When the day is done, Marcus Romeo likes to put his feet up.
"Class is over at 6:30. I can be home and on my couch by 6:31," said Romeo, an easygoing 19-year-old from Carlisle, Pa.
His roommate Christopher Warhuus, 20, of San Francisco, arrives home and boils some pasta water. Skyla Schreter, 17, of New York, emerges from her room and warms a Trader Joe's frozen dinner. Their Netflix account is cued to an endless stream of "30 Rock."
Romeo, Schreter, and Warhuus talk to each other about their days. Friends drift in and out of the living room. Mumford & Sons plays in the background. Most evenings are spent like this, the roommates said, the three of them lounging in their South End apartment a block away from work, decompressing, acting like the college-age kids they are.
But unlike their peers around the city, Romeo, Schreter, and Warhuus aren't here to study English, physics, or economics. After years of training at ballet schools across the country, they have come here to participate in an apprenticeship of sorts as members of the Boston Ballet's second company.
Known as BBII, the company offers young dancers the opportunity to spend two years dancing with the Boston Ballet Company. Second company dancers perform in shows and understudy corps de ballet parts. At the end of the program, BBII dancers hope to be offered a position in the Boston Ballet or another company's corps de ballet.
The days are long. In the morning, BBII dancers attend a required two-hour class. In the afternoon, they participate in rehearsals with the company that can stretch for six hours. Throughout the day, the dancers squeeze in small meals and 10- to 15-minute breaks to ice sore limbs and extremities.
There are clear distinctions between the second company and the corps de ballet: a more haphazard work schedule, fewer touring opportunities, and a much smaller paycheck. The three roommates said they make $550 a week for 42 weeks, a yearly salary of $23,100 before taxes. If the dancers make the corps de ballet at the end of their apprenticeship, they will make a starting salary of $1,262.53 a week and be guaranteed 40 weeks of work a year, according to their American Guild of Musical Artists contract.
The union requires ballet companies to offer its members scheduled breaks, days off, and sufficient notice of their rehearsal schedule. If unionized dancers exceed a 30-hour work week or a six-hour workday during a five-day week, they are paid overtime, according to the contract.
In contrast, Warhuus said the second company, which is not represented by the union, has gone six hours without a scheduled break or two weeks without a day off. Sometimes, they learn of a rehearsal with only two hours' notice, Romeo said.
In addition to learning their own parts, BBII dancers strive to memorize as many roles as possible, in an attempt to gain coveted performance time.
"If there is someone who goes out sick, I want to be able to jump right in," said Schreter. "We're almost understudying the whole corps instead of just one of the spots."
If the dancers make the corps, they will have designated roles in the ballet. The uncertainty of BBII will disappear. Stability, Warhuus said, is the major draw of the position — that and the substantial pay increase.
"Being at the bottom comes with long hours — everyone has to work hard, that's the profession — but it's the pressure of still trying to prove yourself," said Schreter. "We're so low on the food chain, it's hard to get that balance."
Schreter begins her days shortly after 8 a.m. with a bowl of oatmeal, a banana, and a cup of coffee. Warhuus usually meets her in the kitchen to eat breakfast. Romeo sleeps a little later. The three roommates go about their routines, navigating around each other, until they leave one by one for the studio to loosen tight muscles or tape toes. They reconvene at their morning ballet class, but their schedules diverge from there.
On days off, they venture beyond Clarendon Street. Romeo runs errands, Warhuus takes trips to the library, and Schreter paints; her colorful abstract art covers the walls of their apartment. They go to the movies or grab coffee at the South End Buttery.
Romeo and Warhuus inherited the three-bedroom apartment from former Boston Ballet dancers when they began the BBII program in August 2012. Schreter, who joined the second company in early August and had known Romeo from the School of American Ballet, moved in this summer. Their combined salaries pay the rent, but just barely; Warhuus said their parents help with other expenses.
The roommates laugh at inside jokes. They complete each other's sentences. And almost every day, at some point, they find themselves in that living room, discussing their shared experience. "It's nice to have someone who even if they weren't in rehearsal will know exactly what I mean," Romeo said.
They are not in competition for roles, and they agree that helps their rapport both in and out of the studio.
But Romeo, Schreter, and Warhuus have a goal in common when their two years in the second company end: to launch professional dancing careers. The odds of joining the Boston Ballet corps aren't in their favor: Of the 52 current members of the Boston Ballet Company, only 18 started in the BBII program, an acceptance rate of about 35 percent.
Other goals, like attending college, have been deferred for now. Boston Ballet has a partnership with Northeastern University that allows company dancers to complete degrees at a pace that accommodates their rigorous rehearsal and performance schedules. All three of the roommates say they'd be interested in attending Northeastern if they are drafted into the company.
But for now, their focus is on memorizing choreography, strengthening their abilities, and getting to know themselves as dancers.
"I check in with myself, asking, 'Do I want to do this? Do I want to do this?' daily because it is such a hard thing to do," said Warhuus. "I know I potentially could be happy doing other things, but I always come back to this.
"It's really hard, but that's why I want to do it."