Georgina Pazcoguin as Victoria in the Broadway revival of CATS (photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy CATS)

For Ballet Dancers Trying Their Luck on Broadway, The Audition Process is Vastly Different

A debilitating illness forced Katelyn Prominski to retire early from Pennsylvania Ballet. However, once she recovered, she felt ready to tackle a new stage: Broadway. But before she began booking musicals like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, she had to reckon with a new and humbling audition process. “When you go into a Broadway audition, you learn a dance combo first and then by the time they ask you to sing, your heart rate is going," says Prominski. “I remember one audition where I forgot the words and la-di-da'd my way through instead of singing the lyrics."

More and more ballet dancers are taking a chance on Broadway musicals. New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild recently starred in On the Town, while ballet-centric shows such as Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris have provided starring and ensemble opportunities for dancers from NYCB, The Royal Ballet Miami City Ballet and more. Many cite the artistic benefits of exploring an entirely new side of performance and the challenge of dancing, acting and singing. With eight shows a week, you get to practically live onstage and dive deep into a role. The pay is usually better, too. But in order to make this new world your own, you must be ready to rethink your audition approach and be open to a different set of professional expectations.


Take Time to Retool

Remember the lifetime you spent preparing for your ballet career? Well, musical theater is no different in its rigor. Though your ballet technique will be an asset, you still need to take a variety of dance classes such as jazz, tap and hip hop. Randy Castillo, now performing in the national tour of An American in Paris, moved back to New York City after a ballet career in Europe to prepare. Well before his first audition, he began taking voice lessons three days a week, going to jazz class and embedding himself in the musical theater scene at Broadway Dance Center. “Musical theater people work so hard, and you can't come into that world without taking it seriously," says Castillo. “It would be like me going into a ballet company with jeans on."

New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, who took a leave of absence this season to perform in the Broadway revival of CATS, agrees. “Approach Broadway auditions with the same diligence you had with your ballet career," she says. Pazcoguin became interested in musical theater after finding her singing voice as Anita in Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. She did her research by seeking out people in the industry and asking questions. In addition to polishing new dance skills, she learned she also needed a new resumé and headshot.

For a Broadway resumé, winnow your repertoire highlights, company experience and any other credits down to a page of bullet points; your headshot should be stapled to the back. Duncan Stewart and Benton Whitley, casting directors and partners at Stewart/Whitley agency, note that it's smart to get in touch with a theatrical headshot photographer, “someone who makes people look like people," says Whitley. “The headshot needs to show the story behind your eyes, your personality. The old bare-shouldered, serious photo is not going to cut it."


What to Expect on Audition Day

Broadway auditions are structured differently than those of ballet companies (which usually involve a class and maybe some repertoire). While every audition is different and show-specific, it's best to arrive already warmed up and ready to move. The dance portion usually involves combinations or phrases from the choreographer; anyone moving on to the next round will be asked to sing the music they have prepared and brought with them.

Your appearance is crucial. “You can't look like a slob," says Pazcoguin. “Your makeup must be on, no holes in your tights. I had to get some nicer dance clothes." Stewart and Whitley emphasize a more pedestrian, clean, athletic appearance. “No buns or black leotards for women, no tights for men," says Stewart. “We don't want to see ballet dancers going into an audition looking like outsiders, schlepping in wearing those oversize slippers. You should look like an athletic person who happens to dance well."

Because each show has a different style, prepare songs to match. For Castillo, that meant going to a few different voice coaches for help. “They each gave me different feedback," explains Castillo. “One helped me technically and another one was a pianist at auditions, so he would give me books and advice on what to sing for which show." It is a huge mistake to be musically unprepared—singing “Happy Birthday" is unprofessional. “Have two to three songs ready, 16 to 32 bars that show you off," says Whitley. And remember to breathe. “Your vocal coach should teach you where to breathe in a song, which makes you look more intelligent in the audition, like you know where the commas are," says Stewart.

Most of all, show your personality the minute you walk in the room. When Prominski made the best of her singing blunder and kept smiling, it paid off. “They saw my sense of humor about it, so they could have a sense of humor about it," she says, and adds that she ended up booking the job. Stewart and Whitley insist if you are charming, and the right alchemy is established with the creative team, almost any rookie mistake can be forgiven. Applying the technical skills, artistry, attention to detail and drive you already have to your audition will give you an added boost.


Do you need an agent?

While some dancers begin the process with an agent, others wait to sign until they have a few shows under their belt. “Get to know the casting directors and choreographers first," says casting director Duncan Stewart. While an agent can help you find auditions, negotiate contracts and manage your career, you're the one who books the gig.

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Last summer many intensives were canceled or online-only. And the past school year has been spotty and strange for many, as well. All the more reason to look forward to an in-person summer program this year with excitement—but also, perhaps, some nerves. Take heart, says Simon Ball, men's program coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. "Once you get there the first day, all those fears will be relieved."

Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

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