After a shakeup at Atlanta Ballet this past April, several leading dancers chose not to renew their contracts. Led by John McFall for more than 20 years, the company's direction and repertoire had favored contemporary ballet. When McFall retired in 2016, former San Francisco Ballet principal Gennadi Nedvigin took over as artistic director with a more traditional approach.
While it is not unusual for dancers to be let go or move on after a change at the top, many were surprised when Tara Lee, Christian Clark, Rachel Van Buskirk and Heath Gill revealed where they were going. Along with veteran AB dancer John Welker, a runner-up in the company's search for a new artistic director, these tenured dancers had planned quietly to form their own company: Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. "We were all at a point in our careers where we were asking 'What do we want?' " says Welker, who had directed AB's summer company Wabi Sabi. "And we were aware that time in this career is short. This city has an energy here. I think Atlanta is ready for another dance company to thrive."
A debilitating illness forced Katelyn Prominski to retire early from Pennsylvania Ballet. However, once she recovered, she felt ready to tackle a new stage: Broadway. But before she began booking musicals like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, she had to reckon with a new and humbling audition process. “When you go into a Broadway audition, you learn a dance combo first and then by the time they ask you to sing, your heart rate is going," says Prominski. “I remember one audition where I forgot the words and la-di-da'd my way through instead of singing the lyrics."
More and more ballet dancers are taking a chance on Broadway musicals. New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild recently starred in On the Town, while ballet-centric shows such as Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris have provided starring and ensemble opportunities for dancers from NYCB, The Royal Ballet Miami City Ballet and more. Many cite the artistic benefits of exploring an entirely new side of performance and the challenge of dancing, acting and singing. With eight shows a week, you get to practically live onstage and dive deep into a role. The pay is usually better, too. But in order to make this new world your own, you must be ready to rethink your audition approach and be open to a different set of professional expectations.
While New York City Ballet was off last August, corps member Sasonah Huttenbach was hard at work at the Danish Ballet Masters program, a two-week Bournonville workshop in New York City led by former Royal Danish Ballet dancers Mogens Boesen and Linda Hindberg. While they have always offered a student intensive, last summer Boesen and Hindberg added a program for working dancers. “A lot of professionals just lean toward open classes or giving themselves class during layoffs, but sometimes you need the basics because you're rehearsing and performing so much," says Huttenbach, who attended the student intensive twice before joining NYCB. “It was great to spend time off perfecting my alignment and technique."
Wondering about how to spend your summer layoff weeks this year? While teaching or performance gigs are good ways to stay busy, off-time can also be perfect for brushing up your technique, exploring another style and networking with a broader range of dance professionals. From big cities to the beach, programs geared towards professionals can help reinvigorate your career and remind you that you can always go back to summer camp.
Upon high school graduation, dancers are often forced to choose between going to college or pursuing a career right away. Since a dancer's professional life is short, many who put school on hold plan to eventually go back. But with more options than ever before—from online degree programs to night classes to college programs developed solely for dancers—it is becoming much easier to pursue a degree while performing professionally. Rather than wait until retirement, many dancers are getting a head start on their education now. Three dedicated professionals explain what they've gained by going back to school, and how they've made it happen.
Tiffany Mori as Juliette. Courtesy Saint Louis Ballet.
It's a familiar sight on Instagram: A dancer lounges casually in an oversplit, drinking her morning coffee. One foot is propped up on blocks (or even a chair) as her legs split well beyond 180 degrees.
In recent years, extreme flexibility has become the new normal, with social media flooded with images of dancers contorting themselves into pretzel positions. The question of whether one must be this flexible to achieve a professional dance career is a matter of taste, but it's clear that at competitions, circus-like penchés and développés are being rewarded with medals, scholarships and contracts. But can extreme stretching cause injuries down the line? In truth, it can be either safe or risky.
Jackie Nash: Atlanta Ballet
Typical summer break: mid-May–August
On rest: I need to take one solid week, at least, to let all those last bits of the season go. After Nutcracker we push straight through until May, so a lot of little things in my body need to heal, and I want to have some mental space to go over how the season went.
Summer gig: For the past five or six years, I’ve danced with Atlanta Ballet’s 12-member, dancer-run summer company, Wabi Sabi. We start rehearsing three to six hours a day one or two weeks after the season ends, with performances in July and August. I don’t need to do maintenance beyond that because the shows finish close to the beginning of our season.
