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

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