Winslett teaching company class. Photo by Aaron Sutten, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.
In 1980, just months after graduating from Smith College, Stoner Winslett attended a performance by Richmond Ballet. Though it was then just a student company, with a modest budget of $164,000, they were performing in a large venue, with the Richmond Symphony in the pit. “I saw so much potential on that stage," says Winslett. “And I thought, Boy, I should help these people."

At the time, one director ran the separate school and company. “They wanted someone to come work as her assistant, for the company," says Winslett. Three months after Winslett took the position, the director resigned, and at just 22 years old, Winslett became Richmond Ballet's artistic director and the company's first full-time employee.

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During her first semester with Columbia Ballet Collaborative, Rachel Silvern surprised herself. “Growing up, the focus was always on dancing to please others, to get cast in something,” she says. “But at Columbia, suddenly it wasn’t about who was watching or what they thought. I was dancing for myself—and rediscovering why I danced in the first place.”

For serious ballet students who don’t plan to major in dance in college, performing with a student-run ballet company is becoming an increasingly accessible option. More and more schools offer them. And the troupes can be incubators for real talent—alumni of Harvard Ballet Company, for example, now dance with American Ballet Theatre, Los Angeles Ballet and Ballet Austin. 

Student-run troupes aren’t about polishing your dancing—the training will never be as rigorous as a dance department’s. Yet the do-it-yourself spirit can lead to artistic growth like Silvern’s, or new behind-the-scenes interests. A student company can also provide possibilities to take on leadership roles by choreographing, teaching or directing. However, the opportunities vary widely from school to school. Figuring out what you’ll gain from the experience requires a little investigating.

Level and Commitment

The first indicator of a company’s level of professionalism? Auditions. Some companies require dancers to try out at the start of every semester or school year, and take only students who dance at an intermediate or advanced level. Others allow anyone to show up to their open class, which probably won’t be as intense.

Also look at how many hours of class and rehearsal will be required. You’ll typically find one weekly 90-minute class, taught by company members or the occasional guest artist, plus rehearsals. Stanford University’s Cardinal Ballet Company, for example,  holds a four-hour rehearsal each Sunday (one hour per piece). However, the company doesn’t give any company class, so most members rely on the Monday, Wednesday, Friday advanced ballet classes in Stanford’s dance division. Serious dancers at any student company almost always have to take outside classes through their school or a local studio to keep up their technique. 

Stage Opportunities

Most companies offer two or more performances a year, with a varied repertoire that typically includes at least one classical variation from a ballet such as Paquita or Swan Lake. Often, interested dancers also have the opportunity to choreograph on their peers. 

Many troupes bring in guest artists to set work as well. Cardinal Ballet Company recently performed a piece by Amy Seiwert. Columbia Ballet Collaborative, which reaps the benefits of its New York location, works regularly with Emery LeCrone and other New York–based artists. “Choreographers love working with our company because we provide studio space and high-caliber dancers, and they get the opportunity to spend a whole semester working on a new piece,” says Silvern. Dancers from New York City Ballet occasionally perform with Columbia Ballet Collaborative as well.

At some troupes, such as Harvard Ballet Company, directors take dancers’ preferences into account while casting “We try to foster a collaborative, egalitarian environment,” says member Bridget Scanlon. Others, such as Columbia Ballet Collaborative, reflect the professional world by allowing choreographers to cast their own pieces.

Gateway to a Career?
Though some alumni go on to performing careers, a major benefit of student companies is the exposure to other aspects of the field. Dancers frequently end up working offstage in production, administration and development roles. Recent Stanford graduate Colette Posse notes that classmates who were in Cardinal Ballet Company now work in the administration of companies such as Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and have even founded their own contemporary ballet troupes.

“Even though a student-run company doesn’t have the prestige that would make it a stepping stone to a career in itself, dancers can use it to keep performing,” says Claremont Colleges Ballet Company co-founder Emily Kleeman, who takes advantage of the leadership opportunities she might not get anywhere else. “I personally am interested in choreography, so I use this experience as practice for my goal of one day running my own company.”



Compete in Cape Town

Classical ballet has a strong following in Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Town International Ballet Competition, founded in 2008 by Dirk Badenhorst of the South African Manzi Ballet, attracts talent from all corners of the globe—and a number of young North Americans have already made their mark there. 
Competition dates: February 17–23, 2014
Application deadline: January 13, 2014
Divisions: Seniors (21­–28), juniors (16–20), scholars (12–15)
Held: Every other year
Fee: $120, plus travel and lodging
Judging: A point system weighing artistry (30%), technique (30%), presentation (30%), grooming (5%) and preparation (5%)
2014 judges include: Marcia Haydée, artistic director of Ballet de Santiago; Ramona de Saa, director of the National Ballet School of Cuba; Hae Shik Kim, artistic director of the Seoul International Dance Competition and Xin Lili, director of the Shanghai Ballet
Past participants: Hannah Bettes, Alys Shee, Aaron Smyth
Website: ctibc.com


Technique Tip

“Think of yourself as a rubber band being pulled from the top and bottom to create one elongated line. My teacher John Adamson taught me you can’t simply ‘pull up’—you also have to have your legs firmly rooted below you with energy shooting downward.” —North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Emily Ramirez

The Washington Ballet was always a hometown favorite. Under Septime Webre, now it’s also a top national troupe.

