Ballet Careers

Red Flags: Don't Ignore These Warning Signs at Your Company

Thompson was one of 23 American National Ballet dancers let go last fall. Photo by Giovanni Pizzino, Courtesy Thompson.

"All I want to do is dance," says Kimberly Thompson, 24. But because of her muscular physique, Thompson says, she struggled to find a company job. American National Ballet seemed like a dream come true: Founded in Charleston, South Carolina, in early 2017, the ambitious startup proclaimed itself as a home for dancers of diverse body types and ethnicities.

Thompson landed a corps contract with ANB and relocated from Maryland to Charleston. "September 18, 2017, was our first day," she recalls. On October 23, Thompson was one of 23 dancers (out of nearly 50) let go. And while the reasons for ANB's dramatic rise and fall have not been made fully public, the fallout for those artists is very real.

ANB, which officially dissolved a few months later, is only the most recent example of a company that's come and gone, leaving dancers in the lurch. Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet shuttered in 2015, Silicon Valley Ballet closed mid-season in 2016, and Ballet Pacifica folded in 2007—after 42 years.

With ballet jobs scarce, getting an offer—any offer—can feel like the chance of a lifetime. But whether you're joining a startup like ANB or an established company, there is a lot to consider before you sign your contract and red flags to watch out for after you start work. Read on for advice from artists and executives with hard-won experience.

Chasing the Dream

Even though ANB was a brand-new company with no track record, it seemed like a relatively safe bet for Thompson: Some respected names were attached, including Octavio Martin as artistic director and Alexandre Proia as a ballet master. And although ANB's founder and executive director, Ashley Benefield, didn't have prior company-leadership experience, she and Thompson had taken class together at Maryland Youth Ballet, and Thompson trusted her. Thompson also felt confident in the business background of CEO Doug Benefield, Ashley's husband, after researching him online.

Thompson accepted a contract for a $21,000 salary, $80 weekly pointe-shoe allowance and $150 monthly health-insurance stipend. She signed a one-year lease at an apartment complex recommended by ANB leadership, which provided a $250 monthly stipend to supplement the $1,129 rent. To help her make ends meet, ANB offered her seven hours a week teaching in its new conservatory, at $35 per hour.

Nailing down the specifics of a contract is the right move, says Nashville Ballet artistic director and CEO Paul Vasterling. "I respect dancers who say, 'Tell me about your rep, tell me about your contract, here are my goals,' " he says, adding that dancers should ask for clarity on the number of work weeks, how often they'll get paid, tax withholdings, and whether there are health-insurance benefits and provided supplies, like pointe shoes. "If you get the feeling that you're being shamed or they don't want to talk about it," he says, "that's a bad sign."

Follow the Money

Where dancers can go deeper is in investigating a company's funding and growth plans, especially if it is new or has a history of financial trouble. "We've secured X amount of money to take us through year one, after which we will need to do X and Y to continue—that's the kind of thing you want to know," says Griff Braun, New York–area dance executive for the American Guild of Musical Artists.

Vasterling concurs. "I would ask the directors things like, How many subscribers do you have? What's your donor pool?" he advises. If they can't answer those questions, proceed with caution. Also, if the company relies on one major donor, such as a wealthy founder or family member, understand the risks involved if that person has a change of heart. Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, for example, went under when founder Nancy Laurie decided to discontinue support.

Be wary, too, if the directors' ambition seems out of proportion with their experience and funding, or if the company seems to be expanding too quickly. "It's got to be slow and sustainable growth," says Vasterling, "and always looking down the long road." Since Vasterling took the helm at Nashville Ballet in 1998, he has nearly quintupled the budget and expanded to 25 dancers—but it took two decades.

Kimberly Thompson. Photo by Giovanni Pizzino, Courtesy Thompson.

Keep Your Eyes Open

Once you start the job, it's important to question anything that seems troubling, although Vasterling understands the temptation to brush doubts aside. "It's really hard for dancers because the clock is constantly ticking," he says. "Sometimes we're willing to be blind to things, because we just want to do it so badly." But at a certain point, listen to your instincts and plan an exit strategy, if possible.

