Ballet and Houston Ballet too. Alexandra has also attended various summer programs, including those offered by the school of American Ballet Theater, San Francisco Ballet School, and the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson’s Academy. She joined Texas Ballet Theater in 2012, and in her time there has performed as Odette-Odile, as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty- Atlanta, in Dracula, the Sugarplum, the Snow Queen and Clara in the Nutcracker, the Winter Fairy in Cinderella, and in William Forsythe’s in the Middle Somewhat Elevated. In Ben Stevenson’s Twilight pas de deux and his Four Last Songs. She also performed leading roles in George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, Jerome Robbins’ The Concert, Glenn Tetley’s Voluntaries, Carlos Acosta’s Carmen, Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV dance, and many more.
Her mixed media art was accepted into Viridian Artist’s New York City, 30 under 30 show in 2021 and her latest choreography, The Way We Change was an official selection in the International Authors Film Festival, and won best dance film from the Silk Road Film Award, Cannes
Alexandra is passionate about art-making and supports those who do this on a consistent basis.
This reminds me of those questions that they ask you on applications; describe yourself in three words. The first word that I always use to describe myself is creative. Not just in an artistic sense, but also in an opportunity sense. I’ve always very much had the mentality of, if something’s missing from my life or my world, what can I do to make it possible? Where can I go and where are the people who are interested? Whether it’s dance, choreography, art or anything else, there are people out there who I know feel the same ways that I do. It’s not about there not being enough around me or, something like that. You just have to get creative and find out how you can find those people. I think the ability to be creative is probably something I’m most grateful for as a superpower.
Where my story begins
I was born and raised in the Washington DC area. My family also lives there on the East Coast. I grew up in the area and went to traditional public schooling and private schooling. I went to a ballet school there, but not a boarding school or anything like that. I then graduated from high school in 2011 and after that, I came down to Texas, which is where I live now. I started at Houston Ballet in their second company, HB Two, and was there for one year. I then joined Texas Ballet Theater in the Dallas-Fort Worth area one year later and have been there ever since. I am on my 10th season with TBT this upcoming season.
My favorite place to travel to
There are so many amazing places. I was just in LA last weekend and that was amazing. I’m going home to the East coast next week, which I also love. Then so many places abroad I haven’t been to yet that I want to go to. I’ve never been to Germany, which I absolutely need to go to. That’s been on the list for a long time. When I graduated from college, my graduation present from my family was to help me take a trip to Ireland and I graduated last July. Obviously, that hasn’t happened yet, but Ireland is definitely big on my list, especially because my grandfather was born and raised there. So, I really want to get back there for sure. I’ve never been to Greece, never been to the south of France, I’ve only ever been to Paris, there are a lot of places in Europe. I took a trip to Japan a few years ago and it was just life-changing. So, I would love to go back there, but there are just so many places.
A book that I’ve read that changed my thinking
I just finished a book last week. The name of the author is Sarah Rose Etter, it’s called The Book of X. It’s kind of surreal fiction, but very much has to do with the female experience and sort of like a very brutal look at it. It’s definitely a mature book because it talks about some difficult subjects. I don’t consider myself necessarily a feminist. I consider myself a humanist, but I think to understand that perspective and to hear it from another woman was just really powerful. So, I highly recommend that for definitely 16 and up. It’s a little bit heavy.
A childhood memory that I carry.
When I was little my mom had this figurine and I actually have it in my apartment now. It’s a figurine, ceramic and it’s a dancer and she’s just sitting on the side. She has a little soft port de bras and she has a headpiece on that looks like Swan Lake. So, you know, that she’s representing Swan Lake, maybe Odette or something like that. I can remember distinctly being like six years old and being downstairs in our basement where it was kept on the shelf and taking it down off the shelf and sitting it next to me and trying to mimic it and thinking- I just want to do that. I just want to be this ballerina person. That’s a memory that I really love to think about, especially after getting to perform Odette-Odile a couple of years ago for the first time. I definitely felt like that little girl would be really excited about that for sure. I think it belonged to my great-grandmother. My mom said they were very big into antiques and figurines and stuff like that. So, we had a lot of things growing up, but that one’s particularly special to me.
My journey into ballet.
