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The Extended Audition
Giving dancers more time to shine
By Jen Peters
Cattle-call auditions are often a nightmare. Trying to stand out among hundreds of dancers can be frustrating, not to mention downright depressing. But if you think you have just one shot a year to make it into your dream company, think again. Many troupes, especially in modern and contemporary ballet, are establishing longer-term training programs, or “extended auditions,” in search of new company members. From structured work/study situations, like the one offered at Thodos Dance Chicago, to open classes with companies like STREB and Shen Wei Dance Arts, these programs give dancers more time to get to know a company, and vice versa. It’s the ultimate “foot in the door” experience and a welcome alternative to the sometimes brutal open call.
The Transition Dance
For recent college graduates, transitioning into a dance career means scoping out auditions, classes, and performance opportunities without the structure of school. “It was a big shock to try to stay on top of my training while having another job and researching the Chicago dance scene,” says Jackie Stewart, who graduated from University of Iowa in 2007 with a B.F.A. in dance.
That’s one reason why Stewart auditioned for the work/study program at Thodos Dance Chicago, where she’s now a second-year trainee. Melissa Thodos, TDC’s artistic director, created the year-long program four years ago to increase opportunities for young professional dancers and cultivate future company members. In exchange for working in the TDC offices, participants (five per season) take free company classes five days a week. They also dance at outreach events and choreograph and perform in the spring New Dances concert. In an effort to get to know trainees, Thodos invites them to company meetings and holds twice-a-year reviews. “We went over my progress,” says apprentice and former trainee Jeremy Blair, “and Melissa gave me clear goals to work on.”
For some, like Stewart and Blair, a year of work/study can evolve into a more serious commitment (attending company rehearsals, understudying repertory) and ultimately a contract. But in the end, whether offered a contract or not, TDC trainees come away with valuable feedback, networking tools, and open doors to future opportunities.
Choose Your Own Adventure
A year-long work/study program like TDC’s—with mandatory classes, office hours, and meetings—requires a big time commitment. For those with the self-motivation to study independently, many companies offer open classes on a regular basis, a chance to be seen in the weeks or months before a formal audition. Dancers can immerse themselves in a choreographer’s style—rather than encountering it for the first time at an open call—and directors keep an eye out for those with a solid grasp of the movement. A less structured program might mean less communication about progress, but as a dancer gets to know the director, she may feel comfortable enough to share concerns and ask for advice.
The highly athletic STREB holds weekly classes at S.L.A.M., the company’s warehouse studio in Brooklyn. Students can pay per session or set up an administrative work schedule in exchange for free classes. Director Elizabeth Streb says that dancers often take class for several years to prepare for her dangerous acrobatic work. “Most females have to do upper-body weight training, even before they can support themselves in our classes,” she explains. “And everyone has to do aerobic training. Two minutes into a STREB piece, and you’ll hit a wall.” Streb also looks for dancers “who feel curious about trekking into unknown territory.” After her three-day auditions, she often offers contracts to familiar faces, dancers who have taken class extensively. By then it’s clear which bodies can handle the work and which personalities can confront fear.
Created in 2001, Shen Wei Dance Arts is already on board with the extended-training trend. The company began offering affordable open classes last spring and hopes to make them more frequent in upcoming months. “We want to give dancers the opportunity to taste Shen Wei’s movement style,” says artistic associate and company member Sara Procopio. Last fall, company members taught open classes for a month, leading to an audition for a project performance. The classes weren’t required for the audition but were strongly encouraged.
Other companies, like Parsons Dance and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, offer periodic open classes, which can boost a dancer’s chances at their crowded auditions.
When it comes to landing a job, many dancers underestimate the impact of personality and professionalism. An extended audition provides an intimate view into how a dancer interacts with others. Small companies can be tight-knit groups, so directors look for personalities that mesh. Thodos says that when trainees audition for the company, she’s familiar with their work ethic and capacity for growth. And if an emergency crops up with a company member, she can fill the gap with a dancer she knows.
“Keep an open mind and body during training,” advises Procopio. “When approaching a new movement style, see what you can learn from it.” In classes, rehearsals, and auditions, directors look for dancers with eagerness and a deep interest in exploring movement. But as much as they’re looking for the right dancer, you’re looking for the right place to dance. There are a lot of companies out there, and while you might have your heart set on just one, it’s hard to know exactly where you’ll thrive. Extended training gives you the time and frame of mind to make an informed choice.
