For ballet companies, it's been a year of uncertainty and making it up as they go. Pivot to online content? Check. Break dancers into pods? Sure. Cancel and reschedule programming over and over? Just another day.
While companies have found ways to be nimble amid a year like no other for the arts, it looks increasingly possible that next season could be closer to normal—although that's still up in the air. But while certain decisions and pivots can be made on the fly, nailing down a roster of dancers has to happen in advance.
"What would you do if you had no idea when a season would begin, what venue capacity you could perform in and what the cast size can be for repertory?" says Larissa Saveliev, founder and artistic director of Youth America Grand Prix of roster building. "The old rules don't apply anymore."
With all the uncertainty, what is hiring and auditioning looking like this year? We talked to several directors and auditioners to get the lay of the land.
Guarantees and Uncertainties
A number of companies, like San Francisco Ballet and Houston Ballet, say it's too soon for them to announce how their rosters for next season are shaping up. Others, like Cincinnati Ballet, say they are bringing most dancers back, but not all, just as they would any other year. "Our evaluation was fair, measured, and understanding of the unique nature of the pandemic environment," says a Cincinnati Ballet spokesperson, adding that the company consulted with the American Guild of Musical Artists before proceeding.
But some directors are guaranteeing every current company member a spot for next season, even if they aren't sure they will be able to engage all of them in performances—something that would have never happened pre-pandemic.
Ballet West is offering this, including to all Ballet West II dancers, even those in their second years who would ordinarily either move up or transition out.
"It's only fair, considering everything they've been going through," says Adam Sklute, Ballet West's artistic director. "There's just not much of a job market to send them out to."
Sklute is also forgoing evaluations for his dancers this year, unless they ask for them. "It wouldn't be fair to do the usual review process because there has not been much to evaluate them on," he says.
Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen also guaranteed contracts for current company members (but not for Boston Ballet II), and is similarly understanding of the pressures on his dancers.
"I'm blown away by their toughness, with all the breaks and disruptions," he says. "We will be dancing the very best we can under COVID and put health first. No need to break world records."
Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen
Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet
Dancers in companies guaranteeing contracts get a reprieve from being let go for artistic reasons this year, even if a few would not be offered a spot in a normal year. But still, that doesn't mean these organizations aren't hiring for next season, as some dancers have already made other plans to move on. Nissinen predicts he will bring dancers into the main company for the first time without seeing them in person, and has already hired one dancer for Boston Ballet II based off of a video.
"Auditions are always a gamble," he says. "You can't tell from seeing them in class how it will go when they join the company. So hiring from a video is just a little more of a gamble."
A few places, like Ballet Arizona, are still holding open auditions that will break dancers into small groups in separate studios instead of a traditional cattle call. Some are offering company-class invitations after viewing video submissions, like Richmond Ballet. Others are not advertising auditions at all. But of the ones that are, most are not expecting to see dancers in person.
Mary Grace Koznarek, shown here performing with Milwaukee Ballet dancer Timothy O'Donnell, received a contract with Finnish National Ballet's second company after auditioning over Zoom.
Igor Burlak, Courtesy Koznarek
Videos are always part of an audition season, but this year it's the only way for many dancers to be seen.
"Making the video was such a stressful process," says Breanna Mitchell, who is graduating from University of Oklahoma and auditioning this year. "I would normally make one, but in a year when all the company sees of me is this, it weighs so much more."
Mitchell says the upside is that she doesn't have to find a way to pay for an expensive audition tour (although some companies are charging for video submissions.) But much of getting a job comes from being seen, even if it doesn't lead to a contract immediately.
Two years ago, at Youth America Grand Prix, Mary Grace Koznarek met the director of Finnish National Ballet's second company, who suggested that she stay in touch. She reached out this year and the director was willing to schedule a live audition over Zoom—then offered Koznarek a contract.
"With the way the arts have been impacted, I was really worried I would not get a job this year, and I never imagined I'd be going to Europe," Koznarek says. "I didn't look for anything else. I just said yes."
Breanna Mitchell, a senior at University of Oklahoma who is currently auditioning, says that several companies have told her that they don't know if they will be able to hire anyone yet.
Jana Carson, Courtesy Mitchell
Be Ready for Anything
While Sklute is planning to hire dancers, it's still unclear how many, largely because of lingering questions around funding and social-distancing guidelines that will determine the scale of productions he can put on. Nissinen, who has confirmed Boston Ballet's repertoire for next season, also plans to hire a few people and is holding Zoom auditions based on prescreened candidates. He hopes to secure next season's roster in the next few months. Both directors will look to move dancers up within their organizations.
For Mitchell and several other dancers interviewed, next year is still a big question. Many companies they contact tell them they don't know if they will be able to hire anyone yet.
Saveliev, the YAGP director, says that she is advising dancers to stay in their best shape and closely monitor announcements from companies they are interested in.
"It will happen fast that companies will get clearance to put on productions," she says. "Then they'll need dancers, maybe additional swans for Swan Lake, and they will hire whoever is ready now."