Top Directors on Auditioning Smart

This is the season of auditioning for summer ballet programs. To help you prepare, DS took questions to the heads of five schools connected with major ballet companies: Shelly Power, associate director of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy; Linda Villella and Crista Villella, School Director and Assistant Ballet Mistress, respectively, of Miami City Ballet School; Denise Bolstad, administrative director of Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet; and Lola de Avila, interim director of the San Francisco Ballet School. Here’s what they said.

DS:Is it better to go for the triple pirouette, or just do a clean double?

MCBS: When in doubt, opt for the clean double.

SAB: A clean double turn or an impeccable single is better than a sloppy triple, just as the height of an extension is less important than the développé into that extension. It’s not about tricks.

SFBS: Students should do what they feel comfortable doing. The audition isn’t about one pirouette.

DS: What are the main technical points you look for?

HBS: Good foundation, placement and strength to ensure that a student can keep up with the pace at a particular level. For example, we’ll give a series of relevés on pointe: two feet, one foot, two to one and changes in directions. This tells us at what pointe level we can expect a student to perform.

MCBS: We’re looking for placement, technique and musicality.

PNBS: We look for flexibility, long legs, pretty feet, high extensions, spirit, personality and a love of dance—the thing we call “the dancer within.” For the younger ages, we look at potential that might get a jump-start in a summer intensive. For the older students, we look for strength and technique.
SAB: We look for turnout, flexibility of feet, ability to move, musicality and coordination in the center, not just at the barre. In the younger ages, we look for an understanding of the body, good basic technique and potential. Also, while the aesthetic for the ballet body is slender, dancers have to be healthy. We won’t take students who are too thin. We’ve had students who were fine when they auditioned, but too thin when they arrived for the program and we’ve had to send them home.

SFBS: A student, especially a younger student, need not know everything, but we’re looking for clear, clean technique. At 13 and 14, we look for coordination, musicality, flexibility and placement. At 15 and up, we look for the same things, only with more strength and greater physical mastery of ballet technique.

DS: Is it better to wear a black leotard, or a color to stand out?

PNBS: We don’t have a dress code for our auditions. Personally, I think color in a leotard is good, but proper fit is more important.

SFBS: The leotard color is of little importance. Students stand out in an audition by what they do, not what color leotards they’re in.

DS: Why are pink tights preferred?

SFBS: Pink tights allow us to see the shape of the leg.

DS: How should a student present him or herself?

HBS: The hair should be in a bun. No heavy sweatpants or other bulky cover-ups.

MCBS: We’re a classical ballet company. Black tights, flashy jewelry and too much makeup don’t make the best impression. Be yourself; show us who you are and what you can do. These are highly experienced teachers who know ballet and see right through facades.

PNBS: Most important is a tidy, elegant appearance. Clean ballet slippers and pointe shoes, immaculate hair and small earrings are all good.

SAB: Approach this as a ballet class with a new teacher and present yourself accordingly—a neat appearance with hair up and not too much makeup or jewelry.

SFBS: Simple hair, light makeup and no distracting jewelry. This is a class, not a performance. We want to see movement and bodies, not a lot of window dressing.

DS: How much of the audition is on pointe and for which age groups?

HBS: Soft shoes at the barre make it easier to see how they use their feet. The 14-and-younger group has pointe at the end of center. The 15-and-older group has center on pointe.

MCBS: The younger group has pointe at the end of class; the 15-and-older group does most of the center on pointe, but if a student wants to take barre on pointe, that’s up to the teacher conducting the audition. For example, in the NYC audition, we have SAB students who are used to taking barre on pointe.
PNBS: For ages 16 and younger, the last 20 minutes is usually on pointe. For 16 and older, the center is on pointe and the barre on pointe is optional, although our summer classes are on pointe for these ages. If someone isn’t used to pointe shoes for barre, the audition is not the time to start. Do what you’re comfortable with. Also, avoid shoes that are too new or too old.

SAB: Under age 15, we give pointe the last 15 minutes of class. Over 15, we expect them to take the entire class on pointe, because that’s what they will do during the summer.

SFBS: For the younger students, we give pointe in the center, but it’s optional at the barre. Ages 16 to 18, we prefer pointe shoes at the barre as well as in the center.

