I'm often cut from the final round of auditions. Is there a polite way to follow up with directors and ask them for feedback? —Megan
When it comes to seeking feedback from directors, I think it depends on the situation and the method of communication. If it's a large cattle call and you've been cut before the final round, sticking around to ask why isn't a good idea. “I don't think there is much a dancer can do to 'hang in there' till the end of the audition if the director is not interested," says Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini, who says he receives more than 1,200 audition requests a year. It's one reason why he and many other directors request videos ahead of time. “If a dancer doesn't fit the look, the taste, the movement quality and technical or versatility requirements of the company, I urge them not to audition. I'd rather they spend their hard-earned funds on a place that's interested in them."
How do you “perform" at auditions without being obnoxious? —Mikayla
Auditions are no place to hide or act self-consciously—but there's a fine line between being assertive and being aggressive. Focus on keeping your movements lush without getting in the other dancers' way. Keep your face pleasant and relaxed (emphatic nodding and sky-high eyebrows signal that you're eager to please, but can come across as student-y). A bright leotard or hair accessory can help the panel notice and remember you. But more importantly, pay attention to what the director is asking for in class. They're more apt to notice a fast learner or precise musicality.
I felt shattered. Cut from the audition at barre. I was 24 years old and had been dancing professionally for eight years already. I’d been very fortunate in my career so far, and although I was no stranger to rejections, this was a first. I thought: I must not be a good dancer anymore. I’m a has-been. Maybe it’s time to rethink my career path.
As I waited for my friend, who came to the audition with me and was asked to stay, I realized which sort of dancers were let go early and which ones were kept. Everyone around me packing up their things was a seasoned dancer. A couple I knew from other companies, all beautiful and capable. The ones that were kept were young and aspiring; they had lots of potential, but no professional experience.
It wasn’t that I was a bad dancer. I just wasn’t what they were looking for.
Audition season is a time of year, for dancers aspiring and seasoned alike, that is full of possibilities: realized dreams or crushed ones, exciting new beginnings and bittersweet ends. A time of year that can be exhausting emotionally and financially. What can we do to be successful in getting our dream job, the one that fulfills our passion? Well, I don’t have all the answers, but, needless to say, I’ve auditioned a lot and picked up a few pointers along the way.
Don’t Take Rejection Personally
That unfortunate day I was cut from the audition at barre was because I didn’t fit. They were most likely looking for dancers who could fill a second-company position, who could grow into the artistic vision of the company. It’s easy to take rejection personally, but we have to remember that there are so many factors that are beyond our control. All ballet companies have an artistic side and a business side, something we dancers tend to forget since we are so deeply immersed in the former. Artistic directors have the hard job of making their vision come to life while also making a profit. Each audition season, they must choose dancers who not only fit their vision, but who also can fill the positions they have available.
Although it is very discouraging to be told “no,” it could just mean it is not the right time. One thing I’ve learned is that a rejection from a particular company one year does not necessarily mean you’ll get one the next. I sent my audition materials (resumé, video and pictures) to BalletMet for the 2014–15 season. Although artistic director Edwaard Liang was interested in working with me, he did not have a contract available to offer me then. The next audition season I reached out to BalletMet again and was hired. Put yourself out there confidently and without limitations, and you will eventually find your “yes.”
Make a Personal Connection
Although there are many factors we cannot control, there are things I do before auditions to be more prepared and hopefully successful. I’ve found that whether I’m going to a cattle call or asking for an audition in company class, it’s helpful to send my audition materials in advance. This helps make a personal connection so that you can be seen as you and not “Number 67.” The cover letter or introductory email should also be treated as part of your audition materials; it’s where you can explain who you are and why you want to be a part of that particular company. Maybe you took a class from one of their ballet mistresses, or your teacher has a former student in the company. Or perhaps you saw one of their performances and it really inspired you. Whatever has made you want to work there, let them know.
The last story I’ll share is one that sheds light on what I believe is the most important part of auditioning: confidence. Confidence is very powerful. It was the reason I was hired to dance for La La La Human Steps. Even though I was coming from a very classical company, I went into the audition for the artistic director, Édouard Lock, with a fearless attitude. I had no experience dancing contemporary work and thought, Well, I have nothing to lose. It paid off. I didn’t doubt myself because I had no context of what I could and couldn’t do.
After I had been working with Édouard for a year or so, he told me he had been drawn to my strength during my audition. At the time, I thought he meant a physical and technical strength, but now I believe he meant an emotional one. Every company I’ve danced for has broken me down to my most basic self and molded me into their vision. In this process, I’ve needed to be malleable while also remaining true to myself. I’ve needed inner strength to be more capable and versatile than I thought I could be, instead of stubbornly refusing to dance outside my conception of myself.
