The practice of ranking dancers is a very old tradition, originally developed to meet the needs of the theater. At least one differentiation among ranks was in place as early as 1713, when King Louis XIV set separate salaries for principal dancers. As the art form of ballet became more popular, opera house ballet companies–which supplied dancers for both operas and ballets–were training grounds where ranks marked the dancers’ progress to larger, more coveted roles.
The terms designating rank vary among countries and companies. In the United States today, “principal dancer,” “soloist,” and “corps de ballet member” are most common; however, some companies have more ranks, while others have none. Typically, principal dancers take on primary roles, soloists perform lesser featured parts, and the corps (meaning “body”) de ballet perform as a group. Historically, the corps de ballet was more ornamental than mobile; nowadays these dancers often perform demanding choreography. Corps de ballet members also might perform as demi-soloists (“demi” means “half”) in couples or small groups.
Here at SF Ballet, the lines between roles and ranks often blur. Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson allows choreographers to choose dancers without regard to rank; any Company member may perform principal roles, and even apprentices (who are still in training and typically dance with the corps de ballet) may dance featured parts.