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Pivot Pointe
November 29, 2023

Career Transition With Patricia Keleher

Project Manager at LAUNCH PHARM

Patricia Keleher is a seasoned professional with over 14 years of experience in the creative arts. Originally from Southern California, she received early dance training at the Southland Ballet Academy, Kirov Academy of Ballet, and in her final school years at the San Francisco Ballet School. In 2009, she was appointed an apprenticeship with the San Francisco Ballet, and then joined the ranks of Corps de ballet in 2010.

Relocating to Lisbon, Portugal in 2013, Patricia joined the Companhia Nacional de Bailado. Throughout her professional dance career, she has been honored to dance on many international stages working with several renowned choreographers both on existing work as well as new creations.

Since 2019, Patricia has excelled as a freelance dancer, artist, and educator, participating in diverse projects across Europe while actively contributing to local artistic endeavors. Venturing into choreography, she has presented four site-specific performances in collaboration with fellow artists, seamlessly incorporating various artistic mediums such as film, sculpture, and electronic music.

Since 2022 Patricia has successfully transitioned into project management. This shift allows her to seamlessly merge her creative insight with organizational expertise. Demonstrating proficiency in leading diverse teams through digital design initiatives and large-scale in-person events, Patricia's ability to synchronize the intricacies of project organization with creative collaboration across multiple disciplines distinguishes her as a dynamic professional in the field.

She continues to consider herself a creative and looks forward to new opportunities in the creative arts.

We asked Patricia to reflect upon her career transition.

Photo by Tiago Costa
I believe that moving to Lisbon brought a better balance to my life. In San Francisco, it sometimes felt like I couldn't fully embrace my adult self because I had entered the company at such a young age. I felt stuck in a student mindset and unable to become the person I was meant to be. The move to Lisbon provided the space and opportunity for growth, allowing me to regroup and discover new aspects of myself.

As a seasoned dancer in the San Francisco Ballet, you made the decision to relocate to Portugal and join the Companhia Nacional de Bailado. Then, in 2019, you embarked on a new path as a freelance dancer/creator. Looking back, was this always the plan you had envisioned for yourself?

Patricia Keleher: Definitely no. It's been around eleven years since I moved to Portugal. I made the move when I was twenty-one, and it wasn't part of my initial plan. When I first joined the San Francisco Ballet, after finishing school, I never imagined myself moving to Europe. Looking back, I can say that it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Moving to Europe opened up my mind and heart to so many new experiences. I decided to move on a whim because I felt overworked in the States. I was young and didn't have much of a social life or time for myself. I don't know why, but I felt a strong desire to go to Europe. I remember sitting in my apartment and thinking, "One day, I will be in Europe." It was like a fantasy that I felt compelled to pursue.

A friend mentioned the Companhia Nacional de Bailado to me. She was a Spanish dancer who spoke highly of the company and its diverse repertoire. When they held auditions in London, I was determined to secure a contract. I had never felt such confidence before. I told myself, "I'm going to get this." I even wrote a letter to myself, expressing my determination. It was a bit crazy, I admit, but I was young and full of passion. And it happened. They emailed me with a contract offer, and I had one month to arrange my visa. The following month, I moved to Lisbon. I had never been to the city before, as I auditioned in London. But Lisbon, at twenty-one, turned out to be a vibrant and exciting place.

Working in Portugal, although not at the same level as the San Francisco Ballet, gave me more time for myself. I regained weekends that I hadn't had before and had a different social life. Maybe it was just the city itself, but my first year in the company was filled with new experiences and opportunities. We performed different repertoire, including the works of Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. I had never done floor work like that before in San Francisco, where we focused more on neoclassical ballet. It was an amazing experience. Over the next eleven years, many things happened, including meeting my husband, who is Italian. He is not a dancer, but he has become a significant part of my story.

I believe that moving to Lisbon brought a better balance to my life. In San Francisco, it sometimes felt like I couldn't fully embrace my adult self because I had entered the company at such a young age. I felt stuck in a student mindset and unable to become the person I was meant to be. The move to Lisbon provided the space and opportunity for growth, allowing me to regroup and discover new aspects of myself.

