As well-trained as pre-professional students are, how many are ready to move into a company environment at 17 or 18 years old—and succeed? Runqiao Du, artistic director of the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, has seen many dancers struggle as apprentices and first-year corps members and notes that some don't make it beyond that. "Physically and mentally, they're just through," he says. That's why Du has instituted a weekly career development seminar to "prepare young dancers for their transition from a student mind-set to a professional mind-set," he says.
Born and trained in Shanghai, Du recalls his own challenges joining The Washington Ballet at age 18. Beyond a new country and language, he says, "my attitude in general toward rehearsal and toward class was different. I had to learn."
Du wants his 12 Kirov seniors to be ready. His career preparation course, which meets every Friday afternoon, covers different aspects of professional life, from the job-search process to interacting with colleagues and artistic staff. Here are a few takeaways.
Preparing for Auditions
Du's course begins where the students must: preparing for the job hunt. "There are so many prodigies," he says. "But companies are careful about hiring. Just because a dancer can do a brilliant solo doesn't mean they can cope in long-term company life."
Du walks his dancers through the process of conducting a focused job search, crafting a resumé and video reel, and scheduling auditions. He encourages them to research the organization's history, style, social-media accounts and artistic staff to better understand the type of work the company does, and prepare themselves accordingly. Interviews also matter, so dancers learn how to ask perceptive questions to demonstrate their intelligence and interest.
Du also covers the aftermath of audition season: signing a contract—and fully understanding the legal language and obligations of both parties—and handling rejection. (His advice? If your A-list company doesn't hire you, move on to plan B—even if that means expanding options, like college.)
"Mr. Du told us even little details about how to communicate with the company," says Andrea Sandoval, an 18-year-old student from Mexico City. "He makes you realize how important these things are."
Knowing Where You Stand
Once hired, navigating the complexities of company life can make or break a dancer's career. Du even lectures on something as seemingly innocuous as stepping into the first company class, noting that a newcomer shouldn't encroach on a senior dancer's position at the barre.
Du also wants dancers to understand that a company's focus is on the bigger picture. Artistic staff are concerned about the company's entire look, but they won't spend much time working on individual dancers' technique, strength and stamina. "In ballet school, your teachers look at everything—your fingers, your hair, your placement," says Du. "In a company, you're responsible for that. You're on your own."
He also emphasizes that many first-year hires have a less rigorous schedule than they did during their preparatory training, and they lose technique and stamina. "I was surprised to hear that, and that company teachers and coaches may not pay much attention," says Ariadne Fernandez, an 18-year-old student from Laguna Beach, California. "Here, they correct us on every little thing."
Thriving in a Company
Dancers may only be teenagers when they start their careers, but they are expected to present themselves professionally in class and rehearsals, at fundraising events and even on social media. "Stay out of company politics and avoid gossip," Du tells his dancers. And like a Boy Scout, he adds, always be prepared. That means showing up with a fully packed dance bag—bringing their own food and water to work and packing extra supplies and a second set of dance clothes.
Elena Karaviti, a 20-year-old student from Greece, says the seminar has helped her understand that keeping a dance job is about more than her technique, which is a given. "It's important how we act with our colleagues," she says, adding, "I was surprised that artistic directors look at our social media."
Du also alerts dancers to company life's faster pace. In a conservatory, he says, students might work on a 90-second solo for six months. A professional must learn complete ballets or new works in a few weeks or even days. Rehearsals, he says, are challenging for new dancers who may be cast as understudies and must learn a part from the back or even by a video. Du also emphasizes that the company is a business, so arriving mentally prepared for rehearsals is key—if the répétiteur has to repeat material, that wastes time and money.
Du's students diligently take notes and ask questions throughout his course. "It's been helpful to get to know about company life before I get there, and I can hear it from someone who had professional experience," says Kuan-Lun Li, 18, a third-year Kirov student from Taiwan.
"I want the students to have this education," says Du. "It's about the duration of your company life—you have to last season after season. We see some dancers who are brilliant, but after one season, they're done." He wants his students prepared for the long run.