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Hierarchical Structure


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On this board recently, I've heard much grumbling about hierarchical structures, how the modernists are trying to destroy them, and how their demise will bring the end of classical ballet.

With such dire consequences at stake, I think it would be appropriate to define exactly what we are talking about when we mention "hierarchical structures".

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I don't think anyone has said it will destroy classical ballet, citibob. I've been reading it, mostly in the English press, and it's an agenda item on the conference of Artistic Directors planned for mid-January in Britain, to wit:

Evaluating old habits and traditions including the hierarchical pyramid of ballet company structures.

I'm presuming they mean the ranking of dancers in the major classical companies: Principal, Soloist, Corps de Ballet (in America). There are European companies with further subdivisons -- First Soloist, Second Soloist, etoile, coryphee, etc. The rankings derive, as do most things in classical ballet, from the ballet of the Paris Opera.

I don't know why this is an issue, and would like to know. Smaller companies (and modern dance companies) don't have any rankings. Others have only two ranks, soloist/corps.

It's another of the contemporary dance/ballet issues. It would be difficult to imagine a company doing Sleeping Beauty where all the dancers were brought up in a culture of "all for one, one for all, nobody's important here." I really don't understand why it's being made an issue. Some companies need hierarchies, others don't.

I'd be very interested in comments about this. The U.S. Congress has something called zero-based budgeting. It doesn't really work, of course, but in theory, you can't carry over a program from one year to the next. It has to be examined each year to see if it's worth continuing. Any tradition can be examined at any time -- do we need rankings? (Dancers, do feel free to chime in on this one!) Could you dance Aurora if you are Alphabeticlaly Listed Dancer 86? Are the rankings an issue among dancers and, if so -- to be blunt about it -- an issue with all dancers, or just the ones who aren't etoiles? :)

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I don't know why this is an issue either, but it keeps getting mentioned in passing.

It seems that in talking about dancers, "rankings" is a more descriptive term than "hierarchies". Hierarchy implies a chain of command; AD to choreographer to rehearsal director to dancer, for example. To the best of my knowledge, there is no chain of command between dancers even in ballet companies with a lot of ranking; principle dancers are not particularly responsible for telling corps members what to do (unless it directly affects the work of the principle dancer).

On the other hand, the "hierarchical pyramid of ballet company structures" might be talking about actual hierarchies. For example, a movement to remove some of the "middle management" such as rehearsal directors and to move their responsibilities to the dancers or the choreographer.

If you look at American corporate structure over the past 20 years, you see a lessening of hierarchy as corporations found they could save money by laying off middle management. However, I don't think this has necessarily translated to a lessening of ranking. Corporations (and ballet companies, I expect) still pay their employees based on value to the company.

I'm not at all convinced that removing a formal hierarchy or ranking is equivalent to a culture of "all for one, one for all, nobody's important here." As long as management doesn't do something stupid such as underpaying or underusing their best dancers (risking losing them) or casting entry-level dancers in the lead roles (risking a dismal production and loss of the best dancers), I don't see what difference it makes. Everyone knows it's not "nobody's important here" because the same people keep getting the lead roles.

What is the need that you see for formal rankings for some companies? How would their art be changed if they abandoned this structure?

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From context, I'm sure they mean dancer rankings, not management issues.

Have you ever seen one of the big international companies do Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake? The ballets and rankings are rather intertwined. (There is choreography for a corps, for demi-soloists, for soloists, for stars.)

To me it's a problem of the current mixing of repertories, as I tried to indicate above. Jiri Kylian's ballets aren't made for a hierarchical structure and don't require one; Petipa's were, and do. If you dance as "one of six" -- or eight or ten -- in 8/10ths of the repertory, then I would say that you could not dance Aurora, or Odette/Odile, or Albrecht on Saturday night. (As do other classical choreographers, like Ashton and Balanchine. Anything after that? I don't know. Maybe MacMillan and Cranko as well, although one of the major complaints about those two choreogrpahers is that they neglect the middle ranks; it's all stars and harlots, I mean, the corps. Yes, both Ashton and Balanchine often used young dancers in principal roles, but they were still expected to dance like stars.)

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As for hierarchy inside vs. outside the dancers: I've found that if you eliminate it outside the dancers (i.e. eliminated ballet masters and rehearsal directors), then you actually create more, on a temporary basis, within the ranks of dancers.

