Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

The Big Benefits of Going Small

“I remember declaring at age 13 that if I didn't get into Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet or New York City Ballet, I just wasn't going to dance," says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson. “I thought any other company was subpar." A student at Seattle's PNB School since Level I, Erickson was bred for “big ballet." While in the school's pre-professional division, she frequently performed corps roles with PNB, and toured with the group to Scotland, England, Alaska and Hong Kong. But when company contracts were distributed her last year in the school, Erickson didn't get one—and she was confronted with her own ultimatum.

Ballet students tend to dream big, and that's not a bad thing. But don't limit your professional potential with a “go big or go home" attitude. Your career goals shouldn't revolve around an impressive resumé alone, and many dancers have discovered that it's actually easier to find artistic fulfillment in a regional company. DS talked to ballet professionals about the big benefits of joining a smaller group.


A Different Perspective

The technique-oriented perfectionism of ballet training can give dancers tunnel vision. But there's so much more to ballet than technique—and the diverse dancers of a smaller company can provide a healthy sense of perspective. Erickson made that discovery at her first job, an apprenticeship at what is now Texas Ballet Theater. “The apprenticeship broadened my horizons," she remembers. “There were a lot of really good dancers who didn't have 'perfect' bodies. I saw that you didn't have to have crazy facility to be excellent." The experience helped Erickson think about shining artistically as well as technically.

Julia Erickson as Odette in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake (photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy PBT)

A Healthier Atmosphere

Even dancers who get contracts with big companies sometimes find that smaller ones are better fits. While some artists flourish in the intensely competitive environment of a top troupe, where dozens of dancers vie for limited parts, for others, that pressure can be difficult to handle.

Ommi Pipit-Suksun was high on the dream when she was offered a soloist position at San Francisco Ballet straight out of London's Royal Ballet School. But she found that entering SFB at a high rank made finding friends a challenge. She also felt like she constantly had to prove herself—which made her push her body beyond its limits. A knee injury in 2007 brought sharp perspective. “A ballet career is very short, and I realized I had to take better care of myself," she says. Pipit-Suksun joined California's Ballet San Jose as a soloist in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2013. There, the support of both the dancers and the artistic staff have helped her thrive.

Erickson has also benefited from the less-competitive regional company environment, first in Texas and now at PBT. She likens PBT's culture of support to teammates cheering from the bench during a basketball game—they're a small, intimate group rather than a large, anonymous one. During the second act of every performance of The Nutcracker, for example, the entire company gathers to watch the dancers onstage from the wings. (Sometimes, the stage managers have to scold them for cheering too loudly!)

A Place to Grow

A small company can be the perfect environment for young dancers who are still learning and evolving as artists. Rather than getting lost in a line of swans, they get real attention from directors and choreographers.

Iain Webb, artistic director of The Sarasota Ballet, has seen this firsthand. At The Royal Ballet, where he used to dance, casting was largely determined by rank. But in Sarasota, “when a choreographer comes in, I don't turn around and say, 'These are the principal dancers you need to use,' " Webb says. “Everybody has a chance."

This season, The Sarasota Ballet will perform pieces by George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Paul Taylor and Michel Fokine—a huge range of styles. To sustain that kind of diversity, Webb mines dancers from all ranks of the company, casting according to their individual strengths, which means corps members frequently end up dancing principal parts.

A Wealth of Opportunities

Fewer dancers also means there are simply more roles for the taking, especially when a big story ballet comes along. In PBT's most recent production of The Sleeping Beauty, for example, Erickson danced Aurora, the Lilac Fairy and the evil Carabosse. The last is an opportunity that would be unlikely at a major company, where a theatrical role like Carabosse would typically be assigned to a character dancer. As a soloist at SFB, Pipit-Suksun found she was dancing less than the girls in the corps, but at BSJ, “I dance all the time, which means I'm in better shape than ever," she says. “I don't have to wait in line to do the roles that I love."

Think about it this way: Every professional ballet dancer, no matter what company she dances for, is living the dream. If you're serious about a ballet career, don't be afraid to go small.

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