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.

The Conversation
Dancer Voices
Paloma Garcia-Lee has appeared on Broadway and in TV's "Fosse/Verdon" and will be in the new West Side Story film. Photo by Susan Stripling, Courtesy Garcia-Lee

I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon. Photo by Eric Liebowitz/FX Networks

You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.

"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Courtesy CalArts

Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
LA Dance Project. Photo by Jonathan Potter, courtesy LADP

We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.

But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.

There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Carlos Acosta in a still from Yuli. Photo by Denise Guerra, Courtesy Janet Stapleton

Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.

Keep reading... Show less
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.

The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in Fancy Free. Photo via pbt.org

A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.

This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Courtesy Bloc Talent Agency

When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Hamrick rehearsing Port Rouge in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Hamrick

Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.

So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Photo by freestocks.org/Unsplash

What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?


Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Stephen Mills' Grimm Tales, which premiered last month, is the first ballet funded by the Butler New Choreography Endowment. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin

As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.

So where can companies find the money?

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Social media validates extremes over clean, solid technique. Photo by David Hofmann/Unsplash

The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."

My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.

This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Royal Winnipeg Ballet revived Lila York's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale earlier this month. Photo by David Cooper, Courtesy RWB

When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.

It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Courtesy Khoreva

The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?

Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Merce Cunningham in his Changeling (1957). Photo courtesy DM Archives

Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.

Courtesy DM Archives

Dance in Pop Culture
Courtesy MPRM Communications

A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.

But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."

Keep reading... Show less
A 1952 photograph of Merce Cunningham in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three. Photo by Gerda Peterich, Courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates

One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.

This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.

The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
George Balanchine's Don Quixote. Photo by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.

Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.

"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."

Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?

Keep reading... Show less
Sarah Lane will perform in one of the "You Are Us" benefit concerts. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy ABT

After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.

Keep reading... Show less
Malpaso Dance Company in Cunningham's Fielding Sixes. Photo by Nir Ariel, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.

Keep reading... Show less


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox