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The Road to Audition:
Finding a Career in Professional Dance
 
 

By Megan Matthes

 
 
 
   

hate auditions. Within only a few hours—or even a few minutes—directors and choreographers can make you feel worthless.” These words from a graduating senior in the University of Utah’s Ballet Department sum up the feelings of many young dancers across the country who are trying to break into the world of professional dance. Now is the time of year when ballet, modern and jazz dancers are racking up their frequent-flyer miles or embarking on seemingly endless road trips to attend auditions for professional dance companies or jobs in musical theater.


Earlier this semester, many dancers in the ballet and modern dance departments, the majority of them seniors, mailed dozens of audition packets containing resumes, glossy 8” by 10” black and-white photos and videos with classroom, rehearsal and performance clips to companies all over the United States and Europe. Many companies encourage dancers to send these audition packets as a preliminary audition, before the dancer spends a significant amount of money on airfare and hotel rooms to do an in-person audition. It is a cheaper form of rejection, but being rejected by mail isn’t any less painful than being rejected in person. (Yours truly sent out about 10 audition packets, only to be rejected outright by seven companies—so far.)


During breaks between classes and rehearsals, ballet majors can be found pacing the hallways of the Marriott Center for Dance, calling company managers on their cell phones to schedule auditions. Or they are in the computer lab researching companies on the Internet, updating their resumes or writing cover letters. During the Fall Semester of their senior year, all ballet majors are required to take a Job Search Seminar that provides guidance on preparing résumés, cover letters and photos as well as requiring participation in mock interviews and the creation of an audition video. The dancers are also given the opportunity to do a photo shoot to get full-body dance photos and headshots.

Once dancers have all their audition materials in order, it is time to face the terrifying hell-on earth that can be auditions. If a dancer is not invited to a private audition during a company class (the best and most personable way to audition), then the dancer has to decide if they want to attend any major auditions that the company might be holding. In these days of economic decline, when dance companies are more likely to be firing rather than hiring dancers, the competition for the few available paid positions with companies is extremely fierce. “Cattle Call” auditions, open to any dancer with the time and money to attend, attract literally hundreds of dancers. Because a dance studio can only hold so many people, in these situations, artistic directors and choreographers have no choice but to begin eliminating dancers right away for the most trivial reasons, simply because they are overwhelmed (and probably overheated) by all the dancers standing eagerly before them. Early cuts in auditions are unfortunately based on superficial qualities: the dancer’s height, weight, body proportions and even hair color.


The aesthetics of the ideal ballet body have evolved over the years and the current trend is to favor tall, thin dancers with long limbs and sleek musculature, or as the dancer quoted at the beginning of this article puts it, you don’t have a prayer in the professional ballet world unless you have “extensions up to your ear [i.e. you are extremely, even abnormally flexible], 180-degree turnout [rotation of the hip joint in the socket] and hips that don’t exceed the width of your ankles.”


It is true that many artistic directors try to create a homogenous look in their ballet companies by hiring dancers who are all about the same height and possess the physical attributes of the ideal ballet body. A body that is not only pleasing to look at but is also suited to the rigors of classical ballet training will have an ideal balance of strength and flexibility, which will make the dancer less likely to suffer major injuries.


There tends to be more variety in body types amongst dancers in modern dance or jazz companies or in musical theater, where individuality tends to be better appreciated. This difference can be attributed to the differences between the repertoires of ballet companies and other types of dance. Ballet companies consistently perform full-length story ballets choreographed during the 19th century that require a corps de ballet of at least 30 ensemble dancers to dance exactly the same steps at the same time, with great precision in perfect formations. Modern dance and jazz pieces feature more solo work and musical theater numbers often allow for variation among steps and the interpretation of the steps by the dancers to aid in character and plot development.

 
   


The Good Old Days
“Once upon a time,” it wasn’t nearly so difficult for dancers to find a job. According to Barbara Hamblin and Sharee Lane, current members of the U ballet department faculty, when they were beginning their professional performance careers, getting into a company was more about being in the right place at the right time. “Those were the old days,” says Lane, “it was a lot about who you knew.” Neither Lane nor Hamblin spent hundreds of dollars flying all over the country to attend auditions and Lane doesn’t even recall having to pay audition fees, which today are usually $15 or $20 per audition class.


