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By Siobhan Burke
When you think of Martha Graham’s classic female roles—the madly convulsing Medea, the anguished soloist in Lamentation—“relax” might be the last word that comes to mind. But that’s the first thing that Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, asked the group of 60-some dancers to do, as she welcomed them to an audition at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn last July. Upright, attentive postures softened a little, as the dancers smiled at their own nervousness.
“The Graham repertoire is such a combination of physicality and emotional expression,” Eilber said, standing alongside senior artistic associate Denise Vale and Virginie Mécène, director of the Martha Graham School, who would help her hire six dancers (three women and a man for the corps, plus two apprentices) for the company’s fall season. “If you’re nervous, you’re withholding who you are, withholding that expression. For the most part, we just want you to have a great time, and through your dancing, let us know who you are.”
Just be yourself: It may sound cliché, but Eilber spoke from her own experience. “I learned so much more about auditions once I got on this side of the table,” she told the dancers. “I wish someone had told me that they’re not about being the most perfect dancer in the world.” When it comes to landing a coveted spot—one of 19 full-time positions—in this historic troupe, many of the deciding factors are “out of your control,” she says. As she considers “the jigsaw of putting together the next season,” Eilber is searching not just for excellent technique but for combinations of physique, persona, and presence that align with specific roles in the Graham repertoire.
She’s also looking at a lot of familiar faces. About two-thirds of the dancers at the July audition, she says, were members of Graham II (MGDC’s junior company and the performing arm of the school) or other advanced students in the school. She rarely hires a dancer on the spot whom she’s never seen before.
Eilber likens hiring for the Graham company to casting for a Shakespeare play. “There are iconic theatrical roles that require a certain shape and size and personality,” she says. “We have the ingénue, the earth mother, the comic lead, the heroic male leads. So while we are looking for the best technical dancers, we’re looking for the best technical dancers that also fit those categories.” While new company members don’t go immediately into soloist or principal roles, she assesses them with the long-term future of the company in mind. “I have to be able to say, ‘Yes, I can see in five years that she’ll have the right look and personality to be Medea.’ It’s hard to explain to young dancers who think, ‘Wow if I just try my hardest, it’s gonna happen!’ ”
Which isn’t to say persistence doesn’t count. As the dancers on that summer afternoon began tackling the first combination of the physically demanding audition—a mélange of robust Graham vocabulary—an unmistakable talent radiated from the front row. Lauren Newman, a svelte brunette with bright red lips to match her leotard, was auditioning for MGDC for the third time in four years. By the next day, she had a contract with the company.
Newman had moved to New York in 2007 to attend the Graham School and joined Graham II soon after. As a member of Graham II, she had already apprenticed with the main company, but Eilber didn’t think she was ready to join full-time. “Technically she was beautiful, but she just didn’t have the stage presence we needed,” says Eilber. She had talked to Newman at the end of her apprenticeship about improving her dramatic presentation. During the audition, Newman says, “I was focusing on expressing my own individual idea of the movement. I had done a lot of thinking about it.” She had also spent time experimenting with facial expressions in the mirror. “Often you have an idea of what your face looks like,” she says, “but it might be completely different from what people are viewing, so it’s helpful to play with that.”
Her efforts paid off. “She had really improved,” Eilber says. “Six months ago I would have said, She’s just never gonna get across the footlights. But she really worked on it, and that’s sometimes harder to work on than your extension.”
Newman’s path into the company is a common one: attending the school and becoming immersed in Graham’s oeuvre over a period of months or years. Indeed, the other two women Eilber hired were also members of Graham II. But the audition can also serve as a gateway to the school. If Eilber and her staff notice someone with particular potential, they may offer them a scholarship and a position in Graham II.
At the very least, every dancer at the July audition had the chance to brush up on Graham technique and get corrections from the artistic director herself. While Eilber quietly observed for most of the time, jotting down notes and conferring with Vale and Mécène, she occasionally stood up to voice a pet peeve. “The arm in the bell jumps is not a windmill,” she said to one group of women. “The back is falling into the arm.” Working with the men on a section from Diversion of Angels, she critiqued their entrance: too vertical. “It’s like a Chagall painting; you appear sideways,” she said. “You’re being thrown by your pelvis, by that feeling in your gut when you’re in love.”
While Graham performers will always need access to that depth of emotion, the company has recently expanded its repertoire to include a wider range of sensibilities. In hiring dancers, Eilber is starting to take this diversified rep into account. New works include pieces by Graham’s younger colleagues (Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow) and American Document (2010), a collaboration with the experimental theater group SITI Company. “We’re beginning to incorporate styles that may be very different from the Graham theatricality,” Eilber says, “and we’re going to need dancers who can drop that and become anybody onstage. So that’s beginning to creep into our decisions as well.”
No matter what pieces she is casting, Eilber is interested in the individual behind every performer—“not just your technical strengths,” she says, “but your strengths as a personality onstage, your communication power.” And, she adds, know your weaknesses too. “If a tall woman sees a short dancer doing this incredible allegro step, and it discourages her because she can’t do that? Well, of course she can’t do that, and I wouldn’t hire her to do a fast allegro step. I want to see her lyricism and dynamic power and her percussive movement. So play to your own strengths—and confidently.”
Siobhan Burke is Dance Magazine’s education editor.
Lauren Newman at the MGDC audition last July. Photo by Rachel Papo