Jen Peters dances with Jennifer Muller/The Works.
What Are They Looking For?
Tips from the people who make the decisions
It’s mid-audition and your mind is racing with questions. Am I learning this fast enough? Am I making a good impression? Will I look silly if I ask a question? Dance Magazine got the inside scoop from top artistic directors and choreographers about what turns them off, what blows them away, and what you can do to make the cut.
Interviews conducted by Siobhan Burke, Michael Crabb, and Hedy Weiss
Artistic director, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (pictured above right)
I’m not after a particular shape or size or physicality. I’m looking for an individual, for the unexpected. It’s all about having the power to direct my focus, to have a core strength that is capable of pushing me around the room.
Some dancers are quick studies, but then they flatline and never grow in the work. Before I hire a dancer I try to get a sense of their growth over a period of time—have them spend a week coming to classes or doing a summer intensive. It’s rare to just find someone in an open audition; usually it’s a relationship developed over time.
I want no pretense, no arrogance. All the dancers in Hubbard Street must do ensemble or corps work and drop their egos to be part of the greater good. In a company of 20 dancers there is no room for cliques, and there is no room to hide.
Artistic director, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
A natural mover can be better than somebody who does 10 pirouettes or is super turned out. I respect those things, but because our repertory is so diverse, I’m looking for a chameleon, someone who can morph from the world of Ohad Naharin to the world of Crystal Pite.
It’s OK to ask questions, but sometimes the most intriguing people are the ones who don’t say a thing. One dancer, who is now with the company—I didn’t notice her right away at the audition. She was always right behind me, observing the step very closely. My rehearsal director said, “Look at this girl behind you.” I stopped and looked, and she was incredible, and I hired her. And she didn’t say one word. The body itself was amazing.
As for what to wear, I suggest being clean-cut, sober, not too extravagant. Once you’re in the company, then you can show your true colors. We need to see what you’re doing with your body, so don’t hide the tool.
Artistic director, National Ballet of Canada
When you’re running a company you’re always thinking of the repertoire and the kind of bodies suited to it, so I pay attention to body type, especially height. But what I’m really alert to is training. A dancer needs to have good form and good line and to understand phrasing, partnering—things you might assume are so basic but which not everyone has. I can intuit a lack of discipline. If dancers come in with these ridiculous outfits, huge dangling earrings, tons of bracelets, and so on, you right away think this isn’t a serious artist, a person who is going to turn themselves over to the work. I’m looking for people with a good work ethic, sincerity, and humility.
In an audition with a lot of dancers, it helps to wear a distinctive color and fasten your number securely back and front so it doesn’t flap. But above all, breathe deeply, control your nerves, and give all you can.
Artistic director, David Dorfman Dance
If you’re going to an audition, commit to it. Get there early, with time to warm up. The earlier you are, without any other worries, the more ease you’ll have to be yourself. Be present, and hear all the artist has to say.
I give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but if a dancer is standoffish or aloof, it raises a touch of suspicion. Our process is very collaborative, so I want someone with a team spirit, a desire to work with others. If a person is standing there with their arms crossed, their hands in their pockets, or leaning against the wall or barre, it suggests some level of disinterest or unnecessary confrontation.
Try to stay away from feelings of, “Oh, I’m not doing well.” That can get you into a downward spiral. Sometimes I might ask, “OK, who wants to be part of a little guinea pig group? Five people wanna give it a try?” And if you could be one of the first five seen out of 200, why not? If a choreographer is looking for someone who takes chances—who can be risky, audacious, innovative—then that’s the person who says, “Hey, I have a hunch that I can do this.”
Brush It Off, Bring It On
How one BalletMet dancer got her wish
By Krista Jennings
Growing up as a student at BalletMet’s Dance Academy, Emily Gotschall had a promising future in ballet. “I got a lot of attention from my teachers,” the Columbus, Ohio, native says. “I was even Clara in The Nutcracker.” Gotschall started taking classes there when she was 10, continued through the highest level, and danced as a trainee with the company. She had always dreamed of joining BalletMet. But achieving that dream would take far longer than planned. After her trainee year, she was not offered a position.
