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By Margaret Fuhrer
On a rainy fall morning in New York City, nearly 150 girls huddle in the hallways of midtown’s Ripley-Grier Studios, swathed in sweats and legwarmers to fend off the damp chill. It’s 15 minutes before the open call for the national tour of A Chorus Line, and the air hums with nervous energy as the Broadway hopefuls stretch, chatter, and touch up their makeup.
Inside studio 17D, Nikole Vallins of Binder Casting cradles a large coffee, steeling herself for what will be a very long day. She’s discussing logistics with Michael Gorman, the show’s associate choreographer, who will be teaching the audition combination. “A hundred and fifty girls?” Vallins says, pushing her hair off her face. She makes a quick mental calculation. “OK, four groups, 40 at a time. They can learn it facing the mirror first. But Michael, we’ve got to keep the pace snappy.”
The petite Vallins is only in her late 20s, but she speaks with an easy authority—cheerful yet businesslike—that belies her age. She has an impressive resumé to back her natural confidence. A longtime dancer (she attended and now teaches at the Broadway Theatre Project program), Vallins was a protégée of celebrated casting director Dave Clemmons. She joined Binder three and a half years ago, shortly after the agency cast the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line on Broadway—and she’s helped find every Cassie, Sheila, Mike, and Paul since.
As of this audition, Vallins explains, the Chorus Line national tour has been on the road for a year and a half. “Almost everyone in the current group is ready to come home,” she says, “so we basically have to recast the show for the next leg. We have a Cassie, a Zach, and a Maggie, but the other 27 parts? Up for grabs.”
Vallins checks her watch and signals to Gorman. “It’s showtime,” she says. She lets in the first group of girls, now stripped down to their high-cut leotards, sleek tights, and nude LaDuca character shoes.
Vallins’ job involves more than just winnowing down the audition pool: She’s a strange hybrid of camp counselor, cattle herder, cheerleader, and judge. “Welcome, welcome!” she trills, waving in the auditionees. “How are you all doing? It’s gross out there today, huh? Look how made-up and beautiful you all are! Come this way, please—that’s right, spread out. Everyone has given me a dance card, correct?”
Soon Vallins turns the audition over to Gorman, who begins teaching an excerpt from the show’s iconic opening: all splayed fingers and sharp, low kicks. While not terribly complicated, it requires stop-on-a-dime precision and explosive energy.
Vallins settles in behind the casting table, which is littered with energy bars and BlackBerry phones. “Wow, this is a young group,” she says. She’s seen hundreds of New York–based dancers for A Chorus Line, so she and her assistants tried to bring in some fresh talent. “We called every dance school in the tri-state area to get the word out, and posted the information all over the web. It’s a vigorous process, and it brings in a lot of new—and in this case young—faces.”
Even though the dancers are unfamiliar, Vallins is quick to spot potential cast members. “I can tell almost as soon as they walk in the door,” she says. “First of all, you can see who’s done their homework and dressed the part. That attention to detail is a good sign.” She also looks for obvious physical requirements: Connie, for instance, needs to be short; Val needs a killer body. But beyond that, “Knowing who’s who is a gut feeling. I know the characters so well at this point.”
Gorman stops teaching briefly to help a girl who looks perplexed. “Old habits die hard, eh?” he says, and the group laughs. Vallins explains that the girl had been dancing the show’s original choreography, but that Gorman was actually teaching a slightly modified version of the phrase. “Where is her head?” Vallins mutters. “Automatically I’m thinking she doesn’t listen, doesn’t take direction well. Audition rule number one: Do exactly what you’re asked to do!”
Also high on Vallins’ list of rules: “Keep up your training while you’re auditioning,” she says. “Working the audition circuit should be like going to law or medical school: The auditions are the tests, but if you don’t go to class, how will you ‘pass’? I see too many dancers losing their technique because they skimp on class time.”
When the group has finished learning the combination, Vallins grabs her stack of pink dance cards and snaps back into cheerleader mode. “Looking good, ladies! Now it’s time for you to show us what you got.”
Two by two, the dancers step forward and make their way through the sequence. After each pair, Gorman and Vallins whisper to each other—“She’s perfect for… What do you think of…I don’t know about…”—but ultimately it’s Vallins who marks the dance cards with either an affirmative check or an emphatic “N,” often in a matter of seconds. (Some girls get an “N” before they’ve even begun dancing.) As the minutes tick by, the rejection pile grows at an alarming pace.
Before announcing who’s made the cut, Vallins has some words of advice. “Please, please take more ballet—there are too many floppy feet in here,” she says. “And nobody in this show doesn’t sing, so invest in vocal lessons, too.” As the girls file out of the room, she adds, “Remember: It’s our job to get you in this show, not keep you out of it.”
Vallins is true to her word. When the second group enters, she points out a blonde in a red leotard and fishnets. “She’s been to two earlier calls and almost has it,” Vallins says. “This style is tricky for some dancers; it’s a little bit retro. So we encourage people to come back. I’ve had girls audition 20 times! Persistence is a great quality in show business.” Vallins watches as the blonde works through the combination. “She might finally nail it today.” Thirty minutes later, she does, making the cut.
As the day goes on, the energy level in the studio begins to drop palpably. Before ushering in the final group, Vallins runs out to grab coffee for the weary casting team. “Gotta keep going,” she sighs. “We try to give everyone a fair shot, but we’re human. I have to admit—by the last couple of groups, we’re a little glazed over. That’s why dancers should get to auditions early. You want to be number one, not 130.”
By 1:00 p.m., the women’s audition is done. Vallins has cut the pool down to about 30 dancers, who will return next week along with those culled from two previous calls. Vallins will then work with the show’s director, producer, musical director, and choreographer to choose the final cast.
“This job is tough,” Vallins says, preparing the dance cards for the afternoon men’s audition. “First there’s the rejection, which isn’t fun. Then there’s never knowing if you’ll come up with the right people. At this point the thought of finding 27 dancers is overwhelming.”
She pauses for a moment and smiles. “But hey, being able to make that phone call and say, ‘You’re going on the national tour of A Chorus Line—that’s pretty fantastic, right?”
Margaret Fuhrer is an assistant editor for Dance Spirit and Pointe and contributing editor for Dance Teacher.
Auditioning for the national tour of A Chorus Line. Photo by Rachel Papo