What It's Really Like to Be a Supernumerary with American Ballet Theatre

18-year-old Justin Souriau-Levine (indicated by arrow) takes us backstage as an ABT supernumerary. (Photo by Kyle Froman)

American Ballet Theatre boasts nearly 90 dancers. But when the company is mounting an elaborate story ballet at NYC's cavernous Metropolitan Opera House, it actually needs more bodies to complete the picture onstage. Enter supernumeraries, aka "supers." These supplementary performers are hired for non-dancing background roles (think "third courtier from the left" or "tall market lady"). Being a super is a fabulous way to get onstage experience—not to mention an up-close-and-personal look at some of the dance world's biggest stars.

All photos by Kyle Froman

Many supers are older performers with little or no dance training. But some shows call for younger supers who can carry themselves like dancers, and many of them are ballet students who aspire to professional careers of their own. We followed 18-year-old Justin Souriau-Levine, a student at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and a veteran super, through a rehearsal for ABT's Romeo and Juliet, in which he played three different supernumerary parts.

Justin as the Bride's Groom

In this production of Romeo and Juliet, there were 59 supers in total, although there can be as many as 63. The youngest was 12, and the oldest were in their 60s.

In the first act, Justin played a litter bearer; in the third, an anonymous monk. But in the second act, he had a real moment in the sun as the Bride's Groom, who gets to stand center stage with his Bride and receive congratulations from the crowd. "Supers do every show, so I got married eight times!" he says. "I mean, that's pretty cool."

Justin as the litter bearer

What's most challenging about being a super? "Well, sometimes you just want to start dancing with the dancers, doing the variation!" Justin says. "You have to hold yourself back. I've been told to tone down my acting and gestures many, many times. But I always think it's better to give a little more than to give a little less. You have to use your entire body to create a role, big enough so everyone in the back rows can see you—even if they're not necessarily looking at you."

They might not do any dancing, but supers do still have to audition. "Everyone lines up, and the artistic crew goes down the line and makes their picks," Justin says. "Sometimes it's more about your size and look than anything else—whether or not you'll fit the costumes they have."

With ABT's Thomas Forster

Justin loves not only the onstage experience of supering, but also the time spent backstage. "You do interact with the company members, and, actually, I've become quite good friends with a few of them," he says. "Getting to know and be around such high-caliber dancers is truly inspiring. You see what being a dancer here is really like, which is especially great if, like me, you want to join the company someday."

Though still a student, Justin has already supered in 13 (!) ABT productions. He actually originated super parts in several ballets by ABT resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, including the mischievous Little Mouse in The Nutcracker and the 11-foot-tall Nicolo, Master of Ceremonies in Whipped Cream.

A version of this story appeared in the September 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Super-lative."

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