Behind the scenes at a shared audition for Kyle Abraham, Brian BrooksKate Weare and Anna Sperber this fall

Brooks tests the dancers' creativity with an improvised solo. Photos by Jim Lafferty.

It’s noon, and the audition is already running behind schedule. The next group of warmed-up dancers is led into the room. “Swedish Fish and Terra Chips,” Kyle Abraham tells his company manager, who has offered to make a snack run. It’s going to be a long afternoon.

Nearly 400 dancers are gathered at Gibney Dance in Manhattan for an audition that’s anything but typical. From 10 am to 6 pm, groups of roughly 60 male and female dancers—all of whom submitted a headshot and resumé before arrival—will vie for the chance to work with contemporary choreographers Kyle Abraham, Brian Brooks, Kate Weare and Anna Sperber. In other words, this is speed dating, dance-style. The shared audition offers these dancers the rare opportunity to be seen by four notable choreographers in just one hour. From where the choreographers sit, the equal-parts exhilarating and exhausting day allows them to scope out New York’s eclectic community of contemporary dancers—including some they might otherwise miss out on.

Kate Weare

Paying It Forward

Before they show any movement, each choreographer shares a bit about the works they’re casting for. Their introductions hold a common denominator: They view today’s audition as only the beginning of a conversation. Up to 30 dancers will make the cut for the individual callbacks, and only 1 to 3 will ultimately be hired by each choreographer. Still, they welcome the chance to see new faces and stay in touch for future projects. In Sperber’s case, although she will not show any movement, she’s on the lookout for fresh talent.

Abraham initiated today’s shared audition because he often found himself writing the names of other choreographers beside dancers’ names at his Abraham.In.Motion auditions—pairings he thought might work well together, even if the dancers were not quite right for him. This collaborative impulse eventually translated into Abraham’s first shared audition in 2014. He finds that the unconventional format works for both sides of the table. For the hundreds of dancers who show up, it offers the opportunity to be seen by several choreographers at once, introducing them to companies they may not know about. And from the choreographers’ vantage point, they see dancers with a range of backgrounds and movement qualities who might not normally come out for their standalone auditions. Abraham brought Weare, Brooks and Sperber on board since he knew they, too, would embrace the day with an open mind.

Not Just Dynamics

Abraham’s up first. Without wasting a moment, he dives into a fast-paced, fluid sequence that requires dancers to move in and out of the floor with relative ease. He developed this particular material to see how the dancers dealt with dynamic shifts. With less than five minutes to process the choreography, filled with blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moments, the dancers struggle to practice without running into each other. They then break into smaller groups of seven or eight and run through the sequence twice, sans music, before standing in line for the choreographers to note their numbers. Beyond his curiosity in each dancer’s dynamics, Abraham observes their energy in the space, asking himself: “Do they seem like they’re being generous with the people they’re dancing with? If they hit someone, how are they responding to that?” He plans to keep an eye out for these qualities during his callbacks the following day.

Abraham and Sperber make notes by the dancers' headshots.

Showing Your True Self

Next, Kate Weare Company assistant director Douglas Gillespie and company member Nicole Diaz teach Weare’s sequence. This time, the visceral movement is set to a pulsing electronic beat. Her sequence emphasizes clarity, sharpness, attention to detail and a controlled relationship with the ground. Weare’s choreography also invites the dancers to showcase their artistry through split-second decisions, like which subtle details to emphasize, where to focus their gaze, when to breathe and how long to extend a moment.

Though the dancers appear game, their nerves are palpable. Absorbing movement from three choreographers with minimal processing time is an undoubtedly anxiety-inducing experience. However, Marquise Hitchcock-Jones, 21 and a junior in the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program, is enjoying the fast-paced atmosphere. “It is thrilling knowing that we only get one or two opportunities to perform each choreographer’s selection,” he says. “But something about that is liberating. You don’t have time to overanalyze. You are forced to do what is innate. You simply have to dance.”

Similarly, Weare is invested in each dancer’s “selfhood.” During a post-audition conversation held at Gibney she says, “I’m interested in the way you resemble yourself and no one else.” The format of this audition pushes dancers to move outside of their comfort zones, but also offers moments to shine on their own terms. If they do not find clarity or connection in one part, they might find it in another segment. “The most effective auditions are happening in both directions,” says Weare. “The work has to be speaking to something in the dancer. Otherwise it will fall apart.”

About 60 dancers watch each other's improvised solos.

On the Spot

At last, it’s Brooks’ turn, and his choice is surprising: a 15-second improvised solo. “Time is so relative,” he tells the dancers, whose eyes grow wide at the thought of performing on the spot. “Fifteen seconds can be a very long time.” Brooks offers some qualities that he plans to explore in his new work: convulsive, cascading, muscular, displaying an energetic range. Mostly, though, he wants to see the dancers’ individual impulses. “Explore your instincts,” he says.

After a brief moment to physically sketch out their ideas, the dancers form a line. One by one, they step forward, say their name and begin. Using Brooks’ key words for inspiration, each dancer stamps his or her distinct style onto the space. Some don’t hesitate to eat up the floor or show off well-honed tricks; others opt for more contained explorations involving a single hand, or even their mouth. One bold auditionee—eager to stand out—narrates his solo, stream-of-consciousness style.

