Ballet Co.Laboratory’s Unique Business Model Has Kept Its Dancers Securely Employed Throughout the Pandemic
In 2018, Zoé Emilie Henrot and eight other dancers suddenly found themselves unemployed when their Twin Cities–based company transitioned to a school-only model just weeks before their season was supposed to start. They had two options: go their separate ways or band together. Joining forces, they created Ballet Co.Laboratory, an artist-led company in St. Paul, Minnesota, with an inventive repertoire and an unconventional business structure. Since its founding, Ballet Co.Laboratory has presented original works like Nutcracker in Wonderland (a new spin on the holiday classic), The Snow Queen and Remembering the Little Prince, as well as premieres by emerging choreographers. The company’s dual-contract structure also provides its dancers with administrative employment, whether in management, communications, development or teaching—a framework that became especially useful in keeping the dancers employed during the pandemic.
sat down with Henrot, the company’s artistic director, to talk about Ballet Co.Laboratory, its recent Laboratory II performances, and how the company’s distinctive structure helped prepare its dancers to face pandemic challenges head-on.
Could you describe Ballet Co.Laboratory’s dual-contract employment model?
The company is super-unique, and it’s not for every dancer. I am very transparent when people audition that our model is part of who we are. Everyone has two contracts: an artistic one and an administrative one. It came out of the idea that we’re all people; after we dance, what do we do? Even though we end up wearing a lot of hats, the artist-driven model allows the art to come first, no matter what. The entire company is part of the conversations we have as an organization. That’s really rare.
Because of this, do college degrees come in especially handy for prospective dancers?
When I see someone who has gone to college and has been a double major or had a minor with their dance degree, that tells me they know how to multitask. I love it when dancers write in saying they worked in the costume shop or led the student concert, because that means they know how many people it takes to make the moment onstage happen. It really does take a village.
Karin Rice-Duncanson, Courtesy Ballet Co.Laboratory
What does a typical workday look like?
For our artistic workday, we’re in the studio Monday through Friday from 10 am to 3 pm. Administratively, it depends on the specific job and department. In the contracts, we have an estimated number of hours per week that we believe the job takes, and then it’s up to the artist to make that work happen outside of studio time. There’s a lot of freedom, and it allows our artists to take initiative.
What does that look like in the studio and onstage?
I tend to lead rehearsals differently, first of all because I dance, too, but also because as a choreographer, I think dancers look good dancing what feels good in their bodies. As much as we do classical ballet, I also ask for a lot of feedback so that the final product is something they’re proud to perform. When we’re all onstage, we truly know that we made it happen. It wasn’t one person who did it—everyone did.
As a company, even though we dance together beautifully, we have different body types and backgrounds, and we all identify very differently. That’s what allows us to tell all these diverse narratives that haven’t been told authentically yet. We always give a nod to what came before us—we wouldn’t be here without our history—but we do reimagine that rep.
Was that diversity a goal you had when founding the company?
Definitely. I’m a queer individual, and there were points in my career when I was dancing roles and asking myself, “I wonder if a role about me is ever going to be onstage?” Ballet Co.Laboratory was my opportunity to be more outspoken. Ballet has been really regimented—it’s had its breakouts, but it’s time for another one. How do we bring in younger audiences who want to think critically and see work that reflects their society? Ballet can do that, but you can’t just keep repeating the carbon copy of what used to be the revolution.
This year has been extremely trying, but it looks like you were prepared to face it with your business model. What was it like adjusting to work during the pandemic?
I don’t think we saw the power of our artistic model fully until this last year. When we had to close our studios, we were able to up our administration hours and compensate our artists financially. Some dancers said if they hadn’t had the administrative work to keep them going, they would’ve stopped everything completely.
We’re also a group of young, innovative millennials. We weren’t as scared about embracing technology and taking a leap of faith. We were even able to hire six new artists last fall. With the year we had, it felt really special to be able to give contracts, period.
Talk more about the
Laboratory II choreographic festival that the company recently streamed.
Our mission is to tell new narratives, so the entire concept of Lab II is creating a space for emerging choreographers. We also always have a theme. Everything that happened last May with George Floyd’s murder hit very close to home for us here in the Twin Cities. This year, we wanted to create space for BIPOC emerging artists. I collaborated with my friend Emilia Mettenbrink, who is a violinist with the local opera, and our accompanist Franco Holder, both BIPOC musicians, to create a reimagined, miniature Swan Lake. All four of the other choreographers—Da’Rius Malone, Jacob Lewis, Rachel Seeholzer and Nieya Amezquita—are also local BIPOC artists. My hope is for them to have these videos for their portfolio. Then the next time they see an opportunity they have something to their name.
Any parting thoughts?
I want dancers to know that there’s a space to be a serious ballet dancer while still being yourself, collaborative and supported. I want the organization to be known as professional and serious, but also as one where there’s a person and a human in every single artist. Their voices matter.