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Nutcracker auditions


Gracility

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Hi,

 

I am new to Ballet Talk. I have been lurking for a while but now feel ready to contribute. My 15-year old daughter has been dancing for about eight years now. This topic was sort of started on the under-13 parents group but I wanted to bring it up here to get feedback from parents of older children.

 

Our company's Nutcracker uses students from the school. School teachers used to have a big influence on which students received roles but the situation has changed and now it appears that the company director makes all the decisions. I don't know if the school had or has any say about this change but I think think it is an unfortunate turn of events. It seems that the director chooses students without a lot of thought - it is obvious that favorites or familiar faces return year after year. Given that students, especially ones in the upper levels, work so hard all year long, it would be nice if all dedicated and talented students were rewarded with a role at some point in their school career. I realize that there are a limited number of roles but it would not hurt anyone to spread the roles around. For example, the coveted role of Clara has gone to the same few girls year after year (after year). There are many talented girls that are very capable of this role AND would fit the costume. It just breeds resentment among the girls and is not helpful to the girls who get the roles and the ones who don't.

 

My daughter has had decent roles so I am not complaining about that. I appreciated BalletBooster's comments on this topic on the under-13 board. The deeper my daughter (and hence we) get into this world, the further away I want to run! I don't think I will ever understand it.

 

Thanks for all the insightful discussion on Ballet Talk.

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I'm not sure if you are talking about a school production or a professional production, but there is a big difference.

 

When it comes to a professional production, it is the director/choreographer's prerogative to do the casting. In most places there are auditions, and there are a lot of things to consider in these auditions, especially in terms of the special roles, which require well more than fitting the costume or having been in the school a long time. The director is usually looking for not only the right size and technical ability, but the personality and performances ability to play the role being cast. Lots of students may be about the same size and even have relatively equal technique. But not all of them will have the ability to show that certain something that they look for when casting a major role.

 

The Nutcracker, when it is a professional production and not a school production, must sell to the general public. The director must pick the dancers who, in their opinion, will be what they envision for the role. I would like to hope that all students would feel honored to be in a good professional production. The experience they will gain from doing any role is valid if they do it to the best of their ability. There are very few major roles for children and young dancers in these productions, just like there are few major roles for the company dancers. The director chooses the dancers for the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Snow Queen, the Prince, the Cavalier, and of course the Clara, Fritz, and a few other choice roles, depending on the version. All the other dancers are corps de ballet. That is the way it works, whether the dancers are professional or students.

 

Sometimes in school productions there is more opportunity to spread things around and feature different people, but that really can't be done in a company production, beyond the multiple casting that exists depending on the number of performances.

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When you are dealing with a professional Nutcracker production, I think you must keep in mind that the children's cast is actually a group of guest performers. As Ms. Leigh said, there are many things besides just technical abilities and costume fittings involved that are considered. In addition to those things she mentioned, the amount and length of rehearsal times is a consideration.

 

In the college production my DD used to perform in, once a child "made" it into the children's cast, they were more likely to continue in that cast until they grew out of the role (mostly a height or too mature-looking issue). Now, there were ways to get yourself (or your Dk dropped: poor attention at rehearsal, Mama Rose mothers, etc. But for the most part, once in, always in. Every once in awhile if the DK did not have a "partner" match (think height, size) for Mother Ginger or Party Girl, an experienced child might get left out a year.

 

It was my thought that the AD casting the children's roles used the same kids over and over for a very practical reason: They already knew the drill and it required somewhat less demands on his/her rehearsal time to use these specific production-experienced" kids. By and large, the choreography for these roles did not change drastically from one year to the next, although there are years when it does get overhauled. Because of the attrition due to physical growth of the children, there are always some new kids each year, but never an entire children's cast. The returnees help the new kids learn the ins-and-outs of the production--as well as the experienced Moms teaching the new Moms their backstage roles.

 

Would it be nice to spread the opportunities to dance in these productions around? Absolutely,-- but for the college production and the professional company productions that simply is not their mission or focus. They are looking for guest performers who can come in and do the roles with the least amount of "drag" on the rehearsal schedule and with the steepest learning curve.

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Hi, Gracility! Dancemaven hit it on the head -- there's a big difference between school and professional performances.

 

I am squarely in your court for school performances. Part of the training should be to get kids on stage and give them performing experiences. (After all, for many, it will be their ONLY chance to perform.) I know there are some here who might disagree with me, saying that competition for roles prepares kids for the cutthroat professional world. That may well be true at the most rigorous pre-pro schools. I'm thinking of the majority of schools, where there might be one shining star and then a bunch of roughly equivalent hard working kids at each level.

