Engagement Prospects at Large Dance Companies

The one “job” (urgh…) that is critical to a dance company is… dancer. Even if it’s just one dancer, without that person, it may be a company (of some sort…), but it’s not a dance company. At that end of the spectrum, a single person does everything. Today we’ll look at the other end.

Expanding the scope a bit from some previous work, I offer a brief look at engagement prospects within the million-plus-dollar non-profit dance company world. Based on 2019 data, there are 116 of these companies in the United States. I found information about the company dancers for 102 of them during the 2022 Nutcracker season. This approach does get a little tricky – I’m using one time period (pre-pandemic 2019) to pick companies, and another (December 2022) to count dancers, and the number of dancers active with a company can vary instantly. That pandemic window probably also has some impact on this specific question, but I think this will work to a rough approximation (eventually reasonably complete 2022/2023 financial data will become available, and maybe I can revisit this).

The $1 million cutoff is also arbitrary, but at this level, the dancers probably have few demands beyond learning their choreography and delivering a polished performance to an audience. I figure this is about as “dance” as a “dance career” can be.

Counting Bodies

Combined, those 102 companies engaged roughly 2560 dancers – about 25 dancers in each (range is 3 to 93).

The largest companies (by number of performers) are (of course… also by budget) New York City Ballet (NYCB) and American Ballet Theater (ABT), each engaging more than 90 dancers.

The six Balanchine-legacy companies represent more than 15% of all dancers engaged by the $1+ million companies (occupying four of the largest five companies by company size…). Among the other solidly-Balanchine-influenced is Miami City Ballet, whose artistic director Lourdes Lopez is not just a NYCB alum, but served as Executive Director of the George Balanchine Foundation. Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), under the artistic direction of Peter Boal and former co-artistic direction of Francia Russell and Kent Stowell (all NYCB alums…), came to New York City in 2013, and in at least one reviewer’s opinion, out-Balanchined Balanchine’s own company, on Balanchine’s own turf.

[New York] City Ballet’s performances of this [“Concerto Barocco“] and “Agon” certainly don’t project in the David H. Koch Theater as these performances do at the smaller City Center. And though City Ballet has some fine individual dancers, it is less unified in its understanding of Balanchine.

Alastair Macauley, “Performers from the West Coast Serve Up Balanchine,” New York Times, 14 February 2013.

There are many other companies in this group that have some sort of Balanchine legacy – the current artistic director (Susan Jaffee) of ABT is a School of American Ballet (SAB) alum (though probably not so deeply Balanchined…). Other current artistic directors that are NYCB/SAB alumni include Zalman Raffael, Gen Horiuchi, Steven Wistrich, Melissa Barak, Ib Anderson, Edward Liang, Ethan Stiefel, Maria Kowroski, and even Brenda Way.

I’m sure there are more, but these put another 450 (18%) of jobs in a sort of indirect-Balanchine-legacy category, meaning at least a third of all engagement at this level operate under some degree of Balanchine influence.

14 of these million-dollar companies engage fewer than 10 dancers – Charlottesville Ballet, Northwest Dance Project, BodyVox, BANDALOOP, Trisha Brown Company, Stephen Petronio Company, Dance Brigade, Pilobolus, Urbanity Dance, AXIS Dance Company, Urban Bush Women, STREB,and Minnesota Dance Theater.

Within these companies, we have here just under 200 Principals (8%), just over 200 Soloists (8%), just over 500 Corps (20%), and about 230 Apprentices (9%) – leaving a bit more than 1400 “generic” dancers.

A Digression on Apprentices

Only about a third (37) of these companies engage “apprentices,” which are technically “bound to work in return for instruction.” I’m sure the actual terms of engagement vary from company to company – but apprentices are most likely to be in a situation where they are unpaid or even paying for the opportunity to perform.

It’s not a fair assumption, but removing the apprentices leaves only 2330 dance positions at these companies.

Those companies that describe some of their dancers as apprentices average about one-fifth (20%) apprentices, but it ranges as high as 50% (Madison Ballet), and as low as 4% (American Ballet Theatre).

The companies most-dependent on apprentices are Madison Ballet (50%), Saint Louis Ballet (48%), Grand Rapids Ballet (43%), Nashville Ballet (40%), Parsons Dance (36%), Alabama Ballet (33%), and Ensemble Español (33%). Interestingly, all of these have steered away from the “corps/soloist/principal” language for their other dancers.

