Several years ago, I auditioned for a Vegas run of “STOMP” — a show that featured dancer-percussionists making music with their bodies and everyday objects like pipes and brooms.
Dozens of 20- and 30-somethings lined up outside a warehouse-style strip mall unit in Las Vegas’ Chinatown, some carrying manila folders containing resumes and head shots, others with drumsticks in back pockets, and all with laminated cards pinned to their clothes that identified each hopeful with a number.
I studied percussion full-time, as a college performance music major, and I was a member of an elite music ensemble called a drumcorps. I made small talk with the others auditioning and found that most were enthusiastic but untrained. So naturally, I thought we had the audition in the bag. I was very wrong.
The company managers called us in to audition in groups of eight. A dancer from the New York show taught a short series of steps, and we were evaluated for about 10 minutes, as we learned the routine and then performed it in groups of four. Then the managers made a cut.
The only person from my audition group who got a call-back was a tall girl with dreadlocks, baggy cargo pants and heavy combat boots. (I had worn the black dress and heels that always served me well in orchestra auditions.)
The girl did not have impeccable rhythm, but the reason she had made it though was clear: She had stood out by throwing her body around with five times as much amplitude as any of the other candidates. While I delicately tapped out the steps with perfect rhythm, this girl jumped and crouched, slamming her boots into the ground and sending her dreads flying in the faces of the dancers on either side of her.
The lesson I learned that day about how successful artists stand out is replayed year-round in auditions for Vegas shows. Dancers, singers, actors, acrobats and people with unusual talents of all kinds line up to get numbers that they’ll safety pin to their shirts. Then they wait — sometimes for hours — for a chance to show casting directors what they’ve got.
At auditions last week for “Blue Man Group“‘s futuristic Showbot character, I met Kristin, a stay-at-home mom who has taken dance classes for 15 years and loves to exercise. She told me she was at the audition because she wanted to “keep all [her] options open.”
She had been waiting 20 minutes in a room adjoining the Monte Carlo ballroom where the auditions were being held when I introduced myself and asked her what she was expecting in the tryout.
“I’m not real sure,” she said.
Asked whether she had prepared audition material, Kristin said, “Not really. I just came in with an open mind.”
Kristin auditioned with six other Showbot candidates. Showbot creator Ian Herrington put some music on a boom box and instructed the girls to dance without worrying about looking like a robot or a Blue Man. He and a small team of Blue Man Group staff assessed the candidates as they moved. Kristin swung her arms and hips from side to side and stepped and swiveled the way she might have done in her own kitchen. She occupied the median range of skill being exhibited in the room; she seemed more coordinated than some of the others but less trained than a couple.
After about five minutes, Herrington stopped the music.
“We already know exactly what we want,” Herrington told the girls, and with a ‘thank you,’ he asked all but one of them to leave. Kristin and five others slowly exited.
Amanda Deacon, the other creator of the Showbot character, explained later what she and Herrington were seeking. The first requirement: the right body type to fit into the costume.
“We are also looking for a dancer who has great rhythm and great physicality,” Deacon said.
She also cited “good body awareness,” which she said would allow the right girl to adjust to the costume easily.
The one Showbot hopeful who made it through was named Patricia. She works with Cirque du Soleil two nights a week as dancer and aerialist at Light.
She auditioned for the Showbot position last year, when it was added to the “Blue Man Group” show, but was unsuccessful. This time, her friends in the show gave her some tips.
“Last year, my gestures were bigger,” Patricia said. “But I heard that what they want is more natural. Not Disney stuff. More like you and me talking right now.”
Compared to the others in her audition group, though, Patricia’s gestures were noticeably “bigger.” Though she never seemed cartoonish or silly, she took up much more space on the floor as she danced. Though she was never rude, she seemed unconcerned about blocking the judges’ view of another candidate. Unlike the others, she seemed unfazed by the presence of competition.
I didn’t get to watch the second phase of Patricia’s audition, but she told me about it afterward. Herrington asked her to “be” an ice cube, then a strawberry, then a Blue Man.
“I made a square with my hands,” Patricia said, describing how she approached the first task, “and then I started to run and slide. And then I started to melt.”
She made the shape of a strawberry with her arms, and then began to roll around.
“Then I dipped myself,” she said. As she described it, she held her arms above her head and leaned over into imaginary chocolate.
She said that being a Blue Man was simple.
“They don’t move,” she said. “And then they move their eyes.” She opened hers wide and looked slowly right, then left.
Patricia is used to adapting quickly to meet casting directors’ requests. The evening after the Showbot audition, she was headed to a tryout for “Tournament of Kings,” where she would have to dance on sand to prove she could handle the work in the medieval-themed show.
Like many artists in the Las Vegas entertainment industry, Patricia is prepared to hold several different jobs at once. She said that if offered the Showbot position, she could balance it and her Light job. And she could carry the “Tournament of Kings” position, too.
