Deciding between bigger and smaller ballet companies

June 23, 2009

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