2014 Auditions Guide: Forget Cattle Calls

January 31, 2014

A Whim W’Him audition pushes dancers to experiment.


“I want a group where dancers can blossom with artistic freedom,” says Olivier Wevers. All photos by Kyle Froman

On a rainy August afternoon in New York City, 35 dancers pile into the lobby of the Joyce Theater. The Seattle-based company Whim W’Him is in town for the Joyce’s Ballet v6.0 festival, and artistic director Olivier Wevers is looking for two dancers and an apprentice for new work the company will debut in January.

Just getting to the audition proves a feat in itself: More than 70 applied and Wevers cut the applicant pool in half after reviewing resumés, photos and videos. (Another audition is to be held in Seattle a few weeks later.) And while he pays close attention to applicants’ technique, he also looks for “responsible and proactive artists.” “I’m trying to create a group where dancers have voices,” he says. “I don’t want to pick dancers because of their visual appeal alone and drop them in the middle of a large established group.”

After 14 years as principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet (and before with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet), Wevers left in 2011 to devote himself to his fledgling troupe, which is quickly building national acclaim. The same year, he was named a Dance Magazine “25 to Watch” and was awarded a Princess Grace Choreography Fellowship. Star dancers from major ballet companies—like Houston Ballet principal Melody Mennite and PNB principal Kaori Nakamura—flock to Wevers’ company, attracted to his intricate choreography and the group’s collective atmosphere. In addition to his own work, Wevers commissions an eclectic mix of other choreographers, such as Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.

And as someone who’s been on the other side of the audition table, Wevers makes a point of treating dancers respectfully during an often intimidating process. From the size of the group (“You can’t fairly look at more people in such a short amount of time”) to the absence of numbers pinned to dancers’ chests, the three-hour audition feels more like a workshop with useful feedback instead of bruised egos. “The very first thing Olivier said was that although we were auditioning for him, the day was also our chance to audition them,” recalls Grace Whitworth, 29, a member of Yin Yue Dance Company in New York, after the tryout. “He wanted us to see how we would feel with his company.”

At 1:00 p.m., the dancers who have been warming up in the downstairs lobby stream into the theater wearing a mix of leotards and leggings, shorts and sweats. They find eight company dancers already onstage, and as they make their way up, Wevers greets each with a handshake and an introduction. “We want to see the real you,” he says. “Don’t show off.”

Those used to starting auditions with barre work might be thrown by the next section: Instead of pliés, they jump right into learning a phrase from Wevers’ 2010 work This Is Not a Raincoat. “I’ve always felt that class is a personal time to get warm,” Wevers says. “Plus, I don’t work with my dancers in class. I need responsible artists who know what they need to do to be ready for rehearsal.”

For the next 40 minutes, Whim W’Him dancers Andrew Bartee (also in PNB) and Mia Monteabaro work on the phrase with the auditioners while Wevers studies head shots, matching the 2-D prints with bodies and faces. Bartee homes in on details—which count is the slice to the right or how to twist around, slide to the floor and lift a leg with the work’s signature sickled foot position, the “sickle pickle.”

Above: Lucien Postlewaite of Whim W’Him works with the men on partnering.

Company dancers spread over the space, eager to help auditioners master the choreography. “I wanted my dancers to be a part of the audition,” says Wevers. “They’re going to be working with the new people, and for me, process is as important as performance.”

After performing the phrase twice in groups of five, another surprise awaits: a five-minute break but no cuts. Instead, the dancers split into groups of four and improvise. “I didn’t want to eliminate someone for not being a fast learner,” Wevers says. “What if I had let go an amazing artist? I recognize my own limitations, and maybe there’s a dancer who doesn’t pick up the details as quickly as others. Through improv, I can see if she’s a great mover.” And for a company whose core mission is developing new work, improvisation is an essential skill. “I’m not looking for imitators,” Wevers says. “I want artists who can take a step and make it something of their own so we can have an exchange.”

At 2:15, the first cuts come. Wevers hands company members two piles of head shots—those he wants to keep and those to let go. He asks if dancers in either pile are misplaced. In whispers, phrases like “too square” or “too wild” can be heard, and a dancer who “was connecting with other girls in the improv” moves to the top of the “to keep” pile. Wevers says: “I want dancers to be aware of their space and that of others. And if someone is not being respectful, that’s a clear cut.” Ultimately, 16 dancers are kept—4 men and 12 women, including Whitworth.

Though relieved that she made it so far, Whitworth says that she’s learned from past auditions to take them one step at a time. “I used to get so excited—sometimes even texting a friend that I’d made it,” she says. “But there are always other cuts that can still go either way. I just try to stay focused with my head in the game.” That clear-headedness is a boon for the next portion: learning a partnering phrase—in trios.

The women learn a section from Wevers’ I don’t remember a spark, and the four men learn an excerpt of a pas de deux in Approaching Ecstasy. Ramona Kelley, 25, who performed on the national tour of Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away, says afterward that being so focused on the tricky partnering made her forget it was actually an audition. “There were really complicated moments,” she says. “We had to be daring, step outside our comfort zones as female dancers and partner someone else.”

Right: Grace Whitworth (center, in purple) stretches during the five-minute break.

Wevers admits that the trios were difficult. “I knew that in 40 minutes the dancers wouldn’t get it all,” he says. “But I wanted to see how they worked it out as a unit. I tried to listen to how they responded to one another.”

By 2:55, the original 35 have been whittled down to five women and one man. Whitworth and Kelley end up finalists, and all six dancers follow Wevers and the company members to a conference room where they spend another half-hour talking as a group. “That was the most atypical part,” says Kelley. “Olivier and the Whim W’Him dancers answered our questions, told us about their company and how often they work.”

Ultimately, the dancers who Wevers would hire needed to be able to travel to the West Coast. Several that he offered contracts to had conflicts, and a little more than a month later, three from the Seattle audition would end up filling Whim W’Him’s open slots. Still, Wevers notes that his long-term goal is a year-round company with 10 dancers. “For now, I’ve kept a file of the dancers who caught my eye in New York and who I’d be interested in working with again. Maybe it didn’t work out this time, but it’s not a closed door.”