Your Training: Leotard, Tights, Cap & Gown

The undergraduate audition process is more involved than you might expect.
Published in the October/November 2012 issue.

Juilliard dance director Lawrence Rhodes gives ballet class. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

The schedule at most summer intensive auditions is simple: Show up early, get a number, warm up, take a class and do your best. Merde!
But trying out for a conservatory or Bachelor of Fine Arts program is a different ball game: Ballet class is only the first step of many. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Craig Black auditioned for seven college dance programs while finishing high school. With a strong classical background, he was confident in the ballet classes. “But with any modern, I felt in over my head,” he says. “It got better as I kept auditioning, but the first couple were pretty rough.”

The ballet world has changed, and colleges want students who are willing to adapt to its new demands. “Most choreographers these days rely on dancers for creative input, and they’re looking for people who enjoy that collaborative interchange,” says Cherylyn Lavagnino, dance department chair at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Consequently, even the most ballet-focused undergraduate programs now ask dancers to improvise, speak onstage and perform contemporary dance. Although every college is different, they’re all looking for the same thing: smart artists in the making.

Study the School
“The first step is to know what kind of program you’re auditioning for,” says Butler University dance department chair Larry A. Attaway. Is it strictly academic, with dance as an emphasis? Is it conservatory study, mostly in the studio? What kind of shoes will you be wearing?

“Butler’s focus is classical ballet,” he explains, “and we’re a conservatory-type program inside a liberal-arts university.” The audition consists of two ballet classes; the first is only for new applicants, the second is with current Butler students. (Nearly all programs post detailed admissions requirements on their websites, and don’t be afraid to ask questions by phone or email.)

At Tisch, prospective students spend more time away from the barre since the school wants high-level proficiency in both ballet and contemporary techniques. “We’re looking for movement sensibility and command of vocabulary in each,” says Lavagnino. Strong skills in a style such as Cunningham or Graham are useful. After a ballet class and contemporary combinations, selected students are interviewed and asked to perform short solos. Hopefuls must also pass NYU’s common application.

At the University of Utah, ballet department professor Richard Wacko sees a lot of dancers simply looking for great training: “They’re not necessarily thinking about academics. They’re thinking it’s like a ballet academy. Well, that’s problem number one.” To get into Utah’s ballet program, students need at least 860 on their SATs (or an ACT composite 18 or higher), and at least a 2.6 GPA. “Sometimes we’ll want to take a student,” says Wacko, “but no matter how great they are in the studio we just can’t accept them academically.”

The Juilliard School likewise attracts students who just want to dance, dance, dance — and since it’s a conservatory, they do a lot of it. Its audition has five components with four cuts in between. Pointe work isn’t required, but solos are, plus phrasework, an in-person interview with faculty and an essay on one of three subjects.

Black says that learning choreography on the spot was an especially difficult part of his audition for Juilliard, from which he graduated in 2011. “That’s where they see how quickly you learn, how detail-oriented you are, what your musicality is like,” he says. “It’s also scary because you don’t know what they’re going to teach you.”

Tell Your Story
After ballet and modern classes at Purchase College, State University of New York, select students are invited to share a 90-second solo. But, as at many schools, first they’ll have to answer some questions during a brief chat. “We want to see if students are articulate, if they express themselves well verbally,” says Wallie Wolfgruber, director of Purchase’s Conservatory of Dance, which emphasizes both technique and composition. A written statement of intent, less than one page, is also part of the application. “To have a career in dance, you need to be able to talk about your art form,” she emphasizes. “You need to know what’s going on in the field. You can’t ‘just dance’ anymore.”

Even at The Boston Conservatory, where students focus primarily on performance, dance division director Cathy Young confirms that your words are more important than ever before: “What are you thinking about? Why do you want to be in this field? Those things are as important as what’s happening physically.” Young advises auditioners to approach their interviews not solely looking to explain what they’ve already done, but also to show how receptive they are to growing artistically and absorbing new information. An audition is competitive by nature, she admits, “but try not to think about it that way—think of it in terms of how ready you are to develop yourself to the fullest extent that you can.”

Know Yourself—and Don’t Be Afraid to Show It
While Boston applicants are taking a ballet class, a modern class and performing a short solo, Young asks herself two questions: “Is there a spark there? Do we get a sense of who this person is besides someone who’s simply doing the steps? To me, those are what make a great performing artist. We’re not looking for cookie-cutter dancers.”

The more things you’ve tried, even just once, the more evident your unique point of view as a future artist will be. Black offers this advice for ballet dancers considering college: “Prepare as much as you can. Work with different teachers and choreographers. You’ll never know exactly what each college is looking for, but you can be as open and versatile as possible in the way you dance, your training and your mindset.”



Body Boot Camp
This fall, step out of your comfort zone and into a lateral T. Renowned Horton instructor Kat Worthington is offering a Horton technique workshop at the Alonzo King LINES Dance Center in San Francisco. Horton is one of the most technically demanding styles of modern dance—and one of the best for ballet dancers. Its focus on extensions and working in parallel challenges your balance, coordination and strength. Worthington, who has seen Horton advance the technique of many ballet dancers describes it as “boot camp to strengthen your body and stretch it out.”
Dates: November 3­–December 15 (Saturdays from 1:15–2:45 p.m.)
Location: Alonzo King LINES Dance Center, San Francisco, CA
Tuition: $100 special until October 20
Website: dancecenter.linesballet.org/workshops


Southern Gem

Few people would think of Tennessee as a “dance hub.” But each fall, the Tennessee Dance Festival brings in top instructors from around the country for a weekend of master classes. Faculty include Ballet San Jose artistic consultant Wes Chapman, former American Ballet Theatre soloist Shawn Black and former Atlanta Ballet dancer Anne Burton Avery. The program also offers a student choreography showcase and an audition for summer study scholarships of $500 that dancers can put toward the school of their choice.
Dates: October 19–21
Registration Deadline: October 15
Requirements: Dancers must be at least 12 years old and training at an intermediate or advanced level.
Classes: Ballet, modern, jazz, tap, lyrical, hip hop, belly dance, African dance, composition, improvisation, aerial, Pilates, yoga, kinesiology
Location: Chattanooga, TN

Website: tennesseedance.org/tennessee-dancefestival.html


Ballet Goes Digital
The iTunes store is quickly filling up with great ballet apps (including Pointe’s!). One of the best for students is “Ballet is Fun.” It might have a pretty uninspired name, but don’t be fooled—the app has 325 high-definition videos that are full of tips for both beginner and advanced dancers. Former American Ballet Theatre, Australian Ballet, Houston Ballet and New York City Ballet members offer demonstrations that reveal training secrets and help you work on your technique. You can create custom playlists of videos you like, review tricky steps in slow motion and listen to audio explanations. Download it to your iPad, iPhone, iPod touch or Apple TV for $14.99.


Technique Tip
“When I was at the School of American Ballet, Suki Schorer knew I was dating Seth Orza (now my husband). To get the curve that the head should make in écarté, she’d tell me to pretend that Seth was leaning in to kiss my cheek. I would bend my neck, extend my cheek and turn a deep shade of pink. Needless to say, the image has stuck with me all these years!” —Sarah Ricard Orza, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist