When I met Xena Gusthart in her members club in Soho, The Groucho, it was clear she had made friends with many of the members and staff there. Her effortless camaraderie secured us a spot on a comfy sofa, and she insisted I put my green tea on her tab, as well as ordering Twiglets. Based on her choice of snacks alone, I was already enjoying Xena’s company.
Maybe it’s the Scottish accent, but I felt like I’d known her a long time. We talked about our hometowns and what it’s like to be northern lasses in London, and I almost forgot to start recording the interview as we chatted away. As she told me her story, I was struck by how similar it was to mine. Not the professional dancer part, of course, but the burning desire to leave a small town, go somewhere far away, and work towards a goal that, to many people, would seem next to impossible.
Xena is clearly focused and goal-driven, and personal development is key in her daily life. She’s the perfect example of out-of-the-box thinking; someone who sees a problem as an opportunity to try harder, who doesn’t have time for limiting beliefs, and who is exactly the kind of person whose story I love to share on Desk Life Project. OK, so she doesn’t spend long hours at her desk, but she is an incredibly successful self-employed woman, and that’s the reason I was keen to dig deeper, capture some of that enthusiasm that emanates from her, and bottle it for you in this blog post.
Hey Xena! Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into dancing?
I started dancing quite late as a girl. Most girls start when they’re about 3 or 4, but I didn’t start until I was 16, and I had to find the school myself. I remember looking through the yellow pages back in the day, and found a dance school that I paid for with my own pocket money. I did modern, tap and ballet, and took to it really quickly.
I enjoyed being praised for moving and being physical, that was a really big thing for me. I was quite active, but because of my brother’s disability – he’s in a wheelchair – it was never really encouraged to be active. To go to the dance classes and have the teacher tell me to do more and be physical, that was a huge confidence boost for me. That was kind of where it started, and then I went to Dance For All in Edinburgh and did two years training there.
Did you know you wanted to pursue it as a career at that point?
I think at that point, yes, because I’d just finished school and I told my careers advisor that I wanted to be a dancer. She kind of said “OK… anything else you want to do?”, but I was sure. Whilst I was there I started auditioning for all the schools in England, including LIPA, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (Paul McCartney’s school), and I really enjoyed that audition the most. It was quite creative, and in the audition they ask you to create material and choreography as well as showing them your technique. I ended up going to LIPA and did my 3 years there, and that was everything from choreography to artist management to ballet to modern, jazz, classical, contemporary, and more. While I was there I discovered breakdancing. I was totally mad! I would get up at 7am, go for a run, go to ballet at half past 8, train until like 5 or 6 and then I would go and bash myself off a concrete floor for a couple of hours with these sweaty boys, and I did that almost every day for about 3 years!
They were quite encouraging of people doing choreography at LIPA, so I made this event in my 3rd year called Dance Out Loud. There wasn’t much hip hop dancing in Liverpool, which was what I was really passionate about, so I got proactive and went to London on the weekends to make contacts by doing work placements.
I invited all these major hip hop theatre people to Liverpool for my event, and it was a huge success, which was unexpected. The piece that I choreographed was a 15 minute long dance called “9-5”. I invited a guy called Jonzi D to come teach a hip hop theatre workshop because he runs a huge international event called Breakin’ Convention, and he saw my piece and invited me to perform it at his event.
From there I went on this journey of creating my own stuff, because not many people were doing hip hop theatre at the time and blending breakdancing with other styles. I really liked creating things, so I went on to do Breakin’ Convention for several years, and then moved to London to work as a dancer and choreographer. I began doing television adverts, I worked for Adidas for a time doing their fashion shows throughout Europe, and I was doing the more corporate, commercial stuff as well as creating my own theatre show, because I was still developing 9-5 and doing a national tour. I ended up being offered funding from Arts Council Scotland, worked with a production company and made another show called Heartbeats, which was a duo; myself and a beatboxer. We went on a tour around Scotland, and at one point I was doing everything myself; I was the producer, organised the costumes, designed and worked with a carpenter to make the set, choreographed the show, directed the show, organised the tour schedule and accommodation, drove the van, paid everyone… I did absolutely everything!
