Making Workshops Work
Christian Denice and Rachel McNamee in Northwest Dance Project’s Launch Project. Photo by Christopher Peddecord, Courtesy NWDP.
A year after graduating from SUNY Purchase, Tiffany Rea-Fisher heard that Elisa Monte Dance was hosting a workshop followed by an audition at Steps on Broadway in New York City. She wanted to sign up, but had one major concern: the cost. “I was waitressing, and I didn’t have a lot of money,” she says. “I decided to set aside enough for two days, and if Elisa started to notice me or even knew my name after that, I’d scramble to find money for the rest of the week.” Monte learned her name during the first class, and Rea-Fisher stayed. “By Friday, I had learned so much about the company, and there was good energy between us,” she says. “I was so invested that I knew, even if I didn’t get the job, I’d be back next year.” There was no need for that plan: She was hired at the end of the week.
Many companies are adopting the pre-audition workshop model as the norm for finding new members. The extended amount of time allows directors to get to know dancers prior to audition day. But these workshops vary greatly both in structure and content. Some are just a day or two, while others last as long as two weeks. Some teach only repertory, while others include technique classes. Some are required as part of the audition process, while others are an optional bonus. But how much does that added experience really help once it’s time for the audition? Is it worth the time and expense? It turns out, workshops can offer a lot more than just a way to prove how badly you want the job.
Getting to Know You
For company directors, the benefits of spending extra time with a dancer before handing over a contract is clear, especially in a smaller company. “Major companies can take a risk on a dancer—sticking them in the corps or a second company for a few years. We can’t do that,” says Sarah Slipper, founding artistic director of Northwest Dance Project, which typically hires dancers through NWDP’s audition workshop, the Launch Project. “I have only 10 dancers, so I need them blasting out at the top level right away. I can’t see drive or determination in a two-hour cattle call.”
During the Launch Project, Slipper and three or more directors from other dance companies work with dancers for a week or two before deciding whether or not they’re a good fit. Last summer, the other directors who attended were Hélène Blackburn of CAS Public, James Canfield of Nevada Ballet Theatre and Lucas Crandall, rehearsal director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. As opposed to hundreds of dancers in a cattle call, the Launch Project only has 30 to 40 spots, filled through an initial audition process. Slipper estimates that 53 dancers have earned contracts directly through the program over its 10 years.
She feels the workshop process allows less technical dancers to show their true colors. “I’ve seen what I think are the best dancers—the ones who really soak up choreography—spend money to travel to auditions and not make it past tendus at the barre,” says Slipper. “When you have time with an individual, you can see so much more.”
Donald Byrd watching dancers during a workshop. Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, Courtesy Byrd.
Spectrum Dance Theater artistic director Donald Byrd hosts at least two one- or two-week workshops per year, in Seattle and New York, followed by auditions. Attendance ranges from 18 to 40 dancers. The Seattle workshops cost about $95 per day and incorporate both his “Byrd” technique class and company choreography. And while they aren’t officially considered part of the audition—and are not required—he certainly remembers which dancers attended on audition day. “I almost never take a dancer into the company unless I’ve seen them in a workshop setting,” says Byrd. “This way I get to know a dancer’s physical capabilities, but I also get a sense of who they are temperamentally and how they deal with challenge and criticism.”
Workshops also offer dancers a better sense of the company. “Throughout the workshop, they start to understand who I am and how I work,” says Byrd. “Sometimes you look at choreography onstage and think, I’d love to do that. But when you get into the studio, the process may not be something you understand or are equipped for.”
For dancers who sometimes panic in the typical fast-paced tryout, or have trouble picking up sequences quickly, a workshop’s biggest benefit is the chance to practice choreography that may be presented in the audition. Martha Graham Dance Company hosts an optional workshop before auditions where dancers learn Graham choreography, as well as pieces by other choreographers in the company’s current rep. It’s not only a quick refresher course for dancers who don’t train in Graham movement every day, but it also offers a head start. “Giving them a bit of material ahead of time allows dancers to relax into the choreography,” says Tadej Brdnik, who manages audition workshops for MGDC. “We’re able to see the progression that one makes from learning the material to really understanding it.” Last spring, more than 40 of the 100 dancers who auditioned attended the daylong $80 workshop—and two of MGDC’s four new hires were workshop attendees.
When It’s Over
Not getting an offer on the spot doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Brdnik says that workshops allow MGDC faculty and dancers to make lasting connections with auditioners that can lead to a job down the line. In fact, he says, a dancer was recently hired based on last year’s workshop. “It wasn’t a perfect match last year, but for this year’s repertory, we wanted that dancer,” he says.
Slipper says she’s had many directors call her months after a Launch Project to ask about a dancer. “A lot of choreographers are project-based, so once a new opportunity begins, they’ll remember how much they loved working with a particular person,” she says. Byrd says he’s often had dancers come to workshops who aren’t even currently available to be hired—but it gives them an opportunity to make a connection for the future.
Even if a job offer never comes, it doesn’t necessarily mean your money and time were wasted. Most directors agree that going into a workshop with the sole purpose of getting hired may actually hinder how much you can get from the experience. “The best candidates for workshops are those who are interested in growing their artistry,” says Byrd. “If you’re in a state of discovery, you won’t walk out at the end of the workshop as the same dancer you were when you came in the door.”
Rachel Zar is a freelance writer in Chicago.
How It’s Done
While the setting may seem more relaxed, dancers shouldn’t approach a workshop any differently than they would a straightforward audition. Decisionmakers are usually watching, or at least kept in the loop. “We make sure that Janet Eilber, our artistic director, as well as two of the dancers leading the audition, observe parts of the pre-audition workshop,” says Martha Graham Dance Company workshop manager and principal dancer Tadej Brdnik. Make sure you maintain a professional demeanor and appearance the entire time—even between classes.