What are the hiring practices of top American ballet companies?
Hiring, firing, and moving is a regular part of the ballet world. Companies are made up of dancers in their first season, all the way up to their 24th season (San Francisco Ballet Principal, Yuan Yuan Tan). Ballet is dynamic and let’s be honest – it’s not the most stable profession. What is the dancer turnover rate for a season? How many spots open up each year? Is there a critical time where I’m more likely to be fired? Let’s take a look!
We’re looking at American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet. Above, we have a smoothed densitogram showing the percentage of dancers for each year spent in the company. The higher the peak = a greater percentage of the company joining at that particular time. So, for most companies, dancers joined more recently. Non-Balanchine and Balanchine companies look noticeably different in terms of how long they keep their dancers. Non-Balanchine companies tend to have most of their dancers just beginning in the company, meaning a lot of people in those middle years leave or are fired. Balanchine companies (PNB and NYCB) have a more balanced sloping curve, showing the company is more likely to keep dancers year to year.
For the 2018-2019 season, roughly 11% of dancers (51 dancers) are new to their company (in their first season). This number includes Joffrey Ballet as well as the companies we mentioned before. Assuming companies grow at a slow rate, that also means 10% of dancers are getting replaced each year.
50-ish new spots (mostly apprentice and corps openings) across seven companies.
The competition is fierce for these positions and, realistically, a dancer probably won’t audition for all six of these companies in a single audition cycle. A proportion of these new openings are also being filled internally by dancers from the feeder school or second company. Overall, it seems the chances of breaking in to one of these top companies are pretty low, making the accomplishments of this group all the more impressive!
Thank You, Next
Unfortunately, your chances of staying in your original top six company decreases as time goes on. In a five year period, around 44% of the company will be new dancers (based on simple calculations). Keep in mind, dancers move companies for a lot of different reasons like not having their contract renewed or looking for new opportunities.
If you do assume that most of this change is due to firing, I have good news – it seems you probably won’t get fired right away! The biggest decline in percentage of dancers happens around the second to fourth year. It appears you have about that many years (2 – 4) to prove yourself before either you or the company moves on.
The number of dancers in their second season is also within that 10% range. Either 2017 was a great year for hiring or, as mentioned earlier, companies tend to not fire after a single year. I’m pretty sure it was a bit of both! The 2017-2018 season had a size-able group of Houston Ballet dancers migrate to Boston Ballet, forcing Houston Ballet to hire more aggressively than normal for the 2018-2019 season. We can see a trace of this happening in the data – median years in the company for the corps de ballet is lower for both Houston and Boston Ballet compared to the other companies.
Focusing on median years for each rank, we see it takes longer to climb up the ranks in the larger and more prestigious companies (ABT and NYCB). PNB is an exception and mirrors the promotion patterns of these large companies while being half the size. The table also indicates that Houston, San Francisco, and Boston Ballet are relatively quick promoters while also being high quality companies. It’s something to keep in mind when looking for a company – maybe dancers looking to climb up the ranks should consider these more heavily out of the six.
Ok, we now know that around 50 dancers join top companies each year. But we want to know how they are getting there. It’s going to come down to two strategies: climbing through the feeder school or climbing through a different company. Which is better? We’ll try to answer this next time with a focus on how companies hire from their schools. You won’t want to miss it!