Taking class: When we’re not working on Wabi Sabi, I either teach or take class during the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education summer intensives to stay in shape.
Nutrition: Because I have more time, I look for new recipes. I love grilling fish outside and having people over for kebabs, getting to be more social.
Branching out: I own a house in East Atlanta with my husband, fellow AB dancer Heath Gill. We like to catch up on gardening, painting and house maintenance things.
Jenelle Figgins: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
Typical summer break: Six weeks total, usually in May and September
On rest: Working 7,900 feet above sea level means that the demand on our bodies is very high. I try to take a couple weeks to rest. My routine is to spend time at a spa here, getting massages and physical therapy, and going to the hot springs and mineral baths in the area.
Cross-training: Later on during the break I start getting physical. Aspen is really special because a lot of social activities are active and outside. A lot of us go hiking in the summer. We also have access to great yoga classes. I need to lengthen and stretch, and I avoid exercise that will make me too tight.
Taking class: We are the only dance studio out here, so it is difficult. We tend to get out of town because Aspen is so small. If I travel on my break, I take classes at home.
Nutrition: I love to cook. On layoff, I have more time to focus on my diet and research how I can turn my food into medicine. Turmeric is good for my mood and is also an anti-inflammatory—right now I am into turmeric-and-blood-orange lemonade.
Branching out: I’m Buddhist, so I like to chant and meditate. I try to “shed” all the stuff in my mind and alternate in self-questioning about how my thoughts and energies are serving dance and my life. It’s a great time for me to let my mind go beyond my job. I’m also continuing to learn with online college courses.
Skylar Campbell: National Ballet of Canada
Typical summer break: Four weeks, dates vary
On rest: Balance is my favorite word and key for any athlete. At the end of the season you are most likely in top dancing shape. Rest is good, but I don’t like to throw it all away, because our layoffs are short.
Cross-training: During the season it can be difficult for me to cross-train. I love to change up my routine during off weeks, because it’s important to keep moving. I do resistance training at the gym and take advantage of swimming. If I have a principal role coming up, focusing on long-term cardio can help. If I go home to California, I am lucky to be able to train at the Pilates studio my parents own in Orange County.
Taking class: For every week I take off, I need just as much time to get back.
Nutrition: The first week, I do a cold-pressed-juice cleanse because I don’t need as much fuel and replenishment. After that I ease back into my regular diet.
Branching out: I try to let my mind out of the ballet bubble. I exert my energy on playing the drums. It is a great outlet when I’m not dancing.
Oren Porterfield: Ballet Austin
Typical summer break: mid-May–August
On rest: I definitely need a week of seeing music shows, drinking beer, eating pizza—real people fun. Austin is a great city for music and my husband is a gigging musician. I have to take a little time away to get perspective before going back to demi, demi, grand.
Cross-training: I can’t do the same thing every day. We’re lucky to have access to a Pilates studio, so we can take group apparatus class and use reformers. I take yoga around town and do it at home with “Yoga with Adriene,” a YouTube channel. I have a gym membership, too.
Taking class: I usually don’t take off of class for more than two weeks.
Nutrition: I am definitely more forgiving of my body standards during layoff. I appreciate being curvier in the summer, which is something I don’t appreciate as much in season. I try not to ever go on a diet—moderation is the best thing. I eat real food, and if I eat food that isn’t so good, I make sure I move more.
Branching out: I have an apothecary line I started a few years ago (ritual-goods.com), and I make essential-oil perfumes and sprays. I do pop-ups. In the summer I have more opportunities to learn more about herbalism and experiment.
Candice Thompson, a former dancer, is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
After two years as a trainee and then one as a second company member at Orlando Ballet, 22-year-old Aurélio Guimarães wasn’t able to audition much due to an injury. When The Washington Ballet offered him another traineeship, Guimarães debated what to do. He would ultimately be embarking on a fourth year of doing professional work without a livable salary or title. “It was absolutely a hard decision,” Guimarães reflects. “But I also had to consider the work that I would be doing.” Knowing his traineeship would entail close work with the artistic director, he essentially took a demotion, with the hope that starting over in Washington would yield a paid contract at the end of the year.
In the past, it was common for a year or two of apprenticeship to lead directly to a corps contract. But today’s ballet world involves more no- to low-paying rungs at the bottom of the ladder. Many companies now have three gatekeepers: trainee programs that are often the top level of the school and involve corps work with the company; second companies that work independently as well as more intimately with the main company; and apprenticeships, the most entry-level rank inside the professional hierarchy.
