The Upside of Downsizing

Most dancers dream of dancing for big, prestigious companies with swelling corps de ballet, glittering media coverage and endless weeks of work. So why would anyone who made it to the big leagues want to downsize to a smaller troupe? In the cases of these three dancers, it was about much more than better casting opportunities: For each, leaving a brand-name troupe proved to be a major breakthrough. As their career and life goals took shape, they gladly traded in the prestige to accomplish their objectives—and they haven’t looked back.

Miami City Ballet-->Trey McIntyre Project

As a corps dancer with Miami City Ballet, Elizabeth Keller was often dancing in three ballets a night, five shows a week. She loved the company’s Balanchine repertoire, but after 10 years and a series of major injuries, she grew restless. “I wanted something new,” she says. “I was feeling a little stale, artistically.”

A longtime fan of Trey McIntyre’s choreography, she arranged an audition when the Trey McIntyre Project toured to Florida, then flew out to their home base of Boise, Idaho, for a few days, and finally joined the company last summer. Suddenly, Keller went from working with over 50 dancers to 10, and realized there was no place to hide. “Everything is magnified in the studio,” she says. “All eyes are always on you!”

Keller also had to adjust to a new work and movement style—and realized she was more stuck in her ways than she thought. “Trey wants you to perform on a very human level, not a presentational level, which is hard coming from the classical world,” she says. McIntyre creates three to four new ballets a season, giving Keller a chance to experience the creative process. “I never got to do that in Miami,” she says. “It was something that I was craving.”

Keller loves how the company functions as an intimate, close-knit family. “We really feed off each other. When one person’s having a bad day, it’s up to the other nine of us to help them out.” She also enjoys having a closer relationship with her director. “He’ll shoot off a text or send me an e-mail—he’s less untouchable.”

Although Keller misses the big ballets, as she’s learned to embrace her vulnerable side, she’s found deep fulfillment. “I’ve grown more as an artist in the last six months than in the last three or four years,” she says. “Being on the brink of new and wonderful things is a pretty cool place to be.”

San Francisco Ballet-->Ballet San Jose

After enjoying eight years as a soloist for San Francisco Ballet, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun had an unconventional motive for leaving. Making the switch to Ballet San Jose wasn’t only about her dance career: It was an opportunity to prepare for her long-term goal of teaching in her home country. 

Born in Thailand—where professional opportunities are virtually nonexistent—Pipit-Suksun moved to London at 15 to study at The Royal Ballet School and won a gold medal at the Genée International Ballet Competition. Upon graduation, San Francisco Ballet offered her what most teenagers can only dream of: a soloist contract.

But joining as a soloist fresh out of ballet school wasn’t easy. “I remember being with all the principals and thinking, ‘What am I doing in this rehearsal?’ ” she says. “It was intimidating.” She lacked the experience necessary for high-pressure roles, overexerted herself and ended up struggling with knee injuries. She also sensed competitive resentment among her colleagues. “I think if I’d joined as an apprentice or corps member it would have been a different story. I never felt like I fit in properly.”

By 2012, Pipit-Suksun needed a change. She was drawn to the nearby Ballet San Jose, which offers American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum courses to its company members for free. She joined as a soloist. One benefit was that BSJ’s season is much shorter than SFB’s, running from September to April. “Some dancers might not like that,” she says. “But for where I’m at right now, I can dance and also have time to develop my teaching skills.” She currently teaches at night and on weekends, and this summer, after finishing ABT’s training course, she plans to spend July and August guest-teaching back home in Bangkok. “My dream is to open a professional ballet school in Thailand.”

Pipit-Suksun also feels greater camaraderie at BSJ. “In a smaller company, people are more supportive,” she says. “I love dancing here. I feel like I’ve rediscovered my passion again.”

New York City Ballet-->Kansas City Ballet

Kansas City native Taryn Mejia couldn’t have had it any better as a budding corps member at New York City Ballet. For two and a half seasons she enjoyed nights of endless dancing. “I was performing constantly,” she remembers. “I got to dance ballets that I’ll never get to do again, big ballets like Symphony in C and Stars and Stripes.” She had her dream ballet career. But she only figured out how to balance a well-rounded life as a dancer when she moved back home to Kansas City.

Mejia had trained at the Kansas City Ballet School, then left for the School of American Ballet at 16 and landed a contract with NYCB three years later. But the all-consuming workload took a toll, and she found herself sidelined with a serious leg fracture. “During my recovery, I realized that I wanted more than just dance. I wanted a family, which seemed impossible in a company that performs that much.”

Over the next six years, she pursued her education, earning a degree in child psychology; she also got married, moved to New Orleans and had two children. For fun, she started guesting with New Orleans Ballet Theatre. The director there encouraged her to consider dancing again. “He was right,” she says. “I did still want to perform. I just needed to find someplace where I could also have a life.”

When artistic director William Whitener offered her a place in Kansas City Ballet, Mejia knew it was time to go home. Now in her first season, the 27-year-old is thrilled that KCB’s performance schedule and summers off allow her to spend time with her husband and kids. “Our theater weeks—where you’re there until 10 o’clock at night—only happen every three to four months,” she says. Her parents often help her with childcare during the day.

While she misses the excitement of New York City, Mejia feels that the Midwest is perfect for raising a family, and for now she has the best of both worlds. “I get to have a family and dance,” she says. “I should have done a smaller company a long time ago!”

Amy Brandt is Pointe’s Ask Amy columnist.

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