Thompson noticed red flags shortly after starting at ANB, such as rehearsals that seemed random rather than directed toward an upcoming season. "We were essentially given busywork," she says. And the conservatory teaching hours she was expecting? "There were multiple nights where I didn't have any students, which meant I did not get paid."

Missed payments or bounced checks are major warning signs. "If they don't even have a bank account and payroll set up, that's a big problem," Braun says. ANB dancers received their agreed-upon salary payments for their five weeks of work, but in unconventional ways: the first payroll in cash and the second through a New York–based dance company, with that state's taxes withheld.

Poor communication about important company news is another flag. In August, Thompson says that ANB dancers read in a Pointe web article that Rasta Thomas was hired as executive artistic director. "It really, really made me nervous when we weren't notified first," she says.

If Things Go Wrong

Many of the laid-off ANB dancers faced significant challenges, from missing a full season of performing to scrambling for backup jobs to make ends meet. And they didn't necessarily qualify for unemployment benefits in South Carolina, says Braun. Since each state has its own regulations, this is something to consider as you budget for an out-of-state job. "You might have to establish residency, and you probably have a minimum number of weeks you have to work in the past 12 months," he cautions.

In addition, Thompson and several other dancers were stuck in their leases. "Our only choice was to keep the apartment or pay the buyout fee," she says. (Thompson is still negotiating the terms of her buyout.) A short-term rental can be a better option while you figure out if a company or new city is a good fit.

Thompson's experience is extreme, but even established companies can undergo financial upheaval if not properly managed. Union members (any dancer can join) in good standing can apply for crisis support from the AGMA Relief Fund, and all professional performing artists can request emergency help from The Actors Fund. Any dancer can also ask an AGMA rep to review a contract after the fact and help sort out their rights, but Braun cautions that "there's not a lot we can do to enforce it, if it's not a union contract."

It may feel justified, but avoid venting on social media, especially if there is a possibility for lawsuits. "Don't burn bridges, no matter how upset you get," says Thompson. If potential employers see unprofessional posts, they may think twice about hiring you.

As you regroup and figure out your next step, take time off if necessary, then get back into the studio and reconnect with your passion for dancing. "I don't know if I can put myself out there again," says Thompson, who is teaching part-time at The Washington School of Ballet and preparing for auditions. Still, she says, "I love dancing more than anything."

What to Watch For

If problems like these arise in your company, don't rationalize them—investigate.

  • Poor communication, whether it's about your salary or major company changes.
  • Vague season plans. Performances should be set well before the season starts.
  • Sudden, unexplained growth, whether it's an unusually large roster or a new building.
  • A history of canceled or partially canceled seasons. Has the company gotten back on its feet?
  • High artistic and executive director turnover may signal unrest at the executive level.
  • Unconventional payment methods or bounced paychecks.
  • An obscurely worded contract—or no contract at all. A contract signed by both parties is a legally binding document. Make sure you read and understand every word, or review it with someone who does. —Amy Brandt

Briley Neugebauer. Photo by Ed Flores, Courtesy PDX Contemporary Ballet.

One Dancer's Happy Ending

Briley Neugebauer's experience proves that dancers can emerge from a bad situation and thrive. In August 2014, she signed on as a trainee with Moxie Contemporary Ballet, a startup company in Portland, Oregon, with the understanding that it would evolve into a professional company.

She was already teaching at the associated studio, so she felt confident accepting the unpaid position. "I knew that I would regret it if I didn't at least try," she says. Things started smoothly, but she admits that pursuing her dream blinded her to some of the signs.

For one thing, she never received a written contract renewal. The director said she had too many things going on to think about that at the time, Neugebauer recalls. "You don't have the job until you see the paper. And even then, it needs to be signed," Neugebauer says. She also dismissed suspicions when the owner purchased spacious new studios, which in hindsight seemed like too much expansion too fast. Not long afterwards, the owner announced she was moving to California, the studio was shuttered and Moxie was over. "I felt like a dream died," Neugebauer says.

After "a lot of crying," Neugebauer and ex-Moxie dancers Emily Schultz and Joanna Hardy decided to start their own company, PDX Contemporary Ballet. "It was like, We might as well band together and create something good out of this," Neugebauer recalls.