Was there much institutional support for career transition planning in the ballet companies you were in? How did you go about part 2?

Patricia: In San Francisco, there was the LEAP program, which offered a liberal arts degree. However, it was quite expensive and I never pursued it. I felt that having a degree was important for a career transition, but I didn't act on it at the time. I was solely focused on my dancing career. Later on, I started to wonder if I should have taken some classes on the side, but there wasn't much encouragement or support for pursuing other interests within the ballet companies I worked for.

Managing a dance schedule is challenging, and even finding time for a language class felt impossible. Transitioning out of dance happened quickly, and I still don't have a college degree. However, I've come to realize that experience and skills gained through my journey are valuable too, and a degree isn't always necessary. While the companies I worked for provided support in other ways, they didn't prioritize career transition planning.

Photo by Sebastian Bolenius

How did your career transition unfold after five seasons with Companhia Nacional de Bailado?

Patricia: Around my fifth season, we experienced some directorial shifts and changes in leadership. As a result, my contract was not renewed. It was a challenging and uncertain time for me. This happened in February, and I had to stay until the end of the season, heavily involved in the rest of the season's repertoire, dancing outside my rank and double-cast in roles, despite being let go, which made the company's decision even more confusing.

I had done some auditions, but I was tired and unsure if I wanted to move to another country. Additionally, my relationship with my partner was becoming more serious. So, I decided to take a part-time contract with Tiroler Landestheaters in Austria, allowing me to stay in Lisbon while traveling back and forth.

During this time, I also took the opportunity to do volunteer work, as mentioned later on. It was a difficult situation, but I tried to make the most of it. I shifted to becoming a freelance artist and had the opportunity to obtain a Portuguese passport if I stayed in Portugal for a few years. So, I decided to stay and make it work, searching for opportunities. I also started teaching at a local studio in Lisbon, creating a home base outside of the company. I had a year where I worked in an Austrian theater and also had the chance to produce my first mini-work through a residence program and a small grant. It was an exciting time, although financially insecure. I collaborated with various artists in Lisbon, exploring different interdisciplinary work.

Teaching ended up being a rewarding experience for me. I fell in love with it and discovered the joy that people found in ballet class. It was a different perspective being on the other side of the studio, not as a student or dancer. I also had the opportunity to work on my own artistic projects and produce work in different settings.

This freelancing phase was extended until COVID-19 hit. I went through another transition during this time due to an injury. As a freelancer, there was no company to support me with physiotherapy, and I risked losing projects. However, the pandemic provided an opportunity for me to pause, reflect, and consider my next steps.

I realized that being a freelancer was challenging, with constant running and sometimes being in situations I didn't want to be in or doing work I didn't want to do. It was a moment for me to reassess if this was truly what I wanted. During this time, my husband, who is a developer, needed project management support, and I decided to give it a try.

I began working on the project with my husband, He was very patient and supportive throughout the process. This first step marked the beginning of my journey into project management.

So, how did your introduction to project management unfold from that project with your husband?

Patricia: It was an interesting experience. My husband was very patient with me, and it provided a good opportunity for me to learn, kind of off the record. The project itself wasn't too complicated, but it allowed me to try out project management. At the same time, I was still teaching and taking on some freelance projects, which made for a smoother transition. It gave me some space to think about what I wanted to do if I wasn't dancing or teaching.

We successfully delivered the project, and I gained a lot of experience from it. I added that experience to my toolkit, which later helped me when other opportunities came up. I can confidently say that I have managed projects and even created websites.

COVID-19 was a difficult time for the dance world, but it also gave me a chance to reevaluate my career. I connected with a therapist named Paula Thomson, at the time she was working closely with IADMS they had some great webinars that specialized in mental health for dancers during the pandemic. Working with her has been a gift she has been an amazing mentor helping me navigate through ideas of identity and the emotional aspects of being a professional dancer and working in the world of dance. I've been working with her since the start of COVID-19, and we still meet regularly.

