The world hummed along, and then came March 2020. COVID has impacted just about every aspect of life, and dance sector auditioning hasn’t been exempt. Just like performances, much of auditioning transferred to virtual formats – principally through “self-tapes”. Dancers somehow learned how to get hired in this new environment. Yet in life after the pandemic lockdowns, the world at large is back to gathering in person…so, are we back to default “cattle call” auditions?
It’s not so cut-and-dry or black-and-white; many dancers on the audition circuit are encountering a mix of in-person, self-tape, and hybrid (for example, a first round via self-tape and then in-person callbacks) auditions. That context introduces a complex stew of logistics and dynamics, all things that dancers need to manage in order to bring their best to the “circuit.”
To learn more about auditioning in this post-lockdowns world, and how dancers can best navigate all of its complexity, I spoke with three professional dancers currently out there auditioning: Davonna Batt (Concert Dance), Oscar Rodriguez (Musical Theater and Concert Dance), and Hannah Russell (Commercial and Theater Dance).
The lay of the land: Auditioning in a post-lockdown dance industry
Auditions these days are a “huge mix” of self-tapes and in-person, says Russell. “It was all self-tapes for a bit, but it’s been really nice to get back in the room to dance.” Rodriguez has seen in-person auditions pick up lately, though they’re not as packed and hectic as pre-COVID auditions. A new thing he’s seen is cutting off the number of dancers at a certain point, a smaller number in the room than before 2020. “There’s less of a ‘just pack everyone in the room’ approach.”
Batt’s recent auditions (occurring about once or twice per month, she says) “have involved submitting ahead of time through a virtual form, and about half of them have required a self tape of some sort.” Those self-tapes have called for either improvisation or a phrase learned from video, she explains. Callbacks, if one is asked to them, have been in-person – and have taken one to three days of further auditioning. Rodriguez, for his part, has only recently worked in two separate projects that just had a completely different dance audition process.
Both he and Russell see pros and cons to both common audition formats, self-tapes and in-person. Rodriguez remembers getting in line with other non-Equity dancers at 5:00 or 6:00 AM, and then still having to wait for the Equity dancers to audition. With self-tapes, as well as invitations from agents to audition privately, it’s easier for non-Equity dancers like him “to be seen,” he notes. “The good thing with self-tapes is that everyone has a chance to submit.”
That can be pivotal for dancers who moved out of the city during COVID, but who still want to audition (and can, and do, fly into the city for callbacks). Russell knows several dancers in that position. Submitting self-tapes can also be a great way for young dancers “dipping their toes” in the dance industry to get a sense of professional auditioning, she says. Yet Russell also names notable advantages of in-person dance auditions over self-tapes.
Being in those rooms “brings out a different energy,” she affirms, to dance the material in groups and for dancers to feed off each other’s work. Additionally, she notes, “those little moments when you can bring out your personality in the audition room…you don’t get that with self-tapes.” Preparing dance self-tapes can also be challenging (logistically and in terms of learning choreography), time-consuming, and expensive, she explains; between teaching yourself the movement, renting (often costly) studio space, video-editing, and organizing your submission, it can be a lot. Yet all in all, “it seems like everyone is adjusting to the new reality,” Rodriguez believes.
Staying organized and intentional
Also “a lot” is managing all of the details of separate auditions: what’s in-person and what’s via self-tape, and for the latter, what materials are required? When are all the deadlines and in-person dates? A first step to managing all of that is not taking on too much, using your discretion and judgment when it comes to what you audition for. “I’m not just smashing all the auditions all the time, like I used to when I first got to [NYC],” says Russell. She now has “very specific goals” about where she wants to be in her career, and the question for her is if a particular opportunity is a “stepping stone” towards those goals.
In an even more practical sense, another question for her is if auditioning in a particular circumstance is even possible – for example, if it requires self-tape materials ready the next day, “that’s just not happening.” On the other hand, if there’s someone on the other side of the table that she would love to “be seen” by, that can be a factor leading her to audition.
