Do you fantasize about being invited to audition for a major ballet company, or landing a soloist contract during a summer study program? If these scenarios sound far-fetched, they are. Very few dancers get jobs this way. Landing your first professional gig takes persistence, diligence, confidence, and most of all, intense preparation. Here’s a guide to help get you organized.
Four years before:
- Every audition is a performance. Perform as much as you can and take class every day, says Lily Cabatu Weiss, dance coordinator at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas.
- Attend tons of performances. If you fall in love with a company and could see yourself there, educate yourself about it—history, repertoire, artistic director. “If a company has William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian and Mark Morris in the repertory,” says Jeff Edwards, associate artistic director of The Washington Ballet in Washington, DC, “learn more about their work.” The more you know, the better informed you’ll be at the audition.
- Establish a strategy for your next four summer programs. Warren Conover, assistant dean of ballet at North Carolina School of the Arts’ school of dance, suggests working your way up gradually to the major intensives.
Fall of your junior year:
- Work with a trusted teacher who can help you prepare two contrasting pieces of choreography in case you’re asked to perform a solo. Find out when your favorite companies are auditioning and go. You’re probably too young to get a contract, but the only way to practice auditioning is to audition.
- Establish a rehearsal schedule for each prepared variation. Practice it at least once a week for the next year. Attend master classes whenever possible, including modern and contemporary. “Almost every ballet company’s repertory is eclectic,” says Edwards.
Before senior year:
- Hone your approach. In some cases you may be able to audition by attending a company class instead of the open call. There are pros and cons to each. If you take company class, you may be the only auditioning dancer. “It allows you more face-to-face time with the artistic director, the ballet mistress, the company dancers,” says Rebecca Davis of Rebecca Davis Dance Company in Philadelphia. “As long as you have solid technique, company class is the way to go.” Davis looks for a good work ethic and for a dancer who can really “stick in there with the professionals,” she says. “But at a larger audition you often get to show yourself in a piece of repertory, too,” says Edwards. “If you excel in repertory then that can work to your advantage.”
- Get professional headshots and full-body photos taken. Consider two different shots that show contrasting abilities, and make sure that your appearance is attractive. Find out if you’re required to submit a specific body position.
- Establish an audition schedule. Send e-mails to company managers giving your name, age, dance studio’s name, and ask whether it’s appropriate to request taking company class as an audition. Keep the note brief, and consider attaching a low-resolution body shot, resumé and a short DVD clip. Above all, says Edwards, “be respectful of each company’s protocol and don’t send out a mass mailing.”
September of senior year:
- Ask three of your dance teachers to write you letters of recommendation. Create a one-page dance resumé with the names and contact info of your three references printed at the bottom. See DS January ’07 for more details.
- Make travel arrangements. Ask friends, family members and teachers to donate spare airline miles to your audition fund. Ask company managers about inexpensive hotels or youth hostels in the area.
- Find out who’s leaving each company to help you prepare mentally. It’s important to realize that artistic directors aren’t always looking for the most talented dancer in the room. They may be filling a specific set of criteria. That said, there’s always a chance that “you may be so special that the company director throws out all the requirements,” says Cabatu Weiss. Don’t let your assumption about who they might be looking for deter you from trying your hardest.
- Pack your dance bag. Include multiple copies of your resumé, letters of recommendation, headshot, body shot, and CDs of the music for your solos (not every studio has an iPod hookup).
- Take extra time with your appearance. “Everything has to be precise, clean and neat,” says Oleg Briansky, founder and director of the Briansky Saratoga Ballet Center at Skidmore College in Saratoga. Keep makeup to a minimum. “ Don’t dress like you’re ready for a performance,” says Davis, who says she’s a fan of spaghetti strap leotards that show off a dancer’s arms and back.
- Arrive early enough to warm up thoroughly. “I want to see legs from the start of the class,” says Edwards. “I don’t like to see baggy warmers even in pliés because how one does a plié is incredibly important.”
- Every audition starts when you walk through the door. Be ready to be under a microscope—from how you carry yourself and observe the steps, to what you do in between combinations, to how you watch your colleagues. “You want to show a heightened sense of concentration,” explains Edwards.
- Choose your place wisely. “Don’t hide in the back,” says Conover. “You’re competing. Be up front.”
- Focus on the experience as a chance to be enriched instead of obsessing over whether or not you’ll be picked. “Auditions are like master classes,” says Edwards. How often do you get to take class from a wonderful teacher and do really exciting choreography?”
- If you don’t make the cut say thank you and leave graciously. Never approach an artistic director after the audition. He or she will likely not have the time to give you constructive feedback, and could get annoyed. Davis suggests sending an e-mail about two months after the audition with your headshot, a description of what you wore or a snapshot of you in your audition outfit and an update on what you’ve been doing.
- If you don’t get a contract, don’t feel like it’s a wasted day. “You’ve already gotten that far and we know you more than the kid who didn’t show up to the audition,” says Davis. “Even if you’re not a match for a particular company, the artistic director or someone from the organization might refer you.”