That is because without rehearsal directors, it is up to the dancers to teach other dancers the steps and at times, to run rehearsals. These jobs go to the dancers who know the particular choreography the best. They may not be the best dancers in the company, but they're the ones that have been at the company long enough to know the choreography at hand. I have found myself in the position of teaching dances that I know to other dancers, and then not being cast in those dances.

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I rather like the POB system of dancer "rankings" with the further subdivisions. I'd like to see corps broken up into corps and senior corps or make demi-soloist a title. Certain corps dancers that constantly do the demi roles and stand out from their fellow corps members a bit more. Plus it seems once you get promoted to soloist, you go from dancing every night to far less frequently.

It would be a nice transition stage. I think soloist must be the toughest ranking to hold. (this of course is US company based)

Benjamin Millipied says in an interview in Time Out, that he was so "stressed out" for so long, b/c as a corps member you're trying to get to a soloist, as a soloist, you need to look and dance like a prinicipal, then he finally got promoted :)

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Alexandra... I'm somewhat disappointed in that answer. I was assumping, of course, that only dancers who fulfill the requirements will ever be cast in the lead roles (to do otherwise would be stupid). Given that assumption, I was expecting answer more along the lines of "because all that corps work during the week will tire out the dancer for Saturday night" or "because all that corps work will put you in the wrong frame of mind to do your best on Saturday" or "because then there won't be enough people to dance Aurora on the other nights".

Is the unstated assumption here that choreographers that do not rely on rankings produce work to the "lowest common denominator" that does not highlight the achievements of its best dancers? In that case, the issue of ranking is most fundamentally one about whether choreographers fit their choreography to the abilities at hand, not so much one of human resources management.

There may be another issue here. Based on many factors, a company gets dancers of different abilities and experiences. The law of large numbers implies that a large company will better be able to predict HOW MANY people posess particular skill levels, allowing the choreographers to make dance to those specifications (eg: 20 corps members, 5 soloists, 2 principles, etc). In a small company, you could find yourself (proportionally speaking) flooded with principle dancers one year and almost completely lacking the next.

This reminds me of a story I heard about Sun Microsystems, where they have six levels of Engineer (labelled from "Enginner 1" to "Engineer 6"). I heard you have to graduate through all six levels before you can enter management. We were having a little chuckle at my office because we don't even have six engineers to rank! I think this is just how large corporate entites deal with human resources.

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Sorry to disappoint, but rankings have nothing to do with a dancers' well-being, although any decent director will take into account each dancers' assignments and not overwork him or her.

For good or ill, companies do take into account how many dancers of each type and potential rank are needed. By "for good," I mean that directors do have to make sure they avoid the problem citibob states above (of having too few people in the corps, too many soloists, etc.; IMO, there can never be too many stars, but they'll sort themselves out -- if there are too many some will leave). By "for ill" I mean that there may be some very talented dancers who don't get into a company because there are too many tall boys, longlegged girls, demicaractere dancers, potential stars, etc. But there are a lot of companies, so this, too, sorts itself out, I think.

There have been exams at the Paris Opera where no one is promoted, and the thought is that this is because the directors know that two years down the line there is a STAR and they have to leave room for him or her. There are dancers who (unbeknownst to them, perhaps) the school/company management know will be corps dancers forever. (One of the complaints I've heard from teachers today is that, in our crazed, commercial atmosphere where companies seem to be competing to see who is "the best," some directors are throwing out good corps dancers and only take in potential Varna winners.)

I don't think it's fair to say that without hierarchies there would be choreography to the lowest common denominator; I've seen contemporary dance and modern dance companies where the standard of dancing is excellent. But to make Aurora dance in the group pieces five nights a week and then expect her be Aurora on the sixth night -- that's a misuse of starpower, in a classical ballet company, but it doesn't have anything to do with weariness.

I don't think this can be discussed purely as theory. One needs to see Sleeping Beauty -- and Balanchine's Theme and Variations, Ashton's Cinderella and the like, and then the less formally structured works that still draw on these ancient rules as a contrast to contemporary dance. Classical choreographers have used the various rankings as part of the architecture as well as the dynamics and texture of their ballets -- along with other things, like employ (which has often been discussed here); it derives from court protocol and, as has often been remarked, is similar to the military and the Catholic Church hierarchies. And in that context, no, I don't think you could pluck even a talented medal-winning 25-year-old out of a nonhierarchical corps and throw her in Saturday night as Aurora and expect to get anything but a step recitation of the role, if that. It would be like taking either a raw recruit, or a seasoned footslogger out of a brigade and expecting him to be a General.