Hitchcock-Jones is one of the last dancers in line to improvise. Afterwards, he says, “I was nervous, excited and inspired all at the same time. The longer I waited, the more I began to question what I was about to present. I had to remind myself a few times, ‘Just be yourself.’ ” Whatever the day’s outcome, each dancer walks away with that sentiment, one that’s rarely heard in cattle calls. Abraham just might be onto something. 

Backstage rituals might ease some dancers’ butterflies, but they shouldn’t run the show

"At BODYTRAFFIC, we simply cannot go on without a group circle!" - Tina Finkelman Berkett. Photo Courtney Paige, courtesy BODYTRAFFIC.

In the moments before the curtain rises, you can usually find Hope Boykin in an empty quick-change booth. Before going onstage, the longtime Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater member always takes a few moments to pray. It’s a ritual she follows regardless of the venue, the piece or who’s in the audience.

Rituals play a major role in many dancers’ pre-show routines. Even if they don’t consider themselves superstitious in the black-cat/number-13 sense, many dancers develop their own traditions, whether they swear by tying their left pointe shoe first or wishing a fellow dancer “merde.” By providing the illusion of control, these habits can help channel nervous energy into onstage magic. Researchers have even found a correlation between superstitions and improved performance. But rituals can backfire if dancers overly rely on them, believing they hold the power to make or break a show.

How Do Superstitions Work?

The power of the ritual lies in the mind of the believer. A 2010 article published in Psychological Science reported that superstitions associated with good luck, like crossed fingers and lucky charms, can be correlated with improved performance, due to increased confidence. Researchers found that simply believing in the power of their chosen rite significantly boosted participants’ perceived confidence in their own abilities.

Even beyond the dance world, the consistency of rituals provides a sense of comfort. “People say, ‘I can’t function until I have toast and coffee.’ That’s ritualistic,” points out Boykin. “It doesn’t mean it’s an obsession; it just makes it something that you’ve found that works for you.” Familiar habits lessen anxiety by reminding the brain, I’ve been here before. The less mental energy you expend worrying about a performance, the more you have to devote to the performance itself.

Dr. Nadine Kaslow, who serves as Atlanta Ballet’s resident psychologist, adds that communal pre-performance rituals such as forming a circle with fellow dancers can serve a “soothing and calming and connecting” purpose.

When The Belief Backfires

Before a performance, dancers need to remain open to the unexpected. If executing exactly seven sun salutations takes priority over embracing last-minute changes, then it’s time to reevaluate how much mental weight you’re giving your superstition. “If rituals keep a dancer from getting to work, then they can be really problematic,” says Kaslow.

For Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member Steven Loch, ensuring as few repetitious rituals as possible is essential to his onstage success. At various points in his life, Loch has struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder. In order to minimize any negative effects on his dancing, he now strives for a “low-maintenance” backstage routine, calmly applying his makeup and warming up his body. “I try to keep it open. That’s the best way for me to stay calm—just to go into my little space and not be bothered,” he explains. “If something is thrown off by the superstition or something goes wrong with it, I don’t want to have to be worrying about that for my performance.”

If your ritual is adding to, rather than alleviating, your pre-performance anxiety, Loch recommends letting it go little by little. “If you have two or three superstitions, start by not doing one of them,” he says. Take it out of your backstage prep until you feel comfortable performing without it, then take out the next. “Slowly build to the point where you don’t have any superstitions, and you’re in a place where you’re more in control.”

Find Your Own

Toeing the line between your urge to control the uncontrollable and simply being mindful in those final moments backstage—butterflies and all—is key. One way to achieve this happy medium, according to Kaslow, is to ask yourself what function your ritual serves: Does it mentally center or physically energize you? Allow you some much-needed alone time to quiet anxious thoughts? Honestly answering this question will allow you to pinpoint your personal pre-performance needs and brainstorm effective alternatives if your ritual is getting in the way of your best performance.

If you have a superstition that helps you, hold on to it. Of course, fellow dancers might find it foolish. But rather than second-guessing yourself, keep in mind that what works for you will not necessarily make sense to a fellow dancer with his or her own pre-performance needs—depending on past experiences and cultural or religious beliefs, rituals will hold different meanings for each dancer. When every performance must be danced as if for the first time, and countless hours of rehearsal amount to mere minutes in which to inspire an audience, who wouldn’t want to harness every strategy to gain self-assurance? 

What's Your Superstition?

"I roll out on my favorite softball and lip sync to Whitney Houston with my eyes closed—I have an entire Whitney playlist in a very specific order." — Elisa Monte Dance's Thomas Varvaro

"I have to be the last person to leave the dressing room, even if I'm already ready." — Camille A. Brown & Dancers' Yusha-Marie Sorzano

"I always leave an emergency pair of shoes on the side of the stage next to the rosin box. Sometimes one pair on both sides." — Atlanta Ballet's Tara Lee

"When I danced for Lar Lubovitch, he insisted on no whistling backstage! He said it would awaken the spirits sleeping." — Ballet BC's Brett Perry

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