A Spotlight for Everyone?

Article excerpt

The reality of unranked companies

For many professional ballet dancers, following the dream means a series of clear upward steps, from corps to soloist to principal. Until last year, you might have said that Nevada Ballet Theatre's Alissa Dale was right on track. A trainee with NBT in 2004. Dale got into the corps the next year and advanced to soloist in 2007. But in 2009, as NBT changed its artistic leadership, it also changed from a tiered company of principals, soloists and corps members to a 23-member ensemble of dancers, ail equals- an unranked company.

Although staying with Nevada Ballet Theatre meant losing a title. Dale didn't see herself as a casualty of the transition. Tve always been a fan of the ensemble system, so I was really excited." she says. "It increases the competition, but it's also an opportunity to work harder. You can't take for granted where you stand in the company- you can be passed over if you sit back and don't grab the reins. But that in turn increases your work ethic

Bucking the hierarchy laid out by the great European ballet institutions, more and more unranked companies are dotting the landscape of American ballet. The root of that model traces back to the "all-star, no star" Joffrey Ballet. "Robert Joffrey's philosophy was that in a nonranked company the strength lay in everyone, rather than resting on one or two featured artists." says James Canfield, a Joffrey alumnus who took over the helm of NBT last year after serving as interim director for a year.

Famously egalitarian. Joffrey's approach meant that his hard-working dancers might find themselves leading a ballet one night and dancing in the corps another. That sense of democracy is part of the rationale for unranked companies. "In a ranked company, everyone knows their place, so there's an assuredness," says Septime Webre. who has headed the unranked, 2 2-member Washington Ballet since 7999. "But in an unranked company, there's a social mobility, shall we say?"

It's an approach that has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, any dancer can earn a chance to shine in a leading role. But the lack of clear levels means that life becomes a daily competition with fellow dancers.

"There's a sense of on edge' that you have to maintain," says Travis Bradley. who is in his sixth season at Ballet Memphis. …