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Nitting (in orange tights) in The Wizard of Oz, her first performance with Kansas City Ballet. Bruce Pruitt & East Market Studios, Courtesy KCB.

Courtney Nitting started her first season with Kansas City Ballet last fall with the normal rituals of company life: headshots for the website, ordering her customized pointe shoes and claiming a spot at the barre. Each of these simple things was a "pinch me" moment she thought might never come.

"I still can't believe it," says Nitting. "I'm in a company for real."

It took Nitting, 21, more than three years of auditions to get a company contract. Her talent and passion brought her close to her dreams several times: Prestigious companies expressed interest but not job offers, and a year in a second company didn't produce a contract. Still, she never stopped trying, enduring about 200 auditions, with $9,000 in related expenses.

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Audition Advice
Dancers prepare before a Ballet West open audition. Jim Lafferty.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps member Victoria Watford recalls the first time she auditioned for the company: Even though she had attended PBT's summer intensive several times, the Cleveland native felt completely unprepared. "I was treating it like a summer intensive audition," she remembers. "There was an energy in the room of a lot of people who are ready to be professionals and are confident in their dancing. If you're not ready, you will feel it." Watford wasn't offered a job, so she took a place in the school's graduate program. Over the next two years she pursued company auditions until she ultimately landed her spot at PBT.

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Audition Advice
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Let's face it: Auditioning is expensive. Between a $100-per-night budget-hotel room, a $300 round-trip plane ticket, $40 for food per day and $25 to $40 in audition fees, you may be out hundreds of dollars for one audition—and potentially thousands before you land a contract.

When planning an audition tour, you have to weigh the travel costs with the probability that your investment will result in a job offer. Plus, doing it all on a tight budget may mean trying to perform your best on travel-stiff limbs, fast-food options and little sleep. To help, we asked three professionals for their best advice on planning successful audition tours that don't break the bank.

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Ballet Training
Photo by Jim Lafferty for Pointe.

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.

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Audition Advice
Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet.

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.

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Audition Advice
Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe

When Lilliana Hagerman auditioned for Orlando Ballet School's summer intensive, she felt overwhelmingly intimidated. “The other dancers were all so beautiful," remembers Hagerman, now a dancer with Kansas City Ballet. “I thought that if I made one mistake it would be over." Hagerman did make a mistake: She slipped and fell during grand allégro. “I got back up and I smiled," she says. To her relief, the teacher smiled back.

Summer intensive auditions give you only a few moments to make a good impression—often while crammed into a crowded room, after traveling distances in the car and with little time or space to warm up. It's hard not to obsess over a small mistake or feel discouraged if you're put on the intensive's waitlist afterwards. But according to school directors, many of your fears are overreactions. Here are a few of the most common audition misconceptions, along with what's really going on inside the teachers' heads.

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Views

Should I bother auditioning for companies where I might not “fit in”? I don’t want to miss out on a potential opportunity, but I’m also trying to be realistic. —Abby

There’s never any harm in auditioning, especially if there’s an open call happening nearby. You have nothing to lose! But if you’re planning an audition tour or don’t live within driving distance of a frequent open audition hub, you’ll want to prioritize and choose companies wisely. Otherwise you risk wasting a lot of money on travel expenses if you don’t turn out to be what the director is looking for.

Dancers at a Pennsylvania Ballet audition (photo by Kyle Froman for Pointe)

If you have doubts about fitting in, it’s more cost-effective to send the company an audition package in advance (include a video and dance photos so that they can see your movement quality and technical ability) and then follow up. Be honest about your height, training background and experience. That way, the director has all the relevant information up front, and you can make sure he or she is interested (or even looking for dancers) before investing in plane tickets. If, after following up a few times, you get no response, move on. But if they do encourage you to audition—and you’re interested in checking out the company—go for it.

