For many professional ballet dancers, following the dream means a series of clear upward steps, from corps to soloist to principal. Until last year, you might have said that Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Alissa Dale was right on track.

 

A trainee with NBT in 2004, Dale got into the corps the next year and advanced to soloist in 2007. But in 2009, as NBT changed its artistic leadership, it also changed from a tiered company of principals, soloists and corps members to a 23-member ensemble of dancers, all equals—an unranked company.

 

Although staying with Nevada Ballet Theatre meant losing a title, Dale didn’t see herself as a casualty of the transition. “I’ve always been a fan of the ensemble system, so I was really excited,” she says. “It increases the competition, but it’s also an opportunity to work harder. You can’t take for granted where you stand in the company—you can be passed over if you sit back and don’t grab the reins. But that in turn increases your work ethic.”

 

Bucking the hierarchy laid out by the great European ballet institutions, more and more unranked companies are dotting the landscape of American ballet. The root of that model traces back to the “all-star, no star” Joffrey Ballet. “Robert Joffrey’s philosophy was that in a non-ranked company the strength lay in everyone, rather than resting on one or two featured artists,” says James Canfield, a Joffrey alumnus who took over the helm of NBT last year after serving as interim director for a year.

 

Famously egalitarian, Joffrey’s approach meant that his hard-working dancers might find themselves leading a ballet one night and dancing in the corps another. That sense of democracy is part of the rationale for unranked companies. “In a ranked company, everyone knows their place, so there’s an assuredness,” says Septime Webre, who has headed the unranked, 22-member Washington Ballet since 1999. “But in an unranked company, there’s a social mobility, shall we say?”

 

It’s an approach that has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, any dancer can earn a chance to shine in a leading role. But the lack of clear levels means that life becomes a daily competition with fellow dancers.

 

“There’s a sense of ‘on edge’ that you have to maintain,” says Travis Bradley, who is in his sixth season at Ballet Memphis. Bradley has also danced with the ranked Houston Ballet, but says he knew he wanted the opportunities available to small-company dancers. “Anytime a choreographer comes in, you can’t just rely on the advantage of status,” he says.

 

However, in many hierarchical companies, when a choreographer arrives to cast a new work, he or she is directed towards principals or soloists for leads. In an unranked company, every dancer has a shot. “When a stager or choreographer comes in, they’ll work with a huge group for a day, just to see how we move and who’s best for a role,” explains Nadia Iozzo, a dancer with the unranked Kansas City Ballet.  “And the senior dancers in our company aren’t necessarily guaranteed those principal roles. But they’ve put in their years and they’ve reached a certain excellence in technique and artistry and that elevates their work.”

 

Which brings us to the question: Are all unranked companies really that egalitarian, or will certain dancers implicitly still have a better chance of being cast in leading roles than others?

 

“Inevitably, some will rise to the top,” says William Whitener, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet and another Joffrey alum. “But when a choreographer picks dancers, there is generally an element of surprise, too.”

 

“You feel like no matter who got chosen for a role, it was always fair game for everyone,” says Dale, who found herself cast as Myrtha in Giselle one year and in Canfield’s ensemble-driven Jungle the next. “You can’t get complacent.”

 

Dorothy Gunther Pugh, who founded Ballet Memphis in 1986, says that her unranked company’s roster needs to be proportionally sized for its relatively small city—but also ready for the eclectic repertoire she’s building. “A ranked system is an inefficient model for our company’s strengths,” she says. “I need nimble, versatile people.”

 

“It’s a democratic model, and we live in a democracy,” says Pugh with some warmth. “I feel like we need to reflect our culture. There’s something very American about a more level playing field.”

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

popular

Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

Keep reading... Show less
Thinkstock.

Early in Carrie Imler's 22-year career with Pacific Northwest Ballet, she was excited to be cast in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments. But immediately following dress rehearsal, she was removed from her role in "Melancholic." "My artistic director at the time pulled me aside and said, 'We can't put you out there,' " she remembers. "My weight fluctuated my entire career. Just when I felt like I had figured it out, I would gain it back and have to start all over again." Despite becoming one of PNB's most celebrated principal dancers, Imler never shook the fear of what might happen when a leotard ballet was in the repertoire.

Ballet prides itself on high standards, and the classical ballet physique is not the least of those expectations. Fear of the "fat talk" still lurks in studios, but, as Imler points out, weight is a challenge that many dancers face, while others may struggle with the arches of their feet or turnout. If you are confronted about your weight, know that many talented dancers have been there. Having "the talk" doesn't mean you can't become a professional, but if you take a mindful approach to the conversation, it will show your maturity and ultimately your ability to navigate a career.

Has Something Changed?

If your teacher or director has approached you about your weight, you're likely left feeling emotional, vulnerable and overwhelmed. Once you have a chance to think clearly, ask yourself what factors, like puberty, may be contributing to changes in your body. Nadine Kaslow, resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet, says, "There is this huge focus on weight and body at a time when even non-dancers are struggling with body issues and everything else that is happening as an adolescent."

External factors often play a role as well. PNB's consulting nutritionist, Peggy Swistak, says that she often sees dancers struggle with weight early in the season as they adjust to living on their own and sharing a kitchen with a roommate. "One may have really bad eating habits and doesn't have to watch her weight at all, and the other is gaining weight. There is a conflict in managing their food together," she says. Ballet Memphis ballet master Brian McSween adds that financial stress can create barriers for eating nutritiously. "The one-dollar piece of pizza costs a lot less than eating organic," he says. "You have to make the best choices possible with what you have." Other changes, like a new schedule, layoffs or even emotional setbacks, will present the need to reevaluate your food habits and exercise routines throughout your career.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

Summer Study Advice
Thinkstock.

Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

Keep reading... Show less
Career
Thinkstock

I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

Keep reading... Show less
Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!