This is an article I wrote out of pure frustration at a recent audition in Los Angeles...
The Disposable Dancer
The quest for free publicity – at the cost of a dream
By Tiffany Billings, MFA
The call was for women ages twenty-two to thirty-seven. Major ballet technique, partnering, jazz and modern dance training were mandatory. I qualified for all of these. My agent had called me for this audition; she felt that I would be perfect for this show.
I rose out of bed, at exactly 6:30am, with a mix of emotions. On one hand, I was fraught with nervous energy; on the other hand I was compelled to reflect. As I began to prepare myself for the long day that lay ahead, I looked back on the hundreds of days just like this one that have passed through my life.
It was interesting; although I am a faculty member at Chapman University, and my primary goal was to go to this audition as research for my students, I personally really wanted to go. While I felt I needed to go to the audition to “re-educate” myself, and to better prepare my students for life in the professional world, I knew there was something more. So I went ‘underground’, to not only share the experience of auditioning with my students; but to also recapture the audition experience for myself, the one I had when I was a child and young adult.
Normally I would have never gone to an open call - I usually only go to agent appointed calls - I still wanted to go on the audition for this Tony award winning show, one which was applauded for it’s use of a popular singer’s music. The show uses the pop singers music to chronicle the lives of four people during the Vietnam War era, and the aftermath. Having attended the show previously, I thought I knew what my role in the show could be. The show is entirely about dance, set to twenty-four 1980’s pop songs by one singer - with a cute, but generic story line.
I packed my dance bag, brought some snacks, as I assumed it would be a long day. With my picture and resume in hand, I began the drive to North Hollywood and the studio that was holding the audition. As I was driving, I thought about all of my experience as a professional dancer, my years of training at the School of American Ballet (SAB), my performances with the San Francisco Ballet, my Masters of Fine Arts in Dance I earned from University of California, Irvine…I reflected about all of the hard work and long hours one puts into training to become a professional dancer. I remembered the countless auditions I’ve been to as a performer. I thought about the many routines and songs I had to learn just to prep myself for an audition, let alone an entire show.
I wondered have things changed? What would be the caliber of the dancers at the audition? I assumed this audition would be slightly different considering that it was in Los Angeles and not New York. I was planning on seeing all sorts of dancers; commercial dancers, ballerinas, jazz dancers, all sorts of experience levels and styles.
Luckily finding a parking space in front of the studio, I was amazed to not see any dancers in front of the building. I had assumed there would be a line going down the street - much to my surprise there wasn’t. My surprise quickly turned to understanding when I walked into the studio. The line had started inside the building and went towards the back parking lot—it stretched about 300 girls long. As I passed the girls to get to the back of the line, I recognized about 50% of them, mostly students who have taken my dance classes at the various colleges or studios where I have taught. I said my hellos and greeted them all with delight.
All the girls had on their favorite dance clothing. I smiled to myself; some girls looked like they were straight out of the movie “Flash Dance” – from the scene when Alex goes to the conservatory to audition. Most of the girls where young, somewhere around twenty-two to twenty-five. I imagined that they were all thinking the same thing, “is this line ever going to move”, or “what exactly is going on?” After waiting for about an hour and a half, I finally reached the point in line where I was able to sign my name on a piece of paper and receive a number. I was then told I would be in the third group of girls, and they were taking seventy girls at a time. Seeing as they had just started, I assumed the wait would be about another two hours, before I even had an opportunity to dance. So I waited.
Time passed slowly, and I stood out in the parking lot along side of the other girls, stretching and conversing with old students. Many questions started coming up, and maybe because I am an instructor at a university, the girls felt that I was an ‘authority’, and could ask me questions about what to expect. Answering their questions, I thought to myself; that in all of many years of experience, this audition situation was odd. It was interesting that the casting directors for the show where only having one day of auditions, Thursday for the women, and Friday for the men. There was no scheduled call back date, and there were no agent appointment dates set. Speculation began, and as I turned the corner to the dance building, two television cameras were interviewing dancers at the audition. Immediately asking myself, “Was this a big publicity stunt?”, I also realized that the show was having poor ticket sales, but was still playing for the rest of the month; something wasn’t right. What was going on?