"Reassess and choose wisely. Spend your energy where you want it to go." - Hannah Russell
All in all, “be intentional, and don’t be hard on yourself if you’re not there,” she advises. Using her judgment and intuition when it comes to what auditions she chooses helps her “protect [her] love of dance,” she says. Considering the amount of work that self-tapes can take, and how many opportunities to submit them there are out there, Rodriguez also advises discretion. "Reassess and choose wisely. Spend your energy where you want it to go.”
Batt has her own concrete way of determining if an audition is a “good fit” for her. “I have to ask myself if the work interests me enough, if the pay is fair enough, and if the company has a culture that I can see myself thriving in," she explains. Batt needs at least two out of three of those in order to audition.
When it comes to the nitty-gritty of keeping all of those audition details organized, she will put self-tape submission deadlines on her calendar – “so that I don't back myself up into a wall where I'm filming on a day that I don't feel my best simply because the deadline is that evening.” Russell recommends learning how to edit videos – as part of learning how to do a self-tape – because that can be immensely helpful in the whole process. "Play around with it," she says, and have fun!
Rodriguez lists out all of the details of each audition. Actors' Access, Playbill, and Broadway World are great audition resources for him, in addition to the DancePlug Auditions page, as they list out everything he needs to know for separate opportunities. He also filters through emails from his agency, taking note of what does and doesn’t interest him.
Each agency works differently, he adds, so it’s important to be aware of how yours operates (if you do have an agent – and that’s been very helpful for him). Having all of the details straight and all of his materials ready “helps to keep my mind in the right place,” he shares.
The YOU you bring: How to get hired
Russell names the importance of that “mind management” in auditioning – and that it actually took her longer to refine than her technique and artistry. Something that helps her with those audition nerves – not to mention performance quality – is focusing on the intention behind the movement.
“It helps take the attention off me, and helps everything come together in a way that makes them think ‘that’s our person’,” she affirms. With experience, she’s learned that it’s “process over product,” artistry over technical perfection. Think about your presence (such as posture and facial expression), and ask questions if they need to be asked, she urges.
Batt’s experience, as a professional dancer and as a student, helps her handle audition nerves and bring her best; “I don't get nearly as nervous as I did in years past, and I feel confident in my strengths,” she shares. Whether she’s auditioning via camera or in-person, “accuracy and authenticity” are what she seeks to deliver.
She notes that it’s been helpful for her to be observant and patient when it comes to learning choreography – to watch and perhaps lightly mark the movement, rather than do it full out, while it’s being taught. She’s seen the latter approach compromise fellow dancers’ ability to efficiently pick up choreography.
No matter what, auditioning is challenging. It can be easy to get discouraged, to get that feeling of “ugh, I don’t know if I want to go, I might not even be seen.” Rodriguez says he can understand that feeling – yet at the same time, if you don’t go then you definitely won’t be seen! “Every audition is a free class,” unless there’s a fee, he also reminds us.
I encourage you to congratulate yourself on every little win along the way. - Davonna Batt
Overall, “make your peace with the nature” of auditioning, he encourages. Batt shares a great mindset for helping make that peace: "I try to approach auditions with no expectations tied to an outcome, but rather attempting to have no regrets with the quality of work and dancing done on my end." Additionally, the more you do it, the easier it can get, Russell believes; auditioning is a skill, “a muscle to keep exercising," she says.
“How to get hired?,” some dancers might wonder. Among other approaches, make that muscle stronger – that’s how. Strengthening that muscle also helps with audition nerves, Russell says. At the same time, it's all about balance and discretion. It's important to do things outside of dance that feed you as an artist (not to mention as a human), Russell underscores. "Mix things up and spend time doing things non dance-related."
I'll hand it over to Batt to close us out here, because it can't be said any better:
Auditioning can be such a rollercoaster of emotions...it's really baked into the process, it seems. To dancers and auditioners of all kinds: I encourage you to congratulate yourself on every little win along the way. Continue to train and dance for yourself, regardless of the results. Be attentive to the type of energy you receive from the director/choreographer/dancers. Know that no matter what, you are an artist with value, and future opportunities have no limit. While you're there, enjoy the uniqueness of the experience – and see if you can make a new friend!