“I didn’t have to stay at BalletMet,” she says. “You find out as you get older that going right away into the company where you trained isn’t always the best thing.” This flexible outlook helped Gotschall as she began to audition elsewhere.
Though Gotschall enjoyed auditioning, parts of the process were frustrating. “I’m a shorter, more muscular dancer. I had a lot of people say, ‘We liked you, but we don’t have a spot for a shorter dancer right now.’ I had moments where I thought I would never get a job.”
To get past them, she consulted her teachers, who encouraged her to trust her own ability. “Every company is looking for something different,” she says. “You go somewhere and you don’t fit in, but you go somewhere else and the class feels great. It’s important to get back on the horse and be seen by a lot of companies.”
Gotschall attended lots of open calls, which she recommends to inexperienced dancers. “Some people think going to a company class is better, but then you’re standing next to exactly what the director wants, which can be intimidating.” Her advice for open calls: “Keep a positive attitude, and show who you are right away. They only have a couple of hours to see if you’re wonderful to work with for 36 weeks.”
In 1998, Gotschall auditioned for nearby Dayton Ballet, which was a little smaller than BalletMet. “I think people discount the smaller companies. As I grew older I thought I’d be more comfortable with something smaller, and I liked dancing both classical and contemporary works.”
Dayton Ballet hired Gotschall as an apprentice; after two years she became a full company member. Her “unconventional” body type was not a problem. “In smaller companies there’s less uniformity,” she says. “There’s also more opportunity to dance earlier in your career.” Performing frequently built up her confidence. “I left school having insecurities about my body type and technical capabilities,” she admits. “But my first boss, Dermot Burke at Dayton Ballet, told me, ‘How can you know what you can do? You haven’t done it all!’”
After seven years, having danced most of Dayton’s rep, she began to audition again. While many companies seemed interested, BalletMet offered her a contract, and Gotschall happily accepted.
“It was daunting to come back to where I grew up. But going away and returning as a more accomplished professional felt really good,” she says.
Gotschall is now in her fourth season with BalletMet, and her initial rejection doesn’t bother her; in fact, she sees it as a good thing. “There was freedom in leaving and finding my artistic self. But it’s great to be back home.”
Krista Jennings is a dancer, choreographer, and writer based in Fort Worth, TX.
Going the Extra Mile
How to follow up after an audition
When you’re done with an audition––whether or not you got the job––your chance to leave a good impression isn’t over. There are ways to stay on auditioners’ minds without appearing pushy. Experts from the Broadway, modern, ballet, and commercial dance scenes tell how it’s tactfully done.
Strengthen your connections (politely).
If you’ve had a strong audition, a director may be interested in you for future jobs, says Laura Stanczyk, casting director for Dirty Dancing. Keep in touch by sending a postcard or personal note to their office: For people with inboxes stuffed to the brim, snail-mail speaks louder than e-mail. If you’d like feedback, Stanczyk says, a phone call to a casting director (work line, not cell phone) is OK, but always be complimentary, and never ask why you weren’t cast. Instead, inquire what you might do to improve your auditioning.
“If you really want to follow up,” Stanczyk advises, “go to open calls to stay in our minds.” Face-to-face time with casting directors and choreographers is the best way to remind them of your talent.
The good old-fashioned thank-you note.
Modern choreographer David Parsons, artistic director of Parsons Dance Company in NYC, appreciates a handwritten post-audition thank-you note. Say that you enjoyed the process, or share what you thought of the work. “Giving auditions is part of who we are, so we like to hear feedback,” Parsons says. He recommends sending a note as soon as possible after the audition, and always with a picture.
Don’t overdo it.
William Whitener, artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, also welcomes a thank-you note but cautions against sending e-mails and calling too much. “If we say that we will get in touch with you, we mean it,” he says. When writing to a director, he adds, be informed about the company; you don’t want to get caught not having done your research.
Show them you’re ready.
For dancers on the commercial scene, Lisa Coppola, an agent with McDonald Selznick Associates in L.A., recommends following up after submitting your materials for representation. It shows that you’re proactive, Coppola says, and will be that way if you’re signed. “Anyone would want to hear that you had an enjoyable audition or working experience and that you’d like to work together in the future.” —Rachel Leigh Dolan
Kick-start your career with the web.
