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

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

"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. 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

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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."

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