Amid Ballet Company Layoffs, Dancers Face a Tough Time to Land on Their Feet

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sure, it's hard for lots of people in a down economy, but for some dancers, this year has been a career killer.

For many of them, training begins practically in toddlerhood, and after a decade of preparation within the four walls of a studio, they have but a slim window of time to pursue a career before injuries and age catch up with them. Unfortunately, dance being the brutal, youth-oriented business that it is, new hires are most attractive to company directors in their late teens, or possibly early 20s. An unemployed dancer with several years of company experience under her belt may face slim prospects of finding another gig.

And these days, unemployment is the sad case for more than a few. The numbers are grim:

Among the larger companies, New York City Ballet has let 11 dancers go, Miami City Ballet has laid off seven dancers in addition to getting rid of live music, and San Francisco Ballet has laid off six dancers. American Ballet Theatre is not laying off dancers; instead, its dancers union agreed to substantial contract concessions. At the Washington Ballet, no dancers have been laid off, although Artistic Director Septime Webre says the budget has been reduced by 7 percent.

We caught up with one laid-off dancer at the airport in Charlotte, where she was between flights on her way home to Denver, after having auditioned for a job that morning with the Cincinnati Ballet. Crystal Hartford, a native of Edmonton, Alberta, had danced with the Colorado Ballet for four years when she was pink-slipped this winter.

"They let me know February 17th -- I'll never forget that day," said Hartford, 24. (According to Artistic Director Gil Boggs, attendance and ticket sales were up this season, but a drop in contributions led him to lay off four dancers.) Her first thought: "My career's over, especially given the way the economy is right now." To make matters worse, the timing of the bad news meant that she had already missed out on many of the annual open auditions typically held by ballet troupes in January and February.

Hartford had to finish the season with the Colorado Ballet and couldn't begin looking for another job immediately. Once performances ended in March, however, she began mailing out tapes of herself, calling everyone she knows in the field and flying around the country to show off her arabesque to whomever invites her to take a company class. So far, all she has come away with is "we'd love to have you and just can't afford it," she said.

Dancer salaries vary according to the size of the company, the dancer's rank and experience, and the number of weeks for which he or she is paid. A new member of a company the size of the Cincinnati or Colorado ballets (25 to 30 dancers) usually earns $460 to $550 per week for a contract of 33 to 35 weeks. A principal dancer earns around $1,000.

"It's very scary right now," Hartford said. If she doesn't land a full contract, her Plan B is to market herself as a freelancer, dropping in for guest-artist gigs in the odd "Nutcracker," for instance. Dancing has been "my dream since I was 3 years old," she said. "It's hard to think that maybe you could lose everything you've worked for for so long."

Meanwhile, teenage graduates of professional training programs are having a hard time landing that first dance job. Companies "are just not hiring dancers -- even beautiful, exceptional dancers," said Susan Jaffe, the former American Ballet Theatre star who runs the Princeton Dance and Theater Studio and who had been teaching at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, though she said she has recently been laid off from there.

(Things are different at the School of American Ballet, which is affiliated with New York City Ballet and is the country's premier ballet school. SAB culls students each year who are not professional material, and therefore, said Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty, of 28 SAB students who auditioned for spots at ballet companies this winter, 23 have been offered jobs -- six as City Ballet apprentices.)

Graduating seniors from Silver Spring's Maryland Youth Ballet have had more trouble than usual finding jobs, said its principal, Michelle Lees. In the past, her students have landed spots at ABT (including Jaffe), San Francisco Ballet and other companies. She has half a dozen "employable" students this year, but most have found that the companies they've auditioned for, if hiring at all, are offering unpaid "traineeships" rather than full contracts. Instead of chancing that a traineeship might lead to a company slot, she said, they are going to college instead. More than likely, that means the end of the dance road for them.

"Ballet is a young person's art, and you have to be out there working right out of high school," she said.

After several auditions, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School senior Anna McKinnon, 18, netted one job offer, sort of: South Carolina's Charleston Ballet Theatre offered her an apprenticeship, with token payments per performance and no health benefits. She has opted to relinquish her hopes of becoming a professional dancer.

Come fall, she'll be studying biology at Tulane University instead.

"It makes me sad to think that this year, when I am auditioning, that the economy is so low, but that's just the way life is," says McKinnon, who fell in love with ballet at age 5. "I guess I just look at it as, my dream has changed."

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