No Small Feat

Small ballet companies can be challenging options for ballet dancers.
Published in the February/March 2008 issue.

Sometimes great things really do come in small packages. In the ballet world, small companies are continually cropping up, giving choreographers and dancers more options for creative expression. Small troupes may struggle financially, but their size makes for close bonds among dancers and directors and often allows members greater opportunities to perform and grow as artists.

The idea of being the major creative voice is one reason many choreographers form their own companies in the first place. Though technique classes and pointe for women are constants, dancers are often attracted to the possibility of using their classical training in more contemporary work. 

With anywhere from six to 10 dancers (an even number of men and women), Rebecca Kelly Ballet in New York City presents “dances that are performed on pointe or in soft slippers with my characteristic undulating torsos, spirals, curving arms and off-center balances, fusing classical ballet with ethnic and modern forms,” says Artistic Director Rebecca Kelly.   

Likewise, New York City–based company Ballet Deviare, comprised of eight female dancers, is fueled by Director Laura Kowalewski’s desire to expose a targeted younger audience to non-traditional ballet forms—in this case, contemporary choreography coupled with heavy metal music. “The goal was to demonstrate through our repertoire that female dancers are strong, independent and intelligent people,” says Kowalewski.

With 14 dancers (eight women and six men), Company C Contemporary Ballet, headquartered in Walnut Creek, California, thrives on its slightly larger size. “The vision is more directly mine,” says Artistic Director Charles Anderson. “I have more freedom in terms of the company’s direction here than I would at a larger company.” In addition to several works by Anderson, the company’s repertoire includes works by such choreographers as Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, James Sewell, Patrick Corbin and Antony Tudor.

For dancers who don’t aspire to be in the corps of a grand production of a large ballet company, small companies can offer the chance to perform frequently, often in lead roles.

“The best part of being a dancer in a small company is that you can almost consider yourself a soloist from the day you are hired,” says Anderson. “You can also rest assured that you will be a part of almost every piece that is performed.”

This “no-ranking” system pushes dancers to grow as artists. “Being in a small company is nice because you’re asked to do it all—from dramatics to contemporary or modern, from principal roles to working with an ensemble, and even working with live musicians,” says RKB dancer Therese Wendler.

It’s not uncommon for dancers who have worked in larger companies to join smaller ones to expand their range and knowledge of dance. For some, that is even preferable.

“You are not looked at as a one-type dancer,” says Wendler. “You are forced to try new things that give you more of a challenge and a chance to be more versatile.”

Unlike in big companies where choreographers must choose from a number of dancers, small companies are intimate enough that the whole team usually forms a strong bond.

“I wanted to give my dancers a sense of autonomy and the sense that what they feel and have to say counts in this company,” says Kowalewski. “This is important when fostering a sense of solidarity, which is much easier to do with a small company.”

Fewer dancers also means more one-on-one time with the choreographer. “I like to work closely with each dancer, to bring out intense individuality,” says Kelly, who is her company’s sole choreographer. “It takes a certain amount of trust and fellowship, and it can get complex. When I am successful, the result produces an authenticity in performance that is lovely and deeply moving.”

Uthman Ebrahim, a dancer with RKB, values the personal relationship he has formed with Kelly. “When Rebecca creates a new work, she knows the strengths of her dancers and knows what makes them look great onstage,” he says.

For members of CCCB, the sense of closeness extends beyond the studio. CCCB member Grant Spencer, for example, says that five dancers live within three blocks of each other, which makes for convenient carpooling and frequent dinner get-togethers. The bond between dancers comes across onstage as well. “In small companies, you get to know and understand your fellow company members in a way you wouldn’t in standard dance companies,” Ebrahim says. “I believe this understanding and appreciation adds to the connection a company has onstage during performance.”

Of course, even though there are many benefits to working with these groups, it is no easy task to either lead or dance in one. Directors constantly struggle with funding, the threat of injuries and scheduling problems, not to mention finding dancers willing to work with them and their vision for the amount of pay they can afford.

Dancers have concerns of their own. “Doing a performance with seven or eight pieces and only eight or so dancers makes quick changes and endurance issues arise,” says Shannon Plumstead, a dancer and choreographer with Ballet Deviare. “We all have to be extremely cautious because we don’t have understudies.”

Furthermore, while large companies can provide financial stability and steady contracts, smaller companies often don’t have adequate funding for payroll, nor are most able to offer health or worker’s compensation insurance. As a result, many dancers must take other part-time jobs. They may work as dance or fitness instructors, restaurant servers, bartenders, retail associates, baby-sitters or administrative assistants. Fortunately, in most cases, small company directors are understanding of their dancers’ need to pay the bills and create rehearsal schedules that are accommodating and flexible. Both CCCB and RKB, for instance, rehearse late morning to early afternoon, so dancers have time to work elsewhere.

Spencer teaches at three local ballet studios and works at Starbucks a few hours a week. “While it would be nice to dance in a large company that is salaried, that schedule is less flexible, and I wouldn’t be able to teach as much, which is a huge passion of mine,” he says. He also dances with a pick-up company on the side, which is something that many small company dancers can do more easily.

The accommodating rehearsal schedules often allow dancers to work with other groups as well. Ebrahim performs The Nutcracker and with Chamber Dance Project when RKB is not in season. “Working with several different companies opens the door to many opportunities for networking, and the next thing you know you’ll have enough dance work to keep you busy for months, the whole year or just until the next season with your company begins again,” he says.

Wendler agrees. “Sometimes I have a second job that is not dance-related at all,” she says, “but mostly what I try to do is find other small companies to work for when my main company is not working. That way you are still keeping in shape and doing what you love.”

Laura di Orio dances and writes in New York City.