Inside the Audition That Lets Dancers Try Out for 10 Ballet Companies at Once
Hopping from city to city during audition season can be both expensive and time-consuming—not to mention disheartening if you end up being cut after barre. Since its inception in 2016, the Grand Audition has aimed to solve that conundrum for young ballet dancers looking for a job: This annual two-day event in Europe provides an unprecedented opportunity to audition for 10 companies at once.
"Our main goal is really to help dancers," says David Makhateli, a former principal with The Royal Ballet who launched the Grand Audition with his wife, dancer Daria Makhateli. With 10 artistic directors from a wide range of countries present, a dancer who might not fit one company's requirements has many more opportunities to be noticed. The prestigious lineup includes top international companies as well as midsized ones: This February, the Mariinsky Ballet, Dutch National Ballet and Royal Swedish Ballet will be represented, among others. Most companies are based in Europe, but American directors have also taken part in past editions, namely American Ballet Theatre's Kevin McKenzie and Atlanta Ballet's Gennadi Nedvigin.
A New Way to Job Hunt
Makhateli first came up with the concept when he was a student himself, in the 1990s. Originally from the country of Georgia, he won a scholarship at the 1992 Prix de Lausanne and finished his training at the Royal Ballet School in London, but struggled with the cost of traveling to auditions in his final year.
His vision was first realized in Brussels, Belgium, in 2016, and since last year, the Grand Audition has been held in Barcelona, Spain, where Makhateli is now based. The demand has been overwhelming, he says: Interested dancers are required to apply online with photos and a recent performance or training video of their choice for pre-selection, which is done by a professional committee. (For dancers unsure whether they are up to par, that initial screening can save the cost of traveling.) "Last year we had over 300 applications, and we stopped at 177 contestants," he says. "For me, quality is important, and it's also important that everybody is able to be seen in class."
For 19-year-old Jacob Roter, from Brooklyn, New York, the Grand Audition was a handy way to fulfill his dream of a European career. "I didn't want to go to every country to audition," he says. At the 2017 edition, he won a contract with Norwegian National Ballet's junior company, and also got an offer from Atlanta Ballet. "What's really cool is that you get to see how different directors are, how they represent their companies," he says.
The two-day audition begins with a straightforward technique class. Photo by Andrej Uspenski, Courtesy Grand Audition.
An Inclusive Experience
The first day, all contestants take a full class—a "basic one," says Makhateli—in age groups on the slightly raked stage of the Teatre-Auditori Sant Cugat. The 10 directors then select the dancers they're each interested in for the next round. On the second day, those who are chosen perform a classical variation they prepared ahead of time from the Grand Audition's list. "It feels a little bit like a performance," Roter says. "If you get into the second round, you're able to really dance and show what you have artistically." Last year, 51 dancers made it to the variation stage, and 44 (approximately a quarter of all contestants) were then invited to one-to-one interviews with one or more directors, resulting in 28 contract offers.
One requirement for directors to participate is to have contracts available, Makhateli says, although they are under no obligation to hire anyone at the Grand Audition. Unlike at competitions, they don't sit behind a table. "They can make remarks, go up onstage," Makhateli says. Some, like the Mikhailovsky Ballet's Mikhail Messerer, have hired multiple dancers, or recommended some to colleagues who weren't in attendance. "The directors were literally backstage with us, and it was really intimate," Roter remembers. "Everybody who got past the first round ended up meeting directors, even when they didn't get a job."
The only criteria for dancers to apply is that they are professionally trained. "I don't have height requirements or anything. We have a variety of dancers," says Makhateli. The age range also aims to be inclusive: It was set at 17 to 26 years old after discussions with directors. "At 17, you can be hired in a junior or main company, and at 26, they are dancers with experience, who may be looking for a change." Some soloist and principal contracts have been awarded to more mature contestants, although the Grand Audition doesn't advertise them to avoid misleading hopeful dancers.
Class onstage at Barcelona's Teatre-Auditori Sant Cugat. Photo by Andrej Uspenski, Courtesy Grand Audition.
The Grand Audition is an international affair: The 2017 edition had contestants from 27 countries, including Japan and Australia, and 13 dancers from the U.S. Roter met with friends from his training days there, and while some of them didn't get past the first round, he says he found the group atmosphere more comforting than his experience at regular auditions in Berlin and Prague.
Makhateli's main advice for dancers is to be professional from the start—photos and videos submitted with the application are then shared with interested directors—and to choose variations carefully: "Show your best qualities. Don't do a variation that doesn't suit you, like a turning variation if you can't turn." Originality can also be key: Last year, the only Esmeralda was luckier than the many Auroras at the variation stage.
At about $400, the registration fees are steeper than those at traditional auditions, but it can be more cost-effective than traveling to a range of cities. "It's totally the dancer's choice, but if you audition for separate companies, just a flight inside Europe could cost you that much," says Makhateli. A year down the road, Roter is happily settled at Norwegian National Ballet 2, which he admits he had never heard about before the Grand Audition. "I think it's an ambitious thing to go for, but if you really want to dance in Europe, it's totally worth it."
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.