The number of apprentices may also meaningfully (or not…) reflect the company’s anticipated “replacement requirements” – a company may keep a certain number of apprentices “in the pipeline” as a way to ensure that the show goes on when dancers of higher rank leave. Strategies about this vary, or there may be no strategy at all. Something to explore…

Capacity (from a Great Distance)

Of course, the meaning of “Principal,” “Soloist,” “Corps,” and “Apprentice” will vary a bit, particularly as you wander further away from very traditional ballet structures… and the terms of engagement will very even more. NYCB dancers are union-represented (AGMA) and have 9+ month contracts. Charlottesville Ballet contracts were closer to 6 months – and that’s just contract length.

One potential approach to measuring capacity is annual company expenses per dancer. As usual, this is not “fair,” because some companies have huge operating expenses for things like buildings and schools, and others just don’t. Some have second companies, and most don’t. Some spend a lot on production, and some don’t. Just to poke around this a bit…

On average, these companies spend about $250,000 per year per dancer (not all of that, or even most of that, goes to the dancer….). At the highest end, we have NYCB, supporting 93 dancers with annual expenses around $92 million – just shy of $1 million per dancer. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is right there too (46 dancers on a $45 million budget). After those two, it drops quickly – San Francisco Ballet‘s expenses-per-year-per-dancer is a bit less than $720,000 for its 79 performers.

At the other extreme is City Ballet of San Diego, which manages to keep 37 dancers (16 company members, 12 studio company members, and 9 apprentices) engaged while spending just $1.1 million – less than $30,000 per year per dancer.

Opportunity vs. Tenacity

Only a fraction of these 2560 (or 2330, if you discount apprentices…) opportunities is available in any given year. Getting one is not nearly as challenging as the small handful of artistic director openings (I used a higher $5 million cutoff for that analysis), but still very few openings at this level.

Naturally, once someone has one of these positions, they are very likely to hang on to it as long as possible – until promotion or career-ending injury do they part. Teresa Reichlen stayed with NYCB for 22 years, from apprentice to principal, retiring in February 2022. Susan Jaffee also managed a 22-year stage career (1980-2002) at ABT. These are the two largest (and best resourced) companies in the United States. They probably take very good care of their performers, which may contribute to these long stage careers, but as the length of the career in years approaches the number of performers in the company (average 25…), the number of openings approaches one per year – and there are only about 116 million-dollar companies.

Hopefully, all this goes some distance toward appreciating just how extraordinary these “jobs” (urgh…) are.

Ladies of the Dance

I recently explored the Lords of the Dance. Dance performance and participation is overwhelmingly female… Artistic Direction (AD) in dance, not so much. There’s a fascinating case to explore of modern dance rising as a reaction to this gender dynamic in ballet, but that’s not today.

Today is about current female artistic leadership in large-budget American dance companies.

First, it’s important to state that this is just one job title, and only looking at a very few, very large companies. This doesn’t explore executive leadership, board participation, choreographers, or the people running the studios and rehearsals… and this is all binary-gender, because I can’t find any evidence of any gender-expansive humans in the AD position at these organizations (Dance Data Project did, but not in the United States [and no longer in 2023…]. Get your budget up, trocks 🙂 ). I’m going to use pink and blue gender associations in chart. Also, this is based on pre-pandemic FY2019 budgets, and only companies with budgets of $5 million or more. It’s an arbitrary cutoff. There are 41.

Female Artistic Direction

Today, just under 32% of the largest United States dance companies have female-identifying artistic directors, which is up a bit in recent history.

Since 2020, 9 of these companies changed artistic directors, making a remarkable 22% (and it’s going to be at least 24%) turnover in just three years (there’s more to explore about the pandemic and other recent shocks as an impetus…) and five of those were women.

More interestingly, four of those women replaced men, and in three of those cases, these women were the first female artistic directors in their company’s history.

In the same period, two men replaced women, and both of those women stepped up, not out. Susan Jaffe left Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre for a much larger ballet station at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and is replaced by Adam W. McKinney, and Alejandro Cerrudo replaced Hope Muir at Charlotte Ballet in 2022. Hope Muir also landed at a larger ballet station, the National Ballet of Canada – more than triple her previous charge (in US dollars), but outside the United States, so… she escapes the rest of this discussion.

