The Second Invasion

November 28, 2001

In her senior year of high school, Michelle Thompson, a student at the San Francisco Ballet School, went on “tons of auditions,” but soon found she needed to widen her search; after only one girl was chosen from her class of 25 to join SFB, Thompson decided to attend Ballet Austin’s summer intensive program. By summer’s end, she was one of six girls selected to join Ballet Austin II.

Now 23, Thompson is in her fourth season with Ballet Austin, and credits her second company experience with building confidence and providing training in contemporary partnering. “Coming from San Francisco Ballet, I had a lot going for me, but Ballet Austin II helped me develop,” she says. “It was a bridge for me.”

Stories like Thompson’s have become more common as the number of second companies has grown. While the reasons for this trend may vary, artistic directors usually cite the growing number of dancers needing jobs and the availability of funding to support supervisory positions. Maintaining a second company is also efficient; with a supply of homegrown dancers available to swell the ranks during big productions, main companies can be smaller. Second companies are also often vital in executing public education programs that boost community presence and may even generate income.

For the most part, artistic directors and dancers laud the merits of second companies, including extensive performing and technical fine-tuning for young dancers learning the ins and outs of company life. But they also acknowledge the drawbacks: low pay—or no pay—and the distinct possibility that a company job won’t follow a second company gig. “Obviously,” Thompson points out, “they can’t tell you at the beginning of the year if they will have a spot for you.”

Second companies are nothing new. Formed in 1968, Joffrey II (now defunct) was the first to open in the U.S., followed six years later by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Ailey II. The last 10 years, however, have seen a rise in second companies, and now most large- and medium-sized companies in the U.S. have them (see page 88 for a listing of second companies).

The structure of each second company varies. BAII members are considered apprentices to the main company, while Pennsylvania Ballet II members are not—although both supplement the main company’s performances and tour independently. Ailey II’s 12 dancers, who will perform in more than 45 cities this season, no longer join first company productions, and the second company has four unpaid apprentices of its own. And members of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company—whose focus is training over outreach—become apprentices only when they join the main company.

“Everybody has a different kind of system,” says BA Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin. “If you try and put it all together and figure out if there’s a continuum, I’m not sure there is.”

Among the second companies that exist now, pay is a big issue. Alan Gordon, executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, says, “The problem is that most ballet companies treat those dancers as students,” who, he adds, are in the in-between stage of their careers. AGMA, however, can only negotiate on behalf of dancers recognized as employees.

Because of this, BAII makes it a point to be upfront, both at auditions and post-hire. Audition forms break down all company components, and auditions are followed with 10-minute Q&A sessions.

BAII dancers are apprentices who take company class and do four to five productions of their own each spring, sign a 34-week, non-union contract and receive $150 to 200 per week. Their days end at 3:30 pm, which allows for second jobs. While many take on babysitting and catering work, Martin says, “We try and encourage them to look beyond what’s automatically an easy thing and to use their skills [that are not related to dance] in another area they’re interested in pursuing.”

On the other hand, Martin points to the benefits, such as the individual attention and feedback her dancers receive, such as conferences, goal-setting sessions and self evaluation. “Our goal for them is to develop as artists. There has to be something in it for them. It can’t be about Ballet Austin using kids to go out and demonstrate. It is incumbent on us to provide resources to position them to be successful. Sometimes it’s helping them see that they won’t fit in the industry where they think they will fit.”

Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet has no second company. Former artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell decided against it, worried it would distract young dancers. PNB Professional Division students “were in the big productions, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker—but not all the time,” Russell says. “We wanted them to understand their main purpose was to complete their training. I think it’s wonderful for them to perform, but they’re still students.”

BAII’s Martin agrees, though she says, “That’s why each year we make little changes to better serve the dancers and us. It can be distracting. There was a time when they would be in some school cafeteria [doing outreach] and not getting a full class. We scaled back. It’s a balance.”

But for Kirk Peterson, ABT Studio Company’s artistic director, there’s no substitute for getting onstage. “Personally, I find dancers who’ve performed a lot have it much easier,” he says. To him, joining a company fresh out of school is like being thrown “into the deep end of the pool,” because professional dancers get so little personal attention. 

“Of course, it’s essential to focus on their technique,” Peterson emphasizes, giving the example of one boy who doesn’t yet have sufficient upper body strength for partnering. While ABT staff helps him overcome that, he’ll do what’s appropriate for his level of development onstage.

One of Peterson’s goals is to nail down more performance opportunities during the summer months. His 12 dancers, who are ages 17 to 20, supplement the main company’s Metropolitan Opera House season after their eight-month contracts end in April. During the 2006-07 season, the Studio Company will perform at an AIDS benefit, universities, in various Nutcrackers and a gala in Bermuda. They’ll also take part in a three-week residency at White Oak in Florida and perform new choreography by Adam Hougland, Peterson’s Eyes That Gently Touch and Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden. (The Studio Company is the first second company to receive permission to dance the Tudor ballet.)

Opportunity is a big bonus at Pennsylvania Ballet II. In 2005, PBII joined the main company to perform Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake at the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. Closer to home, the company performs 25 to 30 times a year, and the roles can be big. Ian Hussey, a former PBII member who became a company apprentice in 2006, danced Black Swan pas de deux variations while still in the second company. In addition to learning variations, Hussey says he prized working on big jumps and partnering in the

junior company. “It’s a skill that’s difficult and important,” he emphasizes. “It can make or break your career.”

“I wish I had had this experience when I was a young dancer,” says PBII Director William DeGregory, a former Pennsylvania Ballet principal. “They’re doing outreach stuff with me they’d never touch if they were a corps member: soloist and pas de deux roles, partnering and pointe work.”

Calling it a win-win situation for all, DeGregory wonders why every company doesn’t maintain a second company.

“I think it works fantastically,” he says. “It’s a great, great learning vehicle.”  

Susan Chitwood, a former apprentice with Virginia Ballet Theater, has an MS in journalism from Columbia University in New York City.