By Invitation Only: Getting the Green Light to Audition in Company Class is More Than a Matter of Talent

February 1, 2015

This story originally appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of Pointe.

With so many talented dancers competing for so few company jobs, it sometimes feels like a struggle just to be seen. Rather than pinning a number to their chest, most dancers would prefer to audition privately by taking company class. “In a cattle call you could be thrown out after the first exercise,” says Ballet Arizona dancer Amber Lewis, who was accepted into the company after being invited to visit for two days. “But when I took company class I had the opportunity to stay the whole time.” There are other benefits, too: Not only do you receive more individualized attention when you audition privately, but you also have a chance to see how the company works up close.

But invitations are hard to come by. Case in point: Last year, Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney received 200 to 300 requests to audition via company class. He granted approximately 35 dancers the opportunity. “There’s not a lot of time in a director’s week to see individuals,” says Carney. While it’s tough getting the green light to take company class, talent is only part of the equation. But when combined with a clear and professional application, good listening skills and a little savvy, your chances of getting invited increase significantly.

Play by the Rules

First and foremost, check the company website for application requirements and follow them religiously. According to Carney, at least a quarter of the applications he receives are incomplete. “It slows down the process and makes me a little concerned about a dancer’s ability to be professional,” he says. In the case of KCB, all applicants must send in a head shot, dance photos, resumé, video and audition fee (the fee is the most commonly omitted item). KCB follows up on such oversights, but in most cases, if your application is incomplete or difficult to access, it may never be reviewed.

Your video is one of the most important parts of your application package. Again, it’s wise to follow instructions. Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux requires both a classical and a contemporary variation be included in video submissions. He then asks candidates he is interested in to film themselves again—this time dancing selections of company repertoire—within three weeks. It is only after both of these steps that dancers are selected to take company class. “One reason we do this is so dancers do not have to deplete their funds flying to audition for us in person,” says Bonnefoux.

Make sure that you send your video in the requested format. Most companies will accept either a DVD or a link, but they have to work! Carney recommends testing your video on multiple platforms. If it’s a hard copy, try it in both a DVR player and on your computer. Send links to your friends to open and test them on your phone. “Your video is like a private audition,” says Carney. “It’s on a computer screen, but we are forced to look at that individual alone for the course of that video tape.” If a director is prepared to give you that attention and your link doesn’t work, you may have spoiled a vital first impression.

Resumés and References

A reference helped Ballet Arizona’s Amber Lewis secure a private audition. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Ballet Arizona.

Your other application items should be clear and professional, too. A well-organized resumé goes a long way—not only does it shed light on your experience and background, but it also helps directors know if you’re what they’re looking for. Some might need an experienced soloist, but others may need apprentices or studio company members. Keep this information concise, using headings to break it into sections (such as “training” and “performance experience”), with the most recent information at the top.

Who you know can also help get you in the room. “If I get a recommendation from a colleague or one of my dancers, I am more likely to grant this person a private audition,” says Bonnefoux. “I would say if you have a connection, use it.” For example, Lewis had a former teacher working at Ballet Arizona. Her teacher’s willingness to hand-deliver her video to the artistic director secured her audition immediately. There’s no harm in approaching various teachers, choreographers or artistic staff about companies you’re interested in, because, as Lewis points out, “the ballet world is so small.” If your connection does know someone, ask if they would consider referring you. Let them decide if their relationship with the company contact warrants a phone call or a letter.

In the absence of an immediate connection, Carney says it is still a good idea to submit a written recommendation or two with your package, but go for quality over quantity. One Violette Verdy means more than five dancers with whom you attended a summer program.

Be Nice to the Middleman

Even with a recommendation, you’ll likely be depending on an administrative staff member, such as a company manager, to deliver your materials into the director’s hands. Your treatment of this person is part of your audition—everything from your quickness to respond to follow-up questions to the tone of your e-mails matters. “Sometimes I don’t think that young dancers understand the importance of being respectful and grateful for the time that individuals give to help them get to a point of a full evaluation,” says Carney. Many companies have procedures in place so that the director sees only the most promising candidates. In situations where materials are heavily screened, offending the primary contact could bring your application to a standstill.

The Follow-Up

Devon Carney in rehearsal. Photo Courtesy KCB.

Once you’ve successfully submitted your materials, waiting for a response can be torturous. While it’s fine to follow up, Carney warns against calling or e-mailing excessively to demand information. Rather, send an e-mail a few days after your application should have been received to confirm that everything is in order and offer additional information, if needed. Since companies are inundated with requests, be prepared to receive a brief response.

Once your application is received, try to be patient. “I would allow three weeks before you follow up,” says Bonnefoux. “Hundreds of dancers send us their resumés every year, and it takes time to go through each video. If you haven’t heard anything in more than two months, most likely you are not being considered for the position.”

Even if you do everything right, most companies will encourage you to attend a scheduled open audition. In some instances, this is a matter of delegating limited company time and resources. Often it is because the company has very few (if any) openings, or because the dancer doesn’t seem like a good fit. If you do get the invitation to attend company class, count that as a huge accomplishment and sign of your potential—whether you get the gig this time around or not.