Receiving a second company or trainee contract can help bridge the gap from student to professional. Whether you make it into the main company afterwards or move on to another one, these years, if danced to the fullest, can be valuable to your life and career.
"You'll find people say that we're very demanding, but we're not mean," says Daniel Duell, co-founder of the Ballet Chicago Studio Company, a rigorous, Balanchine-based pre-professional training program located in the heart of downtown Chicago. Duell originally formed Ballet Chicago as a professional company, which disbanded after 11 seasons in 1998. Today, the organization is wholly dedicated to training and is one of the only pre-professional programs in the country entrusted with staging George Balanchine's ballets.
In addition to running the Ballet Chicago Studio Company (BCSC) and its affiliated school, former New York City Ballet principal Duell and his wife, Patricia Blair, who danced with Eglevsky Ballet, are répétiteurs for The George Balanchine Trust. The couple's investment in Balanchine's technique and repertoire has afforded Ballet Chicago a unique relationship with the Trust, giving BCSC dancers the opportunity to perform classic ballets like Concerto Barocco, "Rubies," Tarantella and Valse-Fantaisie.
For the members of Boston Ballet II, Thursday mornings are a special treat. At 9 am, well before the company arrives, they begin their own class with BBII associate director Peter Stark. It's their chance to talk through corrections and dig into the details of their technique—a welcome break from the fast-paced company environment they're just getting used to. "I really enjoy our Thursday class," says Catherine Livingston, 19, who joined BBII last fall. "It's just the 10 of us, and Peter coaches us all individually."
What do soloists Sarah Lane, Kelly Myernick and Callie Manning have in common? Before rising through the ranks of American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet and Miami City Ballet, respectively, these dancers were finalists at youngARTS Week.
Sponsored by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, youngARTS offers more than $500,000 in prizes each year to high school seniors who show exceptional promise, from dancers and actors to photographers and filmmakers. Of the 6,000 to 8,000 annual applicants, up to 150 (including about 20 dancers) are selected as finalists and invited to Miami for an intense, celebratory week of master classes, rehearsals and showcases.
The prospect of a cash prize is, of course, a major part of youngARTS’ appeal. “But what excited me most,” says Sara Michelle Murawski, a 2009 ballet finalist, “was the idea of meeting other artists my age from all fields who are just as passionate about what they do as I am.” Watching the theater finalists perform, Murawski says, inspired her to translate their “fearlessness” into her own dancing. “And I learned from the modern and jazz dancers by observing how they ‘let go,’ how they dance with freedom and abandon.”
YoungARTS Week often leads to further opportunities. Sixty finalists are nominated for Presidential Scholarships; others are invited to Arts Evolution, a week-long residency in New York City; and all have the chance to foster new friendships and professional ties.
June 16 is the early registration deadline for youngARTS 2010, and registration closes on October 1. For details, visit www.nfaa.org/Students. —Siobhan Burke
Corella Ballet Summer Intensive
This August, Corella Ballet artistic directors Angel and Carmen Corella will teach a summer intensive in classical and neoclassical ballet. “It’s an opportunity to work directly with my brother Angel and myself, and to get to know the company,” says Carmen Corella. “And it offers the possibility of being contracted for a future apprenticeship.”
The one- to two-week program at Corella Ballet’s headquarters in Segovia, Spain, runs six days a week from 11:00 am to 5:30 pm. Classes include technique, pointe, jumps for men, repertory and pas de deux. Dancers must be 13 or older, at the intermediate or advanced level. Although spots are limited, students from anywhere in the world are welcome to apply. As Corella explains, “the company is always enriched by the best dancers, no matter what country they are from.” Apply by June 15 at www.angelcorella.com.
—Justine Bayod Espoz
American Ballet Competition
Most competitions are all about those two minutes onstage when you get to show everything you’ve got. But the American Ballet Competition, presented by The Institute for Dance Education Arts, adds an extra educational step: coaching from a master teacher. “It’s the only competition I’ve been to where we get to run the variation onstage and hear feedback from a fresh perspective before performing it,” says Kaitlyn Potts, who took first place in the top division in 2008.
