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By Nancy Alfaro
Think being in a second company means you’re second rate? Think again. Companies like Taylor 2, ABT Studio Company, Boston Ballet II, Pennsylvania Ballet II, Hubbard Street 2, and Ailey II offer first-rate performing experience. Their dancers often work with major contemporary choreographers in addition to performing classic works.
Dancers on the cusp of their professional careers look to second companies as a way to learn the ins and outs of working professionally, and as a helpful segue from their student status into full-blown dance adulthood. Dance Magazine got seven dancers’ takes on second-company life.
ABT Studio Company member Eric Tamm says that being in the second company offers “an opportunity for us to dance principal roles that we wouldn’t get if we were in the ABT corps.” He’s found working with up and coming choreographers exciting, too. “I’ve gotten to work with Ben Millepied, Sean Curran, and Dominic Walsh,” he says. “It’s really cool to be choreographed on, and to get to do the classical work like [Balanchine’s] Divertimento Number 15.”
This is Tamm’s first job, and in addition to the performance perks, he’s learned how to work in a professional environment. He knows what it means to work in a group, respect his co-workers, and interact with choreographers. Not to mention the fact that he’s getting paid to dance! “We’re not raking it in,” he says, “but it’s great to get us off the ground.”
The Studio Company tours about four months a year, and has traveled to such exotic locales as Costa Rica, London, and Bermuda. They perform about once a month, and have “a good amount of shows per year,” says Tamm—not counting the twenty-one Nutcrackers they did with Ballet Pacifica in Irvine, California last year. Tamm says, “The Studio Company has prepared me for what lies ahead. It’s run like a regular company with rehearsals and tours, and we get to dance high-level classical, neo-classical, and even some modern. I can’t say enough good things.”
Luca Sbrizzi came to the States knowing not one word of English. “I couldn’t talk to anyone for five months,” he laughs. Sbrizzi left his family in Udine, Italy, to train at the Boston Ballet School. “The transition between the school and the company is hard,” he says. In school, the teachers push their students, but dancers must motivate themselves when they get into Boston Ballet II. Even so, Sbrizzi says, “It’s my first job as a pro, and everything is perfect—we’re treated like company members.”
The dancers don’t earn much, so some have to take on extra work to sustain themselves. But, Sbrizzi says, “We’re getting paid in experience.” BBII dancers take company class in the morning and rehearse six hours a day. They dance classics like Don Q, and are given the opportunity to learn and perform contemporary works, too.
Because Sbrizzi’s experience at BBII has been so comfortable, the idea of being in a major company doesn’t intimidate him. His dream is to be in Boston Ballet, and he says he’ll work “3,000 percent” towards that goal. “You can change your life to reach your dream,” he says, “and I did everything I could to get where I am now.”
Taylor 2 performs Paul Taylor’s choreography, and for dancer Jamie Rae Walker, that’s just perfect. Walker was introduced to Taylor’s works at Miami City Ballet, where she danced in the corps. “MCB is where I caught the Taylor bug,” she says. She craved the artistic satisfaction his choreography offered, and came to New York three years ago to work with the second company. “The dances are re-staged for the six dancers in our group. It’s an irreplaceable experience in learning how to do his work,” she says.
This past year, the company had 44 weeks of work. “It’s almost unheard of for a second company,” says Walker. Much of the performing is done on the road—six weeks in spring and six more in the fall. “I like to travel quite a bit, so it’s good for me,” she says. The outreach programs generally take place in summer. “Teaching is an invaluable part of this experience,” she says. “You have to be able to communicate the work to every kind of dancer, including non-pros.”
Walker looks toward the moment she can enter the main company. She knows, however, that she has to wait for a spot to be available. “But I’ve gotten a lot of wonderful feedback from Mr. Taylor,” she says hopefully. “It’s the most satisfying work I’ve ever done,” she says. “I can push myself further as an artist, and this organization has introduced me to a whole other side of modern dance.”
Puerto Rican–born Luis Oscar Ramos has danced with Hubbard Street 2 for two years. He says, “Joining the company was the greatest decision I could have made. I learn many types of dance here, and that’s what I like!”
Hubbard Street 2 performs contemporary, hip hop, and Capoeira, and is constantly on the lookout for new choreography. Ramos says his biggest HS2 challenge is the hard work being in a company entails. “We’re a six-member group that dances a lot,” he says. “Like a family, we push each other.”
In between intense work periods, HS2 tours far and wide, including trips to Germany and Switzerland. One unusual feature is that HS2 holds a choreographic competition every summer, and the winners come and set brand new works on the company. “They create them just for us,” says Ramos, “which is the greatest thing a dancer can have.” This fall, they will be learning a new work by Edwaard Liang (see “25 to Watch,” January).
Sometimes, though, Ramos thinks people misunderstand the nature of a second company. “They think of it as a junior company, or that we’re second-class,” he says. But Hubbard Street 2 has its own rep and tours, and gets paid a living wage. “It’s a great place to be and grow,” says Ramos, whose future dreams include joining the first company.
“I’ve been watching the Pennsylvania Ballet since I was a kid,” says Ian Hussey, who’s just completed two years in Pennsylvania Ballet II. Hussey grew up in southern New Jersey, and trained at The Rock School, which was then affiliated with Pennsylvania Ballet. He was the Prince in PAB’s Nutcracker as a kid, and it’s been his dream to join the company ever since. “I kind of grew up with them,” he says.
Even though the six-member group often performs in the main company’s corps, they have their own rep, which is also basically classical choreography. And then there’s the mental component: Hussey says as young dancers on their way to professional careers, the experience is invaluable. “You get a feel for what you need to do to make a successful company career,” he says.
The second company works very closely with their teachers, and the benefit of taking class with only five other dancers offers them lots of personal attention. “When you’re in the main company class with 40 other dancers, you have to be very independent,” he says. “But the class is very intimate and our teacher helps us a lot.”
A high percentage of second company dancers get into the first company, according to Hussey, who will be an apprentice with the first company next year. And if dancers don’t make it into the main company, the staff helps them get jobs elsewhere.
“I was skinny and flexible as a kid,” says German-born Dominique Rosales. At 18, after graduating from the State Ballet Conservatory in Berlin, she landed a job in the German production of The Lion King. She saved her juicy paychecks and came to New York to try her luck at The Ailey School. “My dream came true so far,” she says. Rosales was quickly asked to apprentice with Ailey II, and has two years left with the company. “I’ve gotten a lot out of being here,” she says. “I accomplished my dream of working with Alvin Ailey, and have worked with Doug Varone, Troy Powell (Ailey II’s wonderful associate artistic director), and Camille Brown.”
She’s learned a lot about (and from) working with other dancers, and enjoys rehearsing in the beautiful Ailey studios that overlook Manhattan’s skyline. “Of course I would like to be in the first company,” she says, “but all I can do is continue to work hard. I know it sounds cheesy, but everything is possible. If you want something really badly, there’s a way to make it happen.”
Nancy Alfaro writes in New York City.