First Impressions

The art of teaching an audition class

Auditionees for Canada's National Ballet School

“You know, I don’t even know why,” says Virginie Mécène, artistic director of Graham II and director of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, with a

laugh, “but when I was dancing, I kept all the numbers I got from all the auditions I did.”

Her collection of numbers is a testament to the significance of the audition class in a dancer’s life. Every teacher remembers what it was like to audition—the nerves, the tension, the stress. But when you’re on the other side of the barre, creating the best possible experience for the dancers and the adjudicators is a challenging task. It takes a combination of friendliness, preparation and observation to teach an audition class that reveals the students’ technical and artistic abilities.

A Friendly Face

Faced with a panel of people evaluating them, dancers will always be more nervous than usual. “Everyone is tense because of course they want to show you their best and want you to like them,” says Laurel Toto, who manages the Junior Associates Program at Canada’s National Ballet School. While a high-pressure audition setting is a good way to test how dancers perform under stress, part of the teacher’s job is also to make sure that no dancer is profoundly uncomfortable. “Extreme tension interrupts the flow of the movement,” Toto says. “So right away, we let the dancers know that we aren’t the enemy—that we’re on their side.”


Constructing the Class

At the auditions for NBS, where Toto has been on staff since 1980, teachers and adjudicators work together, agreeing as a group upon the students’ exercises. If you’re working with a panel of judges, it can be helpful to check in with them frequently to figure out if they’d like a combination repeated, or if they want to see something specific from the dancers.

During barre exercises or warmups, “it’s important to be very simple and very specific,” Kristine Elliott says. Currently a Stanford University faculty member, Elliott has taught for American Ballet Theatre’s audition tours for five years and conducts the auditions for Kaatsbaan International Dance Center. “At the barre, you want to get a sense right off the bat of turnout, lines, port de bras and range,” she adds. Basic, uncomplicated exercises do that best.

In center, it can be tricky to create combinations that allow dancers to demonstrate rhythmic command and coordination as well as natural facility. “After the students are warm, we want to see expressiveness and how they put the combination together,” Toto says. “How do they move from one thing to another? Can they use spatial dynamics? Do they enjoy sharing dance with others?” To that end, Elliott’s center combinations emphasize transitions and the connections between positions. “I like exercises that have amplitude, breadth and musicality,” she says. But that doesn’t mean they have to be elaborate. “Add a pas de basque with simple port de bras and immediately, without being choreographic, you see the quality of the students’ schooling and their command of the stage.”


Beyond Technique

It’s also important to stay alert to personal qualities beyond the technical skills, says Matt Dorame, a Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancer who teaches for L.A. Dance Magic. From the beginning of the class, Dorame is on the lookout for what a dancer reveals about his or her character. “You want personality, charisma and humbleness,” he says. “So in the audition, I can be stern, but I also joke around a little bit because I’m watching to see how they react.”


“I usually give an improvisation because it shows so much,” he adds. “Are they shy? Are they smiling? Are they someone who fights to be seen? Do they play it safe? You can see the difference between someone who’s hungry and someone who’s stepping on everyone just to get to the front.”


To Correct or Not to Correct?

Corrections are another sticky part of audition classes. Some teachers find that correcting individual dancers can be distracting for the other auditionees, or imply favoritism. But Dorame says that he occasionally calls a dancer out on a mistake to see how she’ll cope with the criticism. Mécène agrees. “I like to see how they apply corrections,” she says. “How do they take information and process it?”

And corrections can help teachers make sure the dancer has something to take away with her. An audition class is still a learning opportunity. “We try to make sure that it’s fun and that people can get something from it,” Mécène says. “I want them to feel when they come out that they had a good class—and to feel inspired. Auditions shouldn’t be negative experiences, even if they don’t result in a contract or scholarship. They’re an opportunity to help students to see themselves.” DT


Mary Ellen Hunt, a former dancer, now a teacher, writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo of auditionees for Canada's National Ballet School, by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy Canada's National Ballet School.

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