Hamblin never had to audition to get a job with a company. She didn’t even have to audition to get into the ballet department (today at least 100 dancers audition every year for the program). Hamblin was admitted to the university based on her high school records and she was quickly promoted up through the levels in the department. She recalls watching the advanced dancers in William Christensen’s (the founder of the ballet department and Ballet West) class, “hoping their technique would be absorbed into my limbs through osmosis.” Hamblin’s “big chance” was being asked to stay in Salt Lake City over Christmas Break during her sophomore year to dance in “The Nutcracker.”


Ballet West grew out of the ballet department and when there were rumors of the beginnings of the company, Hamblin was considered a strong enough dancer to be chosen as one of the 12 charter members of the Utah Civic Ballet, the forerunner of Ballet West. Hamblin recalls that “it was great fun during those days, and nobody seemed to mind the sacrifices. The company was like a big family and filled a void for me, my having been an only child growing up…some of the greatest dancers of the time were brought from New York [American Ballet Theatre & New York City Ballet] to dance principal roles with Utah Civic Ballet and Ballet West during the Christensen era until we were strong enough to dance them on our own. We worked with Jaques d’Amboise, Violette Verdy, Lupe Seranno, Melissa Hayden and Scott Douglas, to name a few.”


Lane also never had to audition for her position in Ballet West (she was admitted to the company as an apprentice at the end of her freshman year in the ballet department), but she has experienced her fair share of auditions. Most of these auditions ended happily with job offers, but there was one audition that was, based on Lane’s description, truly heinous. At Lane’s first audition, she won an apprenticeship with Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech in New York. At this first audition, Lane didn’t know what to expect, so even though she thought the audition was “huge and frightening,” Lane had fun and tried to do just what was asked of her. “It was overwhelming,” she recalls, “but pleasant.”


When Lane auditioned for Houston Ballet, however, she says, “it was a miserable experience, now that I knew what to expect.” Lane says that during the Houston Ballet audition, she encountered all the frustrations that today’s young dancers have to face at massive auditions: being numbered and herded around like cattle, feeling like she was too old because she was surrounded by students from the Houston Ballet Academy, etc. The only dancers who were asked to stay behind to talk to the artistic director after the audition were dancers from the Houston Ballet Academy and this made Lane feel that the audition had been a complete waste of her time. Obviously, the artistic director had been watching the students in his company school all year and had basically made up his mind about which dancers he wanted to hire before the audition even began.


Nowadays…
Both Hamblin and Lane agree that it is much harder for dancers to find jobs with companies these days. Lane believes the versatility demanded of today’s dancers is keeping many young ballet dancers from finding jobs because they aren’t proficient in a variety of dance techniques and styles. “We didn’t have to be so versatile,” Lane says of her career as well as Hamblin’s. “It was ballet, ballet, ballet. [Young dancers today] have a monster facing you, like Goliath.”


Even companies that consider themselves based in classical ballet will perform pieces that have elements of modern, jazz, ballroom and even tap dance in them. Hamblin believes that this is where students in college dance programs will have the advantage. “University-trained dancers are more resilient, more stable, better trained and can learn new material rapidly and retain it, which is essential,” says Hamblin, adding that “University training is also important because dance careers typically last only about five years. If you have a degree, you have something valuable for your future success.”


Many of this year’s graduating seniors in the ballet department have already moved onto careers other than dance performance: They will become teachers, journalists or even attend seminary school.


It is certain that the graduates of the ballet department who do decide to pursue performing careers will have to attend auditions until they retire from the stage. How can dancers continually subject themselves to an ego-bruising activity like auditions, especially when the employment opportunities are few and far between? Garrett Mockler, a graduate student in the ballet department, offers this dead-on description of the addictive feeling of euphoria many dancers feel after a successful audition: “There is nothing like making an audition. I felt like I was the best dancer in the world every time I got a job from an audition. I would go bouncing off the walls when I was out of earshot and eyesight. I felt like a million bucks, and nothing could bring me down.”


For many dancers, the reason they dance is simply because they must—they can’t imagine themselves doing anything else with their lives. This passion for movement and performing will be evident in the face of every dancer in the Utah Ballet show that opens today at Kingsbury Hall. Although many of the dancers in Utah Ballet will leave their performing careers and aspirations behind them when they graduate, their experiences in the competitive world of professional dance have been the sort of character-building exercises that will serve them in all aspects of life.
megan@red-mag.com