Rachel Moore’s Advice for Succeeding in the Performance Arts

Rachel Moore, President and CEO of The Music Center in Los Angeles and former CEO of and dancer with American Ballet Theatre, understands success in the performing arts with more savvy and perspective than most. Fortunately for would-be and current professionals, she has written The Artist's Compass: The Complete Guide to Building a Life and a Living in the Performing Arts. The book is a practical, wise, and compassionate suite of advice, with tips on everything from choosing your home and company to doing your taxes. The World Dances spoke with Moore about her inspiration for writing The Artist’s Compass, suggestions, and more.

What inspired you to write this book?

I had been thinking about this book for at least ten years. Over the years I have spoken with a lot of young artists. There was this common theme of these incredibly talented young performers who had no understanding of what the current professional world is like or how to manage it. That was true when I moved from California to New York to join ABT as well. I didn’t know what a union was, what taxes were, any of that stuff. And it’s really scary. My belief is that an artist should fail because their art doesn’t work, not because they don’t know about a W2. The book is meant to help young performers navigate the business side of show business, which is complicated. 

What are some of changes in the performance arts with which professionals need to contend?

One of the biggest changes is that in the last 25 years a lot of the biggest institutions have gone away. We no longer have City Opera. Dance companies and orchestras are struggling financially and reducing their numbers. Today, just going to Juilliard and getting a degree won’t get you a job the way it would 20 or 30 years ago. Because of that, artists have to be more entrepreneurial. Many artists now do multiple gigs to make it through. You also really have to market yourself. Some artistic director isn’t necessarily going to wander by and notice that you’re super talented. You need to be able to present yourself. For some that means developing an online presence. But at root, as an artist, you need to know what is special about your voice and what you bring to the table and you need to be able to articulate that.

How can artists best articulate what makes them special to promote themselves? 

Artists need to think about their own mission statements. Why are you doing this? Why are you special? What are your attributes? Are you a great storyteller? Can you evoke others’ emotions? Write it down, even if it’s still a draft.  Just start thinking about it. Write it down and build it into your personal brand of who you are and how you promote yourself. You promote yourself through social media, when you’re applying for jobs, through pitches, through meeting people at events. You can’t assume people will see your talent and want to hire you. You need to be able to talk about it and make people see what you’re about.

In your book you discuss the value of academic education. Why is this important?

When I was dancing a lot of people didn’t even finish high school, which is not great. It closes so many doors if you don’t have at least a high school education. Especially with dancers, your career might be short. It can be terminated so quickly by a severe injury. You want to keep your options open, and taking education seriously is an important way to do that. You can keep the option open of going to college later, or take part time classes. When I was at ABT, professors from a local college would come to the studios to teach core curriculum courses on our days off. The dancers would get a few credits under their belts, but also see that academia isn’t foreign or daunting. Dancers are really smart and of course they can do this. Just because you’re a dancer doesn’t mean college isn’t for you. Increasingly, there are also high quality dance programs that are tied more into the professional dance world. For example, the USC Gloria Kaufman School of Dance brings in working professionals.  When the dancers leave they can fit into the working world with more connections, certainly with more preparation than I had when I left my conservatory.

I would also say that going to a big, expensive university isn’t always the answer either. Look at who the teachers are and go where the teacher you want to work with is.  $70,000 a year adds up a lot. There are places you might be able to get the right training for your goals that won’t burden you with student loans for the rest of your life.

You also recommend considering communities outside of the main metropolitan arts destinations. Why is this?

It goes back to how you define success and what you want out of your career. There are ways of going to smaller cities and doing incredible work. There are thriving dance scenes in Indianapolis, Chicago, a lot of places that aren’t New York or Los Angeles where you can create great work. You need to think about your goals. If your goal is to be in a specific company, that’s one thing. If your goal is to be an artist and really move people in new and different ways, you may want to look around the country for communities you think are also doing interesting work and explore them. I’ve had conversations with opera singers living in smaller communities who knew they would tour a lot. They lowered their monthly expenses by not living in NYC or LA and were free to tour and still do the work that they loved. They were also able to have a more stable financial life without the stress of high rents. It’s an individual choice to explore.