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PBT: pros protesting students in productions?

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A contract dispute prompted Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers to hand out leaflets outside the Benedum Center, Downtown, for Thursday's opening of "Cleopatra.The message of the pink leaflets: "Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre wants to charge you $75 to see a student recital!" The leaflets urged patrons to call ballet managing director Steven Libman to complain. "

On Ari's links for 5/10 there is an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about the company dancers at PBT protesting plans for next years productions that include students from the PBT school. Can someone tell me more about this situation?

I have seen larger story Ballet's put on by MCB and Orlando Ballet that included students and did not think twice about it. As a patron I did not think twice about the ticket price just because there were students included in the 32 Wilis that performed. I remember thinking that I could not even pick out which ones were students. And this was before I had dancing daughters reach an age that would put me on the side of the students.

Has PBT never included students before? Do they not have students that are trainees or apprentices? What exactly are the details of the use of students, and of and the company dancers protests? Is there a right side in this dispute and a wrong side? Are students going to be utilized differently here than in other companies?


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Using students on-stage is common. I've seen it at NYCB, a tradition I'm sure started with Balanchine. Everyone sees it at Nutcracker. I saw it at Boston Ballet's Bayadere. My company does it as well.

Some of the more advanced students can do the parts just as well as the corps dancers. The biggest issue for these students is the time required to rehearse a dance to show quality. Professionals can often go through that process faster --- and they have all day to do it as well. Students generally have academic school to worry about. Students might need more coaching as well.

For these reasons, it's impossible to replace a major portion of the dancing with students. But if you have one scene that requires oodles of dancers --- the Wilis for example, or the Shades in Bayadere --- putting a few students in the scene is certainly a LOT cheaper than hiring additional dancers who won't really be needed for anything else.

Maybe the management in this case, under budget pressure due to the recession, realized they could get away with fewer dancers for most of the scenes, and could use students for the small number of extra-large scenes. If done right, I don't think this will hurt the artstic standards of the company.

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I'm not sure what the big uproar is about.

All the companies I know of (except SAB, but that's another discussion) that have schools attached use students as understudies and to augment big ballets. There are union rules about company members having piority in casting, maybe that's where the tension lies.

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The issue may be the extent to which the students are being used. Most companies use students to fill out a large corps, to substitute for injured professionals, and to audition for a contract — that is, it gives the directors a chance to see how a talented student copes with dancing real choreography, being onstage, and working with others. But there is no doubt that the students are subordinate to the pros.

It may be — I don't know the details, so can only guess — that PBT plans to use a group of students as regular members of the corps, learning all the ballets and being "on call" for anything that comes up. If the company can do that, I don't blame the professionals for worrying about their own future with the company, since management can obviously get away with using students much more cheaply. I don't know the union situation at PBT, but if they have one this would obviously be a union matter.

From the company's perspective, I would think they'd have to be concerned about their status as a professional company if they continue to use students as regular members of the ensemble. I don't know how companies are classified as pro or non-pro . . . does anyone know? Is it a formal classification?

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One big difference between student and professional is whose interest you're looking out for. A professional dancer, as a paid employee, has an obligation to look out for the best interests of the company employing that dancer --- and the company has a duty to supply a worthy product to the audience. The audience comes first, then the company, then the professional dancer. As a dancer, you dance when and how the company needs you.

With students, the money flows in the other direction. It is the school's duty to look out for the best interests of its students. Student performances exist primarily to benefit the students' development as dancers --- and only secondarily to help the school or to provide pleasure to the audience. This could have an effect in casting, for example. You might cast a student production in a way that gives everyone certain valuable experiences, even if it doesn't produce the best show overall.

This distinction turned out to be the case in my experience. As an apprentice/student, to the extent that I was put on stage, I was never truly needed. The company had to hire just as many dancers with me around as without me; hence, I was adding only marginal value to the company although I was gaining experience.

After I demonstrated in one (and only one) season that I could be used in ways that were truly beneficial to the company, I was promoted. As a professional, I am absolutely needed --- in the sense that if I quit, they would have to hire someone else.

I question whether students are being exploited when they are no longer put in expendable positions --- when the company seems to NEED a certain number of students out on stage.

I scoped around and found the issues of contention at:


I think I'm leaning toward the union in this case. $150 per performance is a lot of money for a high school student; there are entire professional companies that don't pay much more than that. It's enough that students could end up with warped priorities --- putting the performance before their obligations in high school, for example. Unlike professionals --- who already have jobs --- these students cannot afford to discount the value of their academics. That's why there are child labor laws.

