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The Corps and The Principal

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The answer to the following may appear obvious, but upon further reflection, I am not so certain. Concerning the women in any given company, how would one describe the differences between a member of the corps and those who have attained the rank of soloist or principal? Is it simply a greater mastery of technique combined with a more developed theatricality? 

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First, I'd like to make the distinction between a Principal Dancer and a ballerina.  Sometimes there's overlap, and sometimes there's not.

 

In many ways, promotions depend upon the company.  Sometimes it's a matter of structure, sometimes it's a matter of money for the more expensive contract, sometimes it's personal relationships -- boards, generals/politicians -- sometimes it's the Artistic Director and/or a powerful member of staff, sometimes it's for company morale, or a dancer is somehow recognized -- but that's usually when a long-time corps member is promoted to soloist, more than a long-time soloist promoted to principal, although that happens, too -- sometimes it depends on the company's structure.  For example, Peter Boal at PNB has said that with company size in the mid-range (45-50), he can't have 20 soloists, because he needs people to dance in the corps.  Often dancers languish in the soloist ranks in companies like NYCB or ABT, because they aren't dancing all the time in the corps, and the principals get their share of the leads.  I remember reading Arlene Croce saying that Nichol Hlinka was promoted to principal at NYCB -- she spent a long time in the soloist ranks, not getting cast much -- after she lost those few extra pounds.  (Which did not make a difference in her dancing, but in the company's perception of her as a dancer.  Which is why we got Carla Korbes in Seattle.)

 

One example of the first is Paris Opera Ballet.  To be promoted through principal -- Etoiles are chosen by the head of the Opera -- dancers have to compete, and only if there are open spots.  An internal jury decides who gets the spot(s).  

 

Many US companies have three levels:  principals, soloists, and corps.  In AGMA (union) companies, the working conditions and pay scales for at least corps and soloists are covered by the union contracts.   However, some have more ranks, and most European companies have at least five.  Somova and Skorik were given top billing long before they got the principal rank.  Novikova and Osmolkina, for example, are still in the First Soloist rank.

 

There are only three companies in the US with rosters over 70 in those ranks:  NYCB, ABT, and SFB.  SFB, for example, has 41 corps members on its updated roster.  PNB has 51 principal, soloist, and corps dancers on its 2016-17 (not yet updated) roster.  SFB has 31 principals and soloists.  PNB had 20 at year-end, with similar proportions at both companies.  Houston Ballet has 59 in those ranks.

 

PNB needs to keep the ranks balanced, as well as needing to find the money to promote dancers, which was particularly acute when the company was deeply hurt financially when the Opera House was closed for seismic renovations -- it re-opened as McCaw Hall -- and the ballet and the opera performed in Mercer Arena, in which the permanent seating was fixed toward the "ice," not a stage.  Plus the dot-bomb and the 2008 financial crisis.

 

There are a lot of moving parts that translated into confusion among the audiences when it comes to how dancers are promoted.  Sometimes it's promise, which means you'll see the dancer grow into a rank, sometimes it's having spent a long time proving him or herself, sometimes its usefulness -- size, being a great partner, learning fast, being a good team player, staying healthy, reliability in all ways -- sometimes it's being a particular type that the AD loves, sometimes it's a change in rep, etc.  

 

For me, a principal has to be able to carry whatever ballet she is in.  There's a dancer in Seattle who has been carrying full-lengths since her second season in the company, yet doesn't have the rank, and others over the years in a number of companies who have the rank, but not the ability.  

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All of the elements that Helene mentions above are true on one level or another for different companies at different times in their history.  Your characterization ("Is it simply a greater mastery of technique combined with a more developed theatricality?") is at the core of how we perceive those ranks, but as with all human endeavors, there are people involved, and with people there are always distinctions. 

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