Taking the Audition Tour on the (Digital) Road

Taking the Audition Tour on the (Digital) Road

SF Ballet School Auditions Students Virtually for the 2021 Summer Session

In a typical January, San Francisco Ballet School leaves town in search of talent across the country. Faculty members go on a whirlwind audition tour to cities up, down, and between both coasts, where over 1,000 students audition for SF Ballet School’s summer session. For serious ballet students, summer sessions are a critical experience to learn from new instructors and be seen by school directors who are looking to offer placements in their year-round programs. By nature, ballet auditions seem like something that must be in person. So how does it work when you have to stay local?

“Nothing can replace an in-person audition, but we have to be adaptable,” says SF Ballet School Director Patrick Armand. This year, auditioning students had two options: participate in a live ballet class audition over Zoom, or send in a recorded video. The School offered 16 Zoom auditions and had just over 700 students attend. Another 100 students have submitted recorded videos—and all are vying for 120 spots in the School’s summer session.

Patrick Armand viewing auditions for SF Ballet School summer programs // © San Francisco Ballet, Photo by Emma Yee

To make the process equitable, live Zoom auditions were broken up first by age (and therefore, approximate skill level), and then by audition space. Some students have access to a studio, and others are in their kitchens or living rooms. The class instructor adapted classes accordingly: those in a studio could do center combinations and jumps, while students at home focused on more compact combinations.

Armand says it can be a challenge to judge musicality over Zoom. “You never know if there’s an internet bandwidth issue or other audio delays,” he explains. In addition to assessing technique, he’s also seeing how students take corrections and adapt to new ways of teaching, and their overall motivation to come to SF Ballet School. Those are key indicators of how successful students will be in the summer program, and potentially in the year-round program too. Armand enlists other Faculty members to help look at the auditioning students, with four total sets of eyes on the students, and they bounce opinions off each other.

Viktor Plotnikov leading Zoom auditions for SF Ballet School summer session // © San Francisco Ballet, Photo by Emma Yee

For students sending in recorded audition tapes, Armand’s advice is to “keep it honest and simple.” That’s the best way to see a student’s technique and physicality. If a camera is set on the floor, for example, it can be hard to tell someone’s height. To maintain fairness, pre-recorded auditions are only judged against other pre-recorded auditions.

Armand likes that the Faculty get to work together this year, instead of being spread across the country in separate auditions. Additionally, Interim Director of Education & Training Jennie Scholick has been “impressed by the resiliency of students during this audition season, whether they’re finding studio space or figuring out how to do auditions from home.”

SF Ballet School is currently planning a 5-week in-person summer session, with contingencies, and in compliance with San Francisco Department of Public Health protocols. The School has been a leader in COVID-safe ballet training and residence program operation, with advanced students taking in-person technique classes since October 2020. Armand is hopeful that he’ll be able to meet summer session students in the studio this July—but no matter what happens, he’s grateful that the School is “still going.” His only quibble? “It’s not good for my [airline] miles.”

Header Image: Viktor Plotnikov leading Zoom auditions for SF Ballet School summer session // © San Francisco Ballet, Photo by Emma Yee