The Audition Solo

What do college panels want to see?

Solos allow students to show faculty that they’re more than just a number.

"For Freshman/Sophomore dancers auditioning for the BFA program,” reads Florida State University’s School of Dance website, “solos should be between 1–2 minutes in length. The choreography may be their own or by someone else. All auditioning dancers will be asked to perform.”

If you think this sounds vague, you’re not alone. The college audition procedure is mysterious, which can be overwhelming when it’s time to choreograph solos for your students’ auditions. You must figure out how to distill years of training and experience into a few short moments. What are the audition panelists looking for? We asked faculty members from three universities to weigh in.

Purchase College, State University of New York

SUNY Purchase’s ballet and modern/contemporary dance program requires a 90-second solo (only performed if a dancer makes the cut after technique class). Because some students are invited to join the ballet track after their freshmen year, the school isn’t looking for a particular style of dance during the solo. “It can be self-choreographed or choreographed by anyone else,” says director of dance Wallie Wolfgruber. “Some people do a ballet variation on pointe, and others do modern floor work.”

For Wolfgruber, the solo should be used to reveal aspects of the dancer, beyond his or her technique, that the panel otherwise wouldn’t see during the class portion of the audition. She is interested in seeing students’ natural movement style. “Maybe they haven’t had a lot of modern or ballet training,” she says. “But we want them to have an opportunity to show what their strengths are as performers, as well as their presence, energy and sense of physicality.”

Oklahoma City University

The dance program at OCU aims to build dancers into “triple threats”—artists who can dance, sing and act. Dance chair Jo Rowan has seen a range of successful solos, from competition pieces to excerpts of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. (The solo can incorporate dancing and singing.) She stresses that when choreographing, adhering to the time limit is key. Dancers will be cut off at 60 seconds, even if they haven’t finished performing.

Rowan sees the solo as a chance for dancers to show more about themselves as artists and how they communicate with their audience. “We find that people who may not perform so well in class open up and become great performers when they have the freedom to tell a story,” she says. Equally important to Rowan is personality and diligence throughout the stressful process. Can they recover from a misstep with confidence, knowing that there aren’t other dancers to distract from it or hide behind? Audition panelists aren’t just looking for nice lines and pretty movers, but personalities that will persevere in the sometimes difficult arts world. “If they will keep smiling and stick with it, we know they are going to be successful in this business,” Rowan says.

Florida State University

Over many years of watching auditions for FSU’s ballet- and modern-based BFA program, contemporary dance professor Gerri Houlihan has developed clear likes and dislikes. “Watching someone do her solo and watch herself in the mirror drives me crazy,” she says. Another pet peeve is tricks. “I’ll be watching and someone drops into the splits. Or they’re doing this lovely, lyrical something, and suddenly there are 16 fouettés out of nowhere. It makes me think, ‘Ah, that was an unfortunate choice.’”

Instead, she wants solos to emphasize dancers’ understanding of musicality and show off their movement quality. “I look for technical clarity and an understanding of their body moving through space,” she says. “Are they able to embody the movement and not just do steps? It’s not just about technique, but whether they can actually dance it with expression.” DT

Lea Marshall is the interim chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance and Choreography, and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance.

Fast Facts

Purchase College, State University of New York

Conservatory of Dance

Purchase, New York

Degree: BFA in dance with concentration in modern, ballet or composition

Audition: a ballet and modern class with improvisation exercises, followed by cuts, then short interviews and solos

Solo: 90 seconds of any style

Oklahoma City University

Ann Lacy School of American Dance and Arts Management

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Degree: bachelor of performing arts in dance performance, BS in dance management, dance pedagogy and entertainment business

Audition: combination class that includes ballet, tap and jazz

Solo: 60 seconds of any style

Florida State University

College of Visual Arts, Theatre & Dance: School of Dance

Tallahassee, Florida

Degree: BFA in dance

Audition: A combined class with 45 minutes of ballet and 45 minutes of modern

Solo: 1–2 minutes of any style

For information about more college dance programs, refer to the Dance Magazine College Guide. A new, updated edition is released each August.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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