The Second Act
Beau Pearson was already retired by the time he was my age. From the time he was 24 years old, he worked as a professional ballet dancer for Ballet West, the classical dance company based in Salt Lake City, UT. Over the course of his 11-year career, he danced many principal roles. Some of his favorites included Nicolo Fonte’s “The Rite of Spring,” Ben Stevenson’s “Three Preludes,” and George Balanchine’s “Diamonds.”
He also had five surgeries. Two to repair a torn labrum, biceps tendon, and rotator cuff on his right shoulder; one to repair bone spurring on his ankle, and another to correct a hernia. Finally, after so many years on his toes, there was no cartilage left in the big toe of his primary turning foot―while dancing he was putting all his weight on a joint that was essentially bone-on-bone. A gruesome stem-cell surgery involved shoving a rod down his back to collect fat for his toe―and he had to endure it without anesthesia, as his medical insurance didn’t cover the procedure.
Like many dancers of a certain age, his body could no longer take the beating he was subjecting it to, nor did he want to. “There was a point where I was in so much pain that I couldn’t push myself to keep getting better at my craft,” he says. “I was just doing the minimum to maintain and keep up. And that’s when I mentally started to resent ballet class. Because it hurt like hell.”
And so, at 35 years old, he found himself starting a completely new career from scratch. Fortunately, he had a way to tide himself over during the transition, picking up amateur photography as a personal hobby. When he became unable to meet the physical demands of ballet, Ballet West was generous enough to offer him a job as the photographer and videographer, thus continuing his tenure with the company.
That isn’t to say his soul searching is complete. In fact, it’s only just beginning. “It’s interesting how much of your life you have ahead of you when you’re done,” Mr. Pearson says of his ballet career. “Even though at the time, it seemed like that career was all that life was.”
As a dancer, everything comes much sooner. The physical beating, the emotional exhaustion, the energy burnout. It’s a sport that requires practice six to seven days a week, seven to ten hours a day, with little to no rest or recovery. In fact, if too much time is spent away from the barre, the mastery of it is quick to go.
As a teenager, he had thought to become an actor, but a run-in with a choreographer took him a different direction. After training with the American Conservatory Theater during high school, this choreographer convinced him to take adult ballet classes as a way of improving his triple-threat status for Broadway Theater. Fate had other plans.
“The studio was in this old, classical building and one evening I was standing at the barre by the window, and it was raining,” he recounts. “In my life, the big decisions have always come to me clearly, and this was that kind of moment. It was beautiful. After that class, the teacher pulled me into his office and said, ‘we can make you a professional.’ I was 18.”
Two weeks before he was supposed to attend UC Santa Cruz on the theater track, he was swept into a rigorous training regimen, taking four classes every day, seven days a week plus rehearsals for whatever shows were up and coming. The training paid off, and eventually, he caught the eye of Adam Sklute, the associate director at the Joffrey Ballet.
There wasn’t space for Mr. Pearson at Joffrey, but when Mr. Skulte eventually became the artistic director at Ballet West, he brought Mr. Pearson with him, signing him on as a member of the corps de ballet. After that, Mr. Pearson ascended the ranks quickly becoming demi-soloist, soloist, and first soloist during the first six years of his career.
But as much as he loved to dance, he struggled with the bureaucracy of it. In the ballet world, the art director makes all the decisions relevant to the company. He dictates the roles you play and the money you make. There are no auditions or interviews. An art director simply decides whether or not a dancer has reached a designated milestone, and assigns roles to them. “Art is subjective, so you’re dealing with somebody’s opinion dictating your livelihood.”
Though Mr. Pearson danced principal roles, he wasn’t technically a principal, and perhaps, that is his biggest regret. “I didn’t get to where I wanted to get to,” he says. “I wanted to be a principal, and I performed principal roles my entire career, but I was never recognized as a principal dancer. There was this level of validation I fell short of, and I struggle with that a bit.”
