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They leap -- and ballet judges look

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By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / May 10, 2009
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"Ladies, when you do an arabesque you cannot look in the mirror. You will undo yourself."

"Men, I know you can jump high. I want to see you jump within the music."

"You're welcome to enjoy it! Breathe in and out. Now, with a twinkle in your eye. . ."

These bits of guidance, issued by Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen as he strolls through the company's Grand Studio, are received like the Sermon on the Mount. Gazes are rerouted. Bodies surge in closer sync with the piano. Fifty-four dancers attempt, with all the strength and elegance they can muster, to twinkle for an hour - two if they make the cut - as they leap into a brilliant future with Boston Ballet.

It's audition day, an annual event, but judging by the mood on the fourth floor of the company's South End headquarters, it might as well come once a century. At 9 a.m. a couple of girls are in the bathroom fixing their buns and applying what appears to be a fourth coat of makeup. Dancers - who have registered to audition with no pre-approval from the company - begin lining up at a folding table outside the studio, where resumes and recommendation letters are traded for paper numbers to pin on leotards. Some glance furtively through the glass at eight barres set up in the center of the empty room before clustering in pairs and trios to stretch on the carpet.

Abby Bushnell, who is 18, sits by herself. Bushnell studied at Boston Ballet School, has appeared with the company twice as Clara and once as a Bon Bon in "The Nutcracker," and is currently training at Houston Ballet II. Slight and girlish-looking, but clearly armed with the stoicism required to make it through audition season, she uses a Thera-Band to warm her feet and mental focus to stay calm.

"It's hard. It's exciting. I get very nervous," says Bushnell, who has auditioned for four companies across the country this spring.

Someone's mother is knitting in a corner. A dad is reading the comics. One young man, who registered online at 1:30 this morning, plops down on the floor and tears into a pastry. He will not be offered a job today.

Nissinen strides into the studio moments before the auditions begin at 10 and takes a seat at a long table at the front of the room, facing the dancers, who have filed in to warm up at the barres. He is joined, "American Idol"-style, by four colleagues: Boston Ballet artistic associate Trinidad Vives, ballet master Anthony Randazzo, assistant ballet master Shannon Parsley, and Boston Ballet School associate director Margaret Tracey. The panel is armed with notepads and pencils, a stack of curriculum vitae, and five pairs of sharp, seasoned eyes - all aimed toward filling several spots in the company and in Boston Ballet II, the company's preprofessional program-in-residence, as well as recruiting promising young dancers for the Trainee Program and the school's Summer Dance Intensive.

After a few general remarks from Nissinen, variations on a be-yourself theme that culminate with "I don't want to see you be Natalia Makarova" (a former Kirov Ballet star), the accompanist strikes up the music, the dancers begin a sequence of relevés and pliés, and the jotting begins. By 10:15 there are three names on Nissinen's pad, five more by 10:30. The others are poring over photos and bios. Everyone is murmuring, comparing notes.

Nissinen leans over and says: "The toughest thing is to make sure you don't miss anybody. I start with a totally open mind, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. They will be eliminated by showing me what they are not able to do."

Boston Ballet held auditions in Miami, New York, and San Francisco as well as Boston during the month of March. The tryouts are structured like a standard ballet class, during which dancers execute a progression of steps beginning at the barre, moving to the center of the room, and concluding with jumps. Bushnell focuses intently on her steps. The deadly concentration on some of the faces looks more suited to mercenary work than ballet.

"They are trying so hard. Their movements are labored," says Nissinen, looking a little pained himself. He confesses that during his dance career he never once participated in an open audition, which is by definition a recipe for mass disappointment. There are other ways to join a ballet company: Professional dancers often take company classes in lieu of an audition - 57 did so in Boston this winter - and the company has received hundreds of audition DVDs in the mail. Nissinen is looking not so much for a body type but a balanced body, and there's an assortment of sizes and shapes here: petite and compact, tall and willowy, voluptuous, skeletal, and muscular. Nissinen's dancers must have pristine feet placement and deep musical awareness.

"But the most important quality," Nissinen says, "is they have to be interesting. I saw one person in Miami and she was clearly not ready for the second company, but she had this innate, womanly approach, and when she moved we could see inside the human being. I gave her a full scholarship to the Trainee Program, and hopefully she will unfold."

Making the cut

At precisely the halfway point, Nissinen thanks them all and calls out the numbers of those he'd like to stay. Bushnell, who has set her sights on a spot in Boston Ballet II, has done well and makes the cut, raising her hopes. No. 35 laughs and looks down at her number to double check that she heard right. Two girls who have been dismissed approach the panel to thank each member personally. (If only courteousness were part of the criteria.)

Nissinen divides the remaining dancers into smaller groups to take turns performing increasingly difficult steps, so that the panel can take a closer look at each hopeful. And then there's No. 54, who has decided to crash the second half of the audition.

"Someone always stays who wasn't called," Nissinen says. "I won't pay attention to her." Afterward she will engage him in what sounds like a heated debate in Russian. (If only persistence were part of the criteria.)

Nissinen says that while a small percentage of dancers who arrive at an audition have no business being there, most are careful about assessing their readiness. Among them is 19-year-old Austin Bodek, from Fairfax, Calif., who auditioned in San Francisco and has been offered a spot in Boston Ballet II. Bodek was eager to audition for companies in 2008, but the director at the San Francisco Ballet School advised her to train for one more year - which turned out to be the most critical of her career.

"I'm so long and kind of gangly it's taken me longer than most people to develop my core strength," says Bodek, whose confidence has blossomed in tandem with her technique. "When I walked into that room the question went through my head, `Do I want to be bold and stand right in front of the desk or a little further back?' And I made the decision to stand right in front of them. I remember doing tendues, and they were holding up my picture. It was a big picture, so I knew they were checking me out. Then I forgot the combination."

Clearly, it wasn't a problem. In his search for dancers with personalities as compelling as their technique, Nissinen embraces audition moments that others consider unmitigated disasters. "I like it when they fall," he says. "It means they are dancing on the edge."

At 11:30, Nissinen says quietly, "It's starting to look like there's nothing for me." At noon, when the audition concludes, he speaks with three dancers, two men and a woman, with whom he wants to stay in touch. But none of them will receive an offer.

Of the 247 people across the country who auditioned for Boston Ballet in March, 34 were given scholarships to the Summer Dance Intensive and six were invited to join Boston Ballet II. None was offered a spot in the company. Several company positions have been filled, though - by dancers who are either returning after being away or previously auditioned: siblings Lia and Jeffrey Cirio, who danced with Boston Ballet and Boston Ballet II, respectively, during the 2007-08 season, and Whitney Jensen, who was hired via an audition DVD and an informal audition at company classes.

At the studio, the dancers sling their bags over their shoulders and file out efficiently, looking more resigned than dejected. They wanted this job. But for all dancers, at some point in their careers, rejection is part of the job. Bushnell is already getting good at it.

"Sometimes they're just looking for a different style," she tells me after the audition, adding with a shrug: "I have an offer from the Joffrey Ballet's trainee program." She'll take it.

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.