Do Company Ranking Systems Help or Hinder Dancers?
Over eight years, Sasha Mukhamedov rose through Dutch National Ballet to become a principal dancer in 2016. Of its ranks—aspirant, élève, corps de ballet, coryphée, grand sujet, soloist and principal—she skipped élève and grand sujet along the way. "In having these levels, if you feel you've done well and your director is happy and promotes you, it gives you this motivational push knowing you made it one step closer to what you've dreamed of," she says.
Many large European ballet companies have preserved the traditional multi-runged ladder of rankings, which originated with the Paris Opéra Ballet. (DNB dropped the aspirant level in 2013 with the addition of its second company.) Others, like The Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, Dresden Semperoper Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet and English National Ballet retain at least five levels.
Sasha Mukhamedov in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Marc Haegeman, courtesy DNB
Meanwhile, even the largest American companies—American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet—distill the categorizations to corps de ballet, soloist and principal (apart from SFB, with its principal character rank). And The Joffrey Ballet, in the spirit of American democracy, levels all classifications with its egalitarian all-star/no star system.
Promotion As Motivation
Ted Brandsen, artistic director of DNB, says he initially wanted to make the ranking system less hierarchical. "But the dancers didn't want that," he says. They liked the idea of a graduated progression, and he came to agree. "It gives dancers something to aspire to and a sense of clarity about where they stand," he says. "And it gives me the possibility to reward dancers and promote them."
Ted Brandsen initially wanted to eliminate some of the traditional rankings, but came to see them as valuable. Photo by Altin Kaftira, courtesy DNB
That's particularly true in the rankings below soloist, where dancers often demonstrate a wide variety of expertise. The position of coryphée is a common distinction in Europe. "A coryphée can be a super trooper who has proven her worth and galvanizes the corps," says Brandsen. "Or it can be a talented younger dancer who has been able to dance a couple of roles that show her aptitude."
Isabella Boylston says an additional level could help recognize dedicated corps members. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT
Out of ABT's 93 dancers (including a small number of apprentices), the corps level is bottom-heavy, with 60 dancers. "I think having an additional level like coryphée would be nice to recognize the achievements of exceptional corps dancers, especially those who may never be promoted," says ABT principal Isabella Boylston. "It's a way to distinguish them for their dedication and exceptional artistry."
On the other hand, Ashley Wheater, artistic director of The Joffrey Ballet, advocates for the non-ranked system to give dancers more opportunities to perform. "We recognize each dancer for their achievement in a particular role, rather than offer a title," says Wheater. "This model encourages us to think as a company, rather than as individual dancers."
Sasha Mukhamedov in Wayne McGregor's Chroma. Photo by Hans Gerritsen, courtesy DNB
For Mukhamedov, dancing classical pas de trois and pas de deux as a soloist was a crucial career milestone. "You get so much stage experience that you're really ready to be out there alone and comfortable," she says.
But the European ranking structure can result in potential clashes with choreographers. "I don't want to be institutionalized to the point where we can't deviate from the ranks," says Brandsen. "But I would never put a principal as second cast to someone much more junior."
Ted Brandsen says that though he supports some flexibility in the ranks, he is somewhat limited by them when casting. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy DNB
In a streamlined hierarchy like ABT's, a dancer has to make herself distinct and not blow a single standout opportunity. Corps dancers who understudy soloist roles must be prepared to jump in at a moment's notice without the expectation of a promotion.
Joffrey dancer Derrick Agnoletti says the scope of roles he performs makes him a better dancer. "In a non-ranked company you have to diversify your skills as a soloist and work together in the corps," he says. In one evening he can dance a principal role in a Wayne McGregor piece and a corps de ballet role in a Justin Peck ballet. There are, however, de facto rankings within The Joffrey. You'll seldom, if ever, see veteran stars like Victoria Jaiani or Fabrice Calmels in the corps of a classical piece.
Derrick Agnoletti in Cinderella. Photo by Cheryl Mann, courtesy The Joffrey Ballet
But does the non-ranked system overtax dancers who are performing corps and soloist roles? "When there are injuries or absences, the company binds together and every dancer helps each other out," says Agnoletti.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.