After waiting until 12:45 pm (having arrived 9:15 am) my group of seventy women was finally asked to enter the main dance studio. We were quickly taught a basic ballet movement that traveled across the floor - this was very fundamental, any dancer with simple training could perform these steps. My attention wavered due to the simplicity of the movement, so I noticed that the four people holding the audition, (a dancer from the show who demonstrated the movement, the casting director, an unidentified man, and another man running the music) had never asked for anyone’s picture and resume. They only had our pink cards that we filled out, which consisted of our name and phone number, and if we had an agent. How could they possibly know who was who? Since none of us had a generic number to stick on our chests, how could they select who they liked? My suspicions were slowly being confirmed.
The second part of the audition was a short little jazz number from the actual show, set to a popular song by the pop singer from the 1980’s. There were no kicks, jumps or turns involved in this combination, extremely simplistic, definitely not designed to show a dancer’s ability (or lack of). The dance combination consisted of only about five counts of eight; it was easy enough for every girl in the room to learn. They took us in groups of six and had us perform the movement twice. This took about one minute.
After the seventy girls in my group were finished, the casting director thanked us all, and made a statement that almost dropped me to the floor. She said, “This is the replacement audition for the Broadway show and touring company, we are not looking for anyone right now, but we will have another audition in a few months.”
I was shocked and appalled. How could this well known and critically acclaimed musical pull such a shallow publicity stunt? All of the dancers with me that day, with dreams of performing on Broadway, never really even had an opportunity. As performers, we are all faced with the stark reality that only one in a million ever receive the opportunity to perform ‘on the big stage’. It is a fact we all accept when going on an audition, but we still hold on to that glimmer of hope. It is ingrained in who we are, to be forever optimistic, relishing any chance to perform. At auditions, performers always expect the worst and hope for the best, but this was over before it began. For a dream to be used and twisted as a publicity stunt to (apparently) boost ticket sales is unforgivable. When has it become acceptable to use someone’s dream for a possibility of a little free press? I guess the producer of this show’s motto is: land of the free, home of the exploited dancer.
The casting directors asked to have some girls come back later in the day, but what was the point of that? If there was no available part, why return later in the day? Was another news crew going to be there later so the show could receive some more free press? Most of us left the audition, to go back to our jobs.
I often reflect upon about the life of a starving dancer and wonder how far our love for our craft can take us. Better than most, I understand that we have chosen a difficult path in life. To pursue our love of dance, we often make sacrifices; dancers often feel they are last to receive credit for a job well done – and are also aware of the fact that they are dispensable at any time. There are hundreds of thousands professional dancers in this country, yet they are paid very little, and treated as throw away performers, while producers and corporations profit off of the dancers sweat and tears.
From the young dancer that doesn’t ever book a job because she is seen as overweight, to the ballerina that is ridiculed and yelled at for lack of perfection, to the young women using their bodies at a football game to entertain crowds, to an emerging artist that pushes the dance boundaries by creating some new movement – dancers, and especially female dancers, have been exploited and used from the beginning of time – dating back to the court dancing of Louis XIV. Dancers perform for the sheer love of the art form, the rush of the emotion, the thrill of the audience and lights, the passion and desire performing brings them - for self gratification, the belief that anything is possible on stage. Dancing obviously is not done for the money or notoriety. You could mention the highest paid,
top five dancers in the world to the average person on the street, and they would have no idea who they are.
The word disappointment is a drastic understatement when it comes to this audition experience; yet it is the only word to describe my feelings. I have received countless awards and critical praises, performed on the largest stages, and even though I am an educated performer with a resume to be proud of; I still felt a sense of disappointment. Disappointed in my agent for calling me on this waste of time, but also disappointed for all the other young ladies that were given false hope.
For the majority of the dancers, they probably felt they would never receive a part in the show, but they still should have an opportunity to audition for an available part; not just have their dreams serve as cannon fodder for a publicity stunt. Tiffany Billings, MFA
<small>[ 22 February 2005, 04:17 PM: Message edited by: huggi001 ]</small>