Talking auditions with Shannon Burns

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Shannon Burns was a dancer in Opera Australia’s first ‘La Traviata’ on Sydney Harbour in 2012. Now she is the choreographer. We asked her about auditioning this year’s production, which is now in full swing after being cancelled last year.

How many dancers in ‘La Traviata’?
We have 20 dancers in the cast - 10 male and 10 female.

How many auditioned?
We had an overwhelming amount of submissions and saw about 200 dancers on audition day.

When were the auditions held?
Auditions were held in November, 2019. We were completely oblivious as to what 2020 had in store for us. This is when the very first cases of Coronavirus were breaking out in China.

What were you looking for?
There are a number of different styles in the show so I needed strong and versatile dancers with solid technique and experience in partnering. Outdoor venues like ours require strength, power, projection, precision and the ability to fill space. There are no walls or ceiling to assist in bouncing energy back and forth between performers and the audience. I am also very intention-driven in the way that I choreograph so I look for dancers who are storytellers with a natural sense of dynamic and strong acting instincts.

Shannon Burns supervising 'La Traviata's dress rehearsal in Mach this year. Photo: Rhiannon Hopley.
Shannon Burns supervising 'La Traviata's dress rehearsal in Mach this year. Photo: Rhiannon Hopley.

How far were you into rehearsals when the season was cancelled?
In February/ March 2020 we rehearsed for three weeks. This was the entire studio rehearsal period, meaning the cast had learnt and detailed all material. We were scheduled to hit the stage for technical rehearsals three days later. Unfortunately the Covid-19 situation became increasingly worse over those three days and we never made it to site. It was devastating. We were in the first wave of events/performances to be cancelled so found ourselves completely blindsided. Being so close to opening was also difficult - months of preparation and thought now defunct. As the weeks passed there were more and more cancellations leading to lockdown. Given the worldwide devastation it became a time to reflect and hold gratitude. It’s hard to complain when masses had lost both health and livelihood.

What happened to the dancers' contracts? To your contract?
Our contracts essentially ended at that point. It was a very stressful time for employees and employers alike. It was out of anyone’s control; government orders needed to be followed and the nation’s focus was Covid.


Did you continue to rehearse through the year and, if so, how?
No, Opera Australia informed us that they would like to get the show up in 2021 but obviously couldn’t make any promises. It was a long year learning to live with Covid and the situation seemed forever changing so I stayed hopeful but realistic.

Have the same dancers all been re-employed for this year?
We sent first offers to the same cast of dancers. They earned their positions through auditioning and had already rehearsed the entire production. We lost a couple to other shows/commitments but of the 20 original dancers 17 have returned this year. It has been an absolute joy getting back into the studio.

As someone who has moved from auditionee to auditioner, what advice do you give to prospective auditioners? Do's and don’ts?
Be yourself, be present, listen to the detail that is communicated to you and apply it. Confidence goes a long way; trust in yourself and your skill, this is not the time to hold back.

When hiring someone there is more to consider than just the dancing. Temperament, character, reliability, adaptability and so much more comes into play. Nerves can lead to people putting up a wall but we need to see YOU.

Ensure you are prepared with shoes you can dance well in and pack options. Will the floor be sticky or slippery? Be prepared for both.

In the end it really just comes back to your training. Are you ready for whatever may be thrown at you? The broader your training, the more comfortable you’ll be at picking up different styles and material.

You were a dancer in the production earlier and now get to choreograph it yourself. Did you have a very different vision or interpretation?
I loved performing in the 2012 production, it was beautiful to dance. This version of the show is under new direction by Constantine Costi who is approaching it through a very different lens. He has an exceptionally clear vision and has given me a huge amount of creative freedom in bringing it to life through movement. We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved. It’s been a wonderful and collaborative process. So in answer to your question... YES, very different.

'La Traviata' dress rehearsal. Photo: Rhiannon Hopley.
'La Traviata' dress rehearsal. Photo: Rhiannon Hopley.

Can you compare the experience of being out front with being an auditionee? How do you feel for the aspirants?
I have loved the transition from dancer to creative. An audition is probably the only instance where I prefer being in front of the table rather than behind it. I know this must sound strange. When auditioning I trusted in what I had to offer and could easily accept when I wasn’t the right person for the job. Often the rejection would push me to work harder, sometimes I knew it wasn’t the right fit for me and my skill set.

Being on the other side is a huge responsibility. Casting is a crucial part of the process. Maybe it will get easier with more experience but I really feel the weight of people’s disappointment. Everyone walks into the room with hope and when casting 20 from 200 tough decisions have to be made. The panel are on your side. They want you to be great, they want to deliver good news.


'La Traviata on Sydney Harbour' runs till April 25.

Dance Australia was saddened to hear of the death of Carla Zampatti, leading fashion designer and a patron of the arts, who died as a result of a fall while attending 'La Traviata'. Commiserations to her family and friends. 


'La Traviata' dress rehearsal. Photo: Rhiannon Hopley.
'La Traviata' dress rehearsal. Photo: Rhiannon Hopley.

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