Small ballet companies abound, but a high-caliber troupe with crowd appeal has eluded us. George Balanchine attached his name to several aborted tries and famously told the L.A. Times there was "no hope" for ballet here. Donors in this city, he said nearly 40 years ago, only wanted the glamour of ballet, and weren't willing to hang in to nurture a nationally recognized company.
Still, the undeterred keep trying. Los Angeles Ballet (LAB) is the most prominent of the latest aspirants, becoming the city's largest classical troupe in five short years. The group was founded and is co-directed by a husband-and-wife team, Thordal Christensen, a former principal dancer and artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, and Colleen Neary, onetime New York City Ballet soloist and a highly respected répétiteur (stager) of Balanchine's works.
The company has had some artistic successes. But on the eve of its sixth season, a worrisome trend has become visible: The dancers are leaving, and being let go, at an exceedingly high rate.
LAB has grown from 21 to 30 dancers, and the troupe's beginnings were solid enough. After the first season, 80 percent of the dancers were back for the second. But since then, it's become a revolving door. Seventy-five men and women have cycled through in five seasons. Eighty percent of LAB's dancers have stayed with the troupe for two seasons or less. Two-thirds will come back one season, and then less than half the next. Only one dancer, Kelly Ann Sloan, remains from LAB's 2006-07 inaugural season.
In interviews, directors with six similarly sized companies characterized the turnover at LAB as high, although many add that the rate is unsurprising for a young company. But LAB is getting older, and high turnover is unhealthy in the long term. "It's good to have a solid block of dancers who have been there for a while. They understand your way of working," says Gerard Charles, artistic director of BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio.
So why is this turnover happening? Some dancers left for economic reasons. They could not afford to live in Los Angeles without a second job, and LAB's June-to-November layoff made it challenging to stay in tip-top shape, some say.
After four seasons with LAB, soloist Andrew Brader took a job with BalletMet, saying, "The downfall for me was we were not paid well, which we all knew would be the case in the beginning, but I guess we hoped for an increase in salary too quickly before the company was able to give it."
New companies' budgets are often small. LAB dancers average $450 a week for a 26-week contract for the coming season. By comparison, the average pay for the 29 dancers with more established Oregon Ballet Theatre is $793 weekly for 34 weeks.
A more disturbing reason for the turnover is the treatment some dancers feel they've received. A few dancers interviewed said they wanted to stay on, but their contracts were not renewed, without explanation. Some described a tense and unsupportive work environment. A number did not want to be interviewed, choosing to put the experience behind them.
"I'm thankful for the opportunities I did have there. [But] it was probably the worst professional experience I had in my entire career," says Erin Rivera-Brennand, who was with LAB for its first two seasons.
Rivera-Brennand came to LAB from Texas Ballet Theater because she wanted to work with Neary. The dancer expected life to be different from Texas Ballet Theater's "well-oiled machine" — a shorter season, no health insurance, fewer company-provided toe shoes and having to pay for tights and parking. Her initial excitement, however, supplanted any concerns she had. She was hoping to stay at LAB a long time and finish her career there. She had good parts in two Balanchine ballets she hadn't done before.
But the second season, she was passed over for bigger parts. Before the season was over, she received an email saying her contract would not be renewed.
Melissa Barak was raised in West Hollywood and trained at Westside Ballet, and had hoped to have a professional career in her hometown. She came to LAB from New York City Ballet, where she had been in the corps de ballet and had begun a promising career as a choreographer. She danced principal roles at LAB and was invited to create a new work, Lost in Transition, a highlight of LAB's short existence.
Last season, however, she was hired to dance in just one program. Then, when Barak inquired about future employment, she was told — also via email — that the company would not need her anymore.
"I didn't want to leave," she says. "They had expressed to me before that they only saw me doing certain types of roles. Apparently, they don't find me doing anything next year."
The cold-heartedness of the ballet world is legendary. A dancer's appearance, age and attitude are all factors in hiring and firing. But the nature of complaints from LAB's dancers is cause for concern.
In a recent interview, Neary, the artistic director, acknowledged the turnover, but says she's not worried by it. "I don't think it's negative. ... I think it's natural. I think it shows the advancement of the company. ...As long as we increase our dancing and add our work weeks and more repertory, I see not as much turnover [in the future]."
She understands that dancers may find better opportunities, and says it has taken a few years to find the right group of dancers for LAB, with the right look. More of the current group have come straight from conservatories than in the early seasons.
Neary would not address complaints about the atmosphere at LAB. "I think that's a negative question, which makes me feel the article is going in a negative way. We only have positive feelings toward our dancers. It's probably a dancer who has a grudge and feels negative about the way things turned out. ... I only have good things to say about my dancers and I love them all."
I have closely followed LAB since its debut. Its programs have been a mix of Balanchine modernism, story ballets (including a version of The Nutcracker set in 1912 Los Angeles) and world premieres by an eclectic group of locals, including "combat jazz" choreographer Sonya Tayeh, a favorite of So You Think You Can Dance. Audiences are growing and donations are up.
But I've noticed a palpable unease in the dancers' performing style that has never gone away. At first, I dismissed it as a byproduct of the ensemble's newness; it takes a while for everyone to feel comfortable onstage together. But the dancers still have that deer-in-the-headlights look, and they perform with an exaggerated caution that suggests they're watching every step.
A former dancer who asked not to be identified confirmed my observations: "I think you hit the nail on the head. I don't want to say too much. I don't want to create waves. I think there is a lot of fear in the company. Mostly their dancers function from fear and it's not from a love of dance anymore. Making a mistake — that's definitely a factor, especially since all the dancers are very young and don't know how to handle that, how to be strong."
I believe that if Portland, Ore., Columbus and other midsize cities can grow and maintain a first-rate classical company, then certainly L.A. can. Our city leaders nurtured a symphony and an opera company. A fully formed company takes patience and support, from donors and audiences alike.
The dancers, however, have less time. They are the art form's instruments. As such, they deserve the best care of all.