SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.
The latest on the arts, coverage of live events, critical reviews, multimedia extravaganzas and much more. Join the discussion.
Briana Shepherd, right, with a fellow dancer at a Saratoga rehearsal.
AS a sulfurous smell from the nearby mineral springs drifted past, a half-dozen dancers looked into the waning light of a cool Saturday night here recently and took their final bows as members of the New York City Ballet.
They were among 11 members of the company’s corps de ballet, some barely in their 20s, who have joined the swelling ranks of laid-off workers nationwide struggling to find new ways in the recession. They were told in February, shortly before the deadline for new contracts to be issued, that their employment would not be renewed, mainly for economic reasons. Some left soon after. Others gave their final performances the week ending July 18, as the company closed its summer season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The layoffs have produced a complicated set of responses among these dancers, who, since childhood, have endured grueling hours of cloistered study to achieve a remarkable level of artistry, a position at the pinnacle of the ballet world and then, suddenly, unemployment: anger mixed with grief but also a sense of new possibility and youthful optimism.
The emotions are especially acute because, more than many other workers, ballet dancers define themselves and their self-worth by their profession. Losing a job is like losing one’s identity.
“You’re just erased, as if you were never there,” said one of the dancers, Sophie Flack, 25 and an eight-year veteran of the corps. “It was the end of the life I knew since I was a little girl.”
Some, like Ms. Flack, have decided to quit dancing and go to college. Others will audition for other companies, a task made all the tougher by hard times at performing-arts institutions around the country. One, a recent mother, is moving back to Ohio, where her husband will look for a job. Another, a 21-year-old woman, plans to study costume design.
Those leaving their cosseted sphere are moving into a scary world where they have to learn about financial-aid packages and job training. They are receiving severance pay and an extra three months of union health coverage, and are generally eligible for unemployment insurance.
The layoffs, though part of the company’s cost-cutting strategy, produced a round of questioning for each individual: Did I have too many injuries? Too many outside interests that made it seem dance was not my top priority? An inability to attract the ballet masters’ favor? Was I not attending class regularly?
In short, why me?
“Everyone’s asked themselves that question,” said Darius Barnes, 21, who was let go after only one season in the corps. “You can’t possibly know.”
Mr. Barnes said he had auditioned for several companies and for Broadway shows, “but no bites yet.” He did receive a job as an understudy for a Metropolitan Opera production of “Aida” next season.
Some of the dancers also questioned why new members were being added to the corps when they were been dismissed, and why other companies had managed to find cost savings without resorting to dancer reductions.
For some, the way the layoffs were handled only reinforced the anonymity of their existence.
The corps, like the chorus in an opera, is the body of workhorses who provide the backbone for most of the repertory. Individual members often have featured roles and some may nourish hopes of achieving principal status someday. While listed in the program, they rarely receive the spotlight of soloists and principal dancers, who are often showered with flowers and recognition when they retire.
In this case City Ballet tried to keep a lid on information about the dancers, refusing to release their names or even to ask them if they wanted to be interviewed, for what it called reasons of privacy. The ballet master in chief, Peter Martins, who was the subject of grumbling by the laid-off dancers, declined to be interviewed, although when he announced the layoffs he called the decision “the hardest thing I’ve done my entire professional career.”
City Ballet’s general manager, Kenneth Tabachnick, agreed to make limited comments on the nonrenewals. They were determined by “an extremely difficult process for everyone,” he said, and they came in the context of a $7 million deficit this year on a budget of $62.3 million and an expected $5 million deficit next year. The reduction, he said, would save $1.2 million. He said the size of the roster would drop from an unusually large 101 — a result of relatively little attrition in recent years — to about 90. The company has also cut staff salaries, imposed a staff hiring freeze and reduced administrative spending.
Mr. Tabachnick confirmed that an undisclosed number of new corps members would be promoted from the ranks of eight apprentices, but he said the promotions would be part of a renewal of company talent vital to keeping City Ballet artistically healthy. The apprentice spots will be filled by members of the School of American Ballet, the company’s feeder, thus creating openings for new students. So the talent pipeline will continue to flow.
“Everything happens in the context of managing our business,” Mr. Tabachnick said.