Is a ballet apprenticeship for you ?
As a bridge linking graduation to professional company life, an apprenticeship should offer a chance for young dancers to develop performance experience, adapt to company life and touring, and lead to an independent life, learning to work for themselves. At a time when budget cuts mean that substantial savings have to be made over the coming seasons, ballet companies still need enough dancers to put on their productions. There are several ways that they can go about this.
Apprenticeships within classical ballet companies are not widely available in the UK and budget constraints threaten to contract the prospects even further. Looking at the five major ballet companies in the UK – Scottish Ballet, Northern Ballet, The Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet – only one of them currently offers an apprenticeship scheme for dancers : Northern Ballet.
The Prix de Lausanne
One route towards a funded place is via the international competition known as the Prix de Lausanne. At The Royal Ballet, head of ballet press said “we don’t do any apprenticeships at The Royal Ballet.” There are, however, scholarships, known as apprenticeships at the Prix de Lausanne, available to winners of the competition. The stated objective of the Prix de Lausanne is to help young talented dancers begin their professional careers. This is achieved as the winners of the contest receive scholarships that allow them to complete their training for one year in one of the schools or professional dance companies that are partners of the Prix de Lausanne, including The Royal Ballet. This year Patricia Zhou and Sung Woo Han will join The Royal Ballet from the Prix de Lausanne when the 2011/12 season begins later this year. The Royal Ballet will be announcing these placements along with other leavers/joiners/promotions later this month.
It’s a similar picture at Scottish Ballet, where I was told, “we don’t really run an apprentice scheme,” and at Birmingham Royal Ballet whose media and PR officer told me, “the only apprenticeships we offer are the Future Jobs Fund placements. These are in other departments of the organisation – not for dancers.”
Northern Ballet leads by example
Northern Ballet is the only one of the larger UK ballet companies to offer an apprenticeship scheme for dancers. It’s a paid scheme, lasting up to one year dependent on success. For the season just ended there have been 3 apprentices from varying backgrounds & schools (South Africa, Elmhurst School for Dance and the Royal Ballet School). Approximately 50% of apprentices will go on to join the company, a trend that has remained stable but is expected to decrease, along with the duration of the scheme itself. The company’s Media & PR Manager explains that it is “due to the recent cuts and as a result having less dancers in the company.” Two out of the three apprentices will be staying on with the company and next season Northern Ballet will take on two new apprentices.
Until this weekend, English National Ballet had 5 apprentices listed on their website. When I pointed this out last week ENB’s press manager told me, “I think that was just worded wrongly. They were work experience people that we got on board ages ago for, the Snow Queen, I think it was, and they just haven’t been taken off.” Asked if they were running an apprenticeship scheme this year I was told, “we don’t have anything being planned at all. No.”
The difference between appropriate work experience and apprenticeships
Hilary Hadley from the union Equity (seen earlier this year negotiating a pay increase for the dancers in BBC Four’s behind the scenes documentary about English National Ballet called Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet) initially told me “I’m not aware of any apprenticeship schemes within ballet companies outside Rambert – which is a paid apprentice scheme – and there aren’t any unpaid ones in the companies.” Sharing my research with Hadley about the excellent apprentice scheme currently in operation at Northern Ballet, more detailed research from us both has revealed a not entirely clear area sitting between work experience and apprenticeship contracts at English National Ballet.
Appropriate work experience for students attending vocational ballet schools is very favourable (e.g. attending company class, rehearsals, performing with the company). As confirmed above, English National Ballet offered work experience placements to students who completed the English National Ballet School course and couldn’t find work, and also to at least one other individual from outside the school. Contracts for work experience can sometimes be carefully crafted so that they do not displace a professional dancer’s chance of paid employment and most accept that such work experience will be unpaid.
However, Hadley told me that Equity would not condone unpaid apprenticeships where the apprentices were engaged in the same way as the dancers, because that would displace a professional opportunity. Hadley said “if it was a proper apprenticeship I would expect it to be paid.”