Sounds intense! Was that by choice?
It was kind of by choice because I didn’t know enough to hire help, I didn’t think big enough at the time. I thought that to get things done I had to do it, whereas nowadays I would hire someone else. I was 26 years old and it was the first time I’d done anything like that.
It was really successful and a great experience, fun, and hard graft. I was in charge and the cast at the time consisted of two boys and me, so we did all the lifting, all the packing up, putting the set together, all the lighting, it was just endless!
I didn’t think big enough at the time. I thought that to get things done I had to do it, whereas nowadays I would hire someone else.”
Did you already know how to do all that, or did you learn on the job?
No, I was just learning on the job. I was trying to be intuitive. I remember once, when there was a visual cue for the sound to start, the tech team would only have seen the show for the first time that afternoon and then we were to do the performance that night. They didn’t see the visual cue, so I ran off stage, ran outside, found the lighting box, and was like “this is the cue!”, then ran back and picked up the dance again. It was ridiculous!
What happened when you finished the tour?
I went back to performing a bit more, for a wide range of productions. I danced for Rita Ora at Wembley, then I did a show with a company called Boy Blue Entertainment about manga culture; it was the illustrations of manga, mixed with martial arts and hip hop, and I was one of the main 5 performers. We did it at the Barbican and then a UK and European tour.
The whole time I was still building up Xena Productions, which is what I called it at the time. Then I went into musicals; I got Bodyguard the Musical, and I was a performer in that. I’d never done a musical before so it was the first time I’d moved into that world. Then I got asked to be the resident choreographer at Bat Out Of Hell at the Dominion Theatre, which started in February 2018.
That must have been an amazing opportunity! How did that come about?
The Associate Choreographer had danced for me a couple of years before in the Adidas show, and he had very quickly worked his way up to be Associate Choreographer. He needed a resident for the West End show and thought of me. While I was there they said they were going to do the USA production and needed an associate to go out there, so they chose me to go do that. It was great because I got to re-choreograph and re-stage the whole show, it really became like my baby actually! I had an amazing experience out there, got signed with my agent in the US as a choreographer, and then came back to be resident here in the West End until the show finished. I think that’s 12 years put into a very short space of time!
Great summary! This kind of career can be tough when you’re always fighting for your next job. How do you handle the rejection element, and not knowing where your next job is coming from?
I just try and reflect on what I’ve done and how far I’ve come, and remember how happy it makes me. Everything has ups and downs but at the end of the day I know that I’m doing something that I’m good at and that I’ve always wanted to do. It comes naturally to me so why would I deny it and go sit at a desk when that’s not for me? I have to remind myself to look at how far I’ve come, and that I have so much potential to do more. I’m quite a goal driven person with big ambitions, so I try to focus on that rather than the in-between times. It takes time to learn, it takes time to be OK with the in-between times!
Everything has ups and downs but at the end of the day I know that I’m doing something that I’m good at and that I’ve always wanted to do. It comes naturally to me so why would I deny it and go sit at a desk when that’s not for me?”
So was creating Xena Productions a way of creating more of a company rather than feeling like a freelancer?
Before it was called Xena Productions it was just me, that was just a name I would use to run anything I was doing as a choreographer, but now I’ve made a limited company called Xena Creatives Ltd. that covers anything creative that I do.
Would you be looking to take on staff, or stay solo?
Possibly! This year I was thinking of getting a PA, and I have an agent that deals with my company. The agent is part of my “management”, if you want to call it that.
Do you have a mentor to help you navigate the industry?
I have a few mentors. I think my agent is a bit like a mentor. They guide me, their job is to mentor me and tell me where to go, who to speak to, they’ll make a lot of those connections.
