The Silent Majority: Surviving and Thriving in the Corps de Ballet

July 24, 2007
Imagine a ballet company without its corps de ballet. There would be no lines of wilis in arabesque drawn magnetically together in
, nor any grand polonaise for the ensemble in Theme and Variations. The corps de ballet is to a dance troupe as the spine is to the body: It provides framework, support, context, and aesthetic form. But as dance has moved into the 21st century, the demands on corps dancers have changed, making them more than just a backdrop for the principals. Ever more versatile and virtuosic as individuals, they face more emotional and physical challenges than ever, amplified by heavy work schedules.
Most great ballerinas and principal males started out in the corps—think of Margot Fonteyn, Wendy Whelan, and Ethan Stiefel. But even for those who don’t make it to the soloist level, the job description remains daunting. “I look for intelligent, versatile, ambitious, and hardworking dancers who are team-oriented,” says Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet. “Good focus, attention to detail, and an unaffected manner are also important.”
Perhaps no one works more intimately with the corps than the ballet masters. Louise Lester, who joined the Houston Ballet as a ballet mistress in 2004, says the importance of the corps can’t be underestimated. “Today’s companies are often judged by the strength of their corps. They can make or break a performance,” she says, adding that the corps is a vital training ground. The continuity of the company is maintained when younger dancers are mentored by older ones, who also aid the ballet masters.
Frances Perez-Ball, who joined the Houston Ballet’s corps after dancing with Boston Ballet for eight years, thinks that dancing in a group requires a conscientiousness that’s different than dancing solo roles, which she has often been called to perform. “There’s a group focus, so it’s no longer about how you look or how you are going to hold a balance,” she says. And Julio Bragado-Young, who joined American Ballet Theatre’s corps in 1999, claims that patience and discipline are indispensable virtues, particularly for novices learning their way.
For new members, company life can be a tough adjustment. At 16, corps member Tiler Peck is the youngest dancer in New York City Ballet. In Peck’s opinion, a strong presence ranks high on the list as a hiring factor. But the same individual brilliance that got you the job sometimes needs to be temporarily subdued while you work hard to fit in and prove yourself. “The company is different from the school,” says Peck. “Not every student has something that makes them stand out.” She notes that the entry process can be intimidating, when big fish suddenly become guppies.
Even for experienced corps dancers, losing their identity can be a challenge. Karin Ellis-Wentz, a six-year veteran of ABT and former member of the Dutch National Ballet, offers her mantra on corps compromise: “You can’t be too stubborn.”
Quick studies are essential. “We have a humongous rep, and the corps is involved in most of it,” says Jonathan Stafford, who joined NYCB in 1999. During a rash of injuries one season, he was called on to dance a demi-solo role in
Symphony in C
, a part he had never understudied. The performance was at eight; his rehearsal was at eight (the ballet went last on the program). “I had to learn it from scratch, and the conductor played it faster than anyone had ever heard,” says Stafford.
Sarah Wroth, who joined Boston Ballet in 2003, thinks that dancers sometimes underestimate the level of responsibility in the corps. “If you forget your mark, your step, which leg you’re on, which arm you’re lifting, it can completely distort the bigger picture. It’s like dominoes; you can affect so many people,” she says.
And because full-length ballets are stocked with multiple characters, and choreographers pick and choose casts, dancers are often yanked from the corps into the soloist spotlight. For example, Ellis-Wentz has danced a tricky Odalisque variation in
Le Corsaire
and a featured role in Paul Taylor’s Black Tuesday. Both Bragado-Young and Wroth have specialized in character parts—Bottom in The Dream and Anna in La Sylphide, respectively.
Of course, the Rockette factor stands out as one of the toughest challenges of the job—staying in line and keeping formations. Both Stafford and Bragado-Young admit that guys generally tend to be sloppy with lines, simply because they don’t acquire ensemble experience until they join a company. For women, a familiarity with group dancing has bred an ability to watch others and cultivate a sense of uniformity. But is it possible to retain individuality while merging with the group? For Wroth,
Swan Lake
requires the greatest team-building learning curve. “You can dance from your heart and still tailor that passion to fit the mold of the corps de ballet,” she says. “In Swan Lake, you can be your own bird and still maintain the flock. Remember the story—we’ve all been imprisoned, not just Odette.”
