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."
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
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Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.