This will help you get a job

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Matthew Lawrence provides advice on auditioning – from the panellist's point of view. 

Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch.
Got it?...Going on. And…
Turn, turn, touch, down, back, step,
Pivot, step, walk, walk, walk.

Right! Let’s do the whole combination.
Facing away from the mirror.
From the top. A-Five, six, seven, eight!”

(Lyrics by Edward Kleban, ‘A Chorus Line’)

Dance auditions are scary beasts. The famous 1975 Broadway musical, A Chorus Line, and its opening song, “I Hope I Get It”, sums up an audition’s atmosphere and a dancer’s apprehensions and aspirations perfectly. To test your mettle, tricky steps are thrown at you, fast. While trying to pick these up, you will be thinking many conflicting thoughts, like: there are so many dancers auditioning; oh no, I've blown it; and yet, it could be yes; I need this job; how many people does he/she need!?

Photo by Johnny Harkin, courtesy of the Queensland Ballet Academy.
Photo by Johnny Harkin, courtesy of the Queensland Ballet Academy.

To quote Marcia Hines from Australian Idol, “Take a breath, darling, take your time.” And I will add: act confident, be likable – nobody needs to know your boots are shaking. Most importantly, read on, because I will unveil some facts less talked about, but vitally important for you. The unspoken truths about what companies are really looking for in a dancer, and why every audition you will do will be subtly different, depending on the company.

Creative- vs repertoire-based companies

Does the company you are auditioning for have a set repertoire, or are you auditioning for a particular show? Perhaps the company’s artistic director has an emphasis on new creations? The type of company or show will inform the varying content of the audition, depending on what qualities the director requires. 

Repertoire-based companies, such as the large classical ballet companies – and most contemporary companies – look for dancers that can easily slip into their existing repertoire or style. Your particular aesthetic, technique, strength and co-ordination will be judged. Additionally, for men, their partnering potential will be under scrutiny. Typically, a panel can pick a good partner by observing a man’s natural co-ordination and upper body development, but at times they may ask for a partnering phrase to be performed.

Musical theatre, opera and one-off-shows will be looking for someone more specific to fulfill the steps and parts required. Musical theatre works in particular have a variety of styles and strengths – from the classically demanding role of Mr. Mistoffelees in Cats to hip hop dancing in the musical Hamilton (it's also helpful if you can hold a tune). In opera productions, the dance sections tend to be contemporary and classically-based and more movement orientated. As Aida’s revival director and choreographer, Shane Placentino, remarked on casting for the production, he was looking for dancers who displayed “energy, strength, and they need to be on top of their game physically".

Creative companies, led often by a director, will be looking for dancers who shine in the creative process. Auditions for these companies involve learning a phrase of choreography or completing a movement-based task. Sometimes these tasks can seem strange to the unacquainted (I remember being asked to produce movement based on the idea of scooping seeds from a capsicum, using any body part but the hands!?). For the choreographic director, their sometimes weird and wonderful tasks will clearly show whether a dancer’s creativity aligns with theirs, and if the auditionee works well collaboratively.

The new audition: apprenticeship programs

Over the past decade there has been an increase in apprenticeship programs run through dance companies. In my day (1996) – as a ballet school graduate – there were only a few apprenticeship or placements available (typically an unpaid or lowly paid position). American Ballet Theatre (ABT) 2 – now called ABT Studio Company –was one of the first programs to embrace a paid position for young graduates aged 17 to 21, with a dedicated performance schedule.

These days, the paid apprenticeship model has been embraced by many more dance companies, notably Queensland and West Australian Ballet’s Young Artist programs, Hamburg Ballet’s National Youth Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet 2, Netherlands Dance Theatre 2 and Rambert2. These youth programs act as feeders to their respective companies. ABT cites that nearly 80% of its current company dancers are alumni of the ABT Studio Company, “including 14 principal dancers and six soloists".

Photo by Johnny Harkin, courtesy of the Queensland Ballet Academy.
Photo by Johnny Harkin, courtesy of the Queensland Ballet Academy.

For the director, this year or two a dancer spends with a company answers some very important questions which are hard to find out in an hour-and-a-half audition, like: do you work consistently well, are you creative, do you fit in with the company’s culture and repertoire, what is your work ethic like? My prediction is that the current trend of youth companies and young artist programs within ballet and contemporary companies will continue to expand and develop into the future. They tick many boxes and have shown to be a highly effective bridge, with pay, between the student and professional realms. So, for you, the aspirant auditionee, the initial group audition is typically just part one, with part two – the paid apprenticeship – being the real test.

Now, not every company has apprenticeship and youth companies. Indeed, many of the large classical and contemporary companies, especially where affiliate schools are attached – like the Australian Ballet and Royal Ballet – still employ dancers directly into their full-time ranks. These institutions hold more internal based auditions; like a panel-viewed assessment or open class. Contemporary companies typically use unpaid placements and internship opportunities as their testing ground.

Musical theatre, opera, film and independent dance contracts are seasonal affairs, existing as long as the performance run. As such, word-of-mouth and networking runs deep within these environments, with often the strong, trusted performers being invited to re-audition for roles.

The final wrap on auditions

Dance auditions are at times confusing and confronting. Within even the same dance genre, say ballet, an audition and application can take many different forms. As such, there has been an effort within certain dance communities to bring an international standard to the audition process. One result is the International Audition Pre-Selection Guidelines, supported by several ballet companies, which seeks to simplify (and standardise) application requirements, for instance: appropriate dance wear (tights and pointe shoes for ladies, soft shoes for male applicants), 3 to 5-minute centre and barre work, and a short classical and contemporary solo. However, past the application process, auditions are held in varying ways, depending on the priorities of the artistic director.  

Matthew Lawrence is a former principal artist with the Australian Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Queensland Ballet.
Photo: David Kelly

The good news is, there are more jobs on offer now than ever before. Since my days as a performer, the number of dancers in the Australian, Qld, WA and NZ ballet companies has increased by between 30% to 100%. Likewise, the contemporary and independent dance scene has continued to expand. The bad news is, with the proliferation of full-time dance institutions over the past decade, there are more auditionees than ever before. Luckily for you, you read my article, so you will be better equipped to understand what dance companies and directors are really looking for: talent gets you in the door, work ethic will count for more. 

This article first appeared in the April/May/June print issue of Dance Australia. Subscribe and never miss a copy!

Have you seen Matthew Lawrence on what impresses an audition panel? Watch our our exclusive video interview.





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