Long stretches of performances routinely dominate seasons in major ballet companies—
The Nutcracker
is always a killer. City Ballet performs lengthy winter and spring seasons, while ABT devotes eight weeks at the Metropolitan Opera House. What are the dancers’ tips for survival during those interminable runs? Getting rest and taking one day at a time can’t hurt. To avoid injuries to his already tight muscles, Stafford has disciplined himself to warm up before every rehearsal, as well as to stretch for five minutes after performances. Perez-Ball chucked her vegetarian diet and started eating meat. (“It gave me more energy almost instantly—the recovery time was faster,” she claims.) Ellis-Wentz relies on physical therapy and packets of the electrolyte booster Emergen-C. And after the millionth Nutcracker, Wroth and her comrades concocted a primal Eminem-style, stomp-and-grind hip hop ritual to the “Mother Ginger” music to amp up for the “Waltz of the Flowers.”
But for Bragado-Young, a self-confessed performance junkie, the problem isn’t performing. “During a four-week rehearsal period, there’s no reward at the end of the day. I go stir crazy,” he says.
Inevitably, full-length classics like
The Sleeping Beauty
and Don Quixote relegate the corps to spending as much time changing costumes as dancing onstage, turning a performance into a three-hour sprint to the finish. Even contemporary works pose costume problems. In Christopher Wheeldon’s The Four Seasons, Perez-Ball portrayed all four climactic changes. “I just had to bare it all in the wings,” she confesses.
No one goes into dance for the money, but corps dancers often get shortchanged, given the workload. First-year corps pay for Houston dancers for the 2004-5 season was $714 per week; at Boston Ballet, it was $697. (Salary does increase with seniority.) NYCB ranks first with a $956 salary, but try finding a tiny studio apartment in the Lincoln Center area for less than $1600 a month. And ABT guarantees only 36 weeks of work per year, leaving the dancers to scramble for guest dancing or teaching work in the off-periods.
Spending a hefty portion of their lives together, of course, leads to bonding among corps members. “You understand when people want to be talked to, when you need to leave someone alone, when you need someone to feel better,” says Wroth. “It’s a support system.”
Nonetheless, the elephant in the middle of the studio remains the issue of who gets promoted. All the dancers interviewed for this article agreed that the days of pointe shoes laced with ground glass are over—the business is too sophisticated for that. But dancers do talk. “You try to figure out who’s getting promoted or not, who’s getting pushed, who’s a contender,” says Bragado-Young. “At ABT, you see people who have done many solos, but were never promoted. You also see people who have never danced at ABT who are hired as soloists or principals. We talk about it.” (Ellis-Wentz, a union dancer’s representative, said the new ABT contract provides for regular dancer evaluations with the management to encourage frank career discussions.)
Since corps dancers seldom get mentioned in reviews and don’t often take solo bows, praise and feedback usually come from peers and ballet masters. “A nod from Rosemary Dunleavy makes you feel like you danced the best you ever danced,” says Stafford of NYCB’s indispensable ballet mistress. “If she’s happy, you know it’s good.”
So despite standing in B-plus (the leg position of a motionless swan) for exhausting stretches, bumping elbows in crowded dressing rooms, a fear of fading into the woodwork, nursing tendonitis, braving the steep ramp for the Shades’ entrance in
La Bayadère
, scraping together cash for the cable bill, struggling with tutu zippers, getting thrown into a new spot in Ballet Imperial at the half-hour call, and listening to The Nutcracker overture one more time, dancers say the job is still worth it.
“People need to know that you can have a fabulous career and stay in the corps,” says Ellis-Wentz, now 35. “If I ever get promoted, I’m going to miss that camaraderie with the guys,” says Stafford. And Wroth has a friend back in Indiana who keeps reminding her, “You’ve already made it.”
Joseph Carman, a frequent contributor to
DM and The New York Times, danced with the Joffrey Ballet, ABT, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and is the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions).