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Learning to take the audition in stride

Last week, two young dancers trying out for the Nationl Ballet School knew thye faced hugged odds, but they weren’t easily daunted.

Shannon Rupp chronicles their story.

Ottawa Citizen
Shannon Rupp


Like dance schools the world over, Ottawa’s Dance Educators on Rideau Street,  begins classes with a traditional, if unofficial, warm-up -- a run up a couple of flights of stairs. This is one of the most comforting things about studying ballet: it is a ritual as much as an exercise.  Here, as everywhere, dozens of devotees in black leotards and pink tights are beginning their Saturday with plies done on a hardwood floor that has been buffed to a soft blonde by thousands of slippered feet.

            But today those feet might be pointing just a little harder. The National Ballet School adjudicators will be in town Monday on their annual audition tour. Those who are selected will go to a second audition, a four-week summer school program in Toronto. Successful students go on to the internationally-respected boarding school that combines dance with academics. NBS graduates can be found in most of the world’s major troupes, including the English National Ballet, the Ballet of Monte Carlo, and the Stuttgart Ballet.

            Jennifer Wright, 11, and Sarah Abraham, 12, two Dance Educators students, are planning to tryout. Both girls are slender, and with their hair pinned up they are the image of “bunheads,” but they don’t fit the neurotic ballerina stereotype. They each take take two classes a week because they enjoy it. Jennifer, a poised, thoughtful brunette, has danced for four years, but she also plays cello and sings in Ottawa’s Central Choir.  Sarah, an animated blonde, began dancing at 3, but she has already decided she would like to be an elementary school teacher.

            “Dancing is something I love to do,” Sarah says, adding that her mother, Pamela, also takes classes as a hobby.  “But I don’t really want to be a dancer. I just love to take a break from everything and come in and dance.”

            Jennifer is a little anxious about the audition, but not because she believes her future hangs on it. “I just don’t see it as a career for me, because there are so many other things I love to do. I just think the audition is a good experience.”

            Jennifer doesn’t even hope to be accepted to the summer school, and given the statistics, that’s realistic. Of the one thousand 10- to 16-year-olds who audition annually, only about 150 are invited to the summer school.  Of that group, maybe 50 will be invited into the full-time, residential program, which costs about $10,000 a year. The school graduates about 15 dancers annually; between five and nine of them are invited to join the National Ballet.

            Sarah, however, did the summer school two years ago, and being accepted again is important to her.

            “It really matters, if you make it because that is really good,” she says. “It just builds up your confidence. But if you don’t get in, it’s not like a bad thing. It doesn’t mean you’re bad at ballet, it may just be that you don’t have the right body, or the right legs, or something.”

            Later Sarah adds that she wonders if she should even do the audition. “If I don’t get in it’s okay because I’ve already experienced it. Maybe other people should have a chance. I thought the people who didn’t get in before were really sad -- that was hard.”

            But Jennifer doubts this audition will have much effect on her. “I find I’m pretty confident. I think if you do your best you can do whatever you want. And if I don’t have the right body type for one school, I could maybe make it for another school.”

            Three days later, on the morning of the audition, the girls are tense and much less talkative. The studio is bustling with late registrants who are having Polaroids taken, while the others have numbers pinned to their chests and backs. Although it makes them look like race horses, numbers are essential: in practise clothes they all look alike.

            In Jennifer’s audition, teacher Anuschka Roes explains to the small audience of parents that, at this age, they examine children for natural qualities such as musicality, strength, flexibility, and physical proportion,  rather than technique. And each of these students has some ability.  Jennifer, for example, is strong, and a good jumper. But as Miss Roes points out, very gently, her muscles are also tight. Most of the other eight girls are similarly gifted -- there’s a beautiful foot here, or a lovely arabesque there.

            Only one girl seems to have every quality on the wish list. Number 15 is a willowy blonde, with long, strong  graceful limbs, and those “articulate,”  beautifully arched feet that ballet prizes. And she has one other quality that is difficult to describe, but you could call it charisma -- she draws your eyes. She is simply a joy to watch. At least until another girl, a spunky little redhead, is chosen. Number 15 looks devastated.

