Deciding between bigger and smaller ballet companies

After seven years at American Ballet Theatre, Elizabeth Gaither arrived at a crossroads: She could finish her career in the corps of a world-famous company or potentially dance leading roles somewhere else.

 

“I was happy at ABT, and I felt valued,” Gaither recalls. “But I was at a point where I could take a leap of faith.” When a job offer came from The Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre, Gaither packed her bags and moved to DC. For the last five years, she’s been performing the lead roles she always dreamed of dancing.

 

Gaither’s experience reflects an issue many ballet dancers encounter. Is it preferable to dance in the corps of a large company, join a smaller company with more opportunities, or try both? All three scenarios can be fulfilling—it just depends on who you are and what you want. It’s important to dance in a place where you can grow and thrive, and that place is different for everyone. “If you don’t go to a major company, have you failed? Of course you haven’t, but there’s always a feeling that you are playing in the second league,” says Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink. “Any experience is valuable as long as you prove yourself as an artist.”

 

As you weigh your options, ask yourself: Do I work better in a small group where I’ll get more attention, or do I prefer the thrill of a packed-to-the-barre class of stars? Do I want to tour internationally? How important is prestige? What kinds of ballets do I want to learn? Which choreographers inspire me? How does the lifestyle and vibe of a city impact me as an artist? Your answers to these questions will lead you in a number of directions. Here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision.


Big-City Ballet
Large and glamorous companies like New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet employ 75 or more artists each season. These organizations go on international tours, have diverse repertories, perform in majestic theaters—and have long seasons. SFB, for instance, has 42-week contracts, while smaller-sized companies hover around 30. More established companies also have the funds and infrastructure to provide such benefits as extensive physical therapy and cross-training programs.

 

These perks are enough to satisfy some dancers for the whole of their careers—even if it means never achieving a higher rank than corps de ballet. Dena Abergel, for example, is in her 17th season in the corps of NYCB. “There are roles I dreamed of dancing that I may never dance, but I’m still thrilled with my choice,” she says. “Young dancers should know that, while it might not be their dream to dance in the corps, it can be a fulfilling career. What ends up mattering is that you’re dancing great ballets to great music.” As you gain seniority, you may even get the chance to tackle soloist and demi-soloist roles.

 

Karin Ellis-Wentz, who danced for Atlanta, Boston and Dutch National Ballets, chose a corps contract at ABT over an offer from a smaller company that would have afforded her lead parts. “I prefer dancing in a bigger company to getting bigger roles,” she explains. “Being able to dance with these amazing people and tour the world in such a famous ballet company was more enticing. It’s a very nice feeling to be out there as a group of people, as a corps, creating something beautiful.”

 

One of the biggest challenges in a large company is getting noticed and finding the inner strength to keep working hard if you don’t. “If you don’t have a strong sense of purpose, it’s easy to get lost among the chosen few,” says Abergel. “You need the confidence to keep at it, or you might get discouraged. You probably won’t get a lot of encouragement and personal attention in a large company.”


A Close-Knit Group
A career in a large, big-city company isn’t for everyone. Many ballet dancers enjoy long and fulfilling tenures at small and medium-sized ensembles outside the largest metropolitan areas. These companies often tour less and have shorter seasons, but dancers get more stage time and personal attention. Because the organization is smaller, the artists tend to be more close-knit. “When you have fewer people, there are more roles to go around and more opportunities,” says Sharon Wehner, who dances with Colorado Ballet.

 

Small companies have less money to pay juicy salaries, though depending on where you live, this may be partially offset by a lower cost of living. Smaller budgets might keep these companies from performing glitzy, expensive ballets, but there is still plenty of great repertory to tackle. Wehner says Colorado Ballet’s repertory kept her in Denver for nearly two decades. “I always evaluate, is this still the right place for me?” she says. “I stay not because I feel stuck, but because I’m excited for what’s coming up!”

