Last year, when a large ballet academy held auditions for its annual Nutcracker, the studio owner knew that five “absolutely brilliant girls” coveted the role of Clara. But the owner, who has asked to remain anonymous, knew that one girl would leave the audition disappointed, since there were only four parts. “I’ve never had the scores so close and I’ve never had to eliminate a dancer so clearly qualified,” the studio owner says. “I just didn’t have enough performances to go around.”
The owner’s dilemma is likely familiar to any instructor who casts for recitals or competitions. Rewarding talented dancers while giving every student a chance to perform is tricky. But as long as you give every student an equal shot, establish open communication with dancers and parents and alleviate jealousies before they turn into full-scale conflicts, every casting session can be a teaching opportunity.
First, it helps to choose choreography that allows numerous students to play special roles. “I try to pick pieces that afford me the luxury of having many solos,” says California Conservatory of Dance Director Melissa Allen Bowman, who tries to give about 90 percent of her dancers distinctive parts. Or adapt a classic to suit your needs: Joan Robinson Borchers, founder of California Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA), has expanded her Nutcracker, adding overture dancers, junior maids, a Rose Queen (who would normally be Dew Drop) and a Dream Fairy. With four casts, that means roles for 75 students—and a chance for even the weaker dancers to get stage time. “That gives more girls a chance at plum roles,” Robinson Borchers says.
More importantly, make sure every student gets a fair shake at those roles: Don’t play favorites. For some studio owners, including Bowman, that means holding auditions that put casting choices in the hands of choreographers or neutral judges, rather than classroom teachers. “It’s tough because it puts the dancers on the spot,” says Bowman, “but they seem to feel that it’s fair because everybody gets a shot at it. Everybody.”
Jana Belot, director of Gotta Dance, goes one step further: She outsources casting to a panel of professional dancers who oversee a 600-student audition day. “It’s about the process of learning how to take your work ethic in the classroom and bring it with you to an audition,” Belot says. Every year new students surprise her with their talent, ensuring different students are cast from year to year, she adds.
Gotta Dance dancers are scored on specific steps and memorization skills using a numbered scale, with the top 100 scores going to the studio’s Showstoppers company, and the next 300 scores going to the Dynamite dance team. For lead recital roles, Belot pulls from the top scores and considers appropriateness for the role and body type. This year, as if to highlight the democratic nature of the process, half the solos went to dancers who weren’t leads last year.
But Belot’s approach isn’t for everyone. Bowman is wary of hiring professional dancers, who aren’t necessarily familiar with the way children learn and perform, to evaluate young students. “We teach these students every day,” says Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of Ballet Academy East, “so we have a really good idea for who’s going to be right for certain roles.” Hoover has developed a process that she thinks preserves a sense of fairness while keeping casting choices in the hands of choreographers and stagers: Every student learns performance choreography, and most casting decisions are based on in-class performance, attendance, commitment and suitability for the role.
Last fall, Hoover began teaching students George Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations for BAE’s February recital. As the dancers worked on the pieces, both students and teachers recognized the strongest dancers, Hoover explains. She also double-casted and used understudies. For those who missed out on the solos, Hoover was happy to explain why (maybe they failed to take extra classes or languished in the back of the classroom every week) and to encourage the hopefuls. “It’s like a garden,” she told them. “Sometimes the daffodils will come up in spring, and we love the daffodils. But just because the roses bloom later doesn’t mean we don’t love the roses.”
No matter what method you use, transparency and honest communication are always critical to successful casting. In the weeks leading up to the final decision, explain the casting process to students. Be truthful about their abilities, but emphasize that dancers lose out on roles for countless reasons: lack of preparation, weakness in certain techniques, inexperience with auditions or simply not being suited to a role. Give them confidence in your objectivity. “Today you are all strangers to me,” Robinson Borchers tells her students on audition day, “and no matter how much I adore you, that will have nothing to do with the decision I make today.”
Of course, even a fair and transparent casting process can make rivals of classmates. “Are they catty? Yes, I’m sure they are; they’re kids,” Belot says. But studio owners can minimize jealousies. Belot requires cast members to sign a contract that, among other things, forbids them from talking about rehearsals during class time. Robinson Borchers has a “standing rule” that students must be kind, but she knows that that won’t always be the case—and warns her students accordingly. “We teach them early on in class that if you’re a good dancer, then someone else is going to talk about you,” she says.
Ironically, it is often the parents who are angriest when that list of names goes up. Mothers call Belot wondering why their senior dancers failed to secure a solo in their last year of classes; the Gotta Dance director is perfectly willing to show students their scores. Hoover, however, takes a different approach: She chooses not to speak to parents about casting decisions. Whatever policy you choose, it’s important to educate parents about the casting process, either in person or in a newsletter. “We tell parents that if their children don’t get the roles they want,” says one CAPA handout, “it doesn’t mean that they failed in any way. It is simply that, on that given day, with all the variables, they were not the right person for that role.”
As for the girl who lost out on the part of Clara, she decided to try out the next year for a different role. Time has healed the rift between the girl’s mother, who “went ballistic” when the decision was made, and the studio owner. “It’s very hard to hold firm to your policies,” the studio owner says, “but it is the only way to keep the trust and respect of your students and parents.” After all, not getting a role is often as constructive for dancers as nabbing the Nutcracker lead. “Along with learning how to do a tendu in ballet,” Hoover says, “is learning how to accept disappointment and turn it into a positive.” DT
Leigh Kamping-Carder is a New York–based journalist who writes about visual culture, the arts, real estate and other topics.
Photo: A panel of professionals evaluates students auditioning for a Gotta Dance production. (by Cathy Mondoro, courtesy of Gotta Dance)