It's also enough money that the company could feel it's actually employing the students --- and therefore no longer needs to look out for their best interests.


* A reduction of the rehearsal schedule from 38 to 34 weeks, which would result in at least a 5 percent pay cut for dancers, Lopez-Henriquez said.

* The reduction of the professional company to 23 dancers, a number Lopez-Henriquez calls "the lowest the Pittsburgh Ballet has ever been." Five company dancers will not return next year, and the ballet has no plans to replace them, she says. Instead, it plans to use students from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre school, most of whom are high school students. The students, who would be paid a stipend of about $150 per performance, presumably would dance in the corps in productions such as "Swan Lake."

* Ballet management wants to stop matching contributions by union employees to a pension fund that is similar to a 401(k). The ballet currently pays 2 percent into a separate pension fund for the dancers.

* An option that could to require dancers to pay for any increases in medical insurance.

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There's a concern generally now about the use of "apprentices" -- sometimes recently graduated students who need seasoning, but sometimes professionals who take an "apprentice" contract because that's all that's being offered and this is seen as a way for companies to save money.

If companies are trying to get into the Big Time "Classics" business by using students on a regular basis, I can understand the concern. It's a jobs issue and an arts issue. Yes, in the big old companies students were often used, but carefully, either in children's parts or, when they were thought ready, in the corps. But they weren't seen as cheap labor.

As always, it depends on the situation. Washington Ballet's "Serenade" this season was, I thought, excellent, and I could not tell which among the corps were students. But I've also seen regional companies where much of the whole corps looked like students, and in that case, I do think that truth in advertising might apply. If you're trying to put yourself over as a "major company," you have to have the corps to back that claim. (Not saying that's the case in Pittsburgh, just a general statement.)

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Is the $150 per performance paid for each performance done or for the whole run?

I know PBT uses students to fill out casts, but this sounds like more than that.

I would be interested in hearing from any PBTer who can let us know how this is effecting the school.


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I think the main problem with this,is that some PBT dancers where let go to save money and then they are going to use students in giselle,swan lake ect. to fill in their spots. This is what I have been told. I also must say that you CAN tell when they use students in parts that are for professionals.

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This is off the subject slightly but let me add another variation to this scenerio through our personal experiences. Last season my son was given both an apprenticeship (non paying) AND they also used him as a last year student with the obligations of rehearsals. performances (which were many). We didn't realize how much pressure this would be on him when we accepted since we didn't know how much they would use him as an apprentice. O.K we thought this is good experience before he went professional. It turned out to be a difficult and exhausting year as he was dancing twice as much as the professionals (even they felt badly for him) often learning soloist roles as well as corp with choreography that was difficult to put it mildly. Yes the experience was invaluable but the looming factor was how much can he handle without getting injured. One of the major problems was that while he was in school he would miss company class and reheasals for the professional company were scheduled during HIS ballet classes so he would also miss those classes as well. He ended up going into rehearsals with just a warm-up. If they would have offered him even a small stipend during this time it would have been appreciated. He danced one major role (which he did as a favor) with another studio after the season was over and he was surprised at the $250 that they gave him! The professional Company needed him and he wanted the experience but in hindsight we should have made the choice between the Company OR the school not both.

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Wanted to revisit this issue in light of the Nutcracker. Having seen several productions done by Boston Ballet, two of which have used students, my question is this. Why do companies use students on stage when there are perfectly good corps members and second company members sitting backstage. Especially at a Friday or Saturday evening performance. I realize that in a performance like the Nutcracker, students are needed to fill the smaller rolls - angels, cherubs, reindeer, bon-bons, etc. (according to which Nut the company is doing). I also realize that students need to get performing experience. But, when I know that there are corps members or second company members not performing, and a student is dancing snow and flowers, I have trouble with that. I've paid around $80.00 a seat for a family of four several times now, and I would prefer to see the company members dance these corps roles. Despite what others say, for the most part, I can tell the difference. I can understand using them for matinee performances or possibly shows during the week. Am I being absolutely too picky? What does everyone else think?

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I think there are so many performances of Nutcracker that the company likes to give the dancers a bit of a rest. Also, I have noticed that Nutcracker often gives dancers a change to "dance up" - that is, corps members get soloist roles, soloists get principal roles, etc. So maybe giving them that chance seems more important than having them in the corps roles only.... just my guess though.