            On hearing this, the other girls seem to slump, collectively, as if that imaginary string that dance students are supposed to envision holding them up has suddenly been cut. But they all behave like professionals -- although Number 15 is visibly choking back tears, and quickly exits the studio.

            The adjudicators videotape the lucky girl, and say that she will be put on a “waiting list.”  “We have just started our auditions,” says vice-principal Carole Chadwick, explaining to a bewildered-looking father that they cannot commit any spots until they have seen all the country’s hopefuls. “But we really like her. We’ll let you know in April.”

            Mavis Staines, artistic director of the National Ballet School for the last 10 years, says the treatment of ballet students -- and dancers in general -- has changed greatly since she graduated from the school herself, in 1972. “There has been an evolution toward more respectful behaviour,” Staines says.

            Today the 40-year-old school boasts a host of support systems, including nutritionists, physiotherapists, and psychologists, as well as career counselling for students who don’t make it into the company. And while things are undeniably better in the ballet world, it’s still hard to see a heartbroken 11-year-old without wondering how good this kind of competition is for them -- even if the adjudicators are kind

            “Children are resilient,” Staines says. “We do them a disservice by thinking they can’t deal with disappointment. It’s not the same as failure. It takes courage to audition, so although you might be disappointed you didn’t get in,  you can’t fail.”

            That attitude is a change from the days when Patricia Bond, a 42-year-old Vancouver lawyer, was dancing. She trained at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s professional program, and apprenticed in the company, until an ankle injury ended her career at 21. But as a child she auditioned repeatedly for different schools because she enjoyed the process -- despite the humiliation that once went with it.

            “Auditions are magic for kids: it is an opportunity for students to perform in front of people who really know. And if they’re performers, they will love that,” Bond says. “But does the National still send out those horrible letters after you do an audition? The ones that say you couldn’t be a ballet dancer and you should give up now? My sister used to get those.”

            Staines says that today, the school is careful not to give children the impression their program is the only route to a dance career.

            “We never pretend that just because we haven’t invited somebody that that person won’t end up as a dancer. When one door closes, another one opens.”


            After the auditions, Jennifer seems undisturbed by the results, although she is also surprised that beautiful Number 15 wasn’t chosen.

            “I might do the audition again,” she says.

            But her father, Jim Wright, a pianist who is familiar with auditioning himself, isn’t so sure that is a good idea. “I sensed that there was some stress,” Wright says. “Next time I would want to feel she wanted badly to go to the school and that she had a chance of succeeding.”

            Meanwhile, Sarah is auditioning with a group of girls who look years older, most of whom are working en pointe. Although the teacher reassures them pointe shoes don’t matter, there’s no doubt in Sarah’s mind that it does. 

            As the vice-principal explains to parents, the school is not rating the abilities of these girls so much as deciding whether they will be able to fit in with the existing class. And with each passing year, the chances of that happening fade.

            After the audition, another girl is asked to remain behind, and Sarah shrugs it off, but she is clearly upset and trying valiantly to hide it. “It’s okay to be disappointed,” her mother insists, suggesting she could try again. But Sarah has already decided this is her last audition.

            “I’m just not interested anymore,” she says, while yanking her blonde hair out of bondage.


            Even a kinder, gentler ballet world can seem harsh, but as dancer after dancer points out: that’s life. And in the dance world, they all seem to feel they gain more than they lose.

            According to Debbie Kaplan, an Ottawa physiotherapist who used to be a dancer, training and auditioning offers students more than just a long-shot at a prize. Working with the  Dancer Transition Resource Centre, a Toronto-based organization that helps dancers change careers, she learned that dance discipline is invaluable in other jobs.

            “Dancers learn how to work hard; they throw themselves into things completely and really focus; and they like to get involved in things -- they tend to be passionate,” Kaplan says. “When they go to school, most of them end up on the Dean’s list.”

25 Oct 1999