 

So what kind of choreographers might you be working with at a small company? CB has performed works by Balanchine, Edwaard Liang and Rennie Harris. Tulsa Ballet’s repertory includes works by Nacho Duato, Stanton Welch and Ben Stevenson. This season, Milwaukee Ballet danced works by Jerome Robbins and Val Caniparoli, while Oregon Ballet Theatre presented works by Nicolo Fonte, James Kudelka, William Forsythe and Peter Martins.

 

It’s important to work in a smaller city with a prolific music and theater scene and a good quality of life, says Pink. “Outside the studio, the environment you live in is very important,” he says. “Milwaukee is a very cultured city, and it has good open spaces—it’s conducive to being creative, and it has strong family values, which means the dancers are well supported.”

 

Making a Change
Artists who have danced for both large and small companies have a unique perspective. Though Gaither loves DC now, the transition from NYC wasn’t easy. “I had a hard time adjusting in the beginning,” she says. “In New York, you feel creative energy everywhere. In DC, you have to look for it.”

 

Community support may also vary. Companies in smaller cities often must work harder to grow and maintain an audience base. For instance, Kathi Martuza danced in the corps of SFB for six years before moving to Portland to join Oregon Ballet Theatre. “In San Francisco, if you say, ‘I’m with SFB,’ the general person knows what you’re talking about. In Portland, they don’t always understand,” she says. “It’s a supportive community for the arts, but it’s different.”

 

Dancers who transition from large companies to small ones should not expect to be the star. “You can’t have dancers who aren’t going to work as a team,” Pink says. “A star in a small company is not good for the audience or the company because the audience will always feel cheated if they don’t see that star onstage.”

 

In addition to offering more stage time and close-knit working relationships, small companies can instill confidence. This is the main reason Pink recommends spending a few seasons in a smaller company. “A young artist needs the practical experience of being in front of an audience, having the challenge of doing 32 fouettés,” he says. “In a classroom of 35 instead of 65, there is more space and more opportunity to be seen by the teacher. To work in that environment builds your confidence and tells you about yourself.”

 

For dancers who start small and move into large companies, the prestige of working in the corps of a major ballet company offers a sense of pride. “Standing in the corps line, you develop such an appreciation for ballet,” says Gaither. “That experience is priceless. I wouldn’t be the dancer I am now if I hadn’t been at ABT.”

 

The trajectory of your career is both personal and special. As you make your way in the ballet world, be a sponge: Soak up as much knowledge and experience as you can, no matter where you dance. As Abergel puts it: “At the end of the day, what matters is how you feel. For me, I find myself fulfilled as a dancer and a person.”

 

Photo: Tony Powell

Photo by Jayme Thornton

Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.

Keep reading... Show less

Leap! National Dance Competition offers dancers of all skill levels an opportunity to showcase their talents in an event where the focus is on fun and competing is just a bonus!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
The School at Jacob's Pillow's contemporary program auditions (photo by Karli Cadel, courtesy Jacob's Pillow)

Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.

Keep reading... Show less

When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.

In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.

The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."

Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.

Keep reading... Show less
Leah Morrison in Trisha Brown's If You Couldn't See Me, in which the soloist never faces the audience (photo by Julia Cervantes, courtesy Trisha Brown Dance Company)

Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.

She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.

Keep reading... Show less
Blankenbuehler (far left) with the rest of the "Hamilton" creative team scontent-iad3-1.cdninstagram.com

So book your tickets to Tulsa already, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Your Body
Amanda LaCount showing off her skills (screenshot via YouTube)

There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.

Keep reading... Show less
Watch This
Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

Mark your calendars, bunheads! On Monday, January 29th, at 2:45 PM (EST)/11:45 AM (PST), Pacific Northwest Ballet will be streaming a live rehearsal of Act II of Kent Stowell's Swan Lake.

Keep reading... Show less
Watch This
Tavaris Jones dancing with the Cleveland Cavaliers' Scream Team hip-hop crew

We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)

So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Want to Be on Our Cover?

covermodelsearch-image

Video

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored