During her first semester with Columbia Ballet Collaborative, Rachel Silvern surprised herself. “Growing up, the focus was always on dancing to please others, to get cast in something,” she says. “But at Columbia, suddenly it wasn’t about who was watching or what they thought. I was dancing for myself—and rediscovering why I danced in the first place.”
For serious ballet students who don’t plan to major in dance in college, performing with a student-run ballet company is becoming an increasingly accessible option. More and more schools offer them. And the troupes can be incubators for real talent—alumni of Harvard Ballet Company, for example, now dance with American Ballet Theatre, Los Angeles Ballet and Ballet Austin.
Student-run troupes aren’t about polishing your dancing—the training will never be as rigorous as a dance department’s. Yet the do-it-yourself spirit can lead to artistic growth like Silvern’s, or new behind-the-scenes interests. A student company can also provide possibilities to take on leadership roles by choreographing, teaching or directing. However, the opportunities vary widely from school to school. Figuring out what you’ll gain from the experience requires a little investigating.
Level and Commitment
The first indicator of a company’s level of professionalism? Auditions. Some companies require dancers to try out at the start of every semester or school year, and take only students who dance at an intermediate or advanced level. Others allow anyone to show up to their open class, which probably won’t be as intense.
Also look at how many hours of class and rehearsal will be required. You’ll typically find one weekly 90-minute class, taught by company members or the occasional guest artist, plus rehearsals. Stanford University’s Cardinal Ballet Company, for example, holds a four-hour rehearsal each Sunday (one hour per piece). However, the company doesn’t give any company class, so most members rely on the Monday, Wednesday, Friday advanced ballet classes in Stanford’s dance division. Serious dancers at any student company almost always have to take outside classes through their school or a local studio to keep up their technique.
Most companies offer two or more performances a year, with a varied repertoire that typically includes at least one classical variation from a ballet such as Paquita or Swan Lake. Often, interested dancers also have the opportunity to choreograph on their peers.
Many troupes bring in guest artists to set work as well. Cardinal Ballet Company recently performed a piece by Amy Seiwert. Columbia Ballet Collaborative, which reaps the benefits of its New York location, works regularly with Emery LeCrone and other New York–based artists. “Choreographers love working with our company because we provide studio space and high-caliber dancers, and they get the opportunity to spend a whole semester working on a new piece,” says Silvern. Dancers from New York City Ballet occasionally perform with Columbia Ballet Collaborative as well.
At some troupes, such as Harvard Ballet Company, directors take dancers’ preferences into account while casting “We try to foster a collaborative, egalitarian environment,” says member Bridget Scanlon. Others, such as Columbia Ballet Collaborative, reflect the professional world by allowing choreographers to cast their own pieces.
Gateway to a Career?
Though some alumni go on to performing careers, a major benefit of student companies is the exposure to other aspects of the field. Dancers frequently end up working offstage in production, administration and development roles. Recent Stanford graduate Colette Posse notes that classmates who were in Cardinal Ballet Company now work in the administration of companies such as Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and have even founded their own contemporary ballet troupes.
“Even though a student-run company doesn’t have the prestige that would make it a stepping stone to a career in itself, dancers can use it to keep performing,” says Claremont Colleges Ballet Company co-founder Emily Kleeman, who takes advantage of the leadership opportunities she might not get anywhere else. “I personally am interested in choreography, so I use this experience as practice for my goal of one day running my own company.”
Compete in Cape Town
Classical ballet has a strong following in Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Town International Ballet Competition, founded in 2008 by Dirk Badenhorst of the South African Manzi Ballet, attracts talent from all corners of the globe—and a number of young North Americans have already made their mark there.
Competition dates: February 17–23, 2014
Application deadline: January 13, 2014
Divisions: Seniors (21–28), juniors (16–20), scholars (12–15)
Held: Every other year
Fee: $120, plus travel and lodging
Judging: A point system weighing artistry (30%), technique (30%), presentation (30%), grooming (5%) and preparation (5%)
2014 judges include: Marcia Haydée, artistic director of Ballet de Santiago; Ramona de Saa, director of the National Ballet School of Cuba; Hae Shik Kim, artistic director of the Seoul International Dance Competition and Xin Lili, director of the Shanghai Ballet
Past participants: Hannah Bettes, Alys Shee, Aaron Smyth
“Think of yourself as a rubber band being pulled from the top and bottom to create one elongated line. My teacher John Adamson taught me you can’t simply ‘pull up’—you also have to have your legs firmly rooted below you with energy shooting downward.” —North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Emily Ramirez