My mom put me in ballet classes when I was three years old. I don’t remember back to then. I have some very early memories of my first ballet bag; which might still be in my family’s home somewhere and going to classes. We went to a teeny tiny studio that was in a strip mall for many years until I got older. I have some memories of the rooms in there; then it was under construction, so it changed. I remember rooms in there, but as far as knowing, “This is what I want to do”, it was just a thing of every year my mom asking if I’d like to sign up again and every year I said yes. Then it just kept going and going. Then I got to age 9 or 10 and I had outgrown the little strip mall school. So my mom noticed that I really enjoyed this and asked whether I’d be interested in taking up serious classes, so we did. I auditioned for a couple of different schools and the funny thing is the reason why I chose the school that I did was because the dressing room atmosphere was just really chatty and fun. I just felt like there were so many cool girls there and I just wanted to hang out with everybody. I think that period of time was the only time that I thought I didn’t want to dance because I remember coming from a much smaller school where I was probably dancing two or three days a week to dancing every day. Maybe not yet at that age, but I remember thinking, this is tiring. I always was excited to go back and when I got to be a teenager, I realized it could be a potential career and it took a lot of education and research from me and my parents because no one in our family had ever pursued that before and nobody knew anything about the dance world. It wasn’t one moment where I thought, “I want to do this.” It was always there that love, I can’t remember a time without it, which is very strange. Other than walking around and talking and breathing and eating, I’ve done ballet. One of the first things I ever really did was dance, which is pretty interesting to think about.
Personal effects of the pandemic.
I don’t think anyone didn’t go on an emotional roller coaster and if it wasn’t, for one reason it was for another. Obviously, the pandemic itself was very stressful and there wasn’t a lot of information at the start and I was very far away from my family down in Texas. Of course, my parents being older, I was worried about them and it didn’t feel safe to travel. I wasn’t sure when I was going to be able to travel, I was unsure of whether we’d be coming back to the studios.
The first month or two were very confusing and that was a total shock to the system. I also, at the time was single, I didn’t have roommates, so I was completely isolated. I remember after a few weeks of not making contact with anyone, my hair started to fall out. Even though on the surface I felt like I was handling it, there were clear indications from my body that I was not okay and that it’s not human to not have that personal interaction with anyone. I was going to the store once every two weeks and other than that, I was really quarantining because of the fear of the unknown.
After that, I had a couple of friends who were in town. We decided; we’re in an age group and we don’t have existing conditions, it’s probably safe for us- a couple of women, to gather together as if we were roommates because we were all just losing our minds. It was definitely really helpful because some people here had their families and we thought, well, we’re going to have to make our own family because we’re all away from our families. Things got better once I was able to be with people. I had a friend of mine who lives in California and he and I would FaceTime each other for almost six hours a day. We would spend the day together virtually just so that we could feel a connection because it was so challenging. The big, first hurdle was definitely the connection thing.
Then things started to get a little bit easier. Towards the end of the summer, our company tried to go back to work. It was very mixed, but I think we were just all so thrilled. Even though we had masks and boxes of tape on the floor and the whole thing, we were just happy to be in a room together, even if it was just 10 of us. Communication was really challenging and difficult for the company. It was not easy to know what was going on, what was going to be produced, what was not. You can’t blame them too much because they couldn’t predict it either. They’re at the, they’re at the mercy of the halls and the venues and what other productions are doing and the donors and everything like that. So, to be the performer in that situation, I don’t think people realize how we’re the last ones who know any information. So, it was a lot of waiting around, not knowing what was going on. I was really missing my family a lot because I usually go home a couple of times a year, so do not have that was pretty challenging. It’s been a year and a half and I’ve been home with my family for two days, which is totally different from what I’m used to. So, that was challenging.
Then come fall time, the numbers were not high enough for us to do much of anything. But the good thing was that I was finding all these new avenues of ways that I wanted to express myself and people that I can safely gather within small numbers. I joined an art gallery and wasn’t a resident artist at a gallery locally for six months. That’s where I met my boyfriend. We met at the end of 2020. We didn’t start dating until early 2021. I was convinced that I was going to be single all of 2021 and really do that. Of course, it didn’t work out because I met him and we connected really well. So, there were definitely bright spots in the emotional roller coaster. But there were a lot of low days for sure and I think everyone experienced that and no one should feel any ounce of shame or anything around that. In a lot of ways, allowing myself to feel those emotions helped me to learn more about myself, which brought me to a place where I could meet someone like my boyfriend and I could have these other opportunities. That was 2020 in a nutshell.
