The Australian Ballet

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Understanding ballet hierarchy

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Artists of The Australian Ballet, Romeo and Juliet (Cranko) 2023
Photo Daniel Boud

Want to be able to decipher the difference between a corps de ballet dancer and a coryphée? Behind Ballet decodes the ranking hierarchy for dancers and the history behind the structure that determines their place in the company.

Following the European structure of dance hierarchy, dancers at The Australian Ballet can be in one of the following five categories: corps de ballet, coryphée, soloist, senior artist or principal artist. Artists are promoted when they have demonstrated advanced technique, artistry and maturity meeting the physical and technical demands of the art form.

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Principal Artists Joseph Caley and Benedicte Bemet, Swan Lake (Woolliams) 2023
Photo Daniel Boud

Principal Artist

The highest position at The Australian Ballet belongs to our principal artists. These are the artists that are advanced in their career, often having danced for many years, rising through the different levels. Principal artists have not only achieved technical perfection but have also shown they can embody the character they are playing and connect with an audience. Beyond their artistic abilities, principal artists are also leaders amongst their dancing peers. Inspiring and influential, principal artists must be more than just great dancers.

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Senior Artist Nathan Brook with artists of The Australian Ballet, Don Quixote (Nureyev) 2023
Photo Rainee Lantry

Senior Artist

Senior Artists are dancers that have proven themselves as technically and artistically exceptional. They are responsible for performing leading roles across the repertoire and have shown they are capable of achieving the physical and artistic challenges of these featured roles.

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Soloists Isobelle Dashwood and Brodie James in The Dream (Ashton) 2023
Photo Daniel Boud

Soloist

Soloists are artists that have achieved a more advanced level of technique and have shown they are capable of taking on the physical demands and responsibility of leading roles. Soloists have the opportunity to perform more technically challenging roles across a wide range of repertoire and are often cast as understudies for leading roles. Soloists are the rising stars of the company and the dancers ‘to watch’.

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Coryphée Montana Rubin, The Dream (Ashton) 2023
Photo Christopher Rodgers-Wilson

Coryphée

The word coryphée translates to ‘leader of the ensemble’, their role is to lead the corps de ballet, taking on more responsibility and featuring in smaller groups or solo parts.

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Corps de ballet artists of The Australian Ballet, Swan Lake (Woolliams) 2023
Photo Kate Longley

Corps de Ballet

Usually making up the largest part of the company, the corps de ballet perform as an ensemble. Translating to ‘body of the ballet’, corps de ballet dancers are the core of a company. These dancers are often early in their career or recent dance school graduates and are pivotal to ballets that require large casts, for example there are eighteen swans in Swan Lake that create the beautiful sequences throughout the performances. The corps de ballet gives younger dancers the opportunity to develop and expand their craft within the safety of a group.

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Skipping

While uncommon, it is possible to skip a level in the hierarchy. Current Repetiteur Kirsty Martin skipped the rank of coryphée moving straight into a soloist position. More recently Maxim Zenin and Cameron Holmes were promoted from corps de ballet to soloist skipping coryphée. All dancers regardless of position have the opportunity to perform in featured or lead roles should the artistic director feel they have shown the level of technical skill and artistic excellence required.

Prima ballerina assoluta

Prima ballerina assoluta is a rare honour awarded to the most exceptional dancers of a generation. It means ‘absolute first ballerina’ and has been bestowed upon elite dancers such as Alicia Markova, Maya Plisetskaya and Margot Fonteyn. The last dancer to be awarded the title prima ballerina assoluta was Alessandra Ferr in 1992.

The Paris Opera

The highest rank a dancer can achieve at The Paris Opera is the wonderfully titled Étoile, which translated means ‘star dancer’.

The Royal Ballet

The Royal Ballet in London has a sixth category, principal character artist, a role that requires strong acting, character dance and ballet mime. These roles sit outside of the traditional structure and are often performed by former members of the company who have retired from full-time dance.

American ballet companies

American professional ballet companies divide their dancers into three ranks: corps de ballet, soloist, and principal.

Changing the structure

Looking ahead, some ballet companies are doing away with the hierarchy structure completely. Joffrey Ballet in Chicago is one of the leading ballet companies that takes an ensemble approach that gives everyone in the company the opportunity to perform a wide variety of roles. Many companies (including The Australian Ballet!) have moved away from gendered terminology like ballerina or danseur, ballet mistress or master and embraced neutral language to reflect the diversity amongst their artists.

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