BalletX's Caili Quan found value in her early years of career building. Photo by Alexander Izilaev, Courtesy BalletX.

Semi-Pro Limbo: Breaking Into the Professional Ranks From a Second Company or Trainee Program is Taking Longer Than Ever

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Pointe.

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.

Members of Nashville Ballet's second company in "Peter Pan." Photo by Marianne Leach, Courtesy Nashville Ballet.

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.

Richmond Ballet II's Stephanie Singletary and Connor Frain in "Ancient Airs and Dances." Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

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.

The Washington Ballet's trainees in class. Photo Courtesy TWB.

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."

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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Students of International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.

Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.

After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.

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