What 2020 taught me.
I mean on a whole 2020 was a mess and I would love for none of those situations to ever happen again. But there, as I mentioned, were bright spots. There are so many positive things that came out of it for me. One of which is that I just realized how much creativity I was ciphering because I was just afraid; it wouldn’t be perfect. I didn’t see other women in ballet doing the things that I wanted to do. I didn’t think I was good enough in a lot of different ways.
I think having all that time to myself and being outside of our normal work and really getting to reflect opened that up for me. For a really long time, I was like, my dream job, after being a dancer, would be to be a repetiteur or someone who works with the choreographer. Then I kind of came to realize- no, I think I really just want to choreograph. I don’t think I want to do this behind-the-scenes thing, but then I thought about how male, the side of choreography is. There are some great female choreographers I’ve not yet gotten to work with and I really hope I get to work with them. But I realized it is that situation of I’m not seeing this around me, so of course, it didn’t occur to me. But so many of the repetiteurs who come in, who I love and I still think it’s an amazing job; but they’re almost always female.
I think I just got confused because this is the way it always was. I never really considered it because day in, day out, this was just my job and this was just what I saw. I thought I’m going to do this and then I decided, I want to choreograph. I have my ideas; I want to give them a shot.
So, we did a couple of choreography projects with the company during the weird 2020 season and since then, I’ve been pursuing it. Next Friday, July 9th, I am premiering my first major work on an online platform with a good friend of mine. Her name is Silken Kelly, she started a nonprofit called Contingent Ballet. We’re co-producing three pieces in a night of ballet that we’re calling, On New Ground, but it’s designed to be outside of theaters. It’s designed to bring ballet to non-traditional audiences and the whole thing, but none of that would have happened if we weren’t in this really crazy situation. I would have probably just left those thoughts on the back burner while I was super busy doing normal ballet stuff.
The same thing goes for my visual art. I’ve been creating visual art more seriously and applying to shows for about the last four to five years- really kind of forever also. Finally, I wanted to look for galleries locally and I found this place called Tilt Vision Art Studios; they’re kind of transitioning into a different thing now, so I’m no longer with them. But, when I first brought my art to audition it, they thought they were amazing and asked how many I’d sold. I told them they stayed in my closet and they asked why I wasn’t showing my work. They urged me to bring my art to the Art market. It’s valuable.
Dancers just did the dancing thing and that was kind of it. Maybe you went to school; I did, I got my degree, I’m really happy with that. But, there’s other stuff out there that I’m curious about and until we had time to take a break and think about things differently, I never, you know, pursued them before, but now I’m so glad.
Perfectionism as procrastination
I feel like sometimes people brag about it and I think it’s not a good thing. Perfectionism is just procrastination in other words, in my opinion. You use perfectionism to say, I’ll put it off until it’s perfect. It won’t ever be perfect. You’re just procrastinating at that point and there’s such a mentality in the dance world of saying “I’m just a perfectionist” and people say it like it’s a good thing. It’s really not. It’s limiting you and me and everybody else. Let’s throw that out, never say it again.
The gender gap in dance and ballet
I think Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan and really great examples. But when you think about the number of examples on the male side, they’re so outweighed, it’s not even funny. You have people like Crystal Pite and Gemma Bond, people like that today who are amazing choreographers, but again, I just feel like they’re outnumbered, especially in the ballet world and especially in the classical ballet world. It probably stems from the fact that; love me some Petty Pod, love me all the original. At that time, women probably weren’t allowed to choreograph, but we’re built on this foundation, that like a lot of things in the Western world that need a lot of help, it’s built on this white patriarchy. I think that we throw a couple of women into the mix and we say, we’re fixing it, but it’s not enough. We’ve come a long way from the petty pod, we need to be doing more and a lot of times it’s not hard.