Ballet Training
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Should I bother auditioning for companies where I might not “fit in"? I don't want to miss out on a potential opportunity, but I'm also trying to be realistic. —Abby

There's never any harm in auditioning, especially if there's an open call happening nearby. You have nothing to lose! But if you're planning an audition tour or don't live within driving distance of a frequent open audition hub, you'll want to prioritize and choose companies wisely. Otherwise you risk wasting a lot of money on travel expenses if you don't turn out to be what the director is looking for.

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Audition Advice
Students in Miami City Ballet School's summer repertory performance. Photo by Ella Titus, Courtesy Miami City Ballet School.

Getting ready to audition for intensives? Click here to find the best summer study options for you!

By the time Washington Ballet dancer Andile Ndlovu was finishing his training in South Africa, he faced a risky decision. After attending a ballet competition in 2008, he received summer-intensive scholarship offers from The Washington School of Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem. But choosing between schools would determine more than his summer plans. The right intensive might lead to acceptance into a professional-level training program at summer's end, whereas walking away empty-handed would mean going back home, to begin again.

Many dancers on the cusp of graduation can relate. Summer intensives often serve as a lengthy audition process for year-round opportunities, a gateway to traineeships or second-company contracts that bridge the gap between student and professional. But choosing a summer program essentially means committing to a company school—before it's committed to you. If you're researching summer programs and know you want to move into a more professional sphere by summer's end, here's how to ensure that you're making a smart, career-minded decision.


Andile Ndlovu with Avana Kimura. Photo by Dean Alexander, Courtesy The Washington Ballet.


Assess Your Options

When prioritizing which intensives to audition for, start with schools affiliated with dream companies. But it's also important to investigate other options and to be very realistic about where you'd be happy day to day. “You have to take away the name brand and take a really close look at the company, at the people, at the repertoire," says San Francisco Ballet corps de ballet dancer Isabella DeVivo, who received a traineeship through SFB's summer program in 2012. “I liked how broad the rep was here."

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Ballet Careers
Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute holding the fateful notepad. Photo by Jim Lafferty for Pointe.

On an early morning in March, approximately 160 hopefuls crowded the halls of New York City's School of American Ballet to audition for Ballet West. The company typically holds two auditions per year: one in New York City and one in its hometown of Salt Lake City. With a recommendation, dancers can also audition by taking company class. "I think many dancers have a misconception that it's better for them to take company class," says artistic director Adam Sklute. "Actually, I have hired as many, if not more, dancers from open calls."

Sklute prioritizes strong musicality. "I look for a really unique approach to how the person is connected to the music," he says. "We work with a broad spectrum of composers, and our dancers can adapt to that well." Sklute also asks women to wear their pointe shoes from the beginning. "I need to see their comfort level in pointework, and in our company most dancers take the entire class on pointe," he says.

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Audition Advice
Bennett, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Alexandra Hughes remembers she was too nervous to eat before one of her first company auditions. She entered the studio on an empty stomach—and quickly realized she'd made a mistake. “I felt like my brain was telling me what it wanted me to do, but my body couldn't keep up," she says. The experience was sobering: she learned she needed to eat, nervous or not. For her, the secret was small snacks throughout the day; a few months later she secured an apprenticeship with Pennsylvania Ballet.

An audition day presents the perfect storm of food anxiety. The desire to look your thinnest and perform at your highest level can be a perplexing challenge. How do you fuel appropriately without feeling over-full? Stress also presents an unsettling hurdle: When your stomach's in knots, eating is often the last thing you want to do. Yet finding the right audition day diet will allow you to focus on the real challenges—like those 32 fouettés!

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Features

When you say “audition reel” to artistic directors, you’ll probably hear a groan. Screen­ing reels is a tedious process. They sit through dozens each year, growing frustrated by the lack of good footage and getting queasy from shaky camera work.

But if you put together an impressive package, a reel can be a quick, easy foot in the stage door. Just make sure to steer clear of a few all-too-common bloopers.