This year (2023) Dani Rowe becomes the first woman to hold the position at Oregon Ballet Theatre in its 34 years and Jodie Gates assumed the AD position, succeeding Victoria Morgan at the Cincinnati Ballet after 25 years. Robert Garland will replace Virginia Johnson at Dance Theatre of Harlem in July – he’ll be the 10th post-2020 AD transition.

Last year (2022), Tamara Rojo replaced Helgi Tómasson at San Francisco Ballet (a position held for 37 years), becoming the first female AD in that company’s 90 year history, and Susan Jaffe replaced Kevin McKenzie, who held the position for nearly three decades at American Ballet Theatre.

And in 2021, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell assumed the artistic director position at Hubbard Street Dance, becoming the first woman to do so in that company’s 45-year history.

This post-pandemic female AD cohort joins the ranks of Lourdes Lopez at Miami City Ballet, Julie Kent at Washington Ballet, Jodie Gates at Cincinnati Ballet, Stoner Winslett at Richmond Ballet, Brenda Way at ODC Dance, Janet Eilber at Martha Graham Dance Company, Virginia Johnson at Dance Theatre of Harlem (for a few months), Karen Russo Burke at Dayton Ballet, and Gina Gibney at Gibney Dance. The fact that this list is short enough to fully enumerate reveals several challenges for dance in America.

Women of the Baby Balanchines

I also recently explored the “Baby Balanchine” companies. As a tiny case-study in female artistic leadership, these are interesting. Women (well, more precisely, Balanchine women…) were deeply involved in most of these, and held the role of artistic director for half of the babies in 1963. I’m not counting New York City Ballet as a baby (it’s the “parent”), and Mr. B did not let go of his ballet station… and it’s been men the whole time.

Boston had E. Virginia Williams, who started teaching at age 16 and founded the New England Civic Ballet in 1958. Under her direction, the Boston Ballet explored rock ballet with Louis Falco‘s The Gamete Garden (1971). In 1974, she took a bold chance on the then-10-year old Winterbranch by Merce Cunningham – and managed to chase some of the audience out of the room. Williams is succeeded by Violette Verdy (also deeply connected with Balanchine) in 1983, and then by Bruce Marks (from Ballet West) in 1985. Anna-Marie Holmes brings the feminine back to Boston as a co-artistic director for several years before a brief 3-year run as AD starting in 1998. Since 2001, it’s been Mikko Nissinen.

Houston had Tatiana Semenova who started a ballet school in 1955. In 1959, Robert Irving, New York City Ballet’s principal conductor (those Balanchine connections run deep…) led the Houston Symphony for the world premiere of Semenova’s Enigma. There was some drama, and part of the Ford Foundation funding was lost with her departure in 1966. After a somewhat complicated transition, Nina Popova held the AD position until 1975.

The National Ballet never had a female artistic director, but had Jean Riddell as president of the National Ballet Society. It’s Washington, D.C., so things get complicated, and the company folded in 1974.

Perhaps the deepest Baby Balanchine connection was Barbara Weisberger, founder and artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet until 1982, and who also founded the Carlisle Project and served as an artistic advisor for Peabody Dance in Baltimore. Pennsylvania Ballet (now Philadelphia Ballet) hasn’t seen a female artistic director since she left in 1982.

But that auspicious recognition of women in artistic leadership roles among the Baby Balanchines would erode… Houston’s AD was male by 1976, and by 1985, men ran them all, with a brief respite from 1993-2001 in Boston. AD gender at the Balanchine-legacy companies (including NYCB) looks like this:

Just a hint of pink at the far-right in that image, Tamara Rojo brings a Spanish (by nationality) and British (Royal Ballet and English National Ballet) sensibility to the San Francisco Ballet – a change away from both male gender and Balanchine, with a powerhouse $57 million annual budget (much more than double the English National Ballet’s $23 million).

Perhaps worth noting here, Balanchine shared his perspective on gender in ballet… the “ballet is woman” quote is often attributed to him – but there’s more.

But if you watch the stage you will see something more beautiful. The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.

“Mr B Talks Ballet,” George Balanchine, Life Magazine, 11 June 1965, page 97.

… a sentiment that maybe does not age all that well.

Budget Equity

The new ADs represent significant cultural changes in each company, but the post-2020 net change is only +2 for the ladies – so far (that will drop to +1 in July). There’s a very different story if you look at the economic change these women represent.

The four women that replaced men now direct more than $120 million a year to their artistic vision, almost doubling the financial resources available to female ADs at these top-tier dance companies. Jaffe’s transition from Pittsburgh to ABT gives her access to more than four times the budget (although it’s in a city that’s much more expensive…).

