Juneau Dance Theatre student Anna McDowell filming an audition video with Bridget Lujan (courtesy Juneau Dance Theatre)
Auditioning for summer intensives in person may be the ideal—but for Anna McDowell, a 16-year-old student at Juneau Dance Theatre in Juneau, AK, it’s rarely possible. “Living in Alaska, it’s difficult to travel to auditions,” she says. “It gets way too expensive!” Instead, each year, with help from her teachers and a videographer, she puts together a well-crafted video and submits it to schools around the country. Last year, her high-quality video helped her earn acceptance to nearly every program she applied for. Most summer intensive programs, eager to attract students from far and wide, will accept video auditions from those who can’t travel to take class. But major schools look at hundreds of submissions each year, which means video auditioners have just a few minutes—or even seconds—to make a great impression. If you’re about to create an audition video, follow these tips from the professionals to put your best digital foot forward.
Before you step in front of a camera, visit each summer intensive’s website and make a list of their video requirements. Most ballet programs will specify certain steps they want to see, both at barre and in center. “Some places want to see the entire class on pointe, or a variation at the end,” McDowell says. That may mean you have to make multiple versions of your audition video. (One year, McDowell made five different videos to accommodate requests from different schools.)
If you’re auditioning for a non-ballet program, the directions might be less specific. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” says Nel Shelby, professional videographer and owner of Nel Shelby Productions, who frequently films audition videos. “Email the school or choreographer and ask what they want to see.”
Prep for your video shoot as you would for a live audition: Sleep well the night before, make sure you’re warm before you dance and choose an appropriate audition look. “I prefer a simple leotard and pink tights,” says Lawrence Rhodes, director of The Juilliard School’s dance program. “We should see the body completely, and be able to tell what your proportions are like and what your capabilities are.”
If you’ll be dancing a variation, make sure you’re well rehearsed and at ease with the choreography. “Choose something you feel good about, that shows you at the top of your game,” Rhodes says. It’s worth practicing the basics, too. “Rehearse everything, even barre exercises, to make sure you’re comfortable before you film,” says Steven Wistrich, director of City Ballet of San Diego.
Ask your coach or teacher to be there on shoot day. He or she can provide technical feedback, and can also help by giving you combinations that will highlight your strengths.
If you can afford a professional videographer, it’s worth it: A pro will help you make sure you look your best. But if that’s not in your budget, a high-quality smartphone video will work fine, provided you’re strategic about the filming process.
Reserve a studio so that you can film yourself solo, rather than trying to tape a regular class. “When there are other people around, I don’t know who I’m supposed to be watching,” Wistrich says. Make your video easy to watch by choosing a simple background, like a white wall, and avoid shooting in front of a mirror, since seeing the front and back of you at the same time can be confusing and distracting. “Fluorescent studio lights are tricky on film,” Shelby says, “so do a test shot to make sure you don’t have shadows on your face.”
Nel Shelby filming Pacific Northwest Ballet's Margaret Mullin (photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Shelby)
Sound levels are also important. Again, do a few tests to ensure your music records at a normal volume. “If it’s really loud or soft, people might turn off the video right away,” Shelby says. And keep in mind that wearing brand-new pointe shoes that tap the floor noisily might make people think you’re not using your feet properly.
There are all kinds of user-friendly editing programs, like iMovie, available to help you compile your footage. But there’s no need to get fancy during the editing stage. In fact, the most successful videos are frequently the simplest ones: They’re as clear and easily viewable as possible, without a lot of busy graphics, special effects or text. “I don’t think it’s important that people have a slick reel and fancy cover page,” Rhodes says. “We’re looking at the dancing. You want to focus on putting something forth that is movement-oriented, musically sound and well coordinated. Those things actually count a lot.”
Surprising Video Dos and Don'ts
Videographer Nel Shelby lays out filming rules that might not be intuitive to nonprofessionals.
Shooting from multiple angles might seem sophisticated, but it’s actually a DON’T. “It’s disorienting to see shots that are high, low, and from the side,” Shelby says. “A simple, one-camera angle is best.”
DO stabilize your camera. “Even if you’re shooting on an iPhone, make sure that it’s steady,” Shelby says. “Buy a little tripod or mount the phone on the wall.”
If you’re using a smartphone, DON’T shoot vertically! “We tend to hold our phones vertically, but if you do that, you’ll end up with black bars on each side of the finished product, and you’ll look smaller in the frame,” Shelby says.
DO think about how you’re framing your body with the camera.
Be sure not to leave too much room on the top or bottom of the screen.