 

Showing the Wrong Footage  

 

Tailor the material to the stage of your career. “I don’t need to see accomplished dancers taking barre. Show excerpts from performance,” says Pennsylvania Ballet Artistic Director Roy Kaiser. “For students, I want to see classroom work—I’m considering them for our second company or an apprenticeship, so I’m looking for solid, clean technique to build from.”

 

If you only have performance footage of corps work, scrap it—directors don’t want to have to follow a buried-treasure map to pick you out. Instead, film a variation, pas de deux, coda and contemporary work in the studio.

 

Gordon Wright, director of The Harid Conservatory, has his graduating students film barre, center, pointe work and a variation. Make sure to include an adagio, turns and grand allegro. Never choose a variation that’s too difficult—well-executed steps are always more impressive than sloppy tricks.

 

Monotonous Material

 

Most artistic directors want to see a range. “If you just do Kitri, we wonder if you can do anything else,” says Nadia Thompson, ballet mistress at Milwaukee Ballet. 

 

But be smart: Don’t include material simply to prove you’re versatile. “Know who you’re auditioning for so you can present something that reflects how you’d look in their rep,” says Russell Kaiser, assistant artistic director at Boston Ballet.

 

That might mean you’ll need to make more than one DVD. Dancer Damien Drake put together one with Nutcracker footage and another with just contemporary work. “I thought showing only contemporary would make a more concise video that would stand out from the crowd,” he says. It worked: After sending the contemporary DVD and then taking company class, he was offered a contract with Nashville Ballet.

 

Long Is All Wrong

 

Your DVD will be met with varying degrees of patience. “If it’s long, I’m just never gonna watch all of it. Choose highlights that really showcase your talents,” says PAB’s Kaiser. Most directors suggest a run-time between 5 and 20 minutes.

 

If you haven’t grabbed their attention within the first 60 seconds, chances are any material you put afterwards won’t be seen. “I get an impression of a dancer almost immediately,” says PAB’s Kaiser. Put your most impressive work first.

 

Some directors like dancers to introduce themselves to get a sense of their personality; others think it wastes time. Either way, BB’s Kaiser says to be sure to write your name and contact information on the actual DVD in case it gets separated from your resumé.

 

Omissions Are Obvious

 

Even if you’re not a great turner, don’t leave out those pirouettes—directors will assume the worst. “We notice omissions much more than something that’s slightly weak,” says Thompson. “If you don’t show any jumps, we wonder what’s wrong.”

 

Take Off the Junk

 

“My biggest pet peeve is how many dancers wear leg warmers or something baggy,” says PAB’s Kaiser. When you cover up, it sends a message that you’re insecure about your body. Women should stick to a leotard, footed pink tights and pointe shoes, and men should wear full-length tights plus a fitted t-shirt. Stay away from black, which can be hard to see on film. “Avoid turtleneck leotards or fancy designs that affect the line of the neck,” says Wright. “It’s better to err on the side of too conservative.”

 

Bad Quality = Bad Mood

 

 “Sometimes the quality is so bad we can’t even tell if their feet are pointed,” says BB’s Kaiser. “When you present something like that, it’s hard for us to judge whether we’re interested.”

 

Make your video easy on the eyes. “Distracting camera work drives me crazy,” says PAB’s Kaiser. Zooming gets confusing. Just show a broad shot of the stage or studio, but not from so far away that they can’t make out your line.

 

Most important, be sure directors can watch your reel! “You’d be shocked at how many DVDs don’t work,” says Thompson. “Sometimes we can only watch it on a Mac or by using a certain computer program. Always check that it works on a regular DVD player.”

 

Drake suggests asking friends to take a look. “Have as many people as possible watch it to make sure it flows well, everything is efficient and there’s no annoying blank spots between clips,” he says. Any feedback you get will help create a stronger presentation. Merde!

 

Jennifer Stahl is senior editor of Pointe.

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