I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.
"Is everyone okay?" was my most used sentence during my time with American Ballet Theatre. There I was, leading world-class ABT dancers through my own choreographic process. I knew that it was unlike anything they'd ever experienced, but I think half of the time I was asking that question, it was really directed to myself.ABT Incubator is a two-week choreographic program created by principal dancer David Hallberg. Supported by The Howard Hughes Corporation, this process-oriented lab gave me and four other choreographers the opportunity to generate ideas for the work we have been inspired to create.
Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.
"You may have the best teacher in the world and the best work ethic and be so committed, and still not make it," says YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev. "I have seen so many extremely talented dancers end up not having enough motivation and mental strength, not having the right body type, not getting into the right company at the right time or getting injured at the wrong moment. You need so many factors, and some of these are out of your hands."
When it comes to auditioning, you have to think like a casting director. What is your type? How can you embrace it so that you can get cast in the roles that fit you best?
Getting hired is about more than just talent. Directors are looking at everything: from your height, to your energy, to understudy requirements—if you are a replacement in a Broadway show, for example, you have to be able to slot into it seamlessly. The creative team will size you up immediately when you walk into the studio, so make sure you're projecting the right message from the start.
Whether it's your first time jumping into the audition scene or you have hundreds of crinkled numbers to prove you're a seasoned pro, having a panel of judges eyeing your every move makes everyone's mind race a little.
Here are eight thoughts you're bound to have when you step into the studio for an audition.
When Michael Jackson turned into a bunny in the "Speed Demon" video—that's what did it for me. My older sister and I spent hours watching his tapes, trying to learn the choreography. I was 10 years old, growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, and whenever the music came on, I was moving.
I remember the first time I saw Memphis jookin in its true form. It was at the Crystal Palace skating rink in Memphis, and I saw a dancer named Bobo—he was incredible.
PC Tim Salaz, courtesy Lil Buck
There are many reasons why fans are loving the groundbreaking film Black Panther, but here's one more for dance fans: two of the eight female warriors protecting Wakanda and King T'Challa are dancers.
Zola Williams and Marija Abney are both former The Lion King ensemble dancers, and Abney was also part of the original Broadway cast of After Midnight. The rest of the bald, badass female warriors—known as the Dora Milaje—are stuntwomen and martial artists.
"The director, Ryan Coogler, was having trouble finding actors to fulfill the physical requirements needed for a Dora Milaje," says Abney. When she got the audition invite, she immediately knew she wanted to be one of those women. "I already feel like a warrior on the streets of New York City every day," she says. "I felt confident with the physicality of the role, I'm an aggressive dancer—one of the few dancers I know that does pull-ups in the gym!"
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If you made it through several cuts but didn't land a contract, you're probably wondering what went wrong. It's perfectly acceptable to ask for feedback—if you go about it the right way. Here's how company and casting directors want to hear from you so you'll be remembered for your dancing (not for nagging).
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
What are the best ways to prepare for an audition?
Photo by Levi Walker, Courtesy CTG
"Research as much as you can about the project or choreographer. When a dancer is prepared, they tend to be more focused, more relaxed and really able to show themselves at their best. If the choreographer happens to be teaching at a local studio beforehand, get in that class!"
—Brandon Sierra, Clear Talent Group
In dance, no two paths look the same, and part of a healthy audition mind-set is accepting that you might not get what you want on the first try. These three dancers who auditioned multiple times for their dream gig share what made the difference in getting to the final cut.
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.
In your wellness workshop at The Ailey School, you suggested that a way to attend a lot of auditions after graduation (without getting depressed) was to see each one as a free class. It worked. I can't remember how many jobs I've tried out for, but I managed to stay hopeful and finally landed a full-time position. Thank you!
—Grateful Dancer, Newark, NJ
Earlier this week, I came across a daring post by London dancer Alana Grant, sharing her story of how she'd just gotten cut at an audition not because of her talent, but because the director decided she "wouldn't want to see her in hot pants on stage." How appalling, I thought as I jolted to share her post, feeling uneasy about the cruel, body-shaming reality of performing arts. As dancers, our canvas is our flesh and bones and we will always be judged on our appearance as well as our skills (whether we like it or not) because it's the mixture of those two qualities that make us who we are on stage.
But infinitely more appalling was a message I got from an acquaintance berating me for sharing Grant's story. He let me know that she had actually auditioned at his current company. Of course they wouldn't take her, he snickered in angry-red-face-emoji form, "because how could girls as fat as her ever expect to be lifted in the air by another dancer?" He wrote, "She should lose some weight before she even thinks about whining."
Allison Beler has auditioned for the Radio City Rockettes more than a dozen times. In 2014, she made it all the way through the final round. "I was waiting on a phone call for a job," she says. The call didn't come.
Rejection is inevitable in dance. But it still hurts. Beler, 31, says she's toughened as she's gotten older, but she still calls her mom and cries as soon as she steps onto the street after being cut.
Your ability to recover from rejection may strengthen with experience, but according to Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist and former ballroom dancer who works with dancers in Chico, California, it's also a skill that can be cultivated.
I've already had several dance jobs and apprenticed with a company. Now I've set up a series of auditions but can't shake the words of my old dance teacher. He told our entire class that, unlike him, we didn't have what it takes to be a professional. He also laughed at us and made humiliating comments about our bodies. We thought he was "mental" at the time, yet now it's messing with my head. What's wrong with me?
—Jason, Jersey City, NJ
Two hundred girls decked out in Brooklyn's latest fashion—ripped jeans, leather chokers and camouflage crops tops—wrapped around the outside of Long Island University–Brooklyn's auditorium while stretching and checking their reflection in their phones. I knew I was in the right place. I took a deep breath and hopped in line for the open call for the Brooklynettes Dance Team.
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.
In the days and hours before an audition, your to-do list might include researching the company, conditioning your muscles, updating your resumé or taking a long walk to clear your head. But what you don't do before pinning on your number can be just as critical to your success.
Elizabeth Earley's path to the Great White Way was fueled by perseverance. Currently a swing and co-dance captain for Hello, Dolly!, she shared her journey with Dance Magazine.
When I was a freshman at New York University's musical theater studio, I cut class to attend a singers' Equity Chorus Call for The Phantom of the Opera. I had no idea how casting worked. I hoped they might realize I was a ballet dancer and put me into consideration for a ballerina. After waiting in line for hours, I sang "Falling in Love with Love." The team asked, "Is this your first New York audition?" They said, "You are so cute," but there was no callback. Later, I saw the show was holding an open dance call. I went. The line wrapped around the block. We did two pointe combinations. But again, I was cut.