While these positions are necessary opportunities for young dancers to gain experience and build their resumés, they are made to be temporary, generally lasting two years. Most companies are only able to promote one or two dancers out of these ranks every season. With the number of trainees and second company members growing, the possibility of making it to the next level has become more limited. As a result, more young dancers find themselves stuck in this netherworld, moving from one semi-professional contract to another and spending a large chunk of their careers in the minor leagues. For young—and sometimes not so young—dancers, it is becoming harder to know whether paying their dues will ever pay off.
Climbing the Ladder
Trainee programs and second companies are often marketed as an even exchange: Young dancers gain professional training and performance experience while cash-strapped companies can expand their corps de ballet onstage, allowing them to draw bigger audiences with full-length story ballets and larger neoclassical and contemporary works.
They also allow directors to groom potential company members. At Nashville Ballet, 70 percent of the main company dancers have gone through its second company, which is typically a two-year system. Artistic director Paul Vasterling will sometimes offer a second-year NB2 dancer the option for a third year when he wants to hire them but doesn’t have a company position available. NB2 also allows him to coach dancers in the company style and bring up the technical level of the corps. “It provides an ethos for the way they move,” says Vasterling. “We toured to St. Louis recently and the comment I got—‘They move so well together’—is simply because they have been together a long time, a continuum of dancers from the low ranks into the principals.”
BalletX dancer Caili Quan found her early years of career building beneficial. At age 19, a partial-scholarship traineeship at Richmond Ballet helped her transition from a student mind-set. “Taking company class for the first time and watching them work was an awesome experience,” reflects Quan. Two years later, she took an apprenticeship at North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and was inspired by her first taste of contemporary work. Even though a job there didn’t materialize, the long process to becoming a professional gave Quan a chance to try out different career options to see what fit.
Getting Stuck in the System
As more companies expand their entry-level ranks, however, it’s taking longer for dancers to move beyond them. And while many admit it’s better than nothing, spending year after year in semi-professional limbo comes with major career frustration and financial stress.
“I’m working with amazing choreographers, like Septime Webre, and I’m given opportunities, which is definitely a positive thing,” explains Guimarães, who is forced to rely on financial support from his parents. “But it is difficult because we are not always treated as professionals.”
The ticking career clock can also be a source of distress. For 22-year-old Kathleen Dahlhoff, who was a San Francisco Ballet School trainee before becoming an apprentice at Cincinnati Ballet, the frustration of performing in a professional corps since the age of 15 without the benefits of a corps contract was real. “You find out there are awesome dancers that have been apprentices for four to five years,” explains Dahlhoff, who left CB after a budget error made another year of apprenticeship impossible. “You start thinking, ‘Why haven’t I gotten a corps contract yet?’ and you worry that directors you audition for will think that, too.”
And dancers should be aware that programs vary considerably. Igor Antonov, director of Richmond Ballet’s second company, advises young dancers to do their homework before auditioning. “Everybody is using the name of second company so differently,” he says. “When someone tells me ‘I am an apprentice,’ I have to wonder what it really means and ask where they fit in with our organization. You should understand what you are auditioning for and what you are going to get.” For instance, unlike Richmond’s trainee program, RBII offers dancers a weekly salary and health insurance. And while it is still the big criteria for getting into Richmond Ballet, RBII often performs the same repertoire.
How Long Do I Stick It Out?
Young dancers can’t change the way companies are structured, and they should be aware that many corps members today experienced a similar rite of passage. But deciding how long to hang on in a semi-professional position while establishing hard-line goals along the way can help them navigate a path.
For instance, if you are receiving positive feedback where you are and are offered a chance to stay another year, consider sticking it out. “If you can stay on, it is better,” explains Vasterling. “I am looking for someone who is committed to the art and the field and also interested in fulfilling that commitment with Nashville Ballet.”
But what if it’s not possible to stay and be promoted in one place? “If I had to move on and was presented with another second company option, it would depend on the company and what they offer,” says Arielle Friedman, who recently signed a second-year apprentice contract with BalletMet. “I might consider it to continue dancing.”
Once dancers reach their personal ultimatum, however, they need to consider ways to be proactive and resourceful. Dahlhoff decided to diversify her background instead of taking another low-level position elsewhere. She is now a junior at the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program and hopes the modern dance experience will make her more marketable when she goes back to auditioning. “I have a good brain, and if I have to, I can move on from dance.”