 

Our school just cast Nut -- for a two-performance run -- and the AD cast two girls as Sugar Plum (one of whom, I'm proud to say, is my DD!). Certainly it would have been easier to just cast one, if only because a new costume would not need to be made for the two very different bodies. But both these girls are great dancers, they are both HS seniors, both have been faithful students for over 10 years. One cannot help but think that the AD believed both had earned the part.

 

But a professional production IS different. Both my DDs have also danced with the professional company in town, and it is clear that there the major emphasis is on producing a professional production. We have observed that not only do dancers from a previous year get automatically recast, but their younger siblings do as well. I surmise that the company is most interested in demonstrated reliability. Yes, many kids could do the role, but it's one fewer headache if the children's ballet mistress has parents who know the drill, who can be counted on to get their kids where they need to be on time and in appropriate dress, and who can help out without too much direction. And, of course, she needs kids who can pick up choreography quickly and cleanly. Most of the kids who were cast last year already know the choreography -- not only their own part, if they have the same role, but because they are quick studies, all the other parts as well. Too, having a cast that has "grown through the roles" ensures that every part has an understudy. If someone cannot perform one night, the ballet mistress pulls aside a kid who did it last year, rehearses them quickly, and sends them on stage.

 

The fortunate part of our situation is the company does not have an associated school. Casting for Nuts is open to anyone in the area. Thus, nobody has any preconceived ideas about who "should" get a role or who got "shafted". There is always disappointment, of course, but MUCH less politics.

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I was talking about a professional production. I especially appreciate

what Dancemaven points out - that children will return year after year

for the practical reasons of rehearsal time, etc. In this production, I

think Dancemaven's reasons ring more true than other reasons. When

children are in full costume (mice, soldiers, etc), they don't affect

the look of the production. After a certain level or age, most girls can

technically and artistically play the role of party girl (and yes, even

Clara) quite well. I also understand that the director has the power and

a vision.

 

I do think, however, that it is useful, in the long run, for the school

and company to include new children in the production. I think this can

be done without affecting the quality of the production and without

infringing on the director's vision. Children who have had a good

experience at a school or company are much more likely to support (with

donations and/or ticket sales) the organization down the road. In a more

vague sense, it will also help create a healthier environment and bring

some humanity to the organization. I understand that children who go on

to become professional dancers need to see how this world operates but

most children will not go this route. Just because things have always

been done a certain way doesn't mean that we have to stop thinking

objectively and creatively.

 

Perhaps it would be useful for teachers to make it clear to all students

how casting decisions are made (for practical reasons as well as other

reasons) and to let their students' know that, in some cases, the

decisions have little to do with their technical and/or artistic

ability. I do think teachers have a responsibility to promote a healthy

environment in their classrooms. I think if children knew that, often,

when you are IN, you stay IN and vice-versa, they would understand the

whole process better. Given students with equal ability and talent,

children who get the roles year after year would not feel so entitled

and children who don't get roles would have more confidence. When a

school and company work so closely, I think the school needs to be aware

of all the posturing that goes on behind the scenes because it DOES

affect their students and the school. I sometimes wish my daughter's

school was not associated with a company because Nutcracker

season just adds a layer of clutter to a already-challenging world!

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As Gracility mentioned, it is extremely important that both parents and teachers help students understand the whimsical nature of casting. There are NO absolutes, so I think that many teachers are reluctant to broach this subject with their students. They have likely seen all sorts of things happen and so they are not anxious to make generalities where casting is concerned, even when things usually go that way (such as 'once you are in the production, you will likely stay in it') because then they create a really serious confidence issue for that one dancer who is all of a sudden left out after several years in the production or when some other anomaly occurs.

 

I think the more helpful and truthful approach to take with our children is to talk with them frankly about the subjectivity of casting. This is an absolute guarantee in all areas of the theater and ballet. If a student wants to pursue the arts, they MUST realize that things will not always go as planned, the best dancer will not always get the best part, the hardest worker will not always be rewarded in kind, those with power, money, connections, etc. sometimes get special consideration, those who break the rules, display bad attitudes, etc. sometimes have those behaviors overlooked if they are 'right for the part' etc. etc. etc.

 

These are tough lessons to teach, as they fly in the face of the values we are trying to instill in our children. But, these are important truths that our children must come to terms with. They must learn to rise above current casting and keep their eyes on their goals. It is a difficult pursuit at any age, but extremely challenging for those in the teen years. I wish there were easy answers to this question, but this is a truly tough issue. :D

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Hillary Duff went to more than 100 auditions before she finally got that Disney show.

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As Gracility mentioned, it is extremely important that both parents and teachers help students understand the whimsical nature of casting.  There are NO absolutes

 

I disagree. With the Joffrey, getting recast really is pretty absolute -- assuming you haven't grown too much. I have never seen a dancer turned down at the "returning cast members" audition. (It certainly is possible that some dancers are quietly asked not to return, but I'm not aware of that ever happening.)