Founded in 2004, ABC offers pre-professional dancers ages 10 to 20 master classes and coaching sessions with international guest artists, as well as the chance to compete for scholarships, traineeships, apprenticeships and professional performance opportunities. Past teachers have included Gilbert Mayer of the Paris Opera Ballet School, Kee-Juan Han of the Washington School of Ballet and Anna-Marie Holmes of Jacob’s Pillow. Directors of schools and companies such as Ballet Austin, Colorado Ballet, Nevada Ballet Theatre and Virginia School of the Arts watch the dancers in class, rehearsal and performance. “It’s a chance for students to get exposure to master teachers and artistic directors in a very nurturing environment,” says Katherine Kersten, director of ABC. With only about 80 to 90 dancers each year, ABC is smaller than many major ballet competitions, such as Youth America Grand Prix, but that means a higher percentage of competitors receive some sort of award or opportunity. “Even students who don’t place high up in the competition have walked away with scholarships or traineeships,” says Potter. See www.americanballetcompetition.com for information on the 2010 competition. —Jennifer Stahl
TIP: How can you turn your summer intensive experience into an offer with the second company?
“It’s all about attitude. Approach everything with eagerness, hunger and enthusiasm. We’re especially looking at how you work on choreography during rehearsals. But we also watch how you behave outside of the studio—show that you’re someone younger dancers can look up to.” —Michael Pink, artistic director of Milwaukee Ballet
In her senior year of high school, Michelle Thompson, a student at the San Francisco Ballet School, went on “tons of auditions,” but soon found she needed to widen her search; after only one girl was chosen from her class of 25 to join SFB, Thompson decided to attend Ballet Austin’s summer intensive program. By summer’s end, she was one of six girls selected to join Ballet Austin II.
Now 23, Thompson is in her fourth season with Ballet Austin, and credits her second company experience with building confidence and providing training in contemporary partnering. “Coming from San Francisco Ballet, I had a lot going for me, but Ballet Austin II helped me develop,” she says. “It was a bridge for me.”
Stories like Thompson’s have become more common as the number of second companies has grown. While the reasons for this trend may vary, artistic directors usually cite the growing number of dancers needing jobs and the availability of funding to support supervisory positions. Maintaining a second company is also efficient; with a supply of homegrown dancers available to swell the ranks during big productions, main companies can be smaller. Second companies are also often vital in executing public education programs that boost community presence and may even generate income.
For the most part, artistic directors and dancers laud the merits of second companies, including extensive performing and technical fine-tuning for young dancers learning the ins and outs of company life. But they also acknowledge the drawbacks: low pay—or no pay—and the distinct possibility that a company job won’t follow a second company gig. “Obviously,” Thompson points out, “they can’t tell you at the beginning of the year if they will have a spot for you.”
Second companies are nothing new. Formed in 1968, Joffrey II (now defunct) was the first to open in the U.S., followed six years later by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Ailey II. The last 10 years, however, have seen a rise in second companies, and now most large- and medium-sized companies in the U.S. have them (see page 88 for a listing of second companies).
The structure of each second company varies. BAII members are considered apprentices to the main company, while Pennsylvania Ballet II members are not—although both supplement the main company’s performances and tour independently. Ailey II’s 12 dancers, who will perform in more than 45 cities this season, no longer join first company productions, and the second company has four unpaid apprentices of its own. And members of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company—whose focus is training over outreach—become apprentices only when they join the main company.
“Everybody has a different kind of system,” says BA Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin. “If you try and put it all together and figure out if there’s a continuum, I’m not sure there is.”
Among the second companies that exist now, pay is a big issue. Alan Gordon, executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, says, “The problem is that most ballet companies treat those dancers as students,” who, he adds, are in the in-between stage of their careers. AGMA, however, can only negotiate on behalf of dancers recognized as employees.
Because of this, BAII makes it a point to be upfront, both at auditions and post-hire. Audition forms break down all company components, and auditions are followed with 10-minute Q&A sessions.
BAII dancers are apprentices who take company class and do four to five productions of their own each spring, sign a 34-week, non-union contract and receive $150 to 200 per week. Their days end at 3:30 pm, which allows for second jobs. While many take on babysitting and catering work, Martin says, “We try and encourage them to look beyond what’s automatically an easy thing and to use their skills [that are not related to dance] in another area they’re interested in pursuing.”
On the other hand, Martin points to the benefits, such as the individual attention and feedback her dancers receive, such as conferences, goal-setting sessions and self evaluation. “Our goal for them is to develop as artists. There has to be something in it for them. It can’t be about Ballet Austin using kids to go out and demonstrate. It is incumbent on us to provide resources to position them to be successful. Sometimes it’s helping them see that they won’t fit in the industry where they think they will fit.”
Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet has no second company. Former artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell decided against it, worried it would distract young dancers. PNB Professional Division students “were in the big productions, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker—but not all the time,” Russell says. “We wanted them to understand their main purpose was to complete their training. I think it’s wonderful for them to perform, but they’re still students.”
