Ballet companies are like a monarch – there is a hierarchy. And that’s okay – a strong and well-placed hierarchy can make a strong company and create a comfortable feeling for its dancers. Today we will be talking about this strategy of dancer organization within a ballet company. Enjoy!
A company hierarchy is a system that organizes the dancers by rank. This determines which roles you receive, which we will dicuss later. But for now…
The king or queen: the Director
Before we can discuss the dancers and their roles in the company, a country doesn’t function without a leader. Now wait for it…or an artistic director.
The director makes casting decisions, decides who will be taken into the company either from the school or company auditions, and determines the future of most of his or her dancers.
The artistic director of the company is also typically the artistic director of the school, so often times the dancers have been working with this figure for many years. This makes sure for a smooth transition from school to company. All it entails is working with the director in a different way.
What does a role mean?
The ranks of the dancers in the company determine which roles they receive. They can be determined by need for dancers in a certain rank, technique, artistry, height, physique, and often times, just which role suits your dancing the best.
That said, just because you are in one rank, doesn’t mean that you only dance those roles. For example, a soloist can dance the sugar plum fairy in a matinee and then dance flowers in that evening show. Nothing is set in stone, so you can’t stop working as soon as you get to be a principal.
Apprentices and trainees
This is often the first role for a dancer in a company. The roster of apprentices and trainees typically consists of dancers that have just exited whichever school they trained at. Dancers are taken from a graduating class and put into companies everywhere, and into this role.
The purpose of this position is to equate the dancer with the company that will become their home and their community for the next few years. It is low-paying, so the company doesn’t have to take too much of a gamble on this dancer before they really get to know him or her.
Apprentices and trainees typically dance corps roles when they are on stage, but often times they just end up understudying many roles and not dancing. Young dancers in the company are often paying their dues and making a position for themselves in the company.
This may not be the most enjoyable position to be in, as it is streneous, difficult, and often misleading. Just remember that everybody started in this position – everybody has to begin somewhere. Typically, it’s in an apprentice or trainee position.
The corps de ballet
Now you are a full company member, and you are getting paid like a real job. But…you are in the back line of a huge group of dancers, all wearing the same boring costume, doing port de bras at the back of the stage while some world-famous ballerina that is not you is doing fouettés in the front, center stage. Glamorous, right?
This is the first rank a dancer goes through. The corps de ballet makes up the background dancers – they all do the same thing, and the goal is not to stand out, it is to blend in. They give the stage form and structure during large performances. Here’s a picture:
See those dancers in the back? Well, that’s the corps de ballet.
While it may seem that this role is pointeless (hehe) and that the real fun of watching ballet is the virtouso happening center stage, a perfect corps de ballet really enhances the entire production, and it is tutu important (hehe).
The corps de ballet is also one of the hardest roles. You are onstage every night, in every performance, and onstage the entire time of most ballets. It is streneous, tiring, and very repetitive. But, like I said, the young dancers have to pay their dues before they can jump right into the principal or soloist roles.
Examples of corps de ballet roles could be the swans in Swan Lake, shades in La Bayadere, or snowflakes in the Nutcracker.
Then we have…the soloist. This is the inbetween stage – you dance solos, but not principal roles. This rank usually consists of dancers that are on their way to being a principal dancer. If somebody is going to stay in the lower ranks, they usually stay in the corps de ballet, but a soloist is a transition level to a principal. Most dancers usually don’t end their career as a soloist.
It is actually quite difficult to tell the difference between a soloist and principal role. The Nutcracker is one of the most well-known ballets, so I thought I’d use it as an example. The Sugar Plum Fairy and Dream Clara (if the version has one) would be the principals, whereas Dew Drop and the second act divertissements would be suiting roles for a soloist.
Ballets more on the contemporary side tend to have less soloists and and more principals, and the reverse for story or narrative ballets. Again, this is just a generalization – all of this is dependent on the dancer at hand and the ballet being performed.
Because there are often limited roles for soloists in more modern, contemporary companies, a soloist is becoming a more transitional position where you dance both corps de ballet and principal roles. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the role of soloist disappear from a few companies in the future.
More examples of soloist roles are listed below:
- Dew Drop in Nutcracker
- Pas de Trois in Swan Lake
- Hilarion in Giselle
- Gamzatti in La Bayadère
The highest role in the hierarchy of a company is the principal dancer. This is not the same thing as a prima ballerina – that’s a whole different story that I will explain in a separate blog post. A principal dancer of a company is considered a ballerina – a corps member or soloist is only considered a ballet dancer.
It is a common misconception that there is only one principal dancer per company – that is incorrect. It is not like a principal of a school or organization – it is a rank of many dancers.
Principal dancers dance the lead roles in narrative ballets, or the featured roles in contemporary ballets. They are the ones in the front dancing on their own, and the one who the story ballet follows.
Examples of these roles could include:
- Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker
- Odette/Odile in Swan Lake
- Nikaya in La Bayadère
- Giselle in Giselle
- Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
- Aurora in Sleeping Beauty
Here are a few extra pictures for your enjoyment: 🙂
We talk about this all the time – not one company is the same in repertoire, directing, style, and even hierarchy. We talked in-detail about the mainstream ransk – apprentice, corps de ballet, soloist, and principal.
There are a few random additions that I would like to discuss real quick:
One of the most notable companies that boasts the role of coryphée is the Australian Ballet. These dancers typically dance roles that are featured in the corps de ballet, or dance the great corps roles. It would be the step between corps de ballet and soloist. These dancers would also typically be seen dancing both soloist and corps roles.
II. First Soloist
This would be the role between soloist and principal. The Royal Ballet has this position for its dancers. These dancers are typically dancing major soloist roles such as Dew Drop in the Nutcracker, rather than a second act divertissement.
III. Principal Character Artist
This is a more common additive role. Often a guest dancer, these are senior dancers in the company or older guests that are former dancers. They can dance roles such as Drosselmeyer in the Nutcracker or Von Rothbart in Swan Lake. Anything with more acting than dancing would be suitable for a principal character artist.
The rebellious no-hierarchy companies
And then…there are those companies. The nutirious ones for their rebellion against the norms of the ballet world – against the system. These companies have no hierarchy. And…there’s a reason for that.
Generalizations and codifications within a ballet company can be hard for dancers self-esteem and it can also make it difficult to see and experiment with new dancers in new roles. Audiences are naturally attracted to new things, and new dancers in leaidng or principal roles are just that.
But, there is a major downside – the company lacks organization. This can make the casting process more difficult. It can also create lots of competition among its dancers. Everybody is up for the same exact role…does that sound like a freak show or what?
I hope you all enjoyed this blog post, and I’ll see you on Wednesday with another!
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