The start of the new year inspires many people to improve themselves. For dancers, it is a high-pressure time that requires them to already be en pointe: the beginning of audition season.
On Saturday, Jan. 21, student dancers gathered at Barnard’s Studio 1 in hopes of being cast in the Columbia Ballet Collaborative’s spring performance. This semester, CBC will showcase works created by Anne Milewski Cary, Richard Isaac, Emery LeCrone, Kimi Nikaidoh, and Avi Scher—all professionals in the dance industry who work with companies like American Ballet Theatre and the Tulsa Ballet.
With prominent industry figures at the front of the room, the audition setting is sure to make the dancers nervous, even if both Barnard’s dance department and ballet technique are familiar territory.
But CBC, which was founded in 2007 by five former professional dancers, attracts students who spent their formative years in ballet companies and have faced the trials of the audition season before.
“I remember an open call audition at SAB [The School of American Ballet] where, after every combination in center, the director’s assistant would make a cut,” said CBC dancer and director of public relations Caitlin Dieck, GS ’13. “She would call out people’s numbers, hand them back their résumés, and ask them to leave.”
Dieck, a former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre and Charleston Ballet Theatre, gave more insight to her trauma after facing the brutality of the dance world. “I remember crying so hard after an audition with Sacramento Ballet because I was so worried I wasn’t going to get a job and that I would have to stop dancing,” she said.
When another CBC dancer, Gretchen Schmid, CC ’15, auditioned for the Cincinnati Ballet, she found herself trying to stand out in the crowd from the many other girls who were hungry for a position. She said that she was technically, artistically, and emotionally ready, only to find out that her orthodox dance wear didn’t impress. “I showed up wearing a slicked-back bun and a black leotard over pink tights, only to realize that in real company auditions no one dresses like that. Everyone else had tights over their leotards, or no tights at all, or their hair just pulled back in a clip, so I felt very stupid and young,” she said.
Having been solely on the artistic side of the ballet industry for many years, Dieck, as well as others now on the administrative side of CBC, said that she tries to change those stereotypes by breaking down the barriers between the directors and the auditioning students, making the process a more pleasurable learning experience.
“I always hope to make our CBC audition less scary and nerve-racking than summer program or company auditions. My main goal is to make our audition a safe and relaxed environment, where the dancers can enjoy themselves and not stress out,” said Dieck.
Former dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet and assistant artistic director Rebecca Azenberg, GS ’13, led the audition with a warm, playful tone while critiquing the dancers individually.
“You got to make it a bit sexier,” Azenberg instructed after the first round of a temps lié exercise. She later warned about spatial awareness, defining it in her own comical terms before the grande allegro combination, saying, “Spatial awareness—If you’re hitting someone around you, it’s a problem.” More than half of the choreographers sat on the floor stretching as they evaluated the dancers’ capabilities to make casting calls, rather than behind desks.
This different kind of environment and vibe seems to work for Columbia Ballet Collaborative—the group has been featured in the New York Times, Time Out New York, and has earned critical appeal across campus.
“To this day, I would say those auditioning years were some of my hardest and most painful,” Dieck said. “In the end, auditions did force me out of my shell, though. I had to learn to believe in myself and have confidence. To this day I’m grateful for that.”