Behind the scenes at an L.A. Dance Project audition
Ballet master Charlie Hodges breaking down a phrase. Photo by Kyle Froman.
On a chilly October day, 30 dancers warm up inside a New York City Center studio. Around 250 had submitted video reels, photos and a resumé to be considered for the L.A. Dance Project audition for just one open spot for a female member. Founded by Benjamin Millepied in 2012, LADP is touted as a nurturing environment for contemporary artistry with a classical underpinning. With nearly year-round contracts and repertoire including the works of inspiring masters like William Forsythe and newcomers like Justin Peck, the spot in question is coveted to say the least.
When the clock strikes noon, elegant Sébastien Marcovici and dynamic Charlie Hodges, the company’s yin and yang ballet masters, gather the dancers for a brief welcome and within just two minutes, Marcovici has taught a complicated section from Benjamin Millepied’s Hearts and Arrows. With furrowed brows and undulating ribcages, the dancers begin to unpack the combination, straining to keep up with Marcovici. The speed is undeniably challenging. “We picked this piece because when you first learn it, it doesn’t feel natural,” says Marcovici later. “But the more information you get, the more you can find a groove. It challenges the dancers to find that code, like a standardized test.”
Deciphering that code is Jourdan Epstein, 25. To handle the deluge of movement, she counts on her experience as a former Complexions Contemporary Ballet member. “There, I learned that picking up quickly comes from practice and experience,” she says. “Beyond that, I always focus on the details and the quality, using cue words to put a vocabulary to the movement. Then I say it to myself when learning and repeating.”
Rebecca Diab, 22, a recent Loyola Marymount graduate and New York City newcomer found a solid approach by focusing on sequencing. “If there’s a moment I keep getting stuck, I’ll take time to find the connecting step and repeat the pattern,” she says.
The ballet masters, looking for a quick study, agree with these approaches. “We want to see who is adapting, who is fast to handle the work without much info,” notes Marcovici. “Can they hear, understand and execute?” Hodges agrees: “It’s as if we gave everyone the same IKEA cabinet, and are seeing how you are choosing to build your cabinet.”
For the LADP hopefuls, this particular cabinet comes with two manuals: Hodges and Marcovici, who tag-team in teaching and giving notes, often differing slightly. To temper the variations, Hodges suggests dancers note places that are the same and those that aren’t. “If there’s a conflict in how we presented a moment, those are impressionable, and then you’re looking for a middle ground,” he says.
While Epstein quickly picks up the basics of the movement, when she notices incongruous versions, she sees them as opportunities to find herself. “They’re looking for details, but they’re looking for the dance in you, too.”
Throughout the audition, Hodges and Marcovici pepper the group with corrections about intention, phrasing and dynamics. When Diab receives a correction to reach farther with an angled arm, she takes comfort in the attention. “It made me know Charlie was watching me and wanted to help me,” she says. “They’re asking: Can you listen, fix and have a good attitude about it? It’s an opportunity to show these things.”
Above: As Hodges demonstrates, the dancers pick up as many details as possible. Photo by Kyle Froman.
One for You, One for Them
After 40 minutes of working, Hodges offers the familiar but often anxiety-inducing statement: “This time, just do it for you. We’re not watching.” The dancers’ body language seems to say: “Are you really not watching?”
While Diab doesn’t think the creative team’s attention has been removed, she focuses on “playful tasks” regardless. “They’re always watching us,” she says, with a laugh. “They want to see how you’ll be working in a rehearsal setting as you figure things out—and that’s fair. But I’m concentrating on my own tasks: Where can I focus my eyes? How can I find space in my body? What’s interesting about this shape? That keeps me engaged productively.”
In contrast, Epstein trusts in the creative team’s word. “When they say this one is for you, take that time for you!” she says. “I’m as much a mental dancer as physical, so I’m grateful to go through it in my mind without caring what I look like. Then when I perform, I can be confident.”
When it’s time for the actual audition, the hum of anticipation builds even more. But with encouragement and smiles from the team up front, the groups glide and twist through the phrase. “I approach it like an exploration,” says Epstein. “Directors are dancers, too, and they know mistakes can be made. It’s the recovery that counts.”
Above: Benjamin Millepied and ballet master Sébastien Marcovici observing the dancers. Photo by Kyle Froman.
After about half of the performers are cut, the remaining 16 refuel with health bars and water before Hodges and Marcovici launch into a second, yearning, technically challenging selection: Forsythe’s Quintett. “We do a huge range in our company, so it’s important to test versatility,” says Hodges.
As the dancers prepare to show the phrase, Benjamin Millepied enters, then sits on the floor up front. Backs become a bit straighter and arms reach wider in hopes of his approval. Afterward, the team asks the dancers to circle back to the first piece they learned, another test in adaptability. As they begin to swirl and dip in the fluid, beautifully off-kilter work, Millepied jumps up to instruct them, offering an invaluable third perspective on the movement—notes from the creator himself. A few flustered looks pass quickly across the dancers’ faces, but as they watch him demonstrate, they find new resolve.
“Initially I felt a bit frustrated because we worked hard on those original details,” says Diab. “But really, it’s wonderful—and a relief—to have that clarity from the director himself! It makes the choice defined. Plus, his version felt better in my body.”
Above: Marcovici watches closely as the dancers run through a phrase. Photo by Kyle Froman.
After multiple rounds of each combination, the exhausted dancers are released with a simple thank-you and promise of contact within a week. While neither Diab nor Epstein was offered the spot, both felt the day was a productive and inspiring experience. “I didn’t book the job, but that’s okay,” says Epstein. “Many companies want you to audition multiple times so they can see your interest, as well as how you grow and change. I’m excited to do that.”
Afterward, Hodges reflects on the experience. “Remember: It’s about the hole in the company that needs to be filled. We need to find a woman that matches and can partner our company’s men,” he says. “Be honest. Be authentic. You can see the energy when it’s not that. Present yourself as true.” Marcovici agrees: “Don’t pretend to be what we want,” he says. “Just be what we don’t realize we need.”
Video Submission Savvy
Many contemporary companies, including L.A. Dance Project, now require video submission for pre-screening purposes. Ballet master Charlie Hodges reminds dancers that as you create your reel, think about the “brand” you’re presenting. “Every part says something about you: your outfit, your music, your pieces. If the first thing you show is in a leotard and a bun, you’re putting forward your ballerina foot. If you’re in heels and shorts, that says another genre. So it’s a matter of understanding not only who you are, but who the company is.”
Hodges recommends dancers have multiple reels to choose from. Dancer Jourdan Epstein has two: one for classical concert dance and another for commercial contemporary dance. If an audition calls for a mix of clips, she can adjust the reels by switching out clips as needed.