Mark Morris—In His Own Words—On What He Looks For in Dancers

January 31, 2015

When I put out a call that I’m having an audition, several hundred people show up. The dancers in my company teach groups of people the exact same material—citations from the dances—things that show a big range. Auditioners learn dance phrases, fast and slow and complicated and simple, and then we cut the group down to around 50 people.

The next day, they learn new stuff and also review the old stuff to see if it’s sunk in. Then I watch that. (I don’t come in at the beginning, because I tend to slow things down.) Sometimes these auditions go for two or three days, because I believe that everyone should have a chance to work something out. People learn at different rates. I never cut dancers because they’re short or ugly or stupid or redheads or perfect. I let people learn; that’s the unusual part of how I audition. I don’t just say, “Everybody do a double pirouette,” and you’re cut on that. And of course I use live music in my auditions because my work is all about that. Dealing with music is often the thing that is most difficult for dancers to comprehend.

I’m looking for really, really good dancers with the potential for doing my work. I don’t really care about biographies. I want to watch dancing. It’s not just: “You dance great.” It’s: “You dance great with the potential of dancing really differently and better after working with us.” There’s no shortage of good dancers; there’s a shortage of people who can dance well in my company. I’m not looking for identical models of the same thing. That’s not interesting at all. And I like adults. I don’t like to work with teenagers. I adore them, but I don’t want them on the road with me.

Once I’ve narrowed the group down to three or four or five people, I’ll have them come in and take class, and watch the dancing that they’ve learned in the context of my company, to see if they can adapt and fit in.

I’m very, very careful in hiring people, because I don’t like firing people. It all comes from what happens in the studio. First impressions are often valuable, but usually not the same as a third impression. So I hire people as apprentices in six-month increments. They work with the company and take class and perform some. After six months, I either extend the apprenticeship, or discontinue it, or hire somebody into the company. Sometimes I don’t have room for people or can’t hire them right away, but they’re promising, so I’ll say, “When you’re in town take company class.” Or, “I’m still looking at you, come back.” Some people have been supplemental dancers in my bigger pieces for years—it’s not an automatic path into my company. But it sometimes is.

As far as auditions go, mine are pretty friendly and relatively humane. The whole situation is difficult and can be degrading and nobody likes to do it. Everybody thinks that the people going to auditions are scared and hate it. But in fact the people giving auditions are just as horrified, most of the time. It’s really hard, because eventually it’s like: “Thank you, thank you, you stay, you guys are done, thanks.” And everybody feels horrible. I really try not to talk about people in front of them. And I’m committed to allowing dancers to show me their capabilities.

At an audition don’t chew gum. Don’t talk. Don’t eat and drink. Wait in line in the corner to go across the floor. You wouldn’t show up for a job interview unkempt, in ill-fitting, dirty clothes. People think dancing’s so casual because we work in sweatpants or whatever. But it’s not casual; it’s quite formal and quite serious. It’s not a break from real life. It’s a different kind of real life.

Auditioning for my company is really: Do this, try this, how’s that?, change this, do that again, do it faster, let’s see if you can do that. And then you get to know people later on, and with any luck they turn out to be even more fabulous than you’d imagined when you met them.