Trainee Program Truths
Former Joffrey trainee and current company dancer Amanda Assucena. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
When Amanda Assucena graduated from the Harid Conservatory, she hoped to work professionally right away. But as she auditioned for companies, she quickly began to feel that her dancing wasn’t as mature as everyone else’s. “My movement was very academic,” she says. Assucena realized she needed more time to prepare. She applied for trainee programs at her favorite companies, eventually accepting a place at the Joffrey Ballet. “I thought of the trainee program as a transition process.” The following year, she was hired into their main company.
The path to a professional career in ballet has changed. Today, getting hired straight out of high school is less common than it was just a decade ago. Dancers are turning to another leg of training to bridge the gap between their student and professional years. This allows them to gain professional experience and polish their technique and artistry, making them a more attractive hire to directors. It also gives dancers a look inside their dream company and a connection that could help make that dream come true. However, it comes with a price—sometimes more than $5,000 a year.
Trainee experiences vary widely, but most programs are very rigorous. Dancers spend 20 to 30 hours a week in trainee-level technique classes and rehearsals held at the school, plus additional time in company class and rehearsals. At most programs, trainees are used to fill out the corps de ballet in company repertoire. “During the first year or so as a company member it can be a real shock on your body and mind to be doing mostly corps works every day,” says former San Francisco Ballet trainee Jeanette Kakareka, who danced in the corps while working on bigger roles for trainee performances. “So to be able to still perform White Swan pas de deux on the same day as learning how to be in a straight line in the corps is very helpful.”
Many programs offer various ways to help dancers transition into their careers. Cincinnati Ballet gives students the opportunity to create dances through choreographic workshops. Joffrey holds monthly seminars on topics such as injury prevention, audition videos and career transition. And Ballet Austin trainees can put their dancing hours toward college credit at neighboring St. Edward’s University.
Trainee programs do get some flack. Critics argue that they allow companies to profit by collecting tuition while bolstering their corps de ballet, with no promise of a job upon completion. And even if trainees are offered a position, it’s often with the second company or an apprenticeship—not a full-fledged corps de ballet contract. Though Kakareka chose not to join SFB, accepting a contract with English National Ballet instead, she feels the extra time spent training there was well worth it: “My traineeship gave me every opportunity to succeed.”
I was on my favorite treadmill when it happened.
My best running buddy was on my left. To my right, a total stranger with whom I'd suddenly become competitive. As the 15-person group headed into a two-minute push, the instructor got hyped, and the remix blasting Rihanna's "We Found Love" transitioned to "Smooth Criminal."