Red Flags: Don’t Ignore These Warning Signs at Your Company

April 15, 2018

“All I want to do is dance,” says Kimberly Thompson, 24. But because of her muscular physique, Thompson says, she struggled to find a company job. American National Ballet seemed like a dream come true: Founded in Charleston, South Carolina, in early 2017, the ambitious startup proclaimed itself as a home for dancers of diverse body types and ethnicities.

Thompson landed a corps contract with ANB and relocated from Maryland to Charleston. “September 18, 2017, was our first day,” she recalls. On October 23, Thompson was one of 23 dancers (out of nearly 50) let go. And while the reasons for ANB’s dramatic rise and fall have not been made fully public, the fallout for those artists is very real.

ANB, which officially dissolved a few months later, is only the most recent example of a company that’s come and gone, leaving dancers in the lurch. Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet shuttered in 2015, Silicon Valley Ballet closed mid-season in 2016, and Ballet Pacifica folded in 2007—after 42 years.

With ballet jobs scarce, getting an offer—any offer—can feel like the chance of a lifetime. But whether you’re joining a startup like ANB or an established company, there is a lot to consider before you sign your contract and red flags to watch out for after you start work. Read on for advice from artists and executives with hard-won experience.

Chasing the Dream

Even though ANB was a brand-new company with no track record, it seemed like a relatively safe bet for Thompson: Some respected names were attached, including Octavio Martin as artistic director and Alexandre Proia as a ballet master. And although ANB’s founder and executive director, Ashley Benefield, didn’t have prior company-leadership experience, she and Thompson had taken class together at Maryland Youth Ballet, and Thompson trusted her. Thompson also felt confident in the business background of CEO Doug Benefield, Ashley’s husband, after researching him online.

Thompson accepted a contract for a $21,000 salary, $80 weekly pointe-shoe allowance and $150 monthly health-insurance stipend. She signed a one-year lease at an apartment complex recommended by ANB leadership, which provided a $250 monthly stipend to supplement the $1,129 rent. To help her make ends meet, ANB offered her seven hours a week teaching in its new conservatory, at $35 per hour.

Nailing down the specifics of a contract is the right move, says Nashville Ballet artistic director and CEO Paul Vasterling. “I respect dancers who say, ‘Tell me about your rep, tell me about your contract, here are my goals,’ ” he says, adding that dancers should ask for clarity on the number of work weeks, how often they’ll get paid, tax withholdings, and whether there are health-insurance benefits and provided supplies, like pointe shoes. “If you get the feeling that you’re being shamed or they don’t want to talk about it,” he says, “that’s a bad sign.”

Follow the Money

Where dancers can go deeper is in investigating a company’s funding and growth plans, especially if it is new or has a history of financial trouble. “We’ve secured X amount of money to take us through year one, after which we will need to do X and Y to continue—that’s the kind of thing you want to know,” says Griff Braun, New York–area dance executive for the American Guild of Musical Artists.

Vasterling concurs. “I would ask the directors things like, How many subscribers do you have? What’s your donor pool?” he advises. If they can’t answer those questions, proceed with caution. Also, if the company relies on one major donor, such as a wealthy founder or family member, understand the risks involved if that person has a change of heart. Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, for example, went under when founder Nancy Laurie decided to discontinue support.

Be wary, too, if the directors’ ambition seems out of proportion with their experience and funding, or if the company seems to be expanding too quickly. “It’s got to be slow and sustainable growth,” says Vasterling, “and always looking down the long road.” Since Vasterling took the helm at Nashville Ballet in 1998, he has nearly quintupled the budget and expanded to 25 dancers—but it took two decades.

Kimberly Thompson. Giovanni Pizzino, Courtesy Thompson.

Keep Your Eyes Open

Once you start the job, it’s important to question anything that seems troubling, although Vasterling understands the temptation to brush doubts aside. “It’s really hard for dancers because the clock is constantly ticking,” he says. “Sometimes we’re willing to be blind to things, because we just want to do it so badly.” But at a certain point, listen to your instincts and plan an exit strategy, if possible.

Thompson noticed red flags shortly after starting at ANB, such as rehearsals that seemed random rather than directed toward an upcoming season. “We were essentially given busywork,” she says. And the conservatory teaching hours she was expecting? “There were multiple nights where I didn’t have any students, which meant I did not get paid.”