BAII’s Martin agrees, though she says, “That’s why each year we make little changes to better serve the dancers and us. It can be distracting. There was a time when they would be in some school cafeteria [doing outreach] and not getting a full class. We scaled back. It’s a balance.”
But for Kirk Peterson, ABT Studio Company’s artistic director, there’s no substitute for getting onstage. “Personally, I find dancers who’ve performed a lot have it much easier,” he says. To him, joining a company fresh out of school is like being thrown “into the deep end of the pool,” because professional dancers get so little personal attention.
“Of course, it’s essential to focus on their technique,” Peterson emphasizes, giving the example of one boy who doesn’t yet have sufficient upper body strength for partnering. While ABT staff helps him overcome that, he’ll do what’s appropriate for his level of development onstage.
One of Peterson’s goals is to nail down more performance opportunities during the summer months. His 12 dancers, who are ages 17 to 20, supplement the main company’s Metropolitan Opera House season after their eight-month contracts end in April. During the 2006-07 season, the Studio Company will perform at an AIDS benefit, universities, in various Nutcrackers and a gala in Bermuda. They’ll also take part in a three-week residency at White Oak in Florida and perform new choreography by Adam Hougland, Peterson’s Eyes That Gently Touch and Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden. (The Studio Company is the first second company to receive permission to dance the Tudor ballet.)
Opportunity is a big bonus at Pennsylvania Ballet II. In 2005, PBII joined the main company to perform Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake at the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. Closer to home, the company performs 25 to 30 times a year, and the roles can be big. Ian Hussey, a former PBII member who became a company apprentice in 2006, danced Black Swan pas de deux variations while still in the second company. In addition to learning variations, Hussey says he prized working on big jumps and partnering in the
junior company. “It’s a skill that’s difficult and important,” he emphasizes. “It can make or break your career.”
“I wish I had had this experience when I was a young dancer,” says PBII Director William DeGregory, a former Pennsylvania Ballet principal. “They’re doing outreach stuff with me they’d never touch if they were a corps member: soloist and pas de deux roles, partnering and pointe work.”
Calling it a win-win situation for all, DeGregory wonders why every company doesn’t maintain a second company.
“I think it works fantastically,” he says. “It’s a great, great learning vehicle.”
Susan Chitwood, a former apprentice with Virginia Ballet Theater, has an MS in journalism from Columbia University in New York City.
It's the start of a new season, and many pre-professionals will be making the transition from top student to second company member. Being in a second company is one of the trickiest stages of a dancer's career: It's an opportunity to launch your professional life, but there are no guarantees that you'll be asked to stay with the organization after your one- or two-year contract is up. How can you make the kind of impression that leads to a main company offer? Alfonso Martin, artistic manager of Tulsa Ballet II, shares his advice for newbies.
What's the most difficult part of transitioning into life as a second company member?
Getting used to being completely out of your comfort zone. These dancers go from having been top students under the umbrella of their teacher to working their way up from the bottom.
How should a dancer approach the change?
Keep an open mind. You're going to rehearse like a professional dancer, meaning you'll be asked to dance not only with technique but also with emotion—and that's not an easy task. For our repertoire, dancers need to be prepared to dance not only classical ballet but also contemporary pieces.
What can second company members do to make a good impression?
Be professional. You need to be 100 percent committed to being in the studio learning, applying corrections and trying your best, as well as working on your own time. Take advantage of the opportunities you're given—they're a test, not a guarantee of a contract. And most importantly, be yourself. Don't pretend to be somebody else.
Are there any common mistakes you see second company members make?
Second company dancers too often think they're part of the organization, and that with just the minimum amount of work they will get into the main company. This is just the beginning of your career. Your work now determines whether you'll get into the main company here or end up using the experience to enter another company.
Who should second company members turn to if they are struggling?
I would hope that they could come to the leader of the second company—a person like myself—for good advice. We want them to be successful in their careers, regardless of whether they are hired by Tulsa Ballet. The goal is to guide them into the professional world and get them ready for the challenges ahead.
What's your advice for the new TBII dancers?
My advice to them is to ask themselves, “What did I come here for? To work hard and hopefully enter into the professional world, or to have some fun in a new environment?" I ask my TBII dancers for a full commitment to every single rehearsal. A dance career is quite short. When you look up, you'll find it’s time to do something else. Take every day as a new experience, and set a goal to make it better than the day before.
Tulsa Ballet II kicks off its season September 6 with a program called On Your Radar. It's the first time a TBII performance has been billed alongside the main company as part of the Tulsa Ballet season.