American National Ballet Fires Almost Half Its Dancers Only a Few Weeks Into The Season
The messages started coming in Monday evening. A concerned teacher was worried about several dancers she knew at American National Ballet—did we know what was going on? Later that night, more information started emerging on social media—and it was clear something was up at the Charleston, South Carolina–based company.
We've been interested in ANB since its debut was first announced in April—not only was it a brand new company, but one with close to 50 dancers, and some major names attached, like Rasta Thomas, Sara Michelle Murawski and Jessica Saund. The founders, Doug and Ashley Benefield, had few ballet credentials but they made an encouraging promise to highlight diversity, hiring dancers of different body types and races. A story in Charleston's The Post & Courier reported that they had a strategic business plan to support the company through for-profit ventures such as a licensing enterprise, a dancewear line and an academy.
So what happened? Here's what we know so far:
Many Dancers Were Let Go on Monday
Beth Bogush, the company's chief operating officer, executive director and artistic adviser says that seven corps members and 10 second company members were laid off, although several sources, including The Post & Courier, have said the total number is 23 (11 company dancers and 12 apprentices and second company members). "The company was formed with a large amount of dancers," says Bogush. "But some of the commitments for funding fell through."
She says all the dancers let go have been encouraged to stay and train at the school, and have been invited to take company class for free. (However, the dancers we spoke to said the company class offer is only good for the next two weeks.) Some corps members were offered second company positions, which pay a stipend. Administrators are also trying to reach out to local contacts to see if they can set the dancers up with jobs teaching or guesting in Nutcracker productions.
A Merger Will Soon Be Announced
The main reason for the layoffs is that ANB is planning to merge with another company. Bogush says details on that will be made public in a couple of weeks.
"We had to let go some of the dancers who didn't meet the criteria for the new company, which will perform classical ballet, neoclassical ballet and musical theater," she says. According to Bogush, the company that ANB will merge with plans to relocate to Charleston, and the combined company will have about 30 dancers, including those that ANB has kept.
Company members were told of the merger on Friday and asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement. One dancer who spoke on condition of anonymity says that she didn't understand what the agreement was for. "We were under the impression that it was in regards to the company merge, but that was never confirmed," says the dancer, adding that she did not receive a signed copy back from management. A second young dancer, who also did not want to be identified, says she found the language vague and confusing, and adds that they were given the choice to sign or leave the room. "So everyone signed. I didn't understand a word it said."
Monday's announcement came as a surprise. "We knew in advance that there were going to be some changes made, but we weren't expecting a mass firing," says the first dancer. She added that those whose contracts were terminated were not offered severance pay.
There Has Been a Revolving Door of Artistic Directors
Unfortunately, this turnover isn't altogether surprising. Octavio Martin, a former principal with Cuban National Ballet and Sarasota Ballet, was originally named artistic director last spring. In August, however, ANB's website suddenly announced that Rasta Thomas would be artistic director, with Martin leading the second company. Both names were removed a few weeks later. Bogush says the new artistic director will come from the company that ANB is merging with, and Alexandre Proia will lead the second company.
Part of the reason that so many changes have happened so quickly is because there was a transition in management this summer, which Bogush says was due to personal issues. "The new management represents a new vision," she explains.
"The company was founded by a group of people with an idea in mind to highlight diversity, so we—close to 50 dancers—signed on for that," says former ANB dancer Christopher Charles McDaniel, who resigned earlier this month. "But between being hired in June and arriving in September, that group shifted. That left us dancers with new management that had never seen us, and were confused about what to do with us."
He adds that for the first pay period, the dancers were paid in cash. Their second check came from a company in New York City.
When we reached out to founding executive director Ashley Benefield, she told us that she has been out of state on maternity leave for the past few months and had limited contact with anyone at ANB—and only found out about the firings second-hand. "They have destroyed everything we worked to build, and I no longer want anything to do with the company," she says. "It makes me sick. My heart goes out to all these dancers."
Performance Plans Are Still In The Works
As of now, planned performances include a Salon Series next month and a gala at Charleston's Gaillard Center in December.
Bogush says choreographers including Broadway's Warren Carlyle, Complexions' Dwight Rhoden and the second company's artistic advisor Francesca Harper will be setting work on the ANB dancers in the new year. The company will also be working with the RKO Stage catalogue to produce musical theater works.
On Tuesday night, principal dancer Sara Michelle Murawski, who has been the face of the company since its founding, shared her letter of resignation on social media.
For those who have been let go, many are trying to figure out their next step, in terms of finding work and breaking their leases. Both of the anonymous dancers we spoke with say that they believe management is assisting those with leases in an apartment complex that the company partners with.
"I really hope for those who are still here, that the new company can turn into something great," says the first dancer. "It was such a beautiful group."
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
I first started pulling out my eyelashes when I was 9, after removing fake ones at a dance competition. A few of my own eyelashes came out and I felt a new sensation. It hurt, but the prick also felt so good.
Eventually, I was pulling even when I was not wearing stage makeup, sometimes unaware of what I was even doing. It happened while I was reading or doing homework, or when I was sad or angry.
For the next five years, I secretly pulled my eyelashes, then moved to my eyebrows and eventually the back of my scalp. Finally, at 14, I told my mom what I had been doing and she took me to see a child psychologist. It turned out I had trichotillomania (a.k.a. "trich"), which is one of a group of behaviors known as Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors in which people repeatedly pull, pick, scrape or bite their hair, skin or nails.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet was huge news when it premiered last winter. The choreographer shifted the setting from the home of a well-off German family to the Chicago world's fair, making the hero the young daughter of a working-class, Polish immigrant sculptress. This month, WTTW Chicago, the city's public broadcasting station, will premiere Making a New American Nutcracker, a new documentary showing how Wheeldon and his high-profile collaborators made the magic happen. Premieres on WTTW11 and wttw.com/watch on Nov. 16 before appearing on public television stations across the country. Check your local listings.
For most dancers, walking into the theater elicits a familiar emotion that's somewhere between the reverence of stepping into a chapel and the comfort of coming home. But each venue has its own aura, and can offer that something special that takes your performance to a new level. Six dancers share which theaters have transported them the most.
GLENN ALLEN SIMS
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Masekela Langage. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT
Favorite theater: Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Royal details: "The theater is gorgeous and ornate, with deep red upholstery and gold trim. There is a huge royal box in the center, which takes you back to when kings and queens were watching performances there."
Impressive facilities: Even the dressing rooms are a sight to see: Amenities for the dancers include large, carpeted rooms, and towel service.
The business side of dance can often fall second to the art. Contracts, which usually appear after you've done the hard work of securing a job, can seem like an inconsequential afterthought. You might decide to simply sign without reading the terms—or be understandably confused by all the legalese.
Ultimately, though, contracts can play an important part in setting the expectations for your job. A basic understanding of the legal terms you might see can go a long way in making sure that signing is a positive step toward growing your career.