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.

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.

Struggling with a Balanchinian Legacy

The George Balanchine legacy is complicated, and I’m not even going to pretend to grasp its varied dimensions. That said, one interesting bit I’ve come to call the “Baby Balanchines” changed the landscape of dance in America profoundly more than half a century ago. The resources applied at this inflection point would commit much of dance in America to Balanchine’s style for generations – and at great expense to others across the universe of dance in America.

The Immigrant and the Impresario

Today our story begins in 1904 with the birth of George Balanchine in St. Petersburg in the Russian Empire, the son of an opera singer and composer. Three years later, Lincoln Kirstein is born in Rochester, New York, son of a salesman. George spent his youth in ballet training, Lincoln’s wealthy family sent him to private school and eventually Harvard.

The two intersect in London when Kirstein sees Balanchine perform as Koschei in Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballet Russes Firebird. Kirstein eventually convinces Balanchine to come to the United States, and together with Edward Warburg and Vladimir Dimitriew, they form the School of American Ballet (SAB) in 1934. Kirstein’s support of Balanchine’s vision was complete, enabling him “to do exactly what he wants to do in the way he wants to do it.” Balanchine, and thus SAB, fully embraced the Russian Imperial Ballet School (now Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet) approach to ballet training.

Balanchine and Kirstein spawn a number of ballet ventures (including the American Ballet, Ballet Caravan, and Ballet Society which would eventually consolidate into the 1948 formation of the New York City Ballet (NYCB), but before they do, American Ballet and Ballet Caravan merge into American Ballet Caravan, and Nelson Rockefeller (as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs) arranges a tour of South America.

Just a few years later, Kirstein would become managing director of New York’s City Center, and with this engagement, brought the resources of the Rockefeller Foundation to ballet (and opera).

In 1950, Lew Christensen becomes NYCB Ballet Master, and just three years later, relocates to the west coast to direct the San Francisco Ballet.

Space to Dance

By the 1960s, the New York City Ballet is well-established, having toured North America, South America, Europe, and Asia (more than once with U.S. State Department support) and even a couple televised Nutcrackers (see the 1958 version).

New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller signs a bill in 1961 authorizing the construction of the New York State Theater for the 1964 World’s Fair – with a combined state and city allocation of $30 million (this would be over $300 million today). This space, would become the new home of the New York City Ballet, was designed to Balanchine’s specifications and completed at a cost of $19.3 million.

Essentially simultaneously, work begins on the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), which opens in 1966 and becomes the official “summer home” of the New York City Ballet.

Artistic Concentration – The “Baby Balanchines”

In 1963, the Ford Foundation launched three national arts and humanities initiatives – one to “increase the supply of quality curators and directors for the nation’s museums of fine arts,” one to strengthen “the role of independent arts schools and conservatories of music in setting standards for professional training”, and, most interesting here, one to “develop the country’s training and performing resources in ballet.”

The Foundation appropriated $8 million for a national program to help develop training and performing resources in ballet, a medium that only in the last three decades has become an important American art form. The major components of the program are:

  • strengthening of the School of American Ballet as a national center for advanced professional training;
  • support of a cooperative system between the School of American Ballet and ballet teachers in different parts of the country to improve the professional preparation of promising young dancers;
  • strengthening the role of the New York City Ballet as a national company. The increased funds will help the New York City Ballet perform services for professionally developing companies elsewhere, and will provide partial assistance to new works needed in the company’s repertoire.
  • assistance to the San Francisco Ballet Company and School through a matching grant for their long-term development;
  • matching support for new professional companies and schools in Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
Ford Foundation Annual Report, 1963, page 12.

Ford backed Balanchine’s own New York operations (School of American Ballet and City Center of Music and Drama with almost $6 million, and picked five (eventually six) companies based largely on Balanchine’s recommendations and extended massive funding – Boston Ballet ($144k), Houston Ballet ($174K), National Ballet ($400K), Pennsylvania Ballet (now Philadelphia Ballet) ($345K), San Francisco Ballet ($644K), and Utah Civic Ballet (now Ballet West) ($175K) was added in the following year.

This $8 million ballet program (though only $7.8 million was disbursed) represented more than 6% of new project appropriations by the Ford Foundation in 1963, and in today’s dollars would exceed $78 million. Balanchine offered his advice, music, costumes, and choreography, and the artistic leadership of these institutions were deeply connected to Balanchine, the person, and so the “Balanchinian” legacy was baked-in from the beginning.

By the mid-1960s, Balanchine’s individual concept of dance stood on a foundation of at least seven of the best-funded schools/companies in the country and two performance venues.

Economic Concentration

Even with the loss of the National Ballet in 1974, the remaining six Balanchine-legacy companies represent a combined annual budget around quarter-billion dollars, and half of the ten largest dance companies in the country (and Ballet West is #12, which is pretty extraordinary given its home city). Economic concentration just happens in the absence of intervention (for a fun diversion, check out the Yard Sale Model), and this works in at least a couple ways for these companies – these are big cities (#24, #4, #23, #1, #6, #17, and #122 by population today; #13, #7, #9, #1, #4, #12, and #65 in 1960 – Salt Lake City is definitely an outlier in this group), so they generally have access to sizeable audiences (and patrons). At the very top, the New York metropolitan statistical area (MSA) is home to some 20 million people, each providing an average of about $4.56 to this one company every year (the Salt Lake City MSA is much more generous – about $10.75 per person per year for Ballet West).

All of these companies are the biggest ones (by budget) in their local regions:

The Big CompanyBudget RatioThe Second Biggest Company
Boston Ballet15Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre
Houston Ballet45Metdance
Philadelphia Ballet14Koresh Dance Company
New York City Ballet2American Ballet Theatre or Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
San Francisco Ballet9Alonzo King LINES Ballet or ODC Dance
Ballet West15Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company

This disparity isn’t unique to the Baby Balanchines – it’s true throughout dance economics (and economics in general…). Washington, D.C. lost the National Ballet, but its big company is now The Washington Ballet, 6 times larger than Step Afrika! and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet is about 17 times larger than Spectrum Dance Theater.

Dive Deeper

This is but a hint of the Balanchine legacy – for a contemporary view, checkout Harper’s Magazine, September 1964, “Ballet in America: One-man Show?

Life Magazine, June 11, 1965, “Mr. B Talks about Ballet

Vanity Fair, December 1998, “Balanchine’s Dream

Dollars for Dance: Lincoln Kirstein, City Center, and the Rockefeller Foundation

New York Times, May 8, 1977, “Kirstein The Man Who Brought Us Balanchine

National Endowment for the Humanities, Humanities, Vol 37, Issue 1, “George Balanchine and the United States