From Cattle Call to Company Contract, Here's What It Takes to Join BalletX
"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
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."
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
Blake Krapels auditioned for BalletX three times before being invited to join the company.
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.
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.
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."
- BalletX's 2018–19 Season Boasts Seven New Ballets - Dance ... ›
- What It Takes: 7 Tips for New Leaders from BalletX's Christine Cox ... ›
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.