The two are totally different aesthetics. Plop Nureyev down in the Murray Louis Dance Company and ask him to be one of the boys -- not saying it wasn't fun, but it wasn't what one was used to seeing, shall we say. It works both ways.

The anti-hierarchical people tend to couch their arguments as democrats; in today's enlightened age, the idea of the ballerina is anathema, apparently. Yet it is the hierarchical that celebrates the individual.

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I think NYCB's history is a good point of discussion here. They were a "no stars" company, with all the dancers listed alphabetically (well, the star was Balanchine, but let's not go there right now...). Remember Maria Tallchief's parting shot about how her name might be listed alphabetically but that didn't mean that she'd accept being treated alphabetically. And then, suddenly, it changed. I wonder when, and what the story was....

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I also think the development of a hierarchy has a lot to do with the fact that, while most dancers can do second swan from the right, not every dancer who can do second swan from the right can do Odette. We're not all created equal, life is not fair, and I think hierarchies are just a fact of life. Perhaps its how the stratification is determined, and what effect it has on the overall health of the company, which might be considered. I'm sure it wouldn't hurt our big companies to remind the corps dancers that they're just as important as the "stars," if not more so.

Perhaps this is taking the discussion a bit far afield, but opinion there is nothing so rare and special and magnificent in the ballet world as a really well-schooled and maintained corps de ballet. Stars are a dime a dozen in comparison; they're a lot easier to find, produce, develop and support. It takes a lot of time and nurturing and training to create a corps which can dance like an organic whole -- I've only seen this in person (and only at times) with the Bolshoi and Kirov corps, who've given me some of the greatest thrills I've had at the ballet (the Bolshoi in Kingdom of the Shades; the Kirov in Swan Lake).

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Originally posted by citibob

without rehearsal directors, it is up to the dancers to teach other dancers the steps and at times, to run rehearsals.  These jobs go to the dancers who know the particular choreography the best.  They may not be the best dancers in the company, but they're the ones that have been at the company long enough to know the choreography at hand.  I have found myself in the position of teaching dances that I know to other dancers, and then not being cast in those dances.

Were you compensated for ballet master time when you did this? Otherwise it's just another scam on the dancers. Suitable for dot.bombs and Inside Traders.:)

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I don't think I would care to see a company without a ballet master, or several ballet masters if it is a very large company. This is a job that is, IMO, highly underrated and the people who do this often thankless work are rarely given their due. It is very, very difficult to learn all the ballets and be able to stage and then coach every role. A company without someone in this position, leaving the staging and coaching to dancers, will not get the best work done, IMO of course, on either the staging, coaching, or dancing. It is just too big a job for a dancer to do and dance as well, unless he or she is perhaps just doing a small character role that they have done many times before.

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The traditional job of ballet master is split between the choreographer/artistic director and the dancers. I've found it works pretty well for the women. But enough men have big enough egos that we can't get much done as a group without someone telling us what to do. It's frustrating to never be together, to watch the women always being together, and to be powerless to change it.

So much of the choreography we do is new choreography, putting a ballet master inbetween the choreographer and dancers would slow down the whole process.

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Originally posted by citibob

So much of the choreography we do is new choreography, putting a ballet master inbetween the choreographer and dancers would slow down the whole process.

As long as the choreographer is there to rehearse the ballet that might work. But what happens when that choreographer is not there? We have a lot of new choreography every year too, but if the ballet master did not learn and rehearse the ballet after the choreographer leaves it would be total chaos, with rehearsal by committee! I don't THINK so! Someone has to have the final word as to what the choreographer did and what he wanted and exactly what count it happens, and if you leave that to the dancers you could have a whole bunch of different opinions about it.

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I think hierarchies or rankings arise to suit the situation at hand. It makes no sense for small companies to mimic institutions. I was in a company where we did a pocket-sized Giselle. I'm glad people who wouldn't have gotten to see ballet otherwise got to see it, but though she was a good dancer, it takes more than a good dancer to be Giselle. It takes a First Dancer, whether you call them that or not. A First Dancer should be more than just the top ranked dancer in an institution. He or she is also the soul of a company, the way Fonteyn was for the Royal Ballet. And most of the traditional classical repertory needs a dancer of that authority to pull it off, and that sort of dancer is both born and made.