The small rep company is now in its third year, and no one gets paid, but Neugebauer loves being an artistic director. In the future she would like to pay the dancers and take a salary herself, but her first priority is operating within PDX's budget. "We only rehearse Monday through Thursday from 11 am to 2:30 pm, so the dancers can have part-time jobs."

Neugebauer now looks back on Moxie with a certain gratitude. "It was one of the worst years of my entire life, but it was one of the most important," she says of losing her dream job. "I feel like the Moxie thing happened so that PDXCB could." —CB

Show Comments ()
Viral Videos
Josephine Lee exploring Oklahoma. Photo Courtesy Lee.

Earlier this summer, we followed master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop as she made her on a pointe shoe fitting tour around the West Coast and California. Now she's back, this time on a 45-day tour from California to Chicago, educating students on all things pointe shoes and helping them to find their perfect fit. Lee's making stops at top ballet companies and academies across the country, interviewing school directors and chatting with professional ballerinas to find out how they customize and break in their pointe shoes. Below, check out Lee's stop at Oklahoma City Ballet. She touches base with company soloist Amanda Popejoy and school director Penny Askew. Stay tuned for more!

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Careers
Sarah Beth Marr. Photo by Oliver Endahl of Ballet Zaida, Courtesy Marr.

Several years ago, Sarah Beth Marr, then a dancer with Mejia Ballet International in Arlington, Texas, went to see a famous ballerina give an interview at a nearby theater. She was eager to hear the dancer's insights on navigating a ballet career. "I was hoping for some kind of secret sauce in order to keep going," she says. When it came time for a question and answer period, several in the audience asked the ballerina about what got her through challenging times. "Her answer was that she worked really hard and pushed herself and tried to be the best," says Marr, "and there's a lot of truth in that." But she was left with a heavy feeling inside. "Is it all about working really hard and striving and carving my own path, or is there something deeper?"

Keep reading... Show less
Joffrey Ballet's April Daly, Yoshihisa Arai and Amanda Assucena in Christopher Wheeldon's Swan Lake. Assucena will make her debut in the role of Odette/Odile this week. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Training
Remie Goins, a student at International City School of Ballet in Atlanta, performs at the YAGP finals. Photo by VAM, Courtesy YAGP.

You've watched First Position, the 2011 documentary about dancers at Youth America Grand Prix. You've studied videos of past ballet competition winners online. Now, you're interested in joining those elite ranks by entering a competition yourself. But what if your school doesn't have a pro- gram set up to guide you through the process? Pointe asked four experts to break down what ballet competition newbies need to know.

Keep reading... Show less
Joseph Gordon, pictured here in George Balanchine's Who Cares?, became New York City Ballet's newest principal this weekend. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

On October 13, the evening before the close of New York City Ballet's fall season and longtime principal Joaquin De Luz's retirement performance, Jonathan Stafford, the leader of the company's interim artistic team, promoted seven company dancers: six men and one woman. In addition to De Luz, NYCB lost three other principal men this fall. Chase Finlay, Zachary Catazaro and Amar Ramasar were fired last month in the midst of a scandal surrounding the sharing of sexually explicit communications. With principal Adrian Danchig-Waring out of commission while recovering from a broken foot, the company has been in need of male dancers to bolster its upper ranks.

Joseph Gordon has been promoted to principal, and Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist. All seven made a number of debuts throughout the year and shone in featured roles; we've rounded up some of their recent accomplishments below.

Keep reading... Show less
From left: ABT principals Devon Teuscher, Christine Shevchenko and Gillian Murphy isn Praedicere. Photo by Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT.

Last spring American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie announced the company's Women's Movement, a multi-year initiative to support the creation of new work by female choreographers. ABT's fall season, running October 17–28 at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, sets the project in full swing. The opening gala features a world premiere by tap extraordinaire Michelle Dorrance. A co-commission with the Vail Dance Festival, this work marks ABT's third collaboration with Dorrance this year: She created Praedicere, a pièce d'occasion for ABT's spring gala, as well as a work on company dancers at Vail last summer. The gala performance also includes past and present works by two female choreographers: Twyla Tharp's 1986 In The Upper Room and Lauren Lovette's 2017 Le Jeune, which will be danced by the ABT Studio Company.

