Dance Auditions at Cirque du Soleil: Meet the Eye Behind the Table

September 24, 2017

The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.

And all seems calm, as if I’ve been doing this for a very long time. Which I have. Little do the dancers know how many tens of thousands of dancers I have seen and auditioned to get to this moment in time, little do they know the complexities and the enormous number of hours needed to cast one show, much less 22 at the same time – all the time – and counting. Little do they know how much audition “success” is out of their control and how much of it actually is. But they wouldn’t know, and I guess I wouldn’t expect them to.

During this wait time the question going through the dancers’ minds is, what is the secret? What is the key to the mystery of making it to the end of an audition – my God, “What is he looking for?” I’ve been a dancer from childhood; my first time on stage was at age 9 and from that time on I didn’t leave the stage until I retired from dancing. I know the drill. I’ve been through audition nervousness more times than I can even count; I’ve asked myself all the same questions.

And here I am, many years later, still without a real answer to those questions. This is because the questions themselves are wrong. There is no mystery, there is no secret. There is only common sense. Common sense and knowing who you are, what you do, how you do it, and being confident that you know. That’s it.

Which doesn’t make it easier to understand, because it’s too simple. Human beings like solutions to be complicated; it makes us feel like learning them somehow has more value. But a lot of the most valuable things in life are actually ridiculously simple.

Let me try to explain in more concrete terms. Most of what I do is what we’ll call General Auditions. This means that I am not just looking for dancers to show me “what I’m looking for, but looking to see what the dancers have to offer. Outside of trying to find people who fit roles in a creation that already exists – like most companies do – I am looking for people who can be created on.

Now although the concept of the General Audition is pretty specific to Cirque du Soleil, the selection parameters used to make decisions are not. Technique is essential, but not at the expense of artistic interpretation. Artistic interpretation is essential, but not at the expense of technique.

Technique is what gives you consistency. It’s what keeps you from getting injured. It’s a tool that opens up a myriad of possibilities that you would not have without it. It’s what keeps you in control of movement, and not the other way around. But technique without artistry is like buying paintbrushes but never painting anything with it. Technique in itself, by itself, is not art. And art is what we are ultimately trying to create, yes?

Can all this not be simply shown in a video? A large part of it can, yes. Technique can be shown in a video, rhythm can be shown in a video (but not in a showreel). Looking at videos is much more time consuming than holding a large audition, but yes, some important elements can be seen in a video.

But how you work with a choreographer or director cannot. How quickly you learn choreography cannot. How well you react to being asked to do something out of your comfort zone cannot. Professionalism – how you react to adversity or the unexpected – cannot. Improvisational abilities, for the most part, cannot.

So although technology has made finding and filtering dancers for casting purposes much, much easier (I cannot stress enough how much technology helps) – the live audition process is still an essential tool, and is not going away any time soon.

Most auditions are so specific that often one does not get the chance to show the extent of one’s talent and trained skills. You would think that any dancer wanting to show their strengths would take advantage of the few auditions out there that do give you that all-around opportunity. You would think.

All I can say about that is, life is short. When that opportunity arrives, the only choice I see is to take it, even if in the long run you have no idea if it will actually lead to a job you want. Think about it: the worst case scenario would be that the audition not lead to a job but still be a learning experience – which has a lot more value than not taking the opportunity at all, which is pretty much a guarantee of the status quo.

You can say that one never knows when or what opportunity will knock on the door, and that the future of opportunities is out of our control. We cannot make people hire us; we cannot make them call us up with a contract offer.

Maybe. But what we can do is constantly mold our environment into one in which opportunity is most likely to happen. Getting yourself seen by people interested in seeing you, even if there is no position currently open at the time, is just one of those environmental possibilities. But make sure you’re showing what you want to be seen. And make sure your training is constantly working towards exactly that.

So go, give, absorb, push, cry, laugh. Then go home, let it all go, and be proud of what you’ve done. The future will then be whatever you make of it, but at the very least, you will have planted a seed somewhere that could possibly open another path.

Cliché as it is, I have to repeat that life is short. It is unfortunate that we don’t really quite get that concept when we’re young and think that we have our whole lives ahead of us. Because although it is true, the whole life that is ahead of us is really much much shorter than we realize at the time.

There are things in life that we do for a living, and there are things that we live for. If you are a professional dancer or an aspiring one, I think it is safe to say that you are aiming for both of those things to be one and the same. So make it happen.

I certainly have.

Rick Tjia

Dance Talent Scout, Cirque du Soleil Casting

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