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By Elaine Stuart
How does the director decide who to hire?
Dancers learn a phrase from Petronio’s Underland at an audition for his company. Gino Grenek (in gray sweatshirt, at back) leads. Photo by Rachel Papo.
Early on in a packed audition for his contemporary dance company, Stephen Petronio offered some advice: “Try not to kill each other.”
For the past half-hour, 75 dancers in a small studio at New York City’s Steps on Broadway had dodged flailing limbs and four unfortunately placed pillars in an attempt to reproduce the choreographer’s movements. It was one of two back-to-back auditions on a sweltering Friday in July. Dozens of hopefuls had been unable to register after the 160 spaces filled up. Petronio was looking to hire one man and one woman.
“Please don’t be nervous,” he told each group before the audition began. “You have no idea what I’m looking for. I barely do. Whether you get called back is not a reflection of your talent.” Then he handed the floor to his veteran dancer Gino Grenek.
Bald and brawny, with a large tattoo snaking down his right arm, Petronio doesn’t fit the stereotype of an artistic director. His edgy image and irreverence for the classical vocabulary led critics to dub him “the bad boy of dance” when he founded his troupe in 1984. These days—with countless commissions, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Bessie Award under his belt—his tough side is tempered by a preppy aesthetic. He arrived at Steps wearing thick-rimmed glasses, khaki shorts, a white T-shirt, and black Birkenstocks—which he promptly kicked off while observing the dancers from a chair at the front of the room.
Grenek began by teaching an excerpt from Petronio’s Underland. The choreographer chose it because he needed to fill two places in the work before his company’s fall tour, and it provided a good introduction to his fluid, off-kilter style.
“This phrase is very confrontational, so really charge at us,” Grenek said before demonstrating the steps. He sliced the air with windmill arms and lunged into a deep plié in second position, then twisted his torso and bolted across the floor. The dancers hovered around him, mimicking his moves. While they practiced, Petronio occasionally piped in: “Look at the weight washing from side to side. There’s a shape, but it has flow to it.”
After dividing the room into two groups, Petronio had the dancers do the combination five at a time. They performed without music because that’s how he choreographs; the studio was silent except for the pounding of feet and the odd grunt or muffled curse escaping the lips of a dancer who messed up.
Petronio’s eyes darted between bodies. He scribbled notes, as did four members of his company who were seated around him. Petronio always solicits his dancers’ input on potential hires. “It’s like adding a sibling to your family,” he says. “I’m wringing stories out of their bodies that are very personal, so it matters to me what they think.”
When all the dancers had performed, Petronio called “a quick powwow” with his company members. A buzz of chatter erupted in the room as they conferred—whispering and pointing to names on his clipboard. Finally he stood and the din disappeared. “We’re going to call numbers. These people stay and everyone else, thank you very much.”
After the cut, 28 dancers remained. They then learned a more demanding sequence that featured rapid-fire footwork and Petronio’s trademark undulations of the spine. “The first section was basic, so that tells me a lot about alignment and their ability to drop and recover weight,” he says. “The pyrotechnics of the second phrase let me see their skill.”
By the end of the second audition, the choreographer had narrowed the pool down to 10 dancers whom he invited to a company rehearsal at Joyce SoHo (two apprentices competing for the jobs also attended the callback). He didn’t extend offers until three weeks later.
Petronio notes that his contracts are typically for at least a two-year commitment. As a result he avoids making snap judgments. “The first impression could be just a beauty contest…who am I attracted to? On one level you imagine them as your ideal love as a dancer. So I try to see if that impression pans out.”
Two dancers who made a positive impression at Steps were Jaqlin Medlock, a freelance dancer, and Samantha Figgins, a recent graduate of SUNY Purchase. Both had attended a Petronio workshop the previous week, and their familiarity with his style showed (see “Learning from the Masters,” Jan.). Medlock says she went into the audition with the mindset of having fun and being herself, which relieved the pressure. “If a company doesn’t like you for who you are, they’re not going to hire you for who you are portraying,” says the petite brunette.
That attitude resonates with Petronio: “I want someone who knows who they are. I always say I’m looking for technique so good it’s invisible, because I want to see the person.” And he was so taken by what he saw in Medlock that when he found out she had a conflict with the Joyce rehearsal, he asked her to a private callback the following week. She attended, and later that same evening he called to offer her a contract.
“There is a sense of wildness to her movement in combination with her razor-sharp lines that smacks of raw potential,” Petronio says of his newest company member. (He also hired one of his apprentices, Nick Sciscione.)
Figgins shined at the callback but ultimately didn’t land the job. “That’s the most difficult thing—getting so far and then hearing, ‘We really like you, but we’re looking for something else,’ ” she says.
Petronio admits that in this case physique was a consideration; Medlock has a similar build to the dancer she replaced. “I don’t have an ideal body in mind, but I have a specific need for specific roles,” he says. “As a choreographer I’m making a picture onstage, and the dancer that’s auditioning never knows what that picture is.”
Petronio offered Figgins an unpaid apprenticeship, but she accepted one with Complexions Contemporary Ballet instead. Still, she says this was the best audition experience she’s had because it challenged her to stretch beyond her classical training and, as she puts it, “show my spirit through dance.”
For Petronio, that’s the point. So he hopes he’ll see Figgins and others from the audition in future classes and workshops—and maybe even one day onstage. “The most beautiful part of my job is watching dancers grow into this language, because this movement is hard,” he says. “To watch somebody get really good at it is one of the joys of my life.”
Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe.
Inset: Petronio (second from right) and his company members observe the dancers in the room. Jaqlin Medlock (left) soars through the Petronio audition. Photos by Rachel Papo.