That’s partly because both auditions were for on-call positions. If Patricia is cast, she will only have to perform if the principal Showbot or Tournament dancer is unable to — which means that she would be able to keep her commitment to Cirque. Light could even fill her spot at Light for a night with another performer, called a “swing,” if necessary.
This structure allows artists like Patricia to audition for many shows, all year long, and take work when they get it.
But not every audition is as quick and informal as the Showbot tryouts.
“Jubilee!” auditions on Monday were conducted with all the formality and decorum that characterizes the classic stage production.
The day began with the boys’ auditions, and the girls’ followed. Each dancer had his or her height measured and recorded and was asked to perform a prepared sequence of turns across the stage at the Jubilee Theater.
The bulk of the audition was an hour-long instruction in choreography from the actual show. Dance captains Cathy Colbert and Bobby Barrister stood in front of the group of auditioners (about 20 boys, then about 90 girls) and walked through the steps eight or 16 counts at a time.
The dancers had two chances to see a chunk of choreography before Colbert or Barrister tacked it on to the rest of the number and asked that they perform dance through the whole thing. Every so often, a dancer raised his or her hand to ask for clarification or to request that a sequence be re-taught.
Asking a question in an audition is a calculated risk. If you don’t ask, you could perform a move incorrectly. But it you ask too often, you show yourself to be a slow learner compared to the others auditioning.
There was almost no down-time during the audition. Though the back-to-back run-throughs of tricky choreography had them all sweating and breathing hard, the boys and the girls were each given a water break only once.
Once new material is added, it’s harder to go back and fix something, so in the 10 or 15 seconds between repetitions of a sequence of steps, the dancers ran through segments they were unsure of.
Colbert and Barrister offered a few tips on executing the moves correctly, but for the most part, they let struggling dancers get it wrong.
“On your scuffs, its just 90 degrees,” Barrister told the boys “It s not a big fan kick.” The instruction helped several candidates change their approach to a sequence of steps, but it did little to help the two or three who were floundering.
After they learned the choreography, the dancers had a chance to perform the routine in small groups — but Company Manager Diane Palm had been watching their progress closely throughout the learning process.
When “Jubilee!” opened in 1981, Palm was the female dance captain. She knows the choreography inside and out. Rarely, she called out instructions to the dancers on stage.
“One, cross, pas de bourrée. Pop-pop out-in-out,” she said, correcting a sequence that several showgirl hopefuls were getting wrong consistently. They would have one chance to get it right before new material was added.
After the first routine was taught and performed, Palm picked up the mic at her table on the house floor and announced that she would make some cuts. The girls whose numbers she called bowed their heads a little before they walked off-stage, but they maintained the poise that they knew would be required if they were to make another go at a spot in “Jubilee!”
A few girls held their lipsticked smiles in place as they descended the stairs and paraded right in front of their competition to shake Palm’s hand and say “thank you.” A lifetime of training to be professional dancers had taught them to show respect and poise no matter what — a good business move as well as a nod to the classical ballet tradition to which “Jubilee!” is inextricably tied.
The “Jubilee!” dancers place high importance on honor and discipline. But Palm was looking for more than just perfect technique.
“Proud. Sexy. Coy.” Colbert told the girls that remained after the first cut. “That’s what we’re going for.”
The boys learned a second routine (a tap dance number) and the girls were taught the show’s main kickline sequence. Then a second round of eliminations were executed, and the boys and girls who were asked to stay participated in a “Jubilee!” tradition.
The entire company lined up off-stage, and each member walked to the center, spoke their name into a mic and took one step to the side. They paused to give the managers a good look at them, then proceeded off stage.
Once the newcomers had added their names and stood proudly to be sized up, each performing group — first boys, then covered dancers, then topless dancers, then singers, then principals — made a height line across the stage. Palm asked the boys to remove all their clothes but their underwear, and they stood then turned in unison to let her inspect and compare their bodies. The girls — company members in thongs, most call-backs in covered bikini bottoms — stood with their feet positioned right over left and their hands on their hips, then turned to show off a line of remarkably similar rear ends.
The idea that a person’s rightness for a performance role is often linked to his or her physical appearance has been criticized throughout the history of Las Vegas shows. But unlike how showgirl auditions have often been portrayed in movies, the process at “Jubilee!” seemed to take physical fitness as a given. Much harder to come by among the candidates was the perfect combination of great technique, coachability, personality, charisma and stage presence.
“It’s just fitting a mold,” explained Scot, who just finished a run with the ABBA tribute show “Dancing Queen” and got a callback at the “Jubilee!” auditions.
He said that though there are dancers who audition time and again and never seem to be chosen, good dancers can’t expect talent and skill alone to carry them through.
“I’ve been lucky to always have work,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean I always book the job.”
Scot pointed out that in the Entertainment Capital of the World, contracts can change at a moment’s notice, so performing artists have to be ready to adapt.
That’s why professional performers work the audition circuit all year round.
‘You never know when a contract is going to end or a show is going to say, ‘We have to cut back on dancers,’” Scot said. “And you want to at least have those connections at other shows [from] going to auditions.”