Missed payments or bounced checks are major warning signs. “If they don’t even have a bank account and payroll set up, that’s a big problem,” Braun says. ANB dancers received their agreed-upon salary payments for their five weeks of work, but in unconventional ways: the first payroll in cash and the second through a New York–based dance company, with that state’s taxes withheld.

Poor communication about important company news is another flag. In August, Thompson says that ANB dancers read in a Pointe web article that Rasta Thomas was hired as executive artistic director. “It really, really made me nervous when we weren’t notified first,” she says.

If Things Go Wrong

Many of the laid-off ANB dancers faced significant challenges, from missing a full season of performing to scrambling for backup jobs to make ends meet. And they didn’t necessarily qualify for unemployment benefits in South Carolina, says Braun. Since each state has its own regulations, this is something to consider as you budget for an out-of-state job. “You might have to establish residency, and you probably have a minimum number of weeks you have to work in the past 12 months,” he cautions.

In addition, Thompson and several other dancers were stuck in their leases. “Our only choice was to keep the apartment or pay the buyout fee,” she says. (Thompson is still negotiating the terms of her buyout.) A short-term rental can be a better option while you figure out if a company or new city is a good fit.

Thompson’s experience is extreme, but even established companies can undergo financial upheaval if not properly managed. Union members (any dancer can join) in good standing can apply for crisis support from the AGMA Relief Fund, and all professional performing artists can request emergency help from The Actors Fund. Any dancer can also ask an AGMA rep to review a contract after the fact and help sort out their rights, but Braun cautions that “there’s not a lot we can do to enforce it, if it’s not a union contract.”

It may feel justified, but avoid venting on social media, especially if there is a possibility for lawsuits. “Don’t burn bridges, no matter how upset you get,” says Thompson. If potential employers see unprofessional posts, they may think twice about hiring you.

As you regroup and figure out your next step, take time off if necessary, then get back into the studio and reconnect with your passion for dancing. “I don’t know if I can put myself out there again,” says Thompson, who is teaching part-time at The Washington School of Ballet and preparing for auditions. Still, she says, “I love dancing more than anything.”

What to Watch For

If problems like these arise in your company, don’t rationalize them—investigate.

  • Poor communication, whether it’s about your salary or major company changes.
  • Vague season plans. Performances should be set well before the season starts.
  • Sudden, unexplained growth, whether it’s an unusually large roster or a new building.
  • A history of canceled or partially canceled seasons. Has the company gotten back on its feet?
  • High artistic and executive director turnover may signal unrest at the executive level.
  • Unconventional payment methods or bounced paychecks.
  • An obscurely worded contract—or no contract at all. A contract signed by both parties is a legally binding document. Make sure you read and understand every word, or review it with someone who does.

Briley Neugebauer. Photo by Ed Flores, Courtesy PDX Contemporary Ballet.

One Dancer’s Happy Ending

Briley Neugebauer’s experience proves that dancers can emerge from a bad situation and thrive. In August 2014, she signed on as a trainee with Moxie Contemporary Ballet, a startup company in Portland, Oregon, with the understanding that it would evolve into a professional company.

She was already teaching at the associated studio, so she felt confident accepting the unpaid position. “I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t at least try,” she says. Things started smoothly, but she admits that pursuing her dream blinded her to some of the signs.

For one thing, she never received a written contract renewal. The director said she had too many things going on to think about that at the time, Neugebauer recalls. “You don’t have the job until you see the paper. And even then, it needs to be signed,” Neugebauer says. She also dismissed suspicions when the owner purchased spacious new studios, which in hindsight seemed like too much expansion too fast. Not long afterwards, the owner announced she was moving to California, the studio was shuttered and Moxie was over. “I felt like a dream died,” Neugebauer says.

After “a lot of crying,” Neugebauer and ex-Moxie dancers Emily Schultz and Joanna Hardy decided to start their own company, PDX Contemporary Ballet. “It was like, We might as well band together and create something good out of this,” Neugebauer recalls.

The small rep company is now in its third year, and no one gets paid, but Neugebauer loves being an artistic director. In the future she would like to pay the dancers and take a salary herself, but her first priority is operating within PDX’s budget. “We only rehearse Monday through Thursday from 11 am to 2:30 pm, so the dancers can have part-time jobs.”

Neugebauer now looks back on Moxie with a certain gratitude. “It was one of the worst years of my entire life, but it was one of the most important,” she says of losing her dream job. “I feel like the Moxie thing happened so that PDXCB could.” —CB