Trey McIntyre with dancers. Daniel Rosenthal, Courtesy McIntyre.

Auditions on Your Home Turf: How To Get Noticed When a Choreographer Sets Work on Your Company

This story originally appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of Pointe.

Auditions are an unnerving fact of life for dancers—and can be especially unsettling when they're done in the comfort of your own company. When visiting choreographers and répétiteurs come to town, they prefer to have a day or two to work with the company before making their casting decisions. The good news is that when someone from the outside is casting roles, dancers often end up on the same playing field regardless of rank, with an equal shot at getting noticed. And if you make the most of the audition, your career can get a major boost. Here are some tips for putting your best self forward.


Before the Big Day

Dance Theatre of Harlem's Ashley Jackson. Franck Thibault, Courtesy DTH.

Prior to visiting, a choreographer will probably do some homework by watching videos of the company and getting a feel for the dancers ahead of time. Trey McIntyre, director of the Trey McIntyre Project, starts by talking to the director and rehearsal assistants first. "I do my best to explain what I'm trying to achieve with the piece and get suggestions in terms of who they think might fulfill those roles the best," he says. If you have a reputation for being focused, versatile and a fast learner, you'll be at the top of the list.

You can gain a competitive edge if you do a little research of your own. "The more prepared you are, the more you can adjust to what the choreographer might want," says Dance Theatre of Harlem member Ashley Jackson. Before someone comes to set a piece, Jackson looks up the choreographer's biography online, watches examples of their work on YouTube and reads recent reviews to get a sense of what to expect. For added insight, she tries to talk to friends who have already worked with the choreographer. "You could learn that the person prefers dancers to be more internal, with less showmanship," she says. Knowing that can help you adjust your projection accordingly.

Don't Hide

While you don't need to stand front and center to get noticed, where you are in the studio—and what you're doing—says a lot. "It's important to find at least a couple moments when you're forward and present," says choreographer Julia Adam, who has created work for companies like San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "Hiding in the back can look like you're disinterested." Jackson prefers standing in the front but off to the side so she doesn't have the pressure of being on center. She also tries to make eye contact with the choreographer to make a connection and convey her interest.
McIntyre will hesitate to work with dancers if it looks like they're afraid to expose themselves artistically. "If someone's using anything to hide, whether it's where they stand in class or if they continually make a joke of their mistake instead of focusing on how to fix it," he says, "I'll take pause." McIntyre and Adam also warn against wearing too much junk. "I don't mind funky style," says Adam, "but you absolutely have to be able to see the body. That's also showing an openness and vulnerability, rather than hiding."

Have a Focused and Open Mind 

McIntyre in a stage rehearsal. Courtesy McIntyre.

Choreographers might value different things when it comes to movement quality or aesthetics, but they appreciate a strong work ethic and positive approach. "I look for people who are extremely focused in the studio, who want to take chances creatively and devote themselves to the process," says McIntyre. "They should do everything they can to describe the kind of person they are in rehearsal and what I can expect them to be like."

When auditioning for a new ballet, Jackson realizes that her ability to absorb details is being scrutinized as much as her dancing. "I listen to other people's corrections and avoid talking in the back of the room," she says. "When other groups are going through combinations, I go with them or work on the side by myself." More than once, Jackson got into a piece because the choreographer saw her reviewing material in the corner. She's also made an impression by learning other people's choreography, even the men's steps. "If you have to do a version of it later, you already know it," she says.

If the choreographer teaches material as part of the audition process, it's important to be adaptable. "You have to be open to what the choreographer wants to create," says Jackson. "Sometimes it feels weird, or you're not sure about a step, but the trust needs to be there."

Adam concurs. When she's unfamiliar with dancers, she tries to make the most honest connections as quickly as possible. "I try to get a sense of not only how they move but who they are as people," she says. Adam looks at the dancers' musicality and whether or not they take direction well. "I can't reinforce enough the importance of being open," she says. "Show who you are in your body and in your mind, and don't pretend to be something you're not. Then you'll be put in the right place."

Latest Posts


Vadim Shultz, Courtesy Mariinsky Ballet

Catching Up With Maria Khoreva: The Rising Mariinsky Star on Her TV Competition Win and New Book

The coronavirus pandemic has not slowed down the Mariinsky Ballet's Maria Khoreva. Although Russia's Mariinsky Theater was closed in 2020 from March until August, the 20-year-old first soloist used the time in quarantine to her advantage. She wrote a newly published book titled Teach Me Ballet, and won Best Female Dancer on Russia's hit TV show "Grand Ballet," a competition which brings young ballet dancers from all parts of the country to the national spotlight. (This season, filmed over the summer, was broadcast on Russia's arts channel from November 4 to December 19. All seven episodes are now available on YouTube.)

Pointe spoke with Khoreva to find out more about her experience on the show, her fitness regime during quarantine and her new book.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Karolina Kuras, Courtesy ROH

The Royal Ballet’s Yasmine Naghdi Shares Her Go-to Self-Care Ritual and Her Favorite Recipe

Royal Ballet principal Yasmine Naghdi had been gearing up to star as the Sugarplum Fairy in a December livestream performance of The Nutcracker when London went back into heavy COVID-19 restrictions. The performance was canceled, but Naghdi has been taking this current setback, and the challenges the pandemic has brought over the last 10 months, in stride. In addition to keeping up with her training, she's been taking Italian lessons virtually and preparing elaborate meals with her boyfriend ("We're both real foodies," she says). Last fall, Naghdi, who has always loved cooking, travel, design and self-care, decided to share her offstage passions with fans on her new Instagram page, @lifestyle_by_yas.

Naghdi recently talked with us about staying flexible to the UK's lockdown changes and her post-performance wellness routine, plus offered a recipe for her favorite pasta dish.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

Editors' Picks