Whenever I experience self-doubt, I’m no longer free to be in the moment, nor to be the artist I am. And auditions are your time to let your artistry shine through. Directors want to see that, because live performance is what they are selling. While technique is a tool to help us send a message and tell a story, only an artist can deliver that message. Show who you are as an artist in an audition, because that’s something that’s unique to you, and no one else can fill that spot.
Grace-Anne Powers is a dancer with BalletMet.
I always get sick during Nutcracker. Help! —Emily
Long days, late nights, chilly weather and overworked bodies make the perfect recipe for disaster during Nutcracker season. I'll never forget burning up with a fever backstage in my Arabian costume, or the time when a flu outbreak caused major casualties in our Snow and Flower corps. Staying well requires a combination of nutrition, hydration and sleep—not to mention preparedness and discipline.
Your meals should include a combination of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats to ensure you're receiving essential vitamins and minerals. Use your days off to stock up on groceries and prepare meals for the week to minimize late-night cooking, and keep lots of healthy snacks, like fruits and vegetables, in your bag to stay fueled throughout the day. Most importantly, hydrate. Water oxygenates the blood, flushes toxins, wards off inflammation and keeps the lymphatic system working properly—all keys to a healthy immune system. You may also want to take a daily multivitamin.
When I was about 10, I auditioned for New York City Ballet, to be in their Harlequinade. I got to the final round and then wasn’t selected. Of course I was disappointed, but my mother just said, “Julie, your time will come.” And I think understanding that is a part of growing up.
As a young dancer, you’re wondering what your life is going to be. Especially as you become a teenager, people are asking you “What are you going to do?” and you’re asking yourself the same thing. The reality is, it’s a beautiful unknown. It’s an exquisite mystery. You have to embrace that and understand that you don’t know—nobody knows—and as soon as a decision’s made, whether it’s an audition or an acceptance letter from a university or a job that you land, the work begins in a whole different way.
When I talked to young people at American Ballet Theatre’s summer program when I was teaching, I liked to start conversations about the artist’s pursuit. What I love so much about being a dancer is that every day, all of us start in first position, and we build on what we’ve accomplished the hour before, the week before, the year before, the performance before. We’re in a constant pursuit of beauty, musicality, clarity, specificity, power, delicacy—you can fill in the blanks endlessly. And if you embrace the notion that it is an endless pursuit, you eliminate a lot of frustration. It’s not that what you did the day before wasn’t good enough. It’s that you’re building on it and you’re always moving forward.
In the summer program, I said, “Don’t try to accomplish in one week what you have five weeks to do.” You need to find your goal and make a logical trajectory to achieving it. Every day you’re making progress. Some days you might make giant leaps of understanding, some days it might be baby steps, some days maybe your feet don’t move at all, but in your mind you’re looking forward. It’s still progress.
Mikhail Baryshnikov gave a commencement speech a couple of years ago. He said, “In my opinion, ‘better’ is something more interesting than ‘best.’ ” Having watched him as a young dancer for five very formative years, I saw in him very clearly that pursuit. He was and arguably still is the greatest star in our art form, but he was always a servant to his art, always looking for more sophistication or clarity.
When I was a young dancer, there was no internet and no cell phone communication. There was less pressure and less distraction. Now, there’s such demand to have a high social profile on Facebook or Instagram, to be tweeting, to be Snapchatting—whatever is the thing of the moment. But with social media, you have to keep in mind that nobody’s going to post a picture of what they really look like at every single moment of the day. What you post are the beautiful shots—it’s publicity. It’s images of dancing; it’s not really dance. And so it has very little to do with the process of dancing. The work is still the work, and at the end of the day, the work is what you have left, and is both your labor and your reward.
The heart of it is the intention. The stage is a great revealer—it’s hard to cover your intentions when you’re performing, because you’re revealed for who you are. If you want to be a star, then you should set about ways to become a star. And that’s a whole different thing than becoming a dancer. Wanting to embrace a lifelong pursuit of an art form is different than wanting 300,000 followers on Instagram. You can do both, but the work should speak for itself, and it will reward you with something that is irreplaceable, and far deeper and longer-lasting than if you’re just pursuing fame.
There are a lot of wonderful role models today. Look at Stella Abrera—talk about patience and perseverance. Her focus was not solely on becoming a principal dancer, but was a bigger commitment to delivering excellence in every performance. There’s nobody with a more stellar work ethic, which along with her talent, patience and focus, propelled her promotion. Isabella Boylston is very vibrant on social media, but she’s also committed to being a well-rounded dancer and ballerina. Marcelo Gomes is so much about the work, but he’s also very much a star.