By Erika Eichelberger
A dancer’s body is her instrument. All she needs is her own talent to land a job. Right?
Well, yes and no. While nothing replaces raw ability—and a knack for nailing an audition—a smart dancer knows how to market that ability. Of course, a professional headshot, resumé, and networking savvy are essential. But if you want to stand out in a sea of job-hunters, a personal website is key. Whether you’re a contemporary or commercial dancer, breaking into Broadway or ballet, a website gives you space to be seen, and for potential employers, you’re just a Google search away.
Noellie Bordelet, a contemporary dancer based in Los Angeles and Paris, says she didn’t need her website to land gigs in the tight-knit L.A. modern dance community but got a wake-up call after a show in New York. “A choreographer was talking to me about working with him for an upcoming piece. He asked what my web address was, and when I told him I didn’t have one, he left!”
This would come as little surprise to Terry Lindholm, a dance agent with McDonald Selznick Associates in L.A. For a quick, efficient look at new talent, he watches video clips posted on potential clients’ sites. “It’s great to be able to see those skills instantaneously, and we’re not wasting anyone’s time,” he says. “In the commercial marketplace, even in the theatrical stage world, it’s becoming more prevalent to submit clients to casting directors via the web.”
Once you do land a job, you’re more likely to snag others through your site, as tap dancer and choreographer Chloe Arnold was happy to find. “Because the web works off links,” she says, “the more jobs you do, the more jobs you get.” Google ranks a page according to its traffic volume and the relative importance of pages linked to it. The more your name is floating around the web through various jobs, the more people will search your name and wind up at your site. This makes your site more popular and more likely to be located by employers.
Even for dancers with steady gigs or long-term contracts, websites are invaluable marketing and networking tools. Chan Hon Goh, National Ballet of Canada principal, sees her site as an extension of her bio, a place where fans and interested employers can browse reviews and photos. Nathalie Nordquist, a soloist with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, doesn’t rely on her website to find jobs, but she has been contacted by newspapers and other projects via her site, “which usually contributes to new opportunities,” she says.
Be appropriate, though, in how you use your site. Tom Mossbrucker, artistic director of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, says, “I get e-mails from dancers telling me, ‘I can’t make the audition, but you can go to my website.’ I find that sloppy. It doesn’t show the kind of discipline and motivation you need to be a dancer. I’m not cranky and old-fashioned,” Mossbrucker jokes, but sometimes you just need to do it the old-fashioned way.
While your website can’t audition for you, a video link could help, as dancers learned last fall at a New York audition for the British dance-theater company DV8. Before the first cut, director Lloyd Newson extended a magnanimous gesture. “If you feel like you’re an amazing dancer and we haven’t seen your best, feel free to send us a YouTube video.”
When it comes to content and design, simplicity and professionalism win. “A good website contains the same information that’s essential in a press kit,” says Kim Konikow, director of Artservices & Company, which offers marketing and development guidance to artists and nonprofits. Your resumé and photos (printable if possible) are musts, along with videos and reviews.
“I keep my site pretty formal and make it as user-friendly as possible,” says Broadway performer Tyler Hanes. “Nothing too cluttered or flashy, just enough to make it pop.” Keep the page number to a minimum for easy navigation, and make sure your information is current.
The aesthetic of your site, Konikow says, should match the aesthetic of your dance style. “I wouldn’t expect a hip hop dancer to use a cursive font.” Remember that your site reflects who you are, not just as a dancer but as a person. “Be clear on what you want to present, knowing you have a world audience,” Arnold says. A blog can be a great addition, but it shouldn’t be too personal. Contact information shouldn’t be too specific either.
Raring to go? If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, a variety of templates are available on the web. Otherwise, “I tell my students that their first best friend is a graphic designer, their second, a computer geek,” Konikow says with a smile.
Once you’ve created your masterpiece, get the word out! Post links on MySpace or Facebook, attach it as a signature to your e-mails, add it to your resumé, list it in performance programs, and print business cards.
As you make yourself known on the web, you’ll join the global arts community. What’s so exciting, says Lindholm, is that dancers are “utilizing their sites to share their craft in a way they couldn’t before. There’s ground to share. It’s a larger canvas.”
Erika Eichelberger is a writer and dancer based in NYC.
Photo by Colin Fowler.