I also work with a life coach and business coach, who’s there to support me on how to keep improving. I always think that if you have a car and the car isn’t quite going as fast as it could be, or running as well as it could be, you go to a mechanic and they fix it. I look at my career like that. In the beginning you’re like a Ferrari, and if it’s not maintained over the years, it will begin to slow down and won’t function as well. I think good management and a good business coach are essential to continue running as well as a brand new Ferrari can. Everything breaks down eventually, or deteriorates, but you have to maintain it, push it, enhance it, modify it, and that’s kind of what my management and business coach do for me.
Is he/she a business coach and a life coach?
She’s a bit of both, yes. It’s very integrated.
Also when I was performing I had quite a few mentors. Specifically in the style of locking, that was kind of my forte for a while. It’s a hip hop style, and I had two different mentors, one was in LA and one was in France. I would visit them for a couple of weeks at a time and they would intensely mentor me and be in touch with me during any work that I was doing. Over the years they’ve changed, but I think you have to have a mentor in any capacity because they’re really useful.
What about when you travel a lot for work? How do you find being on the road and having to focus and organise things while travelling?
I’ve had to work at it very hard over the years. I’ve learned, from many mistakes, the reason why I have to be on top of it. Part of me accepts the fact that I’m just a bit more like that as a person, and part of me has to fight it when it comes to knowing dates and times and fees and being in the right place at the right time with the right person. Lots of it is just managing yourself.
It can be stressful, for sure! Is that why you wanted to get a PA?
Yes! This year that’s what I’m aiming for, because I can do it and I do do it, but my brain wants to be more creative and fluid, and doesn’t want to think about getting bogged down in those parts of the business.
Like when you said you were driving the van before. Your energy can go somewhere more meaningful.
Exactly. Especially when you’re on a big project and you’re always looking for the next thing; it takes a lot of emails, a lot of admin, connecting dots, rearranging meetings, and that’s when I’ll look at getting a PA to help me organise things. They would work with my agent or management to secure the next project, that’s how the work will flow.
When you’re searching for your next project, do you tend to get recommended by word of mouth? Or do you reach out to people?
A bit of both. It’s always about who you know, which I think is the same for any job. If you know the right person, no matter what the job is, that can help you. You’ve obviously still got to deliver the goods, but it’s about who you know. So yes, a bit of both. They’ll know you from previous work, or a lot of times creatives work with the same creatives over and over again. A lot of the time the director will choose the same choreographer, so it’s all about building relationships. I’m always better face to face, and in this business it’s hard, trying to set up a relationship for the first time can be tough, but it’s worth making that effort and meeting people face to face because that’s when things start to click. If you have a solid relationship with someone then you could find yourself on their mind for their next project.
I either seek it out and say “OK, I want to work with that person, how can I get connected with them?” and then I’ll reach out. Or someone has heard about the work I’ve done, on Bat Out Of Hell for example, and will come to me.
If you know the right person, no matter what the job is, that can help you. You’ve obviously still got to deliver the goods, but it’s about who you know.”
So networking is one of the most important elements of your job then?
It’s a HUGE part of it, and that’s only something I learned recently; how to network effectively, and why I’m networking. As a dancer you don’t really need to do it because you go to auditions or you’ll send your CV to someone. As a creative it’s very different. It’s about your relationships with people, so networking is a huge part of it and I see it as work.
For example I might stay here [in the Groucho Club] and have a drink, just to work the room a bit! That’s an hour I’m spending working because you just never know who you’re going to meet. You’ve got to stay really open.
Do you find it easy to approach people?
I do now. I am much better at it now but it’s taken me a while. It’s making the shift from a performer to a creative. Building relationships is almost harder in a way because as a performer they simply want a 5 ft 8 blonde who can do locking style, but as a creative it’s more about figuring out if what I can do fits with this project. Or how we connect as humans. That’s the questions that are being asked, rather than how tall you are and how do you look and can you do the job. It’s a much more in-depth relationship you’ve got to have, so it’s hugely important to network. It’s something I’ve only learned how to do and why I’m doing it in the last couple of years.
