We see pointe shoes - we say "ballerina". There is actually a clear hierarchy in the professional environment of ballet dancers. Appearing on stage as a character is not enough to be called a ballerina. But what is required then?
Ballet company structure
In general, all participants of a ballet production, who go on stage not as "live scenery", but to make staged movements, are called dancers. They are proficient in ballet technique and work with a theater. Then the differences begin: the structure of a ballet company is hierarchical and position of every artist in it depends on several factors.
In ballet, they must become ballerinas, that is soloists and prima ballerinas. This path can start from the corps de ballet, where recent graduates of choreographic schools often work. The further career of a ballet dancer largely depends on her physical attributes and technique, skills and diligence. To rise in the ballet company hierarchy, one must show their skill at the audition. A part learned and masterfully performed is like an exam for a ballet dancer.
Combining technique, artistry and plastique allows a dancer to advance to the position of a soloist. The name is a bit misleading: such an artist doesn’t always "solo" in the sense of performing the leading part. Soloists perform the roles following the main ones, but they can also “play first violin” in a performance, for example, replacing the prima ballerina absent on the day of performance.
Compared to the dancers of corps de ballet, the schedule of soloists is busier. The have more rehearsals, more tours - ultimately, more responsibility for the performed parts.
The next step is from a soloist to a prima ballerina. Position of the "first ballerina" can be taken by a dancer, whose professional portfolio includes several leading roles, as well as a solo repertoire. In ballet, there are roles that are historically performed by prima ballerinas, among them, for example, are Odette/Odile, Giselle, Raymonda, Nikiya. The professional level of such a ballet dancer can be defined as the highest qualification category. Their schedule is even tighter: more rehearsals, performances in different countries, because prima ballerinas often dance as guest stars outside of their home theater. This lifestyle is focused on honing the individual style impeccable even without that.
A prima ballerina also means a specific charisma, the highest level of skill and a personal signature style in ballet. Prima ballerinas are true stars of ballet art. Besides, as the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater Svetlana Zakharova once admitted, this professional status gives a certain creative freedom. A world-renowned prima ballerina can choose parts and performances, determining what, how and with whom she wants to dance.
Differences in the terms used by the world ballet schools
There are variations within this seemingly simple hierarchical structure "ballerina - soloist - prima ballerina". Terms vary not only in the world ballet schools: even the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters have different structure of their ballet companies.
Before dealing with the terms, it is worth mentioning that the concept of "corps de ballet" in all ballet schools around the globe is the same and means a participant of mass dances.
Higher on the hierarchical ladder are the soloists: this category of ballet dancers includes two groups.
At the Bolshoi Theater, this group of ballerinas is comprised of the leading and first soloists. At the Mariinsky, they are matched by the first and second soloists. At the Paris Opera, they are called “premier danseur” and “sujet”. As for the American Ballet School, they have no internal hierarchy in this group of artists: they are all soloists. Another interesting feature of the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater is that their soloists performing character roles form a separate subgroup. Other theaters don’t have such a thing.
This group of artists who have achieved the highest skill level in classical dance is called the same in the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters. In France and the United States, they have synonymous terms for them. Prima ballerinas at the Paris Opera are called “étoile”; in American ballet, they are principals.
Prima ballerinas and ballerinas - what's the difference?
Genius Mathilde Kschessinska wrote about the differences between ballerinas and prima ballerinas in her Memoirs. In the chapter "My Opinion of Ballet Artists" she argues with surprise:
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a notable difference between these steps of the hierarchy. There were only five or six ballerinas, and one prima ballerina alone. According to Mathilde Kschessinska, after several years as a ballerina, she was honored with the title "Artist Emeritus of the Imperial Theatres". And later she became a “prima ballerina” - or the first among ballerinas.Even the great Kschessinska gained this status after years of ballet practice and work on the greatest productions. If we represent the path of a ballet dancer metaphorically, its segment from a ballerina to a prima ballerina would look like the most mountainous, hard and sometimes dangerous climb.