The author partners Jordan Leeper in rehearsal for a creation by Jirí and Otto Bubenícek. Photo by Otto Bubenícek, Courtesy Charlotte Ballet.
Within an hour of my first day as a professional dancer, I remember thinking, Maybe I’m not cut out for this. Dwight Rhoden was creating a new Carmina Burana on BalletMet Columbus, and every company dancer, trainee and apprentice was packed into one studio to audition. Arms and legs were thrashing around me, forming dozens of different versions of what Rhoden and his assistant demonstrated at the front of the studio. As a 20-year-old apprentice, I thought Rhoden’s choreography was spectacular—and I couldn’t retain one phrase of it. I hid in the back to avoid getting in anyone’s way as I putzed around with whatever steps I gleaned from my peers. How could I possibly stand out among this sea of talented dancers? I’d later find out Rhoden would use the full company, so I’d get a chance to perform. But that night I went home and sobbed, humiliated.
Nine years later, I was dancing for Charlotte Ballet, and Rhoden, our resident choreographer, auditioned us in the same style as before. Since he’d last seen me, I’d worked tirelessly to improve my technique, deepen my artistic abilities, build my confidence and to observe my peers, teachers, choreographers, conductors—anyone who could show me what was “good” and why. This time, I approached the audition with calm determination and a touch of abandon. As I left the studio, I caught bits of conversation among the younger dancers. They were frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed—everything I was at their age. I couldn’t help but tell them that I understood exactly how they felt.
Whether you’re a wide-eyed apprentice or a seasoned veteran, catching the eye of a guest choreographer goes beyond what we’ve been taught in ballet class. Over my career I’ve worked closely with hundreds of talented artists, and even had the opportunity to speak with choreographers about the kinds of dancers they’re captivated by. Applying these seven strategies has helped me become a more successful dancer than I ever thought possible.
Don’t Expect a Certain Outcome
Too often I hear dancers say, “I won’t be in the piece—there are only four spots, and I’m in the corps.” Or even worse, “Of course I’ll be in it, I’m a principal!” Realistically, guest choreographers don’t typically consider ranks during casting; they are simply looking for the best artist for the role. Whether you’re aware of it or not, your inner monologue will show on your face and in your body. Don’t sell yourself short by focusing on what you think is going to happen.
Be a Blank Slate
Do the work as it is presented, without affectations that may overwhelm new movement. Houston Ballet artistic director and choreographer Stanton Welch explains, “If a dancer’s body doesn’t naturally make a shape, I can change it; but if their brain doesn’t absorb what the shape should be, that can be very frustrating.” Pay attention to the choreographer’s top priorities, whether he or she is stressing the full height of 180-degree penchée or the pedestrian quality of a walk across the stage. That way, whatever artistic choices you make later will be relevant to the choreographer’s original idea.
Watch for Style Clues
“Pay attention to ‘how,’ not ‘what,’ ” says Rhoden. You may have done a thousand arabesques in ballet class, but how does this choreographer want you to do this arabesque? Observing how the choreographer moves will inform your approach. Are the steps rooted in clean, classical vocabulary, or more grounded? Does he or she start movements from deep within the core, or are they initiated by the extremities? Also pay attention to the words and sounds the choreographer uses: Most tend to describe their steps with verbs like “melt,” “carve,” “glide” or “slither,” which build a vivid mental picture of the images being created.
Look and listen for style clues, says Rhoden (here with Wendy Whelan). Photo by Jim Lafferty.
Show Your Intention
Once you’ve learned what’s most important to the choreographer, let your nuance and personality shine through. “Choosing dancers is more about who they are and what they convey than the shape of their body or how many pirouettes they can do,” says Canadian choreographer Peter Quanz. Dancemakers are looking for a glimpse of what will eventually be performed onstage—technique, emotion, musicality, artistry. Throw yourself into the work. Don’t be embarrassed to take movements to the extreme or make artistic choices in a room full of people. “Even if you forget some steps, just go for it!” Quanz urges. “Try it. Fall! Fall gloriously!”
There’s no need to push everybody out of the way—this usually comes off as more inconsiderate than eager. Instead, find a place in the studio where you can move freely, then give it all you’ve got. It won’t matter where you’re standing if you’re doing an exceptional job.
Accept your limits
There’s no way to know exactly what each choreographer is looking for beyond obvious qualities, like solid technique. I’ve been chosen for some roles because I’m curvy, and left out of others for that same reason. I’ve been cast for my grand allégro, or for being a brunette. There’s no reason to waste energy pretending to be anyone you’re not. “Perfection is overrated,” says Rhoden. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
Use Your Losses
It’s convenient to say, “Of course she got the part instead of me...the director loves her!” But it’s a mistake to write off your peers’ accomplishments like that. Instead, pinpoint why you weren’t chosen, and get to work on fixing it if it’s something you can improve. One year I was cast as a second understudy for one of my dream roles. When I asked why I wasn’t chosen to perform, my director told me that the choreographer (who had cast the ballet using his memory of us from years before) “couldn’t imagine me” for the role. I used the rejection as fuel. The choreographer would be visiting one week before opening night, and I was determined to dance so well that he’d regret not casting me. I rehearsed earnestly by myself in the background for weeks. Finally in my first run-through for the choreographer, I danced my smaller soloist role with as much passion and conviction as I could muster. I was asked to do the principal role for the next run-through, danced it with everything I had—and was rewarded with two performances! When you take full advantage of your losses, success will always be around the corner.
Emily Ramirez is a dancer with Charlotte Ballet.