I think it is not a bad thing for an institution to act institutionally. Of course there are political situations and machinations sometimes, but often, the first dancers in the company are chosen like early saints, by acclimation. At the Royal, I am hearing varied opinions about the speed at which Alina Cojocaru should be promoted. But I'm not hearing anyone say she shouldn't be promoted.

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I agree that there's no one size fits all -- there have been some very small companies in the past with more rankings, it seems, than they had dancers, which seems both silly and pretentious.

Bob, what you're describing is the traditional American modern dance model (which were nearly always one-choreographer, small companies) not the institutional model that ballet has traditionally used. And the term "hierarchical" is not mine. I'm using the term you raised, and that has been raised elsewhere, including the upcoming meeting of artistic directors, and trying to explain where it came from. Again, this has nothing to do with "resting" the dancers or spreading out work. There are times when a principal dances the lead in three short, demanding ballets in an evening -- standard practice in the 1950s and '60s in several companies -- and times when a dancer does the ballerina role in a full-length one night, a smaller role the next night, etc.

Manhattnik made several interesting points about NYCB. I think, though, that even during the alphabetical days, there were principal dancers and soloists -- it would be stated in the contract.

I also think that the "we have no stars here" is another line that's lost its original meaing over the years. It was said during the Age of Hurok, when he was promoting the Royal Ballet, and other companies who wanted to be like the Royal Ballet, and he sold STARS!!!! Come see Fonteynandnureyev, as Croce put it. I hate to say that "we have no stars here" was a marketing statement, because those were more innocent times, but that's what it was, in essence -- come look at our company, look at what we do; we're not advertising our stars. But of course, there were stars, and Balanchine created some ballets for stars, and this was not a new, American democratic invention (although I think some took it that way) because even in the great European companies that had etoiles or prima ballerinas/primo ballerinos, the ensemble was important and the Romantic Era in Paris where STARS!!! were promoted at the expense of the ensemble was an exception.

It's interesting, too, how Balanchine used the traditional structure -- there are some ballets that have obvious principal/soloist/demisoloist/corps -- even coryphee roles -- although a corps dancer could be cast in any of these -- and some where the demarcation isn't obvious, but it's always there, lurking in the background, as it was part of his upbringing.

And even a chamber company with eight dancers and no rankings can use a hierarchical sensibility -- Ballet 1 is for a principal couple and three female soloists. Ballet 2 is for four couples who are, in effect, principals, etc.

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To go back to the original question, why is "hierarchical structure" now being raised as an issue? Is it thought to be antithetical to creativity? Or merely a big company/small company issue? (Smaller companies fearing they're not considered "important" if they don't have rankings.) Or a frontal attack on the 19th century repertory -- do away with rankings, eventually, you'll finally kill off nasty old Petipa.

Could a company of 80, 90, 100 dancers work without rankings? What would be the advantage of this? Or, if the contemporary dance people have their way and replace the entire "heritage" repertory with workscreatedlastweek, you'd only need companies with 24, 30 dancers -- and this would save money. Is this, then, an economic issue?

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Alexandra... Thank you. I think you've brought some good perspective to the issue. I've kind of come to conclude that in the realm of rational human resource management, formalized rankings just come with the territory of large organizations. No, I cannot imagine how I would manage 80-100 dancers (or engineers) without some time of formalized ranking system.

But the issue of "hierarchies" brings up a host of other issues, which are more interesting, and which you've touched upon: how the company markets itself, how the choreographer views his or her work in relation to the dancers, the dancer vs. choreographer issue, etc.

I don't think it's so unusual that Balanchine would sometimes cast corps members in a principle role. In my experience I've found that so much is possible as a dancer, but much less is possible in a given timeframe. And to work at a certain level in a company, you must be able to complete the given work in the time available.

A principle dancer must be able to consistently get together principle roles, often many for each season. A corps dancer with principle potential would have to work a lot longer to get each principle role, and might have time only for one such role in a season. So it makese sense that Balanchine would cast such a dancer in one principle role, to give her experience at it. And as long as it's just one role and she has enough time to get it right, it wouldn't adversely affect the quality of the production.

I found this principle in operation as an apprentice. I would be cast in just one out of four ballets. It almost didn't matter which one ballet; I had the ability to do corps parts in any one of the four, but was not yet efficent enough to do all four in one season. Towards the end of my time as apprentice, I did a soloist role (plus corps parts, one of them really light, in 3 other ballets). I did only corps work in my first season in the company; I was so busy with it, I had no times for solos.

