Career

2015 Auditions Guide: "It's Not Just: 'You Dance Great.' "

Choreographer Mark Morris in his own words on how his auditions work and what he looks for in dancers

Morris at work in the studio. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy MMDG.

When I put out a call that I’m having an audition, several hundred people show up. The dancers in my company teach groups of people the exact same material—citations from the dances—things that show a big range. Auditioners learn dance phrases, fast and slow and complicated and simple, and then we cut the group down to around 50 people.

The next day, they learn new stuff and also review the old stuff to see if it’s sunk in. Then I watch that. (I don’t come in at the beginning, because I tend to slow things down.) Sometimes these auditions go for two or three days, because I believe that everyone should have a chance to work something out. People learn at different rates. I never cut dancers because they’re short or ugly or stupid or redheads or perfect. I let people learn; that’s the unusual part of how I audition. I don’t just say, “Everybody do a double pirouette,” and you’re cut on that. And of course I use live music in my auditions because my work is all about that. Dealing with music is often the thing that is most difficult for dancers to comprehend.

I’m looking for really, really good dancers with the potential for doing my work. I don’t really care about biographies. I want to watch dancing. It’s not just: “You dance great.” It’s: “You dance great with the potential of dancing really differently and better after working with us.” There’s no shortage of good dancers; there’s a shortage of people who can dance well in my company. I’m not looking for identical models of the same thing. That’s not interesting at all. And I like adults. I don’t like to work with teenagers. I adore them, but I don’t want them on the road with me.

Once I’ve narrowed the group down to three or four or five people, I’ll have them come in and take class, and watch the dancing that they’ve learned in the context of my company, to see if they can adapt and fit in.

I’m very, very careful in hiring people, because I don’t like firing people. It all comes from what happens in the studio. First impressions are often valuable, but usually not the same as a third impression. So I hire people as apprentices in six-month increments. They work with the company and take class and perform some. After six months, I either extend the apprenticeship, or discontinue it, or hire somebody into the company. Sometimes I don’t have room for people or can’t hire them right away, but they’re promising, so I’ll say, “When you’re in town take company class.” Or, “I’m still looking at you, come back.” Some people have been supplemental dancers in my bigger pieces for years—it’s not an automatic path into my company. But it sometimes is.

As far as auditions go, mine are pretty friendly and relatively humane. The whole situation is difficult and can be degrading and nobody likes to do it. Everybody thinks that the people going to auditions are scared and hate it. But in fact the people giving auditions are just as horrified, most of the time. It’s really hard, because eventually it’s like: “Thank you, thank you, you stay, you guys are done, thanks.” And everybody feels horrible. I really try not to talk about people in front of them. And I’m committed to allowing dancers to show me their capabilities.

At an audition don’t chew gum. Don’t talk. Don’t eat and drink. Wait in line in the corner to go across the floor. You wouldn’t show up for a job interview unkempt, in ill-fitting, dirty clothes. People think dancing’s so casual because we work in sweatpants or whatever. But it’s not casual; it’s quite formal and quite serious. It’s not a break from real life. It’s a different kind of real life.

Auditioning for my company is really: Do this, try this, how’s that?, change this, do that again, do it faster, let’s see if you can do that. And then you get to know people later on, and with any luck they turn out to be even more fabulous than you’d imagined when you met them.

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

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Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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News
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

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Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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