I don’t have data to support any sort of “first time in history” claim, but this huge shift in resources appears to have achieved AD gender “budget equity.” For at least a few months of 2023, the 32% of companies with female artistic directors represent 32% of the aggregate annual budget at the largest 41 dance companies in the United States.


Congratulations to the new female artistic directors of American dance (and you too, Hope Muir!). May your tenures be amazing. Please don’t forget to reach back and offer a hand-up. We need more of you.


Dance Data Project US Artistic Director History Data Byte [pdf] is only ballet companies, and based on the largest 50 by budget, so different base data set, but it has an interesting point of comparison. Their data says 46% of the largest 50 ballet companies were founded by female ADs – but only 30% are lead by female ADs as of July 2021. The erosion of female artistic leadership seen in the Baby Balanchines looks more widespread.

Where are the Women in Ballet (WBUR, 2015)

Sexism in dance: where are all the female choreographers? (The Guardian, 2013)

Agnes de Mille’s Artistic Justice (The New Yorker, 2015)

Last year, 69% of works performed by the 50 largest ballet companies — including Joffrey and Hubbard Street — were choreographed by men. Women in dance are trying to change that. (Chicago Tribune, 2021)

Leading Ladies (Dance, 2016)

Update (26 May 2023) – added note about Dance Data Project Global Leadership Report 2023.

Lords of the Dance (the Artistic Directors)

Today I offer an excursion into artistic authority – Who gets to decide how the resources of American dance companies are applied? (I use “lords” advisedly – it’s mostly men at this scale, more on that later).

The Biggest Companies

Limiting myself to the largest non-profit dance companies in the United States (because my sanity requires some limits), and using pre-pandemic budgets (because nothing newer makes any sense yet…). There are just 41 companies operate in the $5+ million annual budget range (there’s some wiggle room – some of these are not just dance companies). Those companies had a combined FY2019 budget of just over $660 million, and more than a third of that is with New York City Ballet and the Baby Balanchines.

The average age of these companies is 57.6 years (with some room for interpretation). Average age of the artistic directors is just about the same – 57.9 (also missing a few data points here…).

Btw, start planning to celebrate Martha Graham Dance Company’s 100th in 2026…

Captains of the Ballet Stations

Artistic directors tend to stick around a long time, sometimes a very long time, and this makes perfect sense. Once you’ve got a “fully armed and operational ballet station” at your disposal (apologies to both Emperor Palpatine and the few not-“ballet” companies below…), there aren’t many reasons to give that up (especially if the company has your name on it).

CompaniesYears with Current AD
ODC Dance52
Mark Morris Dance Group
Richmond Ballet
Alonzo King LINES Ballet41
Gibney Dance32
Tulsa Ballet28
Nashville Ballet*25
Ballet Arizona
Ballet Austin
Boston Ballet22
Milwaukee Ballet21
Houston Ballet20
Martha Graham Dance Company
Pacific Northwest Ballet
Colorado Ballet17
Ballet West
Joffrey Ballet
Sarasota Ballet
Ballet Hispanico
Dance Theatre of Harlem
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Dayton Ballet
Miami City Ballet11
Ballet Metropolitan (Columbus)
Kansas City Ballet
Philadelphia Ballet9
Atlanta Ballet
Washington Ballet
Nevada Ballet Theatre6
Paul Taylor Dance Company5
Carolina Ballet
New York City Ballet
Hubbard Street Dance
Orlando Ballet
American Ballet Theater
Charlotte Ballet
Cincinnati Ballet
San Francisco Ballet
Texas Ballet Theater
Oregon Ballet Theatre
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
* Nick Mullikin will replace Paul Vasterling in June 2023. 
† Robert Garland will replace Virginia Johnson in July 2023.
‡ Dayton Ballet is advertising the position of artistic director.

Change Has Come

Since the pandemic, the rate-of-AD-change seems to have picked up significantly – two new ADs in 2021 seems fairly normal, but there were five in 2022, and we’re not even halfway through 2023, and there are already two, with at least two more coming…

This isn’t just the pandemic (that does make a convenient point-of-reference) – there are tectonic social, economic, and political forces at work in this early-21st Century world. We live in interesting times.

Interesting times are ripe with confusion and drama. Also, opportunities.

Are You Next?

If you’re interested in being one of these artistic directors, the search is on to replace Karen Russo Burke at the Dayton Ballet.