Going Pro: Concert Companies

September 4, 2007

This guide is designed to help you understand the many types of dance companies and determine what aspects you find appealing. Most companies will fit into several of the following categories.

#1 I’d rather be . . .

A: . . . involved with a company from the ground level.

In general, dance companies up to five years old (and sometimes older) are considered new. “For people who love spontaneity, surprise and independence . . . start-up companies can be a great way to go,” says David Leventhal, a Mark Morris Dance Group dancer who worked with several new companies in Boston prior to moving to NYC.

As an inaugural member, expect to have duties beyond performing, such as hanging posters, stage managing or helping clean the dressing rooms after a show. Because new ensembles usually don’t have solid financial infrastructures yet, pay can be unpredictable or meager. “The reward for all of this uncertainty is that you get to feel like an integral part of the company’s success,” says Leventhal. “You don’t have to fight your way through the system; you are the system.”

B: . . . in a dance company with name recognition that has stood the test of time.

Established companies are more likely to have the infrastructure and staff to handle payment, paperwork, publicity and other aspects of the business side of dance. “Dancing is hard enough, and for many, the relative security, comfort and stability of an established company is attractive,” Leventhal says. “This can be liberating, artistically, since a dancer doesn’t have to spend time worrying about the hotel reservations or whether the lights have been focused in time for stage rehearsal.”

#2 I’m most comfortable 
in . . .

A: . . . a sizable organization in which I can progress through the ranks. Large companies have 30 or more dancers; many are divided into tiers, starting with apprentice and rising through corps/ensemble to soloist and principal ranks. Being part of a large company can mean that all eyes aren’t always on you, and in some cases, dancers—especially soloists and principals—will have more time off, because of double-casting. A greater number of advanced dancers can mean many mentorship opportunities, though there will also be more competition on the way to the top. Big troupes often have access to prestigious choreographers or works that smaller ones don’t, says Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Chalnessa Eames. PNB employs more than 40 dancers. “This can mean dancing Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, [changing] into [bare feet for] Nacho Duato’s Jardí Tancat, and back into pointe shoes for another ballet,” she says.

B: . . . an intimate group where I can have personal relationships with the directors and my fellow dancers.

A company may be considered small if it has fewer than 10 members. Depending on the schedule, you could be cast in more pieces during a small company’s season—and more stage time can be both rewarding and taxing.

Note that small doesn’t equal start-up: Pilobolus, for instance, was founded in 1971 and has just seven dancers, all of whom perform in the majority of shows. Because the same dancers spend up to 7 days a week together rehearsing, traveling and performing (often without the presence of their artistic directors), the dancers must maintain a close working relationship to keep the company at its best. One challenge is that personality clashes will seem more problematic in a small group, so everyone must make extra effort to get along.

C: . . . a combination of A and B.

Dancers in midsize companies (10 to 30 dancers) will reap some of the benefits of both large and small organizations. While too big for everyone to be best pals, midsize ensembles are usually small enough to get to know all your colleagues.

#3    I dream of being in a company that . . .

A: . . . takes me places—literally. Touring companies spend a majority of their seasons on the road. “Some people don’t like waking up in a different city every morning, but I do. It keeps me on my toes,” says Anica Scott-Garrell of Ailey II, which will trek to nearly 50 U.S. cities this season. “There are many energies [in different cities], so it’s interesting to see how we’re received artistically.” The challenges? Being homesick, adjusting to new and sometimes unpredictable performance conditions, and living out of a suitcase. It can also be tough to balance free time between sightseeing and resting to conserve energy for performance.

B: . . . is a distinct part of one community.

Resident companies perform in the same home theater or geographical area. They cultivate consistent fan bases in their communities and develop relationships with the local theater staff and crew. “Being on tour is amazing, but when you’re in a

different venue, the stages and lighting system are always different,” says Mark Meismer, artistic director of Evolution dance company, the resident dance group of Orange County Pavilion. “I love the consistency factor [of staying in one place].”

#4 I want . . .

A: . . . to be dancing year-round with the same organization.

Full-time companies provide job security, steady salaries and (sometimes) benefits and vacation time. Some consider the weeks of the off-season to be vacation time, so dancers can be employed the entire year, while others have between-contract breaks, when dancers can collect unemployment or take on short-term jobs.

B: . . . to be part of many short-term projects. Pick-up companies assemble as needed for a specific performing engagement. Many dancers make a living out of working with a handful of such groups, while others join a pick-up group when their primary dance company is on break; for instance, Trey McIntyre Project only performs in the summer months. In pick-up companies, “you have the final say in who you work with, and to some degree you have control over your schedule in deciding what to take on,” says Indre Vengris, who has danced with pick-up groups Rebecca Kelly Ballet, Bowen-McCauley Dance and Christopher Caines Dance Company. Drawbacks include frequent auditioning, inconsistent work and constant researching for potential new gigs.

#5 I’m most inspired when . . .

A: . . . concentrating on the work

of one choreographer.

Focused repertory groups are dedicated to the work of a sole choreographer, whether it’s preserving the rep of an icon, like Martha Graham, or dancing works only or mainly by the current artistic director, like Smuin Ballet of San Francisco.

B: . . . performing works by many and very different choreographers.

Varied repertory companies obtain the rights to perform a diverse body of works by many different choreographers, so dancers must be technically and artistically versatile. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, for instance, performs pieces by Susan Marshall, William Forsythe, Jirí Kylián and Julian Barnett, as well as pieces by its artistic director James Vincent—all in the same year.