From Cattle Call to Company Contract, Here's What It Takes to Join BalletX

From left: Tara Keating, Christine Cox and dancers Francesca Forcella and Andrea Yorita evaluate BalletX hopefuls. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

"I'm going to walk through; it's going to be so awkward," says BalletX artistic and executive director Christine Cox, addressing 119 auditionees and acknowledging the ever-intimidating clipboard she holds. The room bursts into laughter, and smiles linger as pliés begin. Cox may have broken the tension, but stakes are high when contracts are up for grabs. At the BalletX company audition in New York City last April, Cox and associate artistic director Tara Keating were looking for one female dancer to fill a summer contract and one or two males to start year-round in the fall. "The core foundation of the company is ballet," Cox says, "but the X is everything. The X is a dancer who can experiment, explore, express themselves." And that's who they're looking for among these hopefuls.

The Cattle Call

A crowd of auditioning dancers gather in a studio.

Quinn Wharton

Unlike many ballet auditions, Cox and Keating don't make a single cut during technique class. "Some of my dancers don't have great ballet technique," says Cox, "but the intelligence they bring to movement—a great ballet dancer might not be able to do that."

That's not to say that the class isn't challenging. After an abridged barre, Keating gives a fiendish center adagio with an arabesque penchée —particularly challenging for the ladies, now in pointe shoes. She tests dancers with tricky timing and unusual port de bras. But she also wants them to relax and be themselves. "I want them to feel like they're dancy combinations where we can really see them move and shine in their own light."

Auditioning dancers, wearing leotards and audition numbers pinned on to their clothing, are photographed from the shoulders down.

Quinn Wharton

After a few repetitions of grand allégro, Cox and Keating make the first cut, sending more than half of the dancers home. Those remaining learn a sequence from Nicolo Fonte's Beautiful Decay, after which the directors make another cut, leaving just about 20 dancers.

Three and a half hours in, choreographer Colby Damon begins teaching a combination from his work On the Mysterious Properties of Light. It's full of yawning extensions, sharp accents and swift, deep lunges. The dancers run it multiple times in four groups. At one point, Cox asks Damon to stop giving the auditionees information about the movement and musicality. "We have to see what they can interpret," she says.

Cox and Keating make a final cut before deciding to go into overtime to see partnering work from the remaining 10 dancers. "Thankfully I didn't schedule anything after!" says Blake Krapels, a 25-year-old Juilliard graduate and third-time BalletX auditionee.

Keeping At It

Krapels does a layout on forced arch against a bright blue wall.

Blake Krapels auditioned for BalletX three times before being invited to join the company.

Gabriel Bienczycki

It turns out, Krapels' persistence paid off. After his second audition, Cox spoke with him about the intense physical demands of dancing in BalletX. "She didn't feel like my body was ready for that," he says. So Krapels, who identifies as more of a contemporary dancer, added more ballet classes to his routine in the year and a half between his second and third BalletX auditions. "I also went to the gym a lot."

Cox noticed, adding that she saw "a newfound strength of heart and spirit" in Krapels, "which added an extra layer of depth and finesse to his musicality." After he attended two callbacks in May, she offered him a contract for the 2018–19 season.

Company Immersion

Peabody posed on pointe with one leg extended forwards and her arms reaching long. She is wearing a lavender leotard and the background is gray.

Anna Peabody, now a member of BalletX, was one of the dancers artistic staff noticed at the audition.

Maximilian Tortoriello, Courtesy BalletX

At the time of the New York City audition, 21-year-old Anna Peabody was still a third-year student at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. The Tuesday after the audition, she got a call and was awarded the available summer female contract. Just a few weeks later, Peabody had a year-round contract in hand. "The beautiful approach to her artistry convinced us it was time to add an 11th dancer to BalletX before another company scooped her up," says Cox. Peabody finished that year's finals remotely and was soon thrown into the deep end, getting cast in Lil Buck's new work, Express, and Matthew Neenan's Increasing, both of which she performed with BalletX at the Vail Dance Festival last summer.

Peabody is currently completing her last school year at IU remotely, and both she and Krapels are finding a home in the close-knit company atmosphere. Peabody says that Cox and Keating are candid and open. "Actually all the dancers here are," she says. "That's why—at least for me—their dancing is so beautiful to watch. Everyone is just very honest with the dancing and with the self."

Audition Tips from BalletX's Artistic Staff

Christine Cox chats with some of the auditioning dancers.

Quinn Wharton

Prep properly: "When you show up and your ribbons and elastics aren't sewn and are just tied, that is a window into who you are," says BalletX artistic and executive director Christine Cox. Shortcuts show that you'll choose the path with the least amount of effort.

Present your true self: Whether it's your earrings, the way you braid your hair or your leotard, Cox sees your audition-wear choices as "painting yourself in the colors you want to be seen."

Pay attention: "If I see someone who's able to pick up the combinations quickly, my eye goes to them," says associate artistic director Tara Keating. "If they don't know the combination, I tend to skim over."

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