I don’t understand why people act like it’s difficult. I had someone tell me, women don’t volunteer to choreograph. Well, maybe some women don’t because they don’t see other women do. Then maybe some women do, but they haven’t been given the opportunity before. Then if they get considered by someone, they look at them and they’ll say, you don’t have a resume, like some of these other guys, because they’ve never been given the opportunity. It’s like this cycle that perpetuates the limitation instead of seeking out choreographers and especially of color, that’s a huge realm in the dance world. It’s so whitewashed and the worst thing ever and it’s hard for me to speak on because I’m part of the problem in that way. I want to see more people of color being given these opportunities and in companies. There’s a lot to go when it comes to diversity, but I don’t think it should be that hard, there’s so much talent out there.
A lot of times it just becomes unconscious. People don’t even realize they’re doing it, unless someone shakes them and says, look at this problem. Even then they might, they might claim they tried and it’s not enough. It comes from I’m old ways; that’s the way it’s always been, that’s just how it is. No, we can’t use those as excuses to defend the problems in ballet.
The Ego problem in the dance industry
It’s tough because you have some people, when it gets down to the situation where there are victims of things, I feel like the people who are in charge are responsible to protect the people they are in charge of to make sure that there is not a victim situation. But, there are a lot of issues in dance companies from the top, all the way to the bottom, and the bottom all the way back to the top. I think that we can all take part in writing that. I saw this great Instagram bio, the other day of a photographer, and her little bio line was, “Fewer egos, more amigos”, and I thought, that’s just the way we should probably all live, particularly in the dancer.
It just becomes this thing that you don’t even know what it is anymore. You’re just hyper-focused on how can I be perfect and better and whatever. Dance is definitely something you commit yourself to. It’s definitely strenuous, but we all need to hold it, I think in a different mentality that allows us to be who we really are instead of trying to be people-pleasing. People become very hyper-focused on pleasing everybody and that can also be a personality thing. I just wish for all the times that I wasn’t myself to please others, I could just shake myself to be myself because it’s way more valuable. It is way more interesting. You are an actual individual when you’re yourself. When you’re trying to please everybody else, maybe you’re perfect on the outside, but it’s just a facade. It doesn’t really mean much at the end of the day and it’s not going to make you truly happy at the end of the day because you can’t please everybody else and also please yourself. It just doesn’t work that way, again, it goes back to ego stuff.
What’s next for me?
It is a little rough for all of us, and maybe I sound a little bit ungrateful cause I should be thankful to even have a job to go back to. Our weeks have been reduced a lot. Our production schedules have been reduced a lot because of the financial strain. Then to make matters worse, living in the Dallas Fort Worth area, we had that crazy ice storm in the early spring, and our studios are flooring. There was a pipe that burst and they were damaged beyond repair. So luckily insurance probably stepped in to help with the cost of that, but we lost our studio space on top of everything going on with COVID. So, they are in the works on rebuilding. We haven’t been updated in a while.
I’m lucky that I live around the corner from a small dance school here, and I’m able to rent studio space to take classes, but we don’t go back to classes until September 13th. Then we have three productions this year; Nutcracker- which we’re doing a full run-up, which is like 30 something odd shows. So, I guess, good to go back with something that we know. So, we won’t start performing again until November, unless there might be a small opportunity here or there for like a couple to go do a pas or something like that, but those will be pretty minor. Then we have a spring mixed rep, that’ll be, I think in February. Then we have another whole month of layoff period in February- March time; four weeks of layoff. Then we’re doing Midsummer night’s dream at the end of the season and we’ll do two weekends of that. So, only three productions, including Nutcracker this year. Usually, we have like five-six, sometimes more if there are little things in between. It’s hard for sure.
We were up to 42-week long contracts and I think now we’re down to like 30 or 32. With the reduction in our pay, we didn’t have an actual reduction to our salaries, but because we’re losing weeks it’s crazy. The thousands of dollars that were reduced from our yearly salary because of you know not being paid as many weeks. We can file for unemployment benefits, but that’s not really a lot. It’s about 50% of your pay. Right now, for some reason, we have to do work searches, which usually when you have a return-to-work date, you don’t need to do. I’ve heard that they’re going to not require them once we get past a certain point and we’re closer to our return-to-work date, but we’ve not been laid off for this long of a period of time ever in my history with the company in the last 10 years. It’s a struggle for sure and I wish that we were able to do more, but I guess at the same time, there’s lots of time for me to work on my own projects, which, regardless of how busy we get, I realize are so important to me and something that I will never, stop doing now. Especially getting into my later years of dancing.