Then, I came across a job posting for a position that I wasn't initially qualified for, but I decided to apply anyway. It was connected to a conference in Lisbon that I had previously been involved with as a dancer. I reached out to them, expressing my interest in expanding my portfolio and discussing any opportunities. They ended up offering me a stage manager role, which I gladly accepted.

I enjoyed stage management and found it to be a good fit for me. After the successful production, they offered me a full-time position as a creative producer. Around the same time, a friend in my network approached me with a project management opportunity. I started working with them on a smaller scale, and after three months, I decided to join their company full-time.

The company I currently work for is called LAUNCH PHARM, and my boss recognized my determination and willingness to learn. It's a small team, which has its advantages, and we work remotely, providing flexibility. I've been with them since the beginning of 2022, and it has been a great learning experience. Through this transition, I realized that many skills from my dance career are transferable to project management. I wish I could have told my younger self about the hidden potential in my toolkit. It's truly remarkable.

Do you feel like you wish you had received support or guidance from the company to figure things out, or do you think that taking this path independently was what you needed?

Patricia: It's difficult to say. I'm currently working with my therapist and we have a lot of discussions. I believe this transition could have happened earlier, but I distinctly remember expressing my uncertainty about continuing to dance. Whenever I mentioned my doubts, people would respond by saying things like, "No, you can't stop. You're such a talented dancer." Their lack of support made it difficult for me to make my own decisions. I didn't have anyone telling me, "If you want to pursue something else, that's great. I fully support you."

It's not encouraged in the dance community to explore other options. It's still challenging for me to talk to my dance friends and tell them that I've stopped dancing. There's this sense of shame attached to it, and I'm not sure why. I hope that feeling will fade away, and I also hope to continue engaging in creative work, perhaps in a different capacity. It often feels like an all-or-nothing situation, and I don't understand why that has to be the case. 

During my last year of freelancing, I was also dealing with some injuries. I realized that I was spending more money on physiotherapy than I was earning. I came to the realization that it didn't make sense. As I was mapping out my expenses, a part of me also missed the higher level of performance. While it's great to do underground and experimental work, I missed having structure in my work. It felt chaotic and disorganized. Perhaps I am better suited to a structured environment, as I have been accustomed to it for many years.

Photo by Sebastian Bolenius

Why did it take you some time to reveal your transition into project management and announce your career change to your former dance community?

Patricia: I felt a sense of failure that I couldn't continue my career in dance for a longer period. It's heartbreaking for me that I couldn't sustain it. I haven't been active on social media for years because my identity was tied to being an artist, a dancer, a creative. Now that I'm no longer pursuing that path, I've been coming to terms with it. 

On the other hand, as a project manager and producer, I often engage in client management. When my clients find out I am a former professional dancer they are impressed and compliment me on this achievement. it feels good to know that my work is appreciated and respected.

To answer your question, there was a period of time when I had to set aside my ballet dancer identity to embrace this new version of myself. I hope that eventually, the two will merge. I'm starting to acknowledge my past as a dancer and say, "Yes, I was a dancer for many years." There was a feeling after I stopped dancing that it never happened, and I'm not sure why.

It's important to have agency in making choices and to prioritize financial security. Increasing my income has been a gift, especially after being a freelance dancer for five years. It's something I didn't think about when I first started dancing, but now I can support my family and my partner without financial stress.

In the dance world, I often felt undervalued as an adult, even when I was one. Despite being in my early thirties, I still felt like I was treated as if I were much younger. There's a lot to unpack in this regard, and I could talk about it for hours. I'm grateful to my supportive husband, especially during COVID when all my jobs came to a halt. I owe him a lot. I understand that not everyone has that kind of support, so navigating this journey independently can be quite daunting.

You have shown a passion for giving back to the community through your work with the non-profit organization, Milk Carton On A String. Could you provide more information about your project in Haiti?

