Once again we received around 700 (!) applications. First of all, in the office, a ballet master weeds out the candidates without a chance from the serious ones. Then Ted looks personally at the couple of hundred applications that are left. In the end, he selects about 130 who are then actually allowed to come. Because even though everyone sends in a flattering photo of themselves (and nowadays also a DVD as well), you still have to prove yourself in the flesh.
The students of the professional Dutch ballet academies in Amsterdam and The Hague have an advantage, as they are already known to us. Ted knows them from their exam lessons and school performances, and most of them have taken part in our own performances as apprentices. This time, he has already engaged two students from the National Ballet Academy in Amsterdam for next season, and held talks with some other young Dutch dancers.
And Saturday was the big day.
The Amsterdam Music Theatre is humming with youthful expectation. There are dancers everywhere; warming up, nervously fiddling with their clothes or waiting stoically. There’s a mixture of foreign languages and many iPods in ears. They all know this is their big chance. Today’s the day you have to excel if you want to dance with the Dutch National Ballet.
One of the candidates is a Chinese girl of 17. When we were on tour in Beijing, her mother sat and waited for Ted all evening in the hotel lobby. The mother, who had even brought an interpreter with her, eventually buttonholed Ted and showed him some photos. “Please take my daughter into your company”. Of course Ted couldn’t promise that on the spot, although he did want to watch her DVD. And eventually that led to her being picked up last Friday at Schiphol by the ever-helpful Chao and Jing Jing. They are sure to have given her some tips, but today she’s all on her own.
The girls get to go first. In the biggest studio, the Dutch National Ballet’s full artistic staff take their seats at a long table. Sixty dancers look expectantly at the ballet teacher who is about to give the usual daily class. Every candidate has a number on their chest, which is the only way the staff can distinguish between all the dancers. But Rinat, our ballet master giving the class, and Olga, our pianist, reassure them that nobody needs to feel like just a number in our company.
Ted gives a short speech. “You don’t know what we’re looking for”, he says. “So if we don’t choose you, that doesn’t mean that you did a bad job today”. And it’s true – maybe we already have enough tall boys in the corps de ballet, or maybe too few. But the real reason for giving the speech is to reassure everyone a bit. Because even though we might have enough tall boys (I’m 1.93m myself, by the way), of course we would never let someone really talented walk away. And they know that themselves, too.
Then the class starts. It’s difficult to stand out in such a big group. The ballet masters take down notes. Often, they see straight away who doesn’t stand a chance. But everyone is allowed to complete the one and a half hour class. That’s different at other companies, where somebody walks round tapping those who haven’t made it. “Thank you”, you hear – and then have to leave the studio; to pack up and leave, back to Cuba or Siberia.
After the class, the artistic staff put their heads together. Numbers that stood out are exchanged across the table. Who do we want to see again, and who can go home? Last year, that was everyone. Nobody was interesting enough, not even the dancers who were already dancing with other renowned companies but had applied because they wanted to make the switch to the Dutch National Ballet. A whole day wasted.
To the great relief of the staff, today is different, as six girls are asked to come back later in the afternoon. First, it’s the boys’ turn, because they still have to do a whole class. Then there’s another selection of five lucky ones. So this Saturday no fewer than 11 dancers are through to the next round, as they say in the popular TV programme ‘So you think you can dance’.
And this second round is gruelling. Now you have to show not only that you’re up to the technical side of things, but also that you’re a real dancer, as this round is all about learning repertoire. The staff then judge whether you can pick up steps quickly, whether you are daring and have personality, and whether you can really move.
And who made it? What did this Open Audition eventually yield? One young Frenchman was offered a contract, and three girls and one boy were told we would phone them if a place became available. Only these dancers were good enough for the Dutch National Ballet – 5 out of 700.
And our Chinese candidate? She will soon be sitting at home waiting for a call from Holland – because she was one of the three girls. Will a place come free? And is she the one we’ll pick in that case? If not, she’ll certainly go and audition for another company. Or maybe she’ll try for us again next season. A new round; new chances.