For Quan, a combination of patience, perseverance and creativity helped her when she wasn’t promoted to the corps in Charlotte. Rather than give up, she joined First State Ballet Theatre, a small primarily classical company in Delaware. The work was part-time, but it gave her two years of paid professional experience before landing her dream job at BalletX. “It’s hard to find your place in the dance world,” she says. “But it is possible that your future is somewhere else.”
Candice Thompson, a former dancer, is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia.
When Sarah Walborn first joined San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice, the excitement of joining her dream company soon gave way to dread. “I would go into work every day with fear as opposed to the excitement I had in school,” explains Walborn, now with Ballet Arizona. “I didn’t want to do any roles, much less go in for the workday.” Something needed to change.
Acknowledging such negative thoughts can be scary and lonely for dancers, no matter what stage in their career. If you don’t feel your company is the right fit, it can affect your motivation, a vital component in a profession that requires 110 percent every day. And yet, contemplating a move can bring up an equal number of anxieties. Luckily, employing a mix of self-reflection and research can help you avoid making a rash decision.
List Your Goals
To facilitate self-awareness and encourage self-assessment, Lauren Gordon, a career counselor with Career Transition For Dancers, recommends writing down an annual checklist of goals that reflects your aspirations in your company, for your overall dance career and for your personal life. How closely does your current experience match your checklist? If it doesn’t, what will it take to get the two more aligned?
After some reflection, Walborn realized that she needed more training. “I was too immature,” she says of her time at SFB. “I felt intimidated, so I held back and didn’t push myself as much as I could have.” The next year she reenrolled at her alma mater, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, to regain her confidence. While there, she concluded that she would be more comfortable dancing in a smaller company.
Signs You Should Leave
While fear, such as Walborn described, can be a powerful indicator, there are other telltale signs that it’s time to reassess your current environment. For instance, if you’re consistently passed over for roles or a promotion that you feel you deserve, you may have better success elsewhere. A hostile or exploitative workplace situation is another indicator that you should move on.
Other times, the reason can be harder to put your finger on. For Jeffrey Cirio, who danced as a principal at Boston Ballet before taking a soloist position at American Ballet Theatre last year, it was feeling too comfortable. “I was getting to the point where I was doing everything opening night and going into rehearsal feeling more nonchalant,” says Cirio. “I’d look back on a particular day or rehearsal and wish I would have pushed for more. Even though I was doing well, I needed a different mind-set.”
Major company changes can also trigger thoughts about moving on. After dancing with The Washington Ballet Studio Company, Walborn joined Kansas City Ballet, where she felt at home right away. But during her second season, there was a change in the artistic directorship. When she felt KCB changing overall, it no longer felt like an artistic fit and she began to put out feelers. On a recommendation, she auditioned for Ballet Arizona, where she found director Ib Andersen’s direct demeanor and approach to technique to be similar to hers.
When to Wait It Out
Of course, no company is perfect, and not every complaint warrants walking away. “It’s important to remember that the company is not the bad guy,” says Gordon. “It’s your responsibility to take care of your own goals and to be able to ask for things.” Acknowledging the positive aspects of your work environment can help you assess the negative more clearly. For instance, maybe there is a tour or an exciting choreographer slated for next season, or perhaps your company offers an educational partnership with a local university.
“It can also be smart to stay longer when you aren’t sure and need to gather more information,” says Gordon. “The knowledge that steps are in motion can help you get through a season, take away the impatience and appreciate the work ahead.”
Cirio, who had been in Boston his entire career, made his decision to leave over a two-year period. Aware that he still had great repertoire to dance and opportunities to choreograph, he also realized that if he went to a bigger company, he would probably have to accept a lower rank.
To be sure, he reached out to friends in other companies and consulted his sister, fellow BB principal Lia Cirio, who had made a similar career decision years before. “Be discreet about exploring,” advises Gordon, “because it can be taken the wrong way. However, it can be tempting to say ‘yes’ to an offer without first knowing if it is a good fit. Research ahead of time and your decision will be more rational.”
Taking your time can also help with making a graceful exit. “Every culture handles leaving differently,” warns Gordon. “A good leave-taking process is important because in this profession everyone crosses paths and either helps or thwarts each other.” Once Cirio was fairly certain of his decision to leave Boston Ballet, he sought out the advice of artistic director Mikko Nissinen, who ultimately gave his blessing. At the very least, planning a future move while cherishing your final moments at your current company can help make the transition easier.