How do you manage your work life balance? Do you go into new projects with this in mind?
When I was 23 I was saying I could do everything. Nowadays I think, nah! I want to watch Netflix, or I want to go to the gym, or I want to go see a show. For example in New York when we were doing rehearsals, I worked really hard, but I also wanted to go see a show! I didn’t go home and fret about work like I used to, or analyse the day and think about what I did wrong. Now when my work is finished, I’m gone. Of course it’s still in my mind because it’s a part of me, and part of being in the theatre, but I’m going to go see a show tonight or go for a drink with a friend, or for a meal. I’m learning to switch off and really enjoy my work instead of worrying about it, and whether I’m doing it right or wrong. I have a bit more confidence, and that just comes with experience.
Nowadays I’m a bit more conscious of my own wellbeing. I feel good when I work out, so I’m going to work out. I have to somehow factor that into my day; whether I get up early, or I pay for a PT, or I get an accountability partner and we go to the gym together, or go for a run in a park or I just make myself go for a walk.
I don’t take on as many random jobs now because I know what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at. That’s been a great thing to learn because now I only do the things that I do really well. It’s a mixture of trial and error, age, and having the confidence to say no, but also to be able to say “this is what I want and need to do for myself in order to do a good job”. If you don’t look after yourself then you’re not going to do a good job.
Nowadays I’m a bit more conscious of my own wellbeing. I feel good when I work out, so I’m going to work out. I have to somehow factor that into my day.”
Do you have a mantra that you tell yourself every day?
Not every day, but I do have to keep reminding myself…firm, fair and fun. With the people I work with, and even with myself, I have to be disciplined, but am I being firm, fair and fun? I like to try and keep those three things in mind. If I’m in the gym with my PT, for example, I’ve got to be real with myself – am I pushing myself hard enough? Is this fun? Can I push myself and have fun? Do I need to rest? Am I being fair on myself? That’s something I’m trying to live by, and for me it works. Firm, fair and fun.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you’re doing right now?
Just do it, just get up and go. Just get up and go to that meeting, get up and go to The Groucho and sit and have a coffee or whatever, get up and go make that phone call, get up and go for that run. You’ve got to be in it to win it. Go to that casting, answer that call, call that person back, just do it, take action. Nobody will give you a job, you have to go and get the work, you have to put yourself out there in whatever capacity. Take action, always be doing something in line with what it is you want to do in life.
It’s about energy; when I’m in between projects, I could just sit on my laptop all day, but if I want to be doing my next creative job then the thing that would be a more positive use of my time would be to make something. Choreograph something, get into a studio, video something, put it on YouTube… just do, just get up and go and do it. It sounds a bit simple, but I think it really is that simple.
If nobody else is doing what you want to do, then you do it. And also find a mentor, find somebody that you trust, that supports you and that believes in you. Don’t be scared to ask someone to be your mentor, because a lot of the time people are quite honoured. I was so scared for so long to put myself out there and ask people for advice, and really believe what they said to me. People are human beings, they want to connect with people, so don’t be scared to ask someone to be your mentor. Even if it’s just one coffee, you never know! It might spark something else, another bit of inspiration that takes you on to the next part of your journey.
If nobody else is doing what you want to do, then you do it.”
What’s next for you then? What are your plans?
I have my O1 visa now for working in New York as an artist, and I’ve been chatting with Randy Weiner about doing a project for an immersive circus show in New York. I’m also working with KT Tunstall on her movement coaching and a possible musical.
And presenting, that’s something that I’ve got bubbling away in the background at the moment. There’s a new children’s CBBC program that’s starting and they want dance experts, so that’s something that’s in the pipeline too. There’s lots going on!
Where can everyone follow what you’re up to?
I’m on Instagram at @xena_gusthart, you’ll find all my updates on there.