When I auditioned for ABT and Baryshnikov offered me an apprentice contract, I thought, Wow, this is happening, and when he offered me my full contract in the corps, that was it. But until that moment, I didn’t know that I was going to have this career. I was a ballet student who loved it and was doing well. I was managing my academics and my ballet studies, my mom driving me to ballet class—just like so many other young dancers. And then that moment came and really changed the direction of my life.
You don’t become a ballerina in one show or one season or one week. It’s a journey. You work towards the goal and the harder you work, the bar raises. And then over a period of time, you’re able to look back to see where you came from.
Working hard, being disciplined and focused, loving what you do—all these things that are a natural part of being a dancer—will equip you with the tools to make a contribution to the world and be successful. Do you want to dance? At the end of the day, that’s what it is. Get to the heart of what your work as a dancer means to you and then start pursuing it.
Artist, Milwaukee Ballet
Favorite role: Clara
“Clara was my first soloist role and the first role I did where my character danced through the entire ballet. I liked playing with different ways of making her sweet and lovable or bratty and funny. Switching from Clara to the corps to divertissements makes the rehearsal process exciting and challenging.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: 17–18
“In the morning I take a hot bath for 5–7 minutes as a way to pre-warm my muscles before class.”
“If I have a quick change into pointe shoes, I rip a piece of soft, white tape off my toes and use it to hold my ribbons.”
“I take a homeopathic supplement called Quietude, which helps me wind down after a show.”
Corps de ballet, San Francisco Ballet
Favorite role: Spanish
“It’s a very energetic and dynamic part, and there’s a lot of character dancing.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: approximately 33
“When I’m doing Maid or Party Parent in the Party Scene, I wear legwarmers under the long dress so I’m ready for Snow.”
“I stick my pointe shoes under the heater at the theater to warm them up.”
“Take advantage of the differences between each conductor by really listening to the changes in the music.”
Company artist, Oregon Ballet Theatre
Favorite role: Sugar Plum Fairy
“I love that in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, the Sugar Plum Fairy does her variation at the beginning of Act II surrounded by the angels. Sharing the stage with young students reminds me that every audience is full of children who are seeing ballet for the first time.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: 15–19
Time Your Hydration
“I drink water well before the show so I can stay focused but not have to go to the bathroom once I’m in costume.”
Pointe Shoe Prep
“I sew as many pointe shoes as possible before we even get to the theater.”
Check Off Christmas Shopping
“I do all of my Christmas shopping before Nutcracker!”
Demi-soloist, Tulsa Ballet
Favorite role: Maid of Honor, in “Waltz of the Flowers”
“In Marcello Angelini’s Nutcracker, the Maid of Honor is partnered by four different cavaliers, and it flows together beautifully. I wouldn’t say it’s easy to dance, but it’s very enjoyable.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: 8
“Soup is my go-to meal. It keeps you hydrated and makes you feel full, but you can still move.”
“I take my makeup off immediately after the show, wash my face as soon as I get home, and I don’t put any makeup on until I have to, the next night, so my skin has a chance to breathe.”
“Epsom salt baths help my muscles to recover from that feeling of lactic acid crunchiness.”
Second soloist, National Ballet of Canada
Favorite role: Bee, in “Waltz of the Flowers”
“Although it’s an extremely difficult and tiring role with a lot of jumping and quick movements, the fast-paced choreography makes it a joy.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: 24
“We bring a blow-up mattress into the change room, to lie down between shows.”
Be a Team Player
“I always volunteer to do a new spot if someone gets sick or injured. Everyone will go to the wings to watch, and if you make eye contact onstage it’s fun!”
Balance Is Key
“Doing the same roles all the time works the same muscles. For example, the Snowflake choreography has a lot of quick footwork and relevés, so it’s taxing on our calves and ankles. To balance that I do lunges and squats with weights to engage my hamstrings, quads and glutes.”
Soloist, Pacific Northwest Ballet
Favorite roles: Cavalier and Mother Ginger
“The Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier is the most rewarding role because of the beautiful music, and Mother Ginger is an all-out hoot to perform.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: approximately 35
Natural Skin Care
“Coconut oil is an all-natural way to moisturize your skin. It doesn’t have to be refrigerated, so you can keep it in your makeup case.”
“I always check in with my partner before a pas de deux. Maybe my shoulder hurts that day or her shoes are more dead than usual.”
“It helps to step out of the theater, even if it’s just for lunch or coffee, especially on double show days.” P
Should I turn down an apprenticeship to finish my dance degree, or should I put my education on pause? —Ashleigh
Congratulations on receiving an apprenticeship offer! They don't come every day. If you think you're ready for company life, and will be full of regrets if you turn the offer down, you can always resume school later. However, make sure you know what the position entails.
Not all apprenticeships are paid, and there's no guarantee that you'll be promoted to the company's corps de ballet at season's end. Are you comfortable entering the dance world without the security of a college degree? And are you motivated enough to return to school if you put your education on pause now?