 

And I think that is the secret -- having separate auditions for returning cast members and new ones. It is disingenuous and dishonest to hold "open" auditions if, in fact, half the roles have already been cast. The Joffrey ballet mistress makes it very clear at the "open" auditions that she has, say, 45 roles left to cast. There is no pretense that new auditionees are competing against former cast members.

 

So, here's another vote for explaining the casting criteria beforehand. But, I don't think it is only up to the teachers to do this. Whomever is running the audition should explain the process to the kids.

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Treefrog, you mentioned one exception right after you stated that it was 'almost absolute' in the pro production you are familiar with. So, there are ALWAYS exceptions. That was my point. There really are very few instances in pro productions where anyone can state with certainty how things will go - unless they are the AD and are going to hold themselves accountable to follow the policies they verbalize to auditionees.

 

It would be lovely if those running an audition would clearly spell out who will get in and who will not and most importantly why - at the time of the audition, but we all know that isn't going to happen. They may say something sort of vague about height and costumes, but that is not the whole story. No one would argue that there are some trends that you can identify for some productions. But, as sure as you count on those trends to be set in stone, some casting decision will blow the trend right out of the water.

 

Casting is messy. It is subjective, it is complex, it is personal and it is anything but straightforward. Our desire to make it otherwise, even when children are involved, is unlikely.

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Yes, there are never any absolutes----even in the scenario I described earlier. If the Sugar Plum Fairy(ies) is exceptionally tiny, then the children's cast gets shifted downward in terms of height and size also. So, even the "veterans" who are within the typical 5 foot height requirement get overlooked that year.

 

In DD's experience, no one was ever assured a returning spot. It ALL depended on having the requisite "pair" match and the overall height was very dependent upon the size and height of the casted college kids for Sugar Plum and Prince. At best (and it usually worked in the returnee's favor), the casting director would start with trying to use the veterans---but there was never a guarantee. And there was one single audition--open to all who wished to attend.

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I suppose it depends how you look at it. If you fall outside the stated height requirements -- which are advertised up front -- you will absolutely not get cast. So, no exception there.

 

I only report what I witness. Every kid who is invited to and attends the "returning cast members" audition walks out with the cherished folder (EXCEPT the ones who don't meet the stated height requirements). There is no mystery about whether you will be dancing again, only which role.

 

As far as I know, the ballet mistress spends that night assigning roles to the returning kids, and knows precisisely how many roles remain for the next day's open audition. If, by the end of the day when the least experienced kids audition, she has accepted enough children to fill all the roles, she says that explicitly. She invites these dancers to continue the audition "for the experience", and also in case there is the lucky happenstance of another dancer turning down the role. (This actually happened to my younger daughter, so I suppose that IS an example of "nothing is absolute". But I'm pretty sure it is a rare example.)

 

As I said, I only report what I witness. In a business that can sometimes trample young psyches, I think the Joffrey process is a paragon of how to encourage young dancers while at the same time fulfilling the company's professional needs.

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Even the height requirements are not absolute. I know of a returning gal who danced Clara in a major company production and then the next year, although over the stated height requirement, was cast to dance it again. This particular company posts their height requirements online and is usually VERY persnickety about them. But, in this gal's case, talent and experience won the day. She was selected over many other talented dancers who actually flew in for the open audition from around the country, who WERE within the height range.

 

Sounds like Joffrey does a good job of making it pretty humane. But, that really is the exception to the rule and if a student really wants to pursue dance as a career, they need to understand that the Joffrey's practices are not the norm and that most other companies will be far less forthcoming and far less clear about how they do their casting. Certainly when it comes to older dancers and pros, the Joffrey scenario is far from the case in most instances.

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Sorry if a teen isn't allowed, but a friend's mom was reading BT and here I was itching to reply......

In the Nutcracker version I dance(d) in (The Balanchine one) the height requirements are EXTREMELY specific. And I might add, they run not the auditions but the casting much like Treefrog said they run at the Joffrey. Most returning cast members are picked, if not all. However, returning kids who had "favored" parts including party scene, then polichinelle, then candy cane, almost always recieve the role again or move on up to the next favored role if they grew too much. If you were a mouse or soldier, most likely you'll be that again. And Marie and the Prince are always in it for the 2-4 year duration unless of course they get too tall, then another is picked (usually the understudy.)

However, there really are no surprises. Everyone knows this is how it works.

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Casting is messy. It is subjective, it is complex, it is personal and it is anything but straightforward

 

The understanding of the above statement needs to be in the "Understanding how to Parent a Dancer" handbook. It is so true and such a valuable lesson.

 

Sounds like Joffrey does a good job of bridging the harsh with the reality so the two shall never meet.

 

vj

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