Summer intensives have long served as extended audition periods for trainee and second company positions, allowing pre-professional dancers a chance to prove themselves and to get to know artistic staff. But compared to pre-COVID years, limited enrollment at summer programs for 2021 has left many graduating students struggling to find a place to go and anxious about their future. With organizations stretching to accommodate dancers without compromising health and safety protocols, and students struggling with limited opportunities to be seen in person, how can pre-professionals best position themselves to audition for the junior ranks?
Despite (or perhaps due to) the pandemic, many schools with professional training programs are seeing record numbers of applicants. The Sarasota Ballet education director, Christopher Hird, says the company's summer intensive, which is a precursor to admittance into its trainee program, is full with over 100 dancers and a large waiting list.
What should a dancer do if they want to be considered for a position but are squeezed out of the prerequisite summer course? Hird is sympathetic and says he aims to prioritize students he's seen in auditions and flagged as potential trainees. "They are at the top of the wait list, so the minute a space becomes available I will go to them first," he says, noting that students could indicate on the audition application if they wanted to be considered. If you have been wait-listed, it's worth emailing the school and reaffirming your desire to remain in the running, so as to keep your name and intention on the company's radar.
Class at The Sarasota Ballet School
Courtesy The Sarasota Ballet
Of course, getting off the wait list is a wild card, but Hird suggests being proactive. "We've offered some students the chance to come and spend a few days taking class with us during the school year, if the family is comfortable and can afford that," he says, emphasizing that he rarely offers a trainee position without seeing a dancer in person. While schools may not advertise this type of option, there's no reason not to ask. Indicating that you are prepared to make a serious effort in order to be seen shows your level of interest and commitment. If you've missed an audition but can't travel, inquire about a private Zoom audition. "If the request is worded in a nice way, it shows interest and initiative," says Hird.
Don't Disregard Virtual Summer Programs
Can you still get a fair shot when your choice school is going virtual again this year—or your own personal circumstances make attending in person impossible? Directors and schools have varied policies, but many are open to considering virtual summer students for next-level spots, and a few may even require it.
Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Aspirant program is a two-year postsecondary program from which the main company regularly selects apprentices. Typically, interested dancers are evaluated during a four-week, in-person summer session. As in 2020, however, the only option for incoming students this year is a two-week virtual session, where they are assessed for the year-round program. An optional two weeks of in-person training follows, where attendees must adhere to public-health guidelines (to maintain the safety of the existing boarding students who have been living and dancing together all year). But the process for evaluation and acceptance is the same, says director Stéphane Léonard. "At least half of our current aspirants—we have 16 in the program right now—joined from last year's virtual session."
Cooper Sainiak takes class during The Royal Ballet School's virtual summer intensive in 2020.
Kim Sainiak, Courtesy Cooper Sainiak
Léonard adds that he increased the size of the program after seeing an unusually high degree of genuine interest and talent during RWBS' virtual audition tour. Similarly, The Sarasota Ballet's trainee program grew from 16 to 26 dancers to accommodate a surge in applicants. Hird notes that The Sarasota Ballet School is also offering a virtual summer option: "And if students do choose the all-virtual option, they will be considered for our Trainee program."
Persistence and Teamwork
While the routes to landing trainee or second company positions are still open, navigating your way through them may be frustrating. Many organizations have cut staff, so response times and communication might be slow or absent—and as everyone strives to stay on top of evolving COVID conditions, information can change unexpectedly. Dancers need to be more organized, tenacious and persistent than ever.
Cooper Sainiak, 17, who trains at Pittsburgh Ballet House, knew that where he danced this summer would be critical to landing a year-round trainee or junior company spot in the fall. But he says the process of auditioning was unusually complex. "There seemed to be so many roadblocks," he recalls of his and his classmates' experiences. "Especially with the larger, more popular schools, a lot of dancers were late to the game when it came to signing up. And with limited spots for Zoom auditions, if there were no more spots or you missed the deadline, you had to scramble to make videos to submit instead."
Sarasota Ballet School trainees Maggie Bucko and Willa Frantz perform an excerpt from Coppélia ealier this year.
Frank Atura, Courtesy The Sarasota Ballet
Teachers and parents from his studio banded together to share information about what schools were open for in-person programs, accepting video submissions, or had forthcoming virtual auditions with space still available. Faculty devoted time to helping him and his classmates create their videos. "With all that teamwork, almost everybody now has summer plans," says Sainiak, who was ultimately accepted to Orlando Ballet School's summer intensive and hopes to be accepted into its trainee program. "But this year, when you most likely had to do fewer auditions and there was limited space, you almost had to work harder to show you were worthy."
Getting results may mean pushing past your comfort zone. Megan Hug just completed her third year as a trainee at BalletMet. She waged an aggressive job search, contacting over 40 companies, but found herself in competition with more seasoned dancers as well as peers. She received encouraging feedback from directors but no viable job offers, so she amended her strategy: She'll now be attending Nashville Ballet's summer intensive with an eye towards a spot in NB2.
After an exhaustive job search, Megan Hug will be attending Nashville Ballet's summer program in hopes of landing a spot with NB2.
Courtesy Megan Hug
While it wasn't her ideal scenario, she learned how to be professional and proactive in her communications. "The hardest thing for me has been longer wait times or no response at all," says Hug. "I used to be worried about coming across as impatient or pushy, so I wouldn't follow up. It's taken courage to reach out to companies that haven't responded."
Although frustrated, Hug says she's not giving up. "Nothing has resulted in an offer yet, but I'm still putting myself out there."
Léonard, who is allowing aspirants who've completed two years to stay on for a third in light of a difficult job market, advises hanging in there too. "If you feel stuck, stay hopeful and give yourself a little extra time. This is not a time to drop out or abandon your path; it's a time to sustain and keep going with your dream."