As a young ballet student, Jonathan Porretta dreamed of dancing the Prince in Cinderella. But as he began his professional career, he realized his short stature might make that dream unreachable. “Ballet princes are expected to be tall, long and lean,” says Porretta, now a Pacific Northwest Ballet principal. “I had to come to terms with who I was as a dancer and accept my body type.” At PNB, Porretta enjoyed dancing less height-specific leads in works such as George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son and David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to My Skin. And his story has a fairy-tale ending: After dancing beautifully in other roles, he ultimately was cast as Cinderella’s Prince.
Missing out on a dream role is a tough pill to swallow. But it also happens to every dancer, no matter how talented. Read on for more advice from students and professionals on how to transform your casting disappointments into stepping-stones on your path to success.
Jonathan Porretta coveted the role of the Prince in Cinderella, but in the meantime, he grew as a dancer performing in works like George Balanchine's Prodigal Son (pictured here). (Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet)
Handling the Initial Shock
When you feel upset and disappointed about casting, it’s important to express your emotions rather than keeping them bottled up inside. Talk to a family member or a close friend you trust. Your first impulse may be to blame others, but avoid venting about your teacher or griping about the dancer who got the part you coveted. That’ll just breed unproductive bitterness—and it won’t make you feel any better.
Kathy Chamberlain, director of Chamberlain Performing Arts in Plano, TX, says many teachers will be open to discussing casting with their students. But rather than asking why you didn’t get the part, she advises taking a more positive approach: “What do I need to do to prove I’m ready for this role? What should I be working on technically?” Questions like these will show your teacher that you’re dedicated and willing to put in extra time to achieve your goals.
And remember that you’re probably not the only one who was unhappy when the cast list went up. Turning to fellow disappointed dancers, who know exactly how you’re feeling, can be helpful, too. When not a single dancer in Jessica Blume’s class at Chamberlain Performing Arts was cast as Clara in The Nutcracker, they all supported each other throughout rehearsals. “We were pretty upset about it, but we banded together to make sure it didn’t affect our performance,” Jessica says.
Sometimes dreams do come true: Eventually, Porretta was cast as Cinderella's Prince (here, with Kaori Nakamura). (Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB)
Working Toward Your Goal
The first step toward avoiding casting disappointments is to be a smart auditioner. Especially in musical theater, notes Broadway casting director Benton Whitley of Duncan Stewart and Company, casting decisions are frequently based not only on the dancer’s skill set, but also on the “look” the choreographer is going for. So doing a little research before the audition is a good idea. Find out when the choreographer offers dance classes, and drop in to get a feel for his or her look and style.
If you aren’t cast in your desired role, ask the director if you can still attend
rehearsals for the part or act as an understudy. Chamberlain usually has several girls learn a piece of choreography before locking in casting, paying close attention to the way each dancer applies corrections. “It’s about how they approach the learning process, not just the steps themselves,” Chamberlain explains.
Jessica now treats every class like an audition, to prove to her teachers that she can work hard and take direction. “I stay after class to work on a difficult step, or I practice choreography at home,” she says. “I remind myself that most principals start from the corps!” That was certainly true of Porretta, who joined PNB at the age of 18. “Early on, I’d politely ask to learn roles even if I wasn’t cast in them,” he says. “I always tell younger dancers to ask to attend extra rehearsals, because you need to show your director that you’re multifaceted—that you’re not limited to a certain type of role.”
And sometimes earning the part you want is just a matter of persistence. Even professionals go through hundreds of auditions before landing their dream job. “Auditioning is truly a numbers game,” Whitley says. “It’s about throwing your name in the ring as much as possible.”
Seeing the Big Picture
Remember that a production is a team effort. Your part—even if it’s not the one you wanted—is essential to the show. Are you the third snowflake from the left? Be the best third snowflake from the left you can. Directors notice hard workers, so doing a great job in a small role might land you a bigger role in the future.
Above all, don’t start playing the comparison game with the dancer who did earn your dream part. Constantly sizing yourself up against other dancers will just distract you from your own growth. “You have to put blinders on to stay focused on your goals,” Porretta says. “I know my career is different from the careers of other PNB dancers, and that’s OK. Opportunities tend to appear at exciting, unexpected moments.”