Emily and Ally Helman hoped this would be the year they'd find a company contract. The sisters, who have held various second company and apprentice positions, mapped out their audition schedules and sent out videos and resumés. By March, they had mixed results but were determined to keep going.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic brought audition season to a sudden halt.
"I've put so much work into what I've been doing this past year and I don't know if I'll be able to get the end results," says Emily. "Will companies even have jobs available when this is all over?"
The pandemic has brought chaos and loss to nearly all corners of the world—ballet included. It's hit companies hard, with most forced to cancel performances, lay off dancers and close their studios. The timing is particularly tough for those who were hoping to find a job for the 2020-21 season. Auditions typically occur from late January to mid-April. But with virtually no notice, weeks of audition opportunities disappeared, leaving dancers and directors scrambling.
"The speed at which things have changed, and are changing, is really unprecedented," says Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West. "We're taking some chances right now to make things work."
Emily (left) and Ally Helman
Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy Emily Helman
A Wrench in an Already-tough Landscape
The audition process is normally time consuming and expensive, with dancers sending out dozens of resumés and videos and often flying to cities across the country for a chance to be seen. Many do this year after year before they land a company position.
The Helman sisters both graduated from School of American Ballet. Emily, 22, then spent two years as a trainee at Boston Ballet and a year in Sarasota Ballet's studio company. Ally, 20, is in the Professional Division at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. She had spent one season as an apprentice at New York City Ballet, but was injured when her contract ended and wasn't able to audition. She joined PNB's program in October when her foot healed. Since Emily didn't have a contract this season, she moved to Seattle with her sister to take open classes and get ready for auditions.
They decided to travel only for company class or other pre-screened auditions, primarily to save on costs. "Flying places and having to audition every year, the travel expenses have been a lot," Emily says.
But she was only able to get to one company class, at Festival Ballet Providence, before the rest of the companies she connected with cancelled. She's still hoping to hear from Festival Ballet, but ending the audition season with one in-person class was tough to accept.
Ally hadn't had any invitations when the company closures hit.
"I'm just waiting to see what the places I'm interested in say, as far as whether they're still going to see dancers," she says. "I can't do much more at this point."
Adam Sklute (third from left) observes dancers during a 2016 Ballet West open audition. The company had to cancel its open auditions this year.
The Year of the Video
At Ballet West, Sklute had to cancel his open calls, where he had over 200 dancers preregistered and expected more walk-ins. But he had already seen 50 dancers through company class auditions and filled all the slots for the main company when the pandemic hit. He continued accepting video auditions for open positions in Ballet West II through the second week of April.
For the first time ever, he offered a contract to someone he'd never seen in person, hiring a dancer for Ballet West II.
"I've had people send pictures and when they come to the audition, they look nothing like what they've sent," says Sklute. "But this is a special situation. I'm willing to take a chance right now."
Sklute asked dancers to introduce themselves in their video and follows up with those he's interested in with a phone call because, "who they are as an individual is so important. They are part of the Ballet West team."
He also saw an opportunity to provide something auditionees often crave but don't get: feedback. For $20, what he would charge for attending an open call, dancers can receive written critique from the artistic staff about their technique and performance style.
Ally (left) and Emily Helman take class together in their Seattle kitchen.
Courtesy Emily Helman
"I can't tell you the amount of auditionees who want feedback, and we usually just can't do it," he says. "A lot of dancers are taking advantage of this option."
Sklute's request that dancers add an introduction is the only main departure from the International Audition Guidelines, which standardizes audition video requirements.
But Ally Helman says that other companies have niche requirements for video submissions that are more than just talking.
"There's no studios open to go to," says Ally. "My sister and I do barre all the time in our kitchen. But beyond that, there's not much I can film right now."
However, some directors don't mind the kitchen. Sklute says he has received a few submissions with dancers doing barre at home coupled with performance footage. "Seeing up-close tendus and dégagés was very helpful."
Beau Chesivoir (facing front) with Vinicius Lima in a Ballet West II production of Snow White
Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West
Looking for Certainty
The only thing that's certain right now is that no one knows how deep the effects of the pandemic will be. For some dancers, just securing something is a win, even if it's a fourth year in a second company.
Beau Chesivoir, 22, just signed a contract for a third year at Ballet West II. He was previously with Pennsylvania Ballet II for a season. He'd known since January that Sklute would not have a spot for him in the main company. When the closures hit, he had done several auditions, but only received one second company offer, which he turned down. He was still hoping to hear from a few companies that had expressed interest when Sklute offered him another year in Ballet West II. With nothing secured, he took it.
"It isn't what I necessarily would've wished for a couple months ago," he says. "I am grateful for Ballet West giving me an opportunity to work in the coming year. I'll just have to be patient"
Rachel Malehorn, Courtesy Buehler
Claire Buehler, 23, has spent five years in three different second companies, including one that she says couldn't provide any pay or pointe shoes. She was determined to find a paid, main-company position this year. She had done several auditions when the closures hit, with more planned. She got one offer almost a month ago, an apprenticeship with Minnesota Ballet. But she's still waiting to receive the contract as the company finalizes its budget.
"This was my strongest audition season and it was heartbreaking to see so many opportunities slip away," says Buehler. "But I was thrilled with the offer I got and just hope it all works out."
All four dancers say they understand the impossible positions companies are in right now, but hope that directors will maintain open and honest communication with auditionees to help them plan.
"Just being kept up to date about what's happening really helps," says Ally Helman. "We all are hoping we can continue to pursue what we want to do and have trained our whole lives for."