Ballet students learn quickly to follow directions and wait for reward or recognition from the front of the room. But navigating a professional career is very different from being a successful and talented student. Each dancer’s path is unique, and often nonlinear: A few dancers get promoted quickly while others remain in the corps. Some must make horizontal moves to new companies before they land a breakthrough job or role. And to keep their career momentum, many find it necessary to put themselves forward and ask for what they want.
Clara Blanco, now a soloist with San Francisco Ballet, had been dancing in the SFB corps for five years when she decided to move to Birmingham Royal Ballet. She soon realized it was not the right fit. Wishing desperately to return to SFB for the following season, Blanco knew the best thing was to meet with artistic director Helgi Tomasson and ask for her job back. “I am the kind of person who doesn’t hide things. I felt very vulnerable talking to Helgi,” she says. After thinking about it for a month, Tomasson gave Blanco a second chance.
Asking for an opportunity—whether it’s a job, a role, a promotion or a raise—rarely comes easily. It helps to practice. It’s also critical to canvas mentors or ballet masters to see if what you want lines up with your ability and commitment. So what’s the best way to break your silence and start a meaningful conversation about your career?
Do Your Homework
The first person you should be questioning is yourself. In preparation for a meeting with the director or other artistic staff, take some time to honestly evaluate your work. Are you sending the right messages? Do you show up late to rehearsal? In run-throughs, do you always give 110 percent, or are you marking? Are you already taking advantage of available opportunities?
Some companies make a point of giving dancers a chance to expand their repertoire. At Nevada Ballet Theatre, artistic director James Canfield has a policy of making all rehearsals open to the entire company. “If dancers are called, then they need to be there, but if a dancer is not called, he or she is still welcome to come and learn as long as they are respectful. If you learn the part and you are prepared, it creates an opportunity.”
Once you have analyzed your own job performance, find a sounding board. Julie Marie Niekrasz, a dancer with Ballet Memphis, looks to more experienced dancers when in need of an honest opinion. Building relationships with your ballet masters, rehearsal directors, choreographers or senior dancers can help you get realistic feedback about where you are in your career.
When you ask can make as much of a difference as what you ask. All AGMA companies, and many nonunion companies, have annual meetings between dancers and artistic staff. This can be the ideal time to request opportunities. The artistic staff expects you to state your goals, and providing you are courteous and professional, no one should feel blindsided. Dr. Nadine J. Kaslow, a psychologist who works with Atlanta Ballet dancers, recommends practicing the conversation ahead of time and not being afraid to bring notes. “Rehearsing will give you confidence and ensure no one’s time is wasted.”
Niekrasz used her scheduled evaluation time to let the artistic staff know she felt ready to dance the role of Juliet. Blanco used her annual meetings to mention her dream of climbing the ranks. Niekrasz did end up getting to dance Juliet, and after several years of performing soloist and principal roles, Blanco became a soloist.
Sometimes a particular opportunity presents itself at some other point in the season. The Joffrey Ballet’s April Daly saw her chance during a layoff week. “Early on in my career, I was doing most corps work, and I wanted to do more partnering. I had a week off when only the lead dancers were called to rehearse the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Square Dance. I asked to come in and learn it, and the artistic staff said yes.”
Blanco also has had success making requests outside of the annual meeting. “I realized at one point that there was nothing to lose. If I wanted to learn something, I would ask to be in the rehearsal. With Raymonda, I asked to learn some of the variations—at one point or another, I ended up performing all of them.”
You’ll Never Know Unless…
The only way to get an answer is to ask. Even a “no” can help you reevaluate and realign your goals. “I have had a couple cases of a dancer asking for a role at a wrong time in their career,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal. ”In that case, I offer them an alternative role to reach for, one that’s more realistic.”
Asking nearly always yields some gains. If nothing else, you send an important signal to management that you are ready for more. Asking also gives you some insight into where you stand, and what you need to do to move ahead. As Blanco points out, “When you are a professional, it’s more about finding the right place for you, the place where your dancing is appreciated. Art is hard to value and you have to place value on yourself.” Having the confidence to ask for what you want is the first step in doing that.