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BBFan is right. The thing about ballet is that every role is a specialized skill. The more experience you have with a role, the better you are at it. So the best people for the roles are going to be the ones who did it last year --- and the year before, and the year before that, etc.

If a ballet company used that system of casting exclusively, then pretty soon the people who are good at the roles would retire or move elsewhere and NO ONE would be left who is any good at all. It would be sacrificing the long-term viability of the company for short-term improvements.

This is especially true for shows like Nutcracker, which come again and again every year. To be put in as first cast on an important dance (such as a divertissement) in my company, you pretty much have to have done it at least a couple of times the year before.

So when a company has dancers "dance up" roles, it is balance current vs. future needs. By not introducing these "alternate" castings until partway through the run, you give these dancers more time to learn and perfect the parts before they are put out.

I have also observed that our AD has certain minimum standard he needs to see before he puts a dance on stage. He will assign us in rehearsal as alternates for a dance, but until we get the dance up to his minimum standards, we do not go out on stage with it. If that doesn't happen this year, well, there's always next year. So even if the primary casting was better than the secondary, at least we know our secondary casting still meets certain requirements that our AD needs to see in the dances. The other effect here is that casting is always very fluid. I honestly cannot tell you what our casting will be next weekend. I have seen hoped-for castings be scrapped at the last minute because the hoped-for dancers were not yet ready.

The need for rest is real. I know what it's like to do 28 shows between Thanksgiving and New Years: downright exhausting. But I believe BB does at least 50 or 60. I assume that does not mean that individual dancers do 50 or 60 shows, that would be more than exhausting. So I can easily see that you get to a point in the season that you want to give the first cast dancers a break and you get some second cast dancers in there.

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There are also union rules that must be adhered to as well. A dancer has a certain number of hours they can rehearse or perform per week. If that dancer exceeds their hours in a week, they must be replaced. This is why you don't see the same dancer do 8 Suger Plums in a week. It's against union rules. Of course that only applies to companies with union contracts.

Also, pro dancers often get sick and injured during a long run, and then they must be replaced by whatever is available, i.e. students.

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Guest pique_arabesque

I think that's a little strange. Our company uses the advanced students in some of their productions, and they use most of the academy in the Nutcracker. (Advanced are snowflakes with the corps and soldiers, intermediate B are soldiers, intermediate A are cooks, elementary A and B are angels or party scene, beginning are little cooks, party scene, or mice, primary are bonbons; the company are the adult party guests and all the things in the second act.) I think it's fine to have advanced students performing corps roles - it's a great experience for them, I'd think, and a lot of advanced students from our school move up to the company anyway.

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I think that's a little strange. Our company uses the advanced students in some of their productions

What is it that you find strange? That PBT is using students, or that people are upset about it?

Remember that PBT is a well-respected, nationally-known company; many people would apply standards to them that would not be applied to lesser-known companies, or those primarily affiliated with a dance studio.

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Guest pique_arabesque

I see what you mean by saying that people expect more out of them than a lesser-known company, but I still think that it's all right if they use students in their productions. Aren't many of those students going to be moving up into the company soon anyway? They most likely have the ability of many of the corps members, and like I said before, it's a good experience.

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The difference between corps dancers and students isn't necessarily what they can and cannot do; it's HOW MUCH they can do in HOW MUCH time.

Dancers in our company are expected to dance MINIMUM, for example: flowers, fairies, maids, snow, maybe a couple of other things as well. I'm sure that is typical for Nutcrackers. And they get 4 weeks to learn all those parts.

Students cannot yet work up 4 or more parts like that in 4 weeks. But they CAN, for example, work up 1 or 2 parts in 6 weeks. So you start integrating advanced students into the production 2 or more weeks into the show --- after the stress of putting it together to begin with is over.

This isn't a matter of lowering standards by putting students --- the students dance the parts generally as well as their somewhat older peers. These people are still students because they don't yet have the experience to learn a large number of parts quickly, in time for opening night. Putting them in fewer roles with more rehearsal time is the necessary process to get them to that point.

However, I suspect that the situation described at PBT goes beyond this use of students. The deciding factor is the question "if this student drops dead, will the show still go on?" You must always have enough professional dancers to cover the parts if need be.

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