So, this project is actually led by Caroline Poppell, a former classmate of mine from the Kirov Academy, a school I attended during my studies. It is her non-profit organization called Milk Carton On A String. When I was leaving the company in Portugal, I felt that it was the perfect opportunity to pursue something I had always wanted to do. I reached out to her, and we arranged for me to go to Haiti for two weeks during the summer.

During my time there, I had the opportunity to teach at a creative school she had established in Leogane, Haiti. The school uses dance as a means to inspire creativity, and imagination, and other activities such as swimming and reading. The school has evolved over the years, so I'm not entirely sure of all the current offerings as it has been quite some time since I was there.

The experience was truly eye-opening. The children taught me so much more than I could ever teach them. We danced together, and their joy and enthusiasm were infectious. I have great admiration for Caroline and the safe space she has created for the children. I am grateful that I had the time to be a part of that experience, as it may not have been possible if I were still with the company and had limited time off.

It feels like a long time ago, and I often wish I could go back. The experience was simply amazing. The children were incredible dancers as if dance was ingrained in their DNA. It was a joy to witness their connection to rhythm and music. While I wasn't specifically teaching dance, it was my first introduction to teaching in a broader sense, focusing on creative arts and movement.

Consider seeking guidance from therapists, mentors, or anyone who can provide support. Build a team of individuals who will cheer you on and help you navigate your career transition. Remember that as a dancer, you have acquired numerous skills over the years. You have been your own hairdresser, makeup artist, and manager, among other roles. Although the format may be different, these skills are transferable to other fields.

I noticed that you are the co-creator of Pack Deco, a platform that promotes traditional design packaging. Is this another creative avenue of interest for you? Why was it important to create this platform/outlet?

Patricia: Yes, it is. I co-created Pack Deco with my husband Christian. We have been together for many years and got married last year. Christian is a DJ and a software engineer, so he is a multitasker. We collaborated on various projects, and Pack Deco was our first collaboration. It was his idea to start this project when we were going to be in a long-distance relationship.

We used to do something called "package hunting" when we traveled. We were fascinated by designs that had retained their original state over the years, which we often found in places like Portugal and Italy. We started taking photos of these designs and Pack Deco became a passion project for us. We even exhibited some of the photos and were featured in a Spanish design food magazine, Tapas. Initially, we didn't think about monetizing it, but it became popular and people loved the aesthetic.

Some people, including dancers, found it weird and questioned why we would spend time on it. But for us, it was a fun and creative outlet. We thought about creating a book but decided to take things as they come. Christian has been a big influence on me during this transition process. He taught me that you don't have to be perfect in something to try it out and encouraged me to explore different things. Now we are planning to travel for the next six months and work remotely.

I want dancers to know that they have options and there are many skills they possess that they may not even be aware of. I am still recovering and exploring new possibilities. Sharing my story is a step towards that, and I hope to gather the courage to do so.

Photo by Tiago Costa

Do you have any advice for dancers who are considering a career transition or are about to embark on this journey?

Patricia: I believe that building a strong network is crucial. Surround yourself with supportive people who are on your side, and don't cut off those who aren't, but rather prioritize those who bring value to your life. This can be challenging, but it is important to find the right people who will support you.

Additionally, take the time to have regular check-ins with yourself to truly understand what you want. It is common to act based on others' expectations or desires, especially in the dance world where people-pleasing is prevalent. Finding moments of quiet reflection can help you determine your true desires.

Consider seeking guidance from therapists, mentors, or anyone who can provide support. Build a team of individuals who will cheer you on and help you navigate your career transition. Remember that as a dancer, you have acquired numerous skills over the years. You have been your own hairdresser, makeup artist, and manager, among other roles. Although the format may be different, these skills are transferable to other fields.

You possess stage presence and understand the art of performing. While working in a corporate or professional environment may not involve literal stage performances, the ability to be present and engage with others is still valuable. Use this to your advantage and be authentic and honest. Don't underestimate your worth.

Top Image: Photo by Davide Ventrella

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