Ballet troupes (or companies) nowadays consist of around 70 dancers; sometimes, the ballet school’s students are also included in the performances. The ranks of the dancers may vary depending on the company. For example, background dancers may or may not be divided into two different ranks: corps de ballet and the coryphées. Soloists may come in three different types: junior soloists, soloists and senior soloists. Some ballets also have different ranks for principal dancers, such as principals and lead principals, or “premiers danseurs” and “étoiles”. The last ones are the very top of the hierarchy, possessing exceptional technical and artistic skill, capable of changing the course of the performance, adding their individual charm to it.
Usually, the hierarchy of an average ballet troupe looks like this:
- Corps de ballet: the most numerous part of the ballet, the background dancers. This is where former students or apprentices start their professional career.
- Character artists: the ones who are high-skilled in folk dancing or dances which require a lot of acting.
- Second soloists/junior soloists: usually perform as a group of two, three or four in classic performances.
- First soloists/senior soloists: perform solo variations. The rank at which the real competition among dancers starts.
- Principals: the highest rank of the hierarchy. These dancers perform lead roles only.
There are also such people as guest artists or guest principals – solo dancers from other companies or theatres invited exclusively for certain performances. Their contracts usually require for them to perform as guests multiple times per year.
Depending on the company’s policies, the hierarchy may appear flexible. In such cases, soloists sometimes perform as a part of corps de ballet and principals can substitute for soloists when needed. Alternatively, promising soloists can dance as principals during some shows (esp. matinees), and coryphées can receive small solo parts at times.
The dancers’ skills vary drastically depending on the school. The greater the school, the bigger are its graduate’s chances to join a prominent troupe and, consequently, grow into a ballet star. The mastery of a principal in a small theatre will definitely differ from the principal of a high-level theatre like, say, Mariinsky, Bolshoi or The Royal Ballet.