Ballet apprenticeships | What you need to know

June 20, 2011

Ballet

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.

dancer stands in legwarmers and point shoes

Photograph : Bex Singleton

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.”

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8 Responses to “Ballet apprenticeships | What you need to know”

  1. Polly Says:

    I had no idea that apprenticeships could be available for those wishing to become professional ballet dancers. I think this is a brilliant idea and will give many more talented dancers the opportunity to hopefully make it to the top of the profession.

  2. Julie Says:

    Many foreign companies run excellent apprenticeship schemes or have “junior” companies. My son was an apprentice with the Vienna State opera Ballet. (Paid) Zurich has a thriving junior company as does Munich. They are a great idea as many 18 year olds are physically not ready for the stresses of full company work. The apprentice schemes, or junior companies, provide company classes plus other training. Both schemes use the dancers in company productions but sensibly. For dancers going straight into companies the risk of injury is great. If you go to a big company this is less likely but the small companise which many dancers go to, require a huge level of performing.

    But care must be taken Some companies offer unpaid apprenticeships which should be looked at cautiously. Some are good but I think it was “Dancing Times” who investigated some schemes and found they weren’t good.

    My understanding was that apprenticeships were very accepted, certainly in Europe. Frequently directors have said after an audition that they like someone but worry about their strength and offer them a junior company. On average the pay seems to be half of a full corps position.

  3. May Says:

    I don’t know the exact details of the terms and conditions, but like with any skilled profession, dancers who take on apprenticeships need to make sure that they are not being treated as unpaid labour, just like some unpaid interns in other careers have to be aware of. Also, they face the same risks of injury (whether dance-related or accidental, eg falling scenery) and need to be sure that they protected – whether that’s insurance, or health expenses (not such a problem in Britain where healthcare is free, but they would not get serious illness cover – eg if an injury prevented them from taking up a subsequent paid job). However, as with most careers in performing, the main thing is to get as much performing (actual dancing, as opposed to walk-on roles) as possible for your cv/resume, and confidence on stage. Julie raises very good points about injury risks when entering full employment, a problem that many, even the most able and talented (eg Alina Cojocaru, Darci Kistler, just to list two of many) aren’t sufficiently informed about. Being able to do a lot of technically difficult and polished routines in class doesn’t mean a dancer is ready for the rigours of full length performances many nights a week.

  4. Denise Dean Says:

    I believe the Prix de Lausanne offers the most worthwhile platform for a dancer considering a vocation in the profession. As we travelled around the world with a dancing daughter, I saw many competitions and I think Prix offers something special in their networking classes. Visiting representatives from all the top schools around the world can see who is available to join their establishments, and then offers come in from schools or companies, either in the summer programs or full time.

    Apprenticeships or Professional Year, if you can get it, offers a wonderful opportunity for aspiring dancers to blend in with their chosen company, and see how the fit works. I can happily write that after being discovered at Prix by the Royal Ballet School, and then the offer of a contract into the Royal Ballet nearly 2 years later, with the 6 months leading up to the August commencement performing with the company on a regular paid basis, would make any aspiring dancer feel like they had their wildest dreams come true. This experience was like an apprenticeship, and the Royal Ballet School should be congratulated for ensuring that this blending occurs, making the transition to professional company life more smooth.

  5. Julie Says:

    I think the problem is not all schools do these comps with any great regularity. Can very much depend what the school is “going through” at the time. The school my son was at was in a hiatus stage and didn’t really do any comps. (this has changed now). Also not everyone, who will go on to have an extremely good career, is at that level. (At the right time).

    At one audition the director told my son he could give him a contract but that he was worried that he wasn’t strong enough to remain injury free in a smallish company. He recommended an Apprenticeship would be better in the long run. He felt in a year his body would have matured. This was the best advice, a very impressive director. After a year my son joined a fantastic European company. He benefited enormously from his time in Vienna. It was tough.

    So right about insurance etc. By the end of his year my son was doing as much as any corps member but he built up slowly.

    The other thing is to some extent apprentices get out what they put in. It is a hard role. The “full” company can be less than welcoming. You need to work very hard. Some will always fall by the wayside . You have to motivate yourself because obviously you are the bottom of the pile.
    I cannot tell you how proud I was when seeing my son in the wonderful Opera House in Vienna in a full role in Swan Lake, as an apprentice, along side all the “regular dancers”.

  6. Couture Carrie Says:

    Very informative post, darling!

    xoxox,
    CC

  7. Audrey Allure Says:

    Wow, this sounds like a great opportunity for aspiring ballet dancers!

  8. May Says:

    Yes, the Prix de Lausanne is probably the most highly regarded amateur competition and apprenticeship. Being a laureate definitely suggests “you’ve got something”, if not “the next big thing”. After that would be the Varna and Moscow International Ballet Competitions, which are also open to professionals, whereas Lausanne is only for non-professionals.