Making the Cut
More often than not, the number of applications that college and university dance programs receive exceeds the available slots, so departments must narrow the field of candidates through auditions. The challenge is to craft a process that is thorough—allowing faculty to get a good sense of each dancer—yet efficient.
Audition styles vary according to the type of program. For instance, conservatories such as The Juilliard School in New York City, which admits only 24 freshmen to its Dance Division, must hold several daylong regional auditions in order to accommodate the roughly 500 candidates who apply annually.
Others, such as Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, allow applicants to attend classes so that faculty members may evaluate their technique over a period of time. At Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, where the focus is on dance pedagogy rather than performance, auditions are much shorter, clocking in at around two hours.
Below, faculty members from these three schools share their audition processes, and explain what works for them and why.
The Juilliard School
With only 12 men and 12 women accepted each year, Juilliard is one of the most competitive dance programs in the country. Associate Director for Dance Admissions Sarah Adriance says candidates do not have to be technically perfect, but they do have to demonstrate enough proficiency to convey to the faculty that they can be developed further. The school looks for students who are ready for four years of intensive training and, in the end, will become extraordinary artists.
Ten faculty members attend each of the regional auditions. In the first round, they teach combinations to 50 to 60 dancers and assess their skills. The dancers’ performances are recorded for later review, and the instructors then vote on who will be asked to return for the solo portion. “During the first round, the staff is silent, only saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about a dancer being asked back for a solo,” Adriance explains. “We ask that they have two pieces prepared in contrasting movement qualities. Usually they only have to perform one, and then the staff meets again to decide if they [qualify for] a coaching session.”
The session allows the faculty to see beyond a prepared piece and find out how adaptable a dancer is to on-the-spot training. They look for what details are picked up and what is missed or, if the candidate is performing with another dancer, how the two interact. Dancers are also interviewed so faculty members gain a sense of who the student is outside of the studio. After that, the final decisions are made.
“We are looking for someone with good physicality, someone who is interested in developing, someone who is compelling to watch and has a certain quality that demands attention, but also someone with an innate sense of movement, that unteachable quality,” Adriance says.
Butler University’s dance program, whose emphasis is classical ballet with a modern component, offers three degrees: a BFA in performance, a BA in pedagogy and a BS in arts administration. About 25 dancers are admitted from among the roughly 200 who apply. Students accepted to the dance program must also be admitted to the university academically.
Auditioning dancers are placed in ballet technique classes with current students to allow them to get a feel for the program, and to enable all six full-time faculty members to observe them more than once. Dance Department Chair Michelle Jarvis says that a class setting relieves some of the pressure of a more traditional audition. Because dancers are used to being in class, they know, to a certain extent, what to expect. “When they aren’t nervous, they can focus and show the faculty their best technical training,” she says.
Attending classes also gives potential students the chance to meet the instructors and talk to current students about the program (though many of the applicants already know students through summer intensives and regional festivals). Because the environment is less intimidating, applicants may feel freer to ask honest questions.
Over the years, Butler’s selection process has become a well-oiled machine. “What we are looking for in a dancer is a technical knowledge basis but also a potential for training,” Jarvis says.
Kent State University
Kent State University focuses on dance education as a major with a performance minor. The school holds four auditions, at which faculty members see about 60 dancers; last year, 45 percent of the auditionees were accepted, according to Dance Coordinator Andrea Shearer.
Prospective students audition over the course of two hours and in groups of 25. In addition, the school encourages them to observe classes and/or attend a university dance performance during their campus visit. The audition process itself includes a ballet barre followed by a floor combination and some modern work. Dancers also perform an improvisational piece, a jazz combination and a solo. This is followed by an interview with four to five faculty members.
“Each part of the audition tells us something different,” explains Shearer, who adds that she pays careful attention to how applicants move their torsos and jump. “The ballet portion tells us what we need to know in terms of alignment and basic vocabulary, and the increasingly difficult combinations help the faculty determine the proper technical level for the student. Successful auditionees, even without much modern dance background, seem to be able to bridge the gap between their ballet or jazz training to the modern movements demonstrated and apply it to what they already know.”
Whether geared toward training the next big star or tomorrow’s teachers, dance programs create auditions based on their philosophies and goals. For faculty, the challenge is finding those “diamonds in the rough” who are adaptable to further growth. As Jarvis says, “Every group of students is different.”
Julie Young is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, IN.