During her senior year of college, Erika Leeds flew to Philadelphia for an open call. She was one of more than 100 people who paid $25 to audition, with the hopes of landing a job. "Once we got there, we were told that there were currently no open spots in the company," says Leeds. She stayed for the promise of getting seen but walked away disappointed. "This whole thing was crazy: I paid to fly up here and audition, and they weren't hiring and barely saw us dance."
In other industries, paying a future employer for an interview would be considered unethical. Yet in dance, it is common practice. Many companies offer the explanation that it is expensive to hold open calls and in exchange for that fee, they are providing a class. Now, cash-strapped dancers and even some company leaders find themselves questioning this norm.
Just Saying No
In August, Brooklyn-based downtown dancer and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly was asked to help advertise an open call. When he saw that there was a fee to attend, he immediately posted on Facebook: "I just don't think dancers should pay to audition. NO!" The post stirred up discussion among the modern dance community. Some choreographers lamented the higher cost of booking space when it is used for an audition rather than a rehearsal, while others admitted that it should still be part of a company's budget. Dancers expressed frustration at being expected to contribute to a company they didn't even dance for yet. Too few jobs seemed to come as a result, and there was a sense that some companies might be holding auditions opportunistically—to collect money or advertise an upcoming show. Dancers' confidence in the process was waning.
Raja Feather Kelly. Photo by Andy Toad, Courtesy Kelly.
Kelly sees another path. "It is very possible to take class, see dance shows and meet people you want to work with without having to audition, much less pay to audition. That is how people really are getting work," he says. "Dancers need to take responsibility for building relationships." In the long run, the cost for classes and tickets ends up being more expensive, but this type of investment is likely to have a bigger payoff.
Are There Any Benefits?
In the ballet world, where companies are spread out, making connections often comes with the cost of travel and auditions. To counter that, Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney made a compromise: an audition tour. Beginning in 2014, he expanded auditions beyond New York City and Kansas City, aiming to reach a major metropolitan area in each region of the U.S. While it does cost non-AGMA members $25 to attend a KCB audition, Carney insists that bringing open calls to a broader community has made the process more affordable. "The alternative is traveling further, which costs the dancer more, and the room is more crowded," he says. To date, Carney has hired from open calls in Houston, San Francisco, Boston, Kansas City and New York City.
Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney leading rehearsal. Photo by Jessica Kelly, Courtesy KCB.
What About Videos?
If you're considering submitting video auditions to forego travel costs, be aware that you'll often pay as much as $35 per application. Why? "It's a more stringent process," says Carney, who receives about 500 submissions every season. Unless you think you're the perfect fit, you may want to save a little cash and stick to open calls. "Ultimately, it's best way to get the most time in front of a director."