To The Corps

What to expect during your first year in the corps de ballet.
Published in the June/July 2007 issue.

Ask Keenan McLaren how she felt at the start of her first season with Dayton Ballet in 2005, and she’ll have one word for you: terrified. “I was youngest person in the company, and I didn’t know anyone,” she says. “But I reminded myself that I have a certain level of training, and I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t think that I was capable.” After landing a job in a company, adjusting to life in the corps can be daunting for any new professional. We asked three recently hired dancers for advice for ensuring a successful first year.

During the first weeks of Emily Bowen’s contract with Houston Ballet, which began in June 2006, she was
nervous that she would accidentally offend dancers ranked above her. She learned the ropes by befriending a
principal dancer. “She told me who stood where, who went in what group and who to probably stay away from,” says Bowen. Overall, though, she adds, “I expected it to be a little more cut-throat. But if the other dancers seem friendly, you have the chance to have someone you can go to who has gone through the same thing.”

While you shake those initial nerves, be ready to hit the ground running. “At beginning of the season, it was like being shot out of a cannon,” says Adrian Fry, a first-year dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre who studied with Omaha Theater Ballet School and Pacific Northwest Ballet School. “Within the first 10 days, we were learning six different pieces because of the time that certain repetiteurs could be there. I took it in stride and was really excited to start working.”

McLaren was surprised by the sheer amount of choreography she was expected to learn in her first year at Dayton. “Often when a new company member is primarily performing corps work, they’ll be asked to understudy leads—sometimes more than one! This is definitely a challenge, because you are learning double the choreography and the responsibility is huge,” says McLaren. “You are expected to know the role and be able to go in at a moment’s notice, even if someone is just out sick. It can be a wonderful opportunity if you do get the chance to
go in, because your director gets to see you in a different light.”

Maintaining your physical endurance throughout a full day of company class, rehearsal and even an evening
performance is key. “I think because there’s more emphasis on rehearsal, you have to save your energy source,” says Fry. “We work really hard in class, but we also know that we need to keep our tanks filled up throughout the day, because there are times when we work from 10 to 5:30 straight.” Cardio and weight training at a local gym prior to her start with the company helped McLaren survive long rehearsal days. “If you cross-train, your stamina will just fly through the roof, and that makes those long days so much easier,” she says.

Also expect to make independent practice a personal priority. “When you have rehearsals as a company member, it’s not to go over what you learned in the last one,” says Bowen, who studied previously at North Carolina School of the Arts and Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. “You’re already expected to remember everything so you can keep learning more choreography. So you have to take time out of your personal life to come to the studio and work on things. That’s how you get promoted and how you get good roles, and then the artistic directors and the ballet mistresses and masters can trust you.”

The transition from being a senior student at your dance school—where your solo work and individual talents were
likely recognized—to becoming a team player in the corps also requires a great deal of focus. “In class, you’re working on your individual needs and focusing on what you need to improve as a dancer. When you’re in the corps, it’s not about you at all,” says McLaren, who studied at Boston Ballet School and danced with Ballet Austin II.

Instead of aiming for your highest extension, your positions must exactly match those of your fellow dancers. Yet, she says, “It’s a very rewarding experience, because when everyone is really feeling together, there’s a certain energy that flows through the group, and it’s a very different feeling than doing 32 fouettés.”

Like most students, Bowen grew accustomed to praise and acknowledgement from her teachers, and the absence of that in company life was an unexpected adjustment. “In a company, if you do something well, you don’t hear about it; you usually hear about it if you do something wrong,” she says. “When you see you’re not getting all of the feedback you want, it can be discouraging, but it’s actually a good thing.”

Your first company season brings the chance to develop your own sense of artistry beyond what you may have been able to accomplish as a student. “I see this year as bridging the gap between dancer and artist,” says Fry. “When you’re in a really heavy professional training program... I just felt like I was cultivating my technique and getting on my leg and working on my jumps. It was really athletic... but I didn’t feel like an artist.”

Bowen agrees. “Artistry is everything. It helps more if you just start thinking about artistry in your last year in school, because once you get in a company, you’re expected to already have all the technique and start to show yourself in your dancing,” she says. “I wish someone had told me that.”