The Hierarchy of a Ballet Company

Titles and Positions of Members of Professional Dance Companies

Ballet performance of Don Quixote by the Bolshoi Ballet
'Don Quixote' Performed by the Bolshoi Ballet. Robbie Jack - Corbis / Contributor / Getty Images

A ballet company contracts dancers at different levels, and many ballet companies also serve as ballet schools. These ballet institutes invite the most talented young dancers to train alongside other members who must audition to join the professional tour.

Typically, a ballet company in the United States offers five key positions to dancers auditioning for a part, which form a hierarchy within the company in terms of solos and critical acclaim: the principals or senior principals, then the soloists, the coryphées (first artists or junior soloists), the corps de ballet (artists), and the character artists.

Most of the contracts for these company dancers are renewed on an annual basis, but dancers are not guaranteed to retain their position or rank within the company. This is especially true in the United States, where most touring companies only offer contracts of up to 40 weeks, and in most cases, dancers have to audition to stay in the company from one touring season to the next.

Positions in Professional Ballet Companies

As mentioned, the top-ranking position in most U.S. ballet companies are the principals or senior principals. These dancers score leading roles and are the cornerstones of their ballet companies, though they often also appear in other companies' performances as guest stars.

Soloists in a dance company dance solos and often learn principal roles as understudies, occasionally performing them when the principal has to miss a show. Some companies have a senior or first soloist rank, generally designated for the rising stars of the company.

The next two ranks — coryphées and corps de ballet — are intertwined as the coryphées are members of the lower corps de ballet that have been promoted because of their talent. Coryphées are often given solo parts but usually continue to dance as corps members after each contract.

At the lowest level of the company, the corps de ballet, or artists, feature in shows as ensemble dancers.

Because many classic ballets call for large groups of female dancers, the corps de ballet for most United States companies typically consists of many more females than males. Dancers in this rank also usually remain at this level for their entire careers.

Character artists are the final level of the ballet company hierarchy, though these dancers often outrank all but the principals. That's because these dancers are often respected senior members of a company who also had to perform roles that required a lot of acting as well as skilled dancing. An example of a character artist role is the Nurse in the classical Romeo and Juliet.

Support Staff of Ballet Companies

Along with the hierarchy of dance positions available, ballet companies also employ a number of key staff positions necessary for day to day operations of the productions. Among these positions offered are artistic director and artistic director assistants, ballet masters and mistresses, répétiteurs, dance notators, and a resident choreographer.

Additionally, music directors serve a lower role in ballet companies than in operas because of the emphasis on dance instead of music in these productions. Still, these music directors hire freelance conductors to lead the orchestra for performances.

Finally, the managerial staff including those who deal with accounting, marketing, personal relations, and logistics are also essential to operating ballet companies. Prop makers, costumers, builders, stage hands, and stage managers also play a role in most productions.