For 49 ballerinas of color, Philadelphia was the place to be seen by some of the top companies and schools in the country and world Sunday afternoon.
It was the last of five auditions as the International Association of Blacks in Dance wrapped up its conference in Philadelphia. The aim was to get the dancers jobs in ballet companies, which have not always been accepting of non-white swans or sylphs. Some younger dancers were hoping for scholarships to prestigious schools.
Other auditions throughout the weekend were held for younger students, men, and modern dancers. But opportunities are rarest for ballerinas of color, which is ironic because the most famous ballet dancer in the United States is African American: Misty Copeland, principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre.
As the 49 hopefuls, ages 15 to 19, took to the barre at the Rock School for Dance Education on South Broad Street at Washington Avenue, some wore traditional pink tights and pointe shoes. Others were dressed in tights and shoes in a shade of brown chosen to match their skin, which has become increasingly common.
They stood where another very famous dancer trained for many years, Michaela DePrince, a soloist at the Dutch National Ballet, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Cherry Hill.
This was their chance to be seen by about 20 people who might give them jobs, including Angel Corella, artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet; Jonathan Stafford, who leads both New York City Ballet and its School of American Ballet; and leaders from Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Charlotte Ballet.
During the initial exercises, it was hard for some of the judges to see all of the dancers at once. The adjudicators crowded one end of the room on folding chairs, taking notes on laptops or handouts with the dancers’ names and numbers.
Depending on location, one might see only 10 or so dancers initially. Most of them looked good, although there was occasional confusion as to the timing of the steps given to them by the teacher, Karen Brown.
“Big breath in!” called Rasta Thomas, who leads all IABD auditions. Thomas has visited Philadelphia with his Bad Boys of Dance, which also performed on America’s Got Talent and So You Think You Can Dance.
In the center exercises, there was a bigger difference in the quality of dancers. As they divided into lines and moved across the floor, it was easier to see everyone. In many cases, the younger dancers were the stronger ones.
A turn combination was a big dividing factor between those likely to get jobs and scholarships and others who needed more training at home.
“I am looking for proficiency in technique and the same qualities as our company dancers,” including people who thrive under pressure," said Kiyon Ross, the director of company operations at Pacific Northwest Ballet and a former dancer with the company. He was looking for students to attend the PNB school’s summer intensive who might someday be able to join the company.
The biggest drama of the afternoon came in a jumping exercise, when one of the better dancers took a long leap and landed with an audible snap. She spent the rest of the time sitting to the side with ice on her ankle.
Thomas showed them a jazzy combination. “Ladies, show us your personalities,” he called. “Don’t be afraid to dance.”
One of the best dancers at the audition also had an ankle injury. Kaeli Ware, 19, is a student at the Rock School, and its director, Bojan Spassoff said last week that he didn’t expect her to feel well enough to attend the audition.
Her fouetté turns were among the few clean ones in the room and she was able to stretch her leg high above her shoulder. She is popular on Instagram and has been on Dance Moms and So You Think You Can Dance.
Corella said he is interested in a variety of looks. “There’s beauty in all types of bodies. If not, I never would have made it” as a dancer, he said, as he is shorter than most men in ballet.
Three dancers came to the studio to audition earlier in the week. He has a limited number of contracts, but he was interested in seeing the talent.
“I have a sister who is black,” Corella said. She’ll come to see Pennsylvania Ballet and ask “where are all the black dancers?"