Getting a company contract is a dream come true. But the first few years in a company are a major transition: In a short time, you’re expected to go from a student who’s nurtured and pushed by teachers to a professional who can cultivate her own artistic development. We asked five dancers to describe the aspects of company life that took them by surprise.
“I wish I’d known that waiting a year or two to join a company wouldn’t set me back.” —Jessica Collado, soloist at Houston Ballet
I think advanced students have it in their heads that the younger they begin their careers, the better—but that’s not so important. A lot of young dancers get burnt out because they are trying to do so much so quickly. My parents insisted I graduate from high school before auditioning for companies, and I worried I was going to be behind everybody else when I finally did start dancing professionally. But now I know that extra year or two of training were beneficial. By the time I joined Houston Ballet as an apprentice, I’d matured as a person. I’d also become more versatile during those years by adding more modern and jazz classes to my schedule.
“I wish I’d known that I would be getting less attention than I did in school.” —Brooklyn Mack, company member at The Washington Ballet
In a company, it’s up to you to further your artistry and technique—you don’t get the individual attention that you get in school, where you’re coached and corrected every day. That comes as a surprise to some dancers. It falls to you to put in the extra hours, to watch videos yourself, to take extra classes on your time off, and to study the nuances of other artists and art forms.
“I wish I’d known that developing my whole self, not just my dancer self, was important.” —Lauren Fagone, company member at Richmond Ballet
This profession can feel all-consuming, especially when you’re first entering it and are so excited to dive in. But maintaining some sort of work/life balance is important. I’ve created a good support system of friends outside of the ballet bubble in the past few years, and they’ve given me a greater sense of self-awareness and perspective. My real-life experiences have helped me discover how to be more vulnerable, and vulnerability is what makes artists engaging onstage.
“I wish I’d known that my dream company wasn’t necessarily the best fit for me.” —Kendall G. Britt Jr., company member at Ballet Memphis
I think we all have this idea of where we’re going to end up. As a student, I envisioned myself in a big company, performing Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake and a lot of Balanchine. Then I got a job at Ballet Memphis, which is a smaller, more contemporary company—the complete opposite of what I’d imagined—and it turned out to be the perfect fit. Even though I’m the shortest man in the company, I’ve still had opportunities to dance many different classical and contemporary ballets—opportunities I wouldn’t have had at a larger organization. It’s great to have expectations about what kind of dancer you want to be, but be prepared for anything, and allow yourself to be fluid and adaptable.
“I wish I’d known that sometimes I’d have to take charge of my own career.” —Maya Collins, corps member at Miami City Ballet
Here’s the story of how I got my first solo in New York City Ballet, where I danced before coming to MCB: The rehearsal schedule for a program went up before casting was announced, and I was not called in. But then when casting went up, I saw that I was cast in a variation—after the rehearsal had already happened. I went to the ballet mistress, and she said, “I’m so sorry, but I don’t have time to teach you the part.” I was a little panicked, but that night I took a video home and learned it myself. The next day I said to the ballet mistress, “I know it. Can I show you?” And I ended up getting to perform it. As a student you have lots of time and help when you’re preparing for big challenges, but as a professional, sometimes you have to take your career into your own hands.
“I wish I’d known that company life would actually be less competitive than school life.” —Alexsandra Meijer, principal at Ballet San Jose
I was surprised by my company’s sense of camaraderie. Ballet is always competitive, but in school, it was much more intense. Once you reach this point and the company is ranked, you know your position, if that makes sense. It frees you to just work toward being the best you can be. And this particular group is very much a family—you know the other dancers are with you.