An all-Tharp program. World premieres by Edwaard Liang and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. A new ALICE (in wonderland). The Washington Ballet’s last season was full of creativity and virtuoso performances. It’s a long way from the 1970s troupe Mary Day began as an outlet for her students. Under the ebullient artistic direction of Septime Webre, the company now holds its own in a city that’s accustomed to regular visits from the Bolshoi Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

Webre, who grew up in Texas, was supposed to become a lawyer. But he followed his sister to ballet school, and when he got a job dancing for Ballet Austin after college, he deferred law school and never looked back. Webre later danced with American Repertory Ballet, where he served as resident choreographer during the late 1980s and early ‘90s, then became the company’s artistic director in 1993. He also apprenticed with Merce Cunningham.

When TWB’s board of directors approached him in 1999, Webre says, “I knew of the company by reputation, knew of Mary Day’s great influence on the ballet world. And I knew that TWB had grown to be a very interesting company.”

Pioneering teacher Mary Day co-founded The Washington School of Ballet with Lisa Gardiner in 1944. Day trained many great dancers, including Amanda McKerrow, Kevin McKenzie and Virginia Johnson. TWB made the shift from student troupe to professional company in 1976, and its reputation grew during the late 1970s and ‘80s with Singaporean neoclassical choreographer Choo-San Goh as artist-in-residence.

The organization has blossomed since Webre took the helm. The company’s annual budget has grown from about $2.8 million to approximately $9.5 million. Webre has cherry-picked some top dancers, such as Brooklyn Mack and Maki Onuki, from the ballet competition circuit where he’s often a judge. The school has expanded from one location with 350 students to three locations and a total of around 900 students.

“What I’ve tried to do is grow the organization with the partnership of the board, staff and dancers,” says Webre. “Mary Day’s concept was a very fine school, and a company of classical dancers who cherished creativity. She always produced a lot of new work, so it was a real incubation place. I try to retain that central DNA.”

Webre, however, has greatly expanded the repertoire. While Day avoided the traditional full-lengths because the Kennedy Center has long booked world-famous companies that bring the classics to DC, Webre has brought in such ballets as Anna-Marie Holmes’Don Quixote and Bournonville’s La Sylphide. He feels that the Kennedy Center’s big productions, rather than overshadowing the dance scene in DC, have enlivened it. “I think our audiences are smarter, better educated, have higher expectations here. They view us as a stronger company as a result of seeing that we can tackle this kind of repertoire with credibility.”

The company’s growth has not come without pain. The dancers decided to unionize in 2004, and a labor dispute over the initial union contract in 2005 resulted in program cancellations (including the lucrative Nutcracker) that cost the company well over $700,000. “We grew so quickly in my first five years here. I think the infrastructure around the dancers and the company and how we do business didn’t grow as quickly as our activity did,” Webre says. “Their decision to unionize was a logical one, and in retrospect a very good one. Our organization is much healthier now.” Webre feels healing from the dispute came about through returning to work. “Once the contract was signed, we really came back together in cooperation and collaboration. And I think the bonds were rebuilt in the studio.”

During the recent economic downturn, city funding of TWB has dropped 90 percent—from about $1 million pre-recession to $100,000 in 2009. Fortunately, ticket sales have increased and philanthropy has held steady. Webre has steered TWB away from cutting dancers or programming, instead focusing on streamlining company administration. “We do a lot with a little, and take an entrepreneurial approach,” he says. “We’ve got to be scrappy, and it’s really working.”

Looking ahead, Webre is excited about a new addition to the repertoire: the American Experience, a series of ballets based on great works of American literature. It started with Webre’s The Great Gatsby in 2010, and the spring of 2013 will bring his adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Other choreographers will be brought in to create future ballets for the project.

In addition to the growing repertoire, the company has blossomed through the organization’s commitment to community engagement, fulfilled by a partnership with DC public schools, and the school’s studios at the Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Center (THEARC) in southeast Washington, a historically underserved community. The success of both programs, says Webre, has bolstered TWB’s audience, student and donor populations. “The community of Washington, DC, cares about TWB not just because of our performances onstage, but because we’re contributing to the social fabric of the city.”

At A Glance

The Washington Ballet

Location: Washington, DC

Size: 23 dancers in the main company, 11 in the studio company

Height/body type: There are no expressed limitations, but Webre prefers a “lean, athletic look.”

Starting salary: $810.90/week for the first year, $926.72/week second year

Length of contract: 34 weeks

Touring: Occasional international tours

Website: washingtonballet.org

Audition Tip

“Check your insecurities at the door. You’ve got to take command of the studio, even if there are 80 other dancers around you. Ballet is best executed when dancers have a sense of authority. You’ve got to approach your day like a ballerina or a danseur noble in order to be one.” —Septime Webre

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