“I always wanted to be able to say when I retired, that I was a principal dancer. But then that’s also messed up to say because that’s somebody’s opinion, and I had a better career than probably most dancers will have.”
I can hear the sadness in his voice as he speaks. But I also can’t relate to it. As a writer, I can keep practicing my craft into perpetuity. I have the hope of creating my best work when I’m well into my seventies or eighties. But for athletes, that timeline is cut short by physical limitations, and they are forced to take on another craft entirely.
Mr. Pearson admits that he would have continued dancing had his body allowed him to. But he also says that he’s grateful not to be doing it anymore. “I struggled with crazy amounts of anxiety,” he admits. “I don’t know a single dancer who doesn’t have anxiety problems. I think it’s a combination of having the brain type required to do ballet and the environment―the mirrors in front of you every day, a reminder that you have to be better constantly.
“And it’s not the kind of career where you can go home and forget about it. Because then there’s the self-care. You have to get enough sleep, and eat a certain way, and get the right amount of cross training. It’s always in the back of your mind, even when you’re not at the studio. Now I’m off medication and I feel more alive as a person. So when people ask me if I miss it, I usually say ‘not really.’ And that’s mostly true.”
Now that he has removed himself from the high-stress atmosphere of professional ballet, he says his life has been more full. ”I didn’t realize how stifled my emotions have been. Once I got off my medications I started being able to cry. And it’s been fantastic. I watched the climbing documentary ‘Free Solo’ shortly after I got off and it made me so uncomfortable. I was really squeamish. I realized then that I hadn’t felt that way in a long time.”
Looking back at his dance career, he can see now that the emotional expression was his favorite part. Playing the pas de duex role in “The Rite of Spring” was one of his favorites. “We were actually in the opera studios when it was made because our building was being renovated. Most of the process we didn’t have mirrors which I loved because all we could rely on was feeling our bodies which is what I think dance should be all about.”
It was such a realization that led him to a second moment of clarity. At an informational luncheon at the University of Utah, he learned about the school’s year-long professional coaching program. “It was the first time I realized that I could work with other people, and help them,” he says. “I got in my car to drive back to work and started crying. It was so amazing.”
Mr. Pearson’s program begins this fall, but he doesn’t know what he’ll do with it just yet. All he knows is that refining his leadership and coaching skills will be vital to his second act. When I press him for hints as to what his second act might be, he says he doesn’t know. But then he adds, “I have absolutely thought, many times, that I’d want to be an artistic director just so I could make it different. I mean, I’ve got a whole structure worked out of how I would run a company.”
I couldn’t help but ask, how so?
“I wouldn’t have ranks,” he says. “Everyone would just be in the company. Pay would be strictly based on loyalty to the company―so how long you’ve been there, that’s it. Then the roles you dance would still be subjective, but I would alleviate the ‘one person making the decision’ thing by cultivating a team of ballet masters that collectively have that power.
“Because the truth is, an artistic director isn’t in the studio as much as the ballet masters. They see more of the dancers. Some dancers might have leading roles more than others just because, yes, some people are technically better at certain things, but casting would be collaborative, and hiring would be based on how dancers fit with everybody.”
Mr. Pearson imagines a world where ballet could be more about the creativity and the emotion―the parts of dance he loved―and less about the hierarchy and the titles. But he admits that would have to start with changes made all the way down to the schools. “It would take a lot of energy,” he says. But then, he’s got plenty of it.
“The scariest part, for dancers, is not knowing. It’s like ‘I don’t know what it’s like to not dance so that must mean I’m going to die.’ But they don’t realize that they are unique and interesting. They’ve been through so much with people. They have a deep bond with one another. And they have a lot to offer.”
Plus dancers, he says, have a killer work ethic.
Mr. Pearson is still in the intermission of his career, but he’s lining things up in the wings.
“My current goal is figuring out what really fulfills me, and makes me feel like I’m giving back to the world and my community and getting to a place where I feel financially happy,” he says.
Sounds like a beautiful second act to me.