No Small Feat: Dancing in a "Petite" Ballet Company Comes With Unique Benefits
Amanda Farris has never danced in a company with more than 20 dancers. “Growing up we have these notions that we’re aiming for the big companies, and that’s the only place success lies,” says the California native, who dances with the 11-member Diablo Ballet outside San Francisco. Yet Farris’ impressive rep says otherwise: Over the course of her career she’s performed everything from Giselle to Balanchine’s Apollo to Trey McIntyre’s Blue Boy.
Small troupes tend to slip under the radar. But they offer unique benefits that are harder to find in big ballet companies, such as frequent opportunities for featured roles and forging deep connections with colleagues. The intimate working environment also provides ample opportunities for artistic growth. We spoke with dancers working at small ballet companies across the country to learn what they love about the careers they’ve made.
Diablo Ballet’s Amanda Farris and Raymond Tilton in Norbert Vesak’s Tchaikovsky Dances. Bilha Sperling, Courtesy Diablo Ballet
More Chances to Shine
Dancing with a small group makes it impossible to be overlooked in the company’s ranks. No one gets stuck in the corps “waving a rose,” says New York Theatre Ballet’s Amanda Treiber. “Everyone is truly a soloist.” Treiber, who’s been a member of NYTB for 12 seasons, was drawn to the 12-dancer chamber troupe because of the range of work they do. The company’s rep includes everything from condensed classics for young audiences to 20th-century masterworks by the likes of Antony Tudor and José Limón to groundbreaking contemporary choreography.
With fewer dancers, it’s also harder to be typecast or boxed into one style. “You need to be able to do anything and everything,” says Farris. “Especially if there’s an injury and you have to jump right in. Being a versatile dancer is so important.”
Diablo Ballet boasts a season complete with full-lengths, mixed bills and plenty of live music. Farris notes that they often work with Bay Area collaborators. She describes working with Val Caniparoli on the role of Ophelia in his Hamlet and Ophelia as a career highlight. And at smaller companies, dancers have more opportunities to work closely with choreographers and répétiteurs throughout the creative process.
Northwest Arkansas Ballet Theatre’s James Vessell and Lilly Hill in Karen Castleman’s Late Summer Cycle. Stephanie Saclolo of Wilde and Wilder Photography, Courtesy Northwest Arkansas Ballet Theatre
Close working relationships are truly at the core of smaller troupes. James Vessell, a former dancer with the 12-member Northwest Arkansas Ballet Theatre in Bentonville, Arkansas, notes how important it is to be yourself in such an environment. “You’re with these people all the time,” he says. “They’re your family.”
Elise Mosbacher, now in her 12th season with Missouri Contemporary Ballet in Columbia, Missouri, echoes this sentiment. “It’s not to say that we all get along 24/7,” she says of her seven fellow dancers at MCB. “That’s not how families work, but we know how to work and interact with every other dancer. It’s very cohesive and that all comes out in how we perform together as a group.”
Artistic directors can also be more personally invested in every company member. At MCB, director Karen Mareck Grundy entrusts each of her dancers to delve into her distinctive style. The company’s rep is based heavily on Grundy’s own choreography, which Mosbacher describes as “ballet with a twist,” influenced by Grundy’s background as a classically trained dancer and Las Vegas showgirl. Each company member has a significant responsibility to carry out the artistic vision, and as a result the artistic staff and dancers build extremely close, trusting relationships.
Similarly, Farris emphasizes how Diablo Ballet artistic director Lauren Jonas never views her dancers as dispensable or replaceable. “We are her dancers. She knows us as people, not just names on a casting list,” says Farris.
Missouri Contemporary Ballet Company’s José Soares and Elise Mosbacher in Just Tell Me by Kristopher Estes Brown. Jeff Bassinson, Courtesy Missouri Contemporary Ballet Company
Wearing Many Hats
Treiber also points out that at a small company, dancers’ responsibilities often extend beyond the stage. With modest budgets and limited resources, they frequently wear different hats to make the seasons come together. “I help set works I’ve danced on younger company members,” says Treiber. “It’s helped me know what direction I want to go in after I’m done dancing. I’d love to be a ballet mistress.”
Similarly, Vessell developed a taste for artistic direction through his experiences at NWA Ballet Theatre. With the company growing so quickly, dancers have taken on roles on the administrative side of the organization, and Vessell has assisted with organizing promotional and outreach performances. “I eventually want to have my own company,” Vessell says. “It was great to experience what it’s like to set up tech week, plan a lighting design and set up a schedule.”
Like so many dancers in small companies, Vessell found that the tight-knit, collaborative environment was an ideal platform to grow beyond any preconceived notions of his place in the art form. With each dancer bearing a significant amount of responsibility onstage and off, they are a testament to what a small group committed to one goal can accomplish.