DS: Is there an advantage to auditioning in a city that attracts a smaller crowd and perhaps has fewer serious dance students?

HBS: We hold the same standard in all cities. The expense and stress of traveling on top of the stress of auditioning may outweigh any perceived advantage.

MCBS: No. If it’s crowded, we’ll break into more groups or send more people. We try to judge each person on his or her own terms.
PNBS: I don’t think there’s any significant advantage, and I’d never encourage anyone to incur the expense and hassle of traveling for an audition. It’s surprising how much experienced eyes can see in a short period of time.

SAB: There’s no advantage in a smaller city, and auditioning closest to home probably has a higher comfort level for most.

SFBS: No, we try to hold every audition the same. It may be more crowded in larger cities, but then we break the audition into smaller groups.

DS: What are auditioners really writing down on those clipboards?

HBS: These are memory prompts, so when we’re making final decisions, we can remember the individual students.

MCBS: We’re keeping track, making notes, possibly assigning a level. We take as many notes on students we don’t accept as those we do.
DS: While dancing, is it good to make eye contact with those conducting the audition?

MCBS: Behave as you would with your regular teacher. Be natural. Be yourself.
PNBS: This isn’t an audition for “Star Search,” so a huge grin or excessive eye contact won’t impress and may worry me. Treat this as a class with appropriate eye contact.

SFBS: Eye contact with the teacher shouldn’t be avoided, but it also shouldn’t be forced.

DS: If a student has attended your summer program before, will it enhance his or her chances of being accepted the following year?

HBS: Somewhat, because we know how that person works and behaves. However, a student shouldn’t assume a return invitation.

MCBS: Yes, because we know them and how they work.
PNBS: There is some advantage, but we still reevaluate them. It isn’t automatic.

SAB: There’s no real advantage. It’s been a year and a lot can change. We do know them and how they work from the year before, but we have to evaluate them according to where they are, at each audition.

SFBS: We do like students who return. We know they want to be here. We get to know them and they know us—it’s building a relationship.

 Choosing a Program

DS: When students are selected for more than one summer program, what should be the main considerations in deciding which to attend?

HBS: Decide what your focus is. Do you want to experience several summer programs or develop a relationship with one or two schools with hopes of getting into a year round program? How long do you want to be away? Are you comfortable with the location and the facilities offered for the summer stay?
MCBS: Is the training well rounded? Is this the company you want to dance with? For younger students, is it nurturing? How many classes and what type? Think about your preferences before the audition and notify programs about where you want to go as soon as possible.
PNBS: The number of classes each week, class size, program length, housing, safety, transportation, extracurricular activities and performing components.

SAB: Consider the different styles of each company and its school, as well as the housing, security and the experience of living in that city for several weeks.

SFBS: Decide how you feel about the company and the school attached to it. Do you like the style, their way of dancing? Read dance magazines, study the websites, see the company perform and view videos or DVDs of the company. Also, the audition gives a lot of clues about the school. If you enjoyed or felt uncomfortable in the audition class, chances are you’ll feel the same way when enrolled.

DS: What are the pros and cons of multiple summers at the same program versus going to different programs each summer?

HBS: The plus side is developing a long-term relationship and showing interest, which is important if a student wants to remain in the year-round program or join that company. The downside to only attending one program is not knowing what else is out there. Summer can be a chance to become familiar with the aesthetics of different companies.

MCBS: Students under 15 may want to try different schools, but by age 15, students should be figuring out who they are and where they want to be dancing.
PNBS: This is a tough question. For younger students, it can be good to experience different programs. For older students, there are advantages to returning and forming a relationship with a school attached to a company where you want to dance.

SAB: For younger students, returning to the same program reinforces the training while changing programs with different styles and teaching approaches may be confusing. Older students should consider where they want to dance in the long run.

SFBS: Here in the U.S., people want to be exposed to as many different experiences as possible. I have a European perspective: If you’re happy and enjoyed a program, why change? Talk to your teachers. They know ballet and they know you. The summer session should be about going to the right place for the dancer, not a political decision or putting something on a resumé.

Ann Haskins is a freelance journalist in L.A., who also writes for L.A. Weekly and Pointe magazine.
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