Keep reading... Show less
Sarah Lane and Jeffrey Cirio in Harlequinade. Photo: ErIn Baiano

American Ballet Theatre's two months of performances at New York City's Metropolitan Opera House can be an exciting but demanding time for the dancers. With nine ballets in eight weeks including Whipped Cream and Harlequinade, a night off is hard to come by.

James Whiteside as Harlequin in Harlequinade. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Josephine Lee outside Ballet West Academy. Photo Courtesy Lee.

Earlier this summer, we followed master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop as she made her on a pointe shoe fitting tour around the West Coast and California. Now she's back, this time on a 45-day tour from California to Chicago, educating students on all things pointe shoes and helping them to find their perfect fit. Lee's making stops at top ballet companies and academies across the country, exploring schools and getting know academy directors. Below, check out Lee's stop at Ballet West. She touches base with academy director Peter Merz. Stay tuned for more!

Editors' List: The Goods
San Francisco Ballet soloist Koto Ishihara stretches in her warm-up boots. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Dance Magazine.

With cooler weather finally here, it's time to talk warm-ups. And while your dancewear drawer is probably overflowing with oversized sweaters, leggings and enough leg warmers to outfit the whole class, warm-up boots are often forgotten. To keep your feet and ankles cozy in between rehearsals, we rounded up dance warm-up boots that suit every style.

Bloch Inc. Printed Warm-up Bootie

via Bloch Inc.

Created by Irina Dvorovenko and Max Beloserkovsky, this collection comes in a variety of tie dye, floral and even butterfly prints., $48

Kimin Kim and Soobin Lee. Photo Courtesy SunHee Kim.

Kimin Kim may be a huge star in Russia, but he hasn't forgotten his roots. The prodigious South Korean dancer, who became the Mariinsky Ballet's first foreign principal in 2015, trained at the Korea National University of the Arts, also known as K'Arts. He owes much of his success, he says over email, to the academy's teachers, who prepared him well for his high-profile career. So when dean SunHee Kim approached him about guest-starring in the American premiere of her original ballet Song of the Mermaid, which K'Arts Ballet brings to New York City next week, he didn't hesitate to sign on. "I had performed the role of the Prince while I was at school in Korea and it was such a memorable performance," Kim says. "I've always wanted to do it again, so I happily accepted her offer."

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Careers
From left: ABT principals Isabella Boylston, James Whiteside, Gillian Murphy, Stella Abrera and Cory Stearns with Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse. Photo Courtesy HBS.

Between long rehearsal days, performances and hectic touring schedules, it can be hard for professional dancers to plan for their post-performance careers while they're still onstage. This fall, that changes for five American Ballet Theatre principals. Stella Abrera, Isabella Boylston, Cory Stearns, James Whiteside and Gillian Murphy have been chosen as the first dancers to participate in Crossover Into Business at Harvard Business School, a semester-long program designed for professional athletes.

Last year, Crossover Into Business program director and HBS professor Anita Elberse was developing a case study on ABT, and reached out to the company executive director Kara Medoff Barnett, an alumna of HBS. "Anita mentioned the Crossover Program as an experience that has been transformative for professional athletes," says Barnett. "We looked at each other and had the same idea: How about inviting the ABT dancers to sit next to the NBA players?"

Keep reading... Show less
Joy Womack in "Don Quixote." Photo by Kyoungjin Kim, Courtesy Universal Ballet.

Joy Womack is no stranger to the road less traveled. As the first American graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and first American woman to join the Bolshoi Ballet, the California native is accustomed to going out on a limb. Now at 24, after spending last season as a principal dancer with the Universal Ballet in Seoul, South Korea, she is taking a leave of absence and is back in Moscow with a revamped perspective and an impressive bucket list. We caught up with Womack over the phone to hear about her move from Russia to Korea and back again, and how life has changed since venturing on her own.

Keep reading... Show less


Viral Videos



Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox


Win It!