A Fresh Focus

August 31, 2014

Melissa Hough has made shifting companies pay off.



Hough rehearses
Swan Lake with Gakuro Matsui. Photo by Erik Berg, Courtesy Norwegian National Ballet.


A dancer’s career is a short one, and knowing how best to manage that time is critical. If you are not getting the roles you want, how long do you stay in your current company waiting for them? If you move, will that yield the change you hope for? What are the potential drawbacks to leaving—and staying?

Melissa Hough approaches her career with the same dynamic quality that she gives to her dancing. Now at her fourth major professional ballet company, Hough has had a banner first season at Norwegian National Ballet, dancing works by Liam Scarlett, Kylián and Forsythe, as well as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker and Odette/Odile, a dream role.

Hough has made a success of switching companies. Her professional career began at BalletMet. She then moved to Boston Ballet, where she became a principal in 2009 at age 24. Although her diverse training made her a natural for contemporary parts, she didn’t initially get the classical roles she coveted. “I became a very unhappy person my last year and I could not see clearly,” she says. “Moving to a new company was what I needed to gain perspective.”

She joined Houston Ballet as a first soloist in 2010, where her high-octane style quickly earned her fans. She also continued her development as a choreographer, creating a new work for the company in 2013. Still, she wanted more. “I knew that the next step would need to be big, mostly because of my age,” she says. “Wasting time in this career is not a great option.”

A move should reflect a dancer’s overall career plan, notes Lauren Gordon, a career counselor for Career Transition For Dancers. Before your annual meeting with your company director, take stock. “I advise dancers to review where they are at the end of each season,” she says. “Do an inventory of the roles you danced. If it wasn’t what you had hoped for, it may be time to consider your options.” Make a point of addressing the gap between your goals and how you were cast in the meeting.

Hough has her own checklist. “Consider your personal mental health. Are you happy at work? Are you pushing yourself in class, setting an example, feeling respect for the people around you and vice versa and getting pushed to be better by the casting?”

If not, a move may make sense. But minimize the surprises by doing some groundwork. The dance world is small, and it is common to have a connection with dancers in other companies, says Hough. “Ask your colleagues about concrete facts and refrain from asking about company politics/drama. How many casts generally go on and how many shows? What is offered for physical therapy? Ask the questions about the things that matter most to you.”

Hough did her homework, then met with the company director; she suggests asking: “What is your vision for the company? What is your ideal dancer? What are some roles I will be dancing in the upcoming season?”

Gordon cautions dancers against making a change without a good reason: “If you’re having personal, technical or artistic problems, the move won’t cure them.” Dancers need to beware of blaming a company when the problem lies closer to home.

Each of Hough’s moves came with new opportunities, along with considerable risk. “Moving, most likely, means starting from scratch personally and professionally,” says Hough. “You have to prove yourself again no matter what rank/age/level you are. You have to be willing to let go of the life you have made in your current city. It’s quite exciting and quite frightening.”