2012 Auditions Guide: Through Petronio's Eyes

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.

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

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