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I think a true etoile, even a baby etoile, is an exception to everything -- they may be 13, 16, 18, but they can do everything. Not as well, perhaps, or with as much emotional depth as they will in 10 or 15 years, but they can do it. No role is too big or too hard. And that's one reason why a corps dancer is cast in principal roles.

A good book to read that discusses how Petipa brought up one dancer "through the ranks" is Keith Money's "Anna Pavlova." It discusses each role in turn -- why she got it then, what she brought to it, what it did for her. It really gives one a sense of that repertory, and what is required for that repertory. And, reading it, one can see exactly what Balanchine was doing with (in my generation) Farrell, Ashley, early Nichols and Kistler. (Ashton is a different case, because he didn't have control over casting until quite late, when he became director. And I don't think it's a coincidence that his greatest works came bursting forth during that brief, nine-year period.)

Is any of this relevant to today? Only for institutions that still hopes to perform that repertory.

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One of the most sobering moments in working with Peter Boal came early on in the first piece we did together. From the first rehearsals with him I knew I was dealing with someone at a level totally different from mine. Someone who had been accustomed to being photographed professionally from the age 9. Someone groomed to be one of the first dancers in a world class company. I have confidence in my abilities as a choreographer, I'm neither trying to toot my own horn or denigrate myself. But it was awfully obvious to me that being set on that path from childhood was a totally different ball game, and one you can't comprehend unless you're there.

I think when you're talking about the kind of level one sees when "Etoile", "First Dancer" or "Ballerina" becomes appropriate, you are talking about playing by a different set of rules than the rest of us. Of course future promise may not always pan out, but the top academies often talk of noticing that level of dancer by the time they are 12 (SAB's "Special" class for men was formed on this principle.)

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I think those are all good points and at this point in the discussion, I think I have to say that the prerequisites for taking part in it are to have seen: A, at least a few of the ballets that use a hierarchical structure and B, the companies so constructed; as well as C, contemporary dance companies.

Calliope made several good points early in the thread that got swallowed, so I reprint them:

Calliope wrote:

I rather like the POB system of dancer "rankings" with the further subdivisions. I'd like to see corps broken up into corps and senior corps or make demi-soloist a title. Certain corps dancers that constantly do the demi roles and stand out from their fellow corps members a bit more. Plus it seems once you get promoted to soloist, you go from dancing every night to far less frequently.

It would be a nice transition stage. I think soloist must be the toughest ranking to hold. (this of course is US company based)

Benjamin Millipied says in an interview in Time Out, that he was so "stressed out" for so long, b/c as a corps member you're trying to get to a soloist, as a soloist, you need to look and dance like a prinicipal, then he finally got promoted

At NYCB, there are de facto demi-soloists, I agree, or "top corps" as I've heard it called. And then there are the corps-within-a-corps dancers -- sometimes it seems as though these big companies only have 12 dancers, you see them night after night. Is that one of the things that's driving the "should we rethink the hierarchical structure?" It has been a criticism for the past 20 years that companies often only use 12, or 20, dancers out of the 80 regularly, with the other 60 being on reserve in case someone's injured, or put in for the few large-cast ballets still in repertory. Is this yet another thing where the "abnormal" has become normal, and rather than figure out ways to use the whole company, it's easier and cheaper to reduce the size of the company and say "we're a company of soloists?"

I think that etoiles will go ellsewhere, as long as there is a place that will give them safe harbor and profit by their individuality.

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As someone who has danced in alphabet and all-star/no-star companies, I sense that talent, reliability and charisma rule in both. Each situation has its prioritization of the mix but the company, critics and audience find and respect those who deliver and know those who do not.

I think that rankings assist those growing older have a tangible result of their career and also give the direction another reason (as if one was needed) to justify the casting at times. I have seen promotions given for talent or longevtiy, I have seen them bought. I have seen worthy individuals passed over in promotion but not casting due to politics.

Learning a repertiore through the corps-soloist-principal transition is a good thing for those who mature through repetition and study. For those who grow via inborn talent or intuition, then immediate access to principal parts is important. Directors often see students with talent and give them solo roles immediately upon entrance into the company.

Given ballet derives from the royal court, is it surprising that we have an etiquette and hierarchy from the top down? It is sometimes confusing finding the top these days (Executive Director, Artistic Director, Theater Management, Dancer Union....) and interesting to postulate on the whys and whats of promotions and casting.

May the New Year be filled with organization charts, casting intrigues and turf battles.

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