What career transitioning looks like for me
It’s the same thing that like a few years ago, I would joke about the word fat and now that’s such an off-limits word to me because it’s so fat phobic. I’ve really gotten to change my mindset around body image, which is great. But the same thing goes with age. Sometimes I’ll say, I’m old for the company because I’m not 18 anymore. But at the same time, it’s kind of ridiculous for a 28-year-old, it’s so silly. I think I just have a really good grip on the fact that entering my thirties, already feels different than when I joined the company on my body and it will continue to change.
Then, I know I want to be a mom one day. But I think I want to be done with dancing first just because I’ve seen people go both ways or at least very close to the end of dancing. I think anyone can dance as long as they want to and they can find a safe avenue to do that. But as a professional dancer, I aim to get to 35, that’s a goal for sure. But I think just about like my life goals in general and what will make me happy, and it’s kind of interesting to think to myself that technically means a majority of my dancing years are now behind me, just thinking about how I want to plan things out. But I think it’s really important for even younger dancers to have a good grip on retirement and that you cannot dance forever.
You have to have an idea of how you want to transition into your next phase because, we’re grateful for our bodies for doing what they can when they can, and hopefully with training and good habits, and good nutrition, you’re able to do it for a long time. But I think there’s a lot of dancers who I see now approaching the end of their career, who haven’t really thought about it or just denied the thought that it will happen, and it’s really sad to see them struggle with it and not really have a plan. It’s going to be hard on anybody, whether you are Julie Kent or just in the quarter ballet and had a great time. It’s part of your life that you’re moving on from. But I think denying that puts you in a weird spot and that accepting it and, and starting to think about it is really important.
I’ve always been such a type-A planner, So I was attending the career transition meetings very young. There’s a great resource. They used to be called Career Transition for Dancers, it’s through the Actor’s Fund. If you Google, Actor’s Fund or Career Transition for Dancers, it should pull up information about them. Most of the time, from my understanding, it’s a free service for professional dancers. They have brands, they have financial assistance, they have really good classes about financial literacy and stuff like that, they’re just a wonderful resource. I really encourage all younger dancers to like reach out to them and see what resources are available, because a lot of times you need resources like that in your dance career. No one’s going to like come and just hand it to you. You just have to find them and they’re there.
Financial literacy for the artist
I saw this statistic, it was talking about the millennials, the generation above us, and the generation above them. I think the boomers are the first one and they had like X percent of the wealth; I think it was something like 20% of the wealth belongs to that population. Then the Gen X-ers who are above millennials have like 15%, they have less than the boomers, but more than the millennials. Then the millennials had 4% of the wealth, 2%- half of that belonged to Mark Zuckerberg as an individual. Numbers might not be totally right, I need to find the graphic that I read this from or the study that I saw.
But we are the most educated generation and the poorest generation, and we’ve been told this idea that if you get an education, that’s your ticket. But then everybody’s in student debt, everybody just keeps getting more and more and more education to be competitive to it. It’s not even in the dance at all. Generationally we’ve really gotten screwed over because we did what everyone said to do, and now we’re really poor. We can’t do what other generations could because the system wasn’t set up like that for us and education is so expensive.
What I would tell my younger self
When I was 16, I would have been a freshman or sophomore in high school probably. I was so in love with ballet, I was in a really good environment for it in general, but definitely had a lot of misconstrued ideas about what it meant to be a good dancer. I would definitely tell her to find authentic relationships. I had a lot of issues when I was younger, I didn’t learn how to build myself up in a lot of ways. Then I would look to relationships to do that. A lot of times they were just not the right person for me or a totally toxic situation at worst. So I would tell myself to learn how to love myself then because it would have been a little easier. I would tell any young dancer now, it might feel confusing. I think it confused me at the time too. What does that mean to love yourself and everything, do things that you genuinely enjoy and release a little bit of control over the things that are difficult for you because they will come with time? You know, much more what you’re doing than you think you do. Don’t put so much stock into what other people have to say, whether it’s good or bad. You need to start listening to yourself. I would definitely tell myself to do that.
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