“Who Has What It Takes? (Part 2 of 4)”
By: Keith Johnson & LouAnna Valentine – Seattle, Wash (USA)
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In Part 1 of our series (last month) we discussed the background of the audition process, talking with Richard Dagenais – Head of Auditions and Logistics, Casting (our host), and Anne-Marie Duchène – Artistic Scout. Here we resume our exclusive look at a Cirque du Soleil audition as the second, crucial day for the dancer candidates truly begins.
9:47am – “Kumbalawe” from Saltimbanco plays on the sound system as people continue to warm up.
The kinds of artists Cirque is looking for is heavily influenced by what the creative teams and artistic directors of a show are looking for. For example, Richard explains, Dominic Champagne is one of the creators of Varekai, along with the rest of the creative team (Andrew Watson, choreographer Michael Montanaro, composer Violaine Corradi, and so forth). “Once the show is up and running there’s an Artistic Director that will keep the artistic integrity of the show alive. Dominic is not going to go on tour with the show, although he might visit once in a while and give his comments.”
“Our scouts meet with the artistic directors and get to know them, their tastes, what they’re looking for. So when they are in an audition they’re not seeing artists through their own eyes but through the artistic directors’ eyes. It’s difficult but that’s what they have to do, to see whether these people are going to be able to satisfy what the artistic director is looking for. You have to strike a balance between your own opinion, your taste, and putting yourself in a room with somebody watching a movie that has never met those people.”
“When you’re touring with Cirque, and you’re going all over the world, your endurance, personality, focus, availability, generosity – everything counts,” notes Anne-Marie. “When you see that [in a candidate] from the get-go you say, “OK, this is the one.” You have to keep a global picture of everything that’s going on with each artist, so you maintain an open mind knowing there are all these categories. My job is to present artists to creative directors, so I’m the link between the artists and the creators. I say, “We don’t have a profile that [this person] fits, I just want you to look at her.” Then, if an artist gets signed the scout is so happy. “Oh did you see? That’s my artist! My audition!” (Laughs)
“There are certain profiles we need that are challenging to find,” Richard continues. “We have about 20% turnover in artists every year.” Is 20% annual turnover of 720+ artists high? “For a dance company it’s not uncommon. It’s also normal for us. Some people want to retire, others get injured, some we don’t renew their contracts. Some people switch shows; that’s how we can keep some of them for 10-15 years. So all of that put together counts for 20%. When you have 120 artists in a [ballet or theater] company and only two shows it’s different than when you have 720 artists, 10 shows and new creations [as Cirque does]. We scout the whole world for acrobats and artists and sometimes it gets a little bit difficult, you wonder where you’re going to find people. And you don’t have to find just two, you have to find 20 or 40 or 100. It grows and grows and it makes it very challenging for us. That’s what makes it exciting, that challenge.”
Cirque fans are familiar with high-profile artists switching shows, such as Olga Pikhienko going from Quidam to Varekai. Does it happen often? “A little bit, not a lot. There comes a point where an artist, for one reason or another, wants to do something different. It’s something we encourage because we can keep our artists longer, which is a good thing for us.”
The constant need for artists keeps Richard and his group busy. “A year ahead we do an audition calendar with the scouts, decide where to go during the year. Four to five months ahead of time we look at the number of candidates we have to evaluate in a territory. Do we need to do marketing, such as in the paper, to attract more? We book studios and hotels about 2 months out. We then look at all the demos; do we have the possibility of a good evaluation? If they’re complete they’re put in the database and about 1 month out we invite them to audition. We also look through the profiles of the candidates, to see if we have a lot of specialty dancers or just general dancers.”
How many people might view an audition tape or demo during the process? “We have scouts who will evaluate demo tapes. For musicians and singers it can be an outside evaluator, somebody who’s not necessarily with the casting team. They will work with the scout to help choose the people that we will invite to the auditions. If there’s an opening the tape will be presented to different artistic directors and the director of the show. We might also show it to the choreographer. So that’s about five. And the Artistic Director of the show makes the final choice.”
We asked Richard how auditions are handled for the various disciplines Cirque is looking for. “[For dancers,] the first day is basic dance; movements, vocabulary. The second day [which we're witnessing] is more specific movement, and we also do acting exercises with them. It’s a lot of fun with dancers because it’s all physical.” And the search for dancers takes Cirque around the world. “The thing with dancers is that they travel. We’re in Seattle and we have Brazilian dancers (as well as a person from Toronto). We go to Berlin and we see Canadian dancers. So we go where they are but they also come where we go.”
What about actors? “For actors the process is similar. The first day, they present us a 3 minute act which will show us who they are and what they do. The second day we do more elaborate acting exercises.”
“Singers and musicians are done in a sound studio because we need good quality recordings. With singers we bring them all in the first day; we can see 20-30 per day. We give them 10 minutes to do 2 or 3 songs. We have an expert singer evaluator who evaluates technique. If they get called back we’ll give them specific things to work on. Either specific things from our shows or other styles of music we want to hear from them so they choose their own songs. For that we use a pianist.” But there aren’t many positions for singers, are there?
“There aren’t that many slots for singers, but the database needs people for emergencies and other situations. We always tell them they might be called next week or maybe in the next year or two. And we keep following up with them so we know where they are and their availability. But we’ll know that they fit what we’re looking for.”
“Musicians are different in that there’s no callback. We book individual appointments and can see about 8 a day. It takes 45 minutes to 1 hour to evaluate musicians. We need to know if they can play well and play in the style we’re looking for. A lot of them play at least two instruments and have solid technical training; it’s not only what we’re looking for, it tends to be what we get.
“Musicians are a treat to audition. To see them dance, or hear them sing or play. That makes it difficult if we have to tell them we’re not going to keep them in our database. We know they’re talented but they just don’t fit.” I noted that many of the musicians in Cirque shows are from Canada. “We have a lot of Canadian musicians because there are a lot of great musicians [in Canada]. We have a lot of good ones in our own back yard, why not take them?”
What about the circus arts disciplines? Is there one area of the world that excels? “For circus arts, Eastern Europe has a big circus history. It’s a question of cultural and social tradition. In some of the gymnastic disciplines Eastern European countries have a bigger pool. Europe has a big circus culture; for example there are hundreds of circuses in France.”
9:53am – Anne-Marie kneels on the floor as the candidates gather in a semi-circle. She talks about what will happen during the day, going one step at a time. “It’s up to all of you,” she tells them, “to show the audition team who you are. To take risks. Allow yourselves to enter the unknown. And, most importantly, have fun.”
9:58am – Charmaine conducts warm-up exercises, helping stretch muscles so they won’t get injured. Following her lead, the group kicks legs high in the air, effortlessly achieving what my wife LouAnna and I have difficulty with in aerobics class. Their amazing strength and flexibility is evident as they move. But they have been doing this as their lives’ passion for years, even decades.
10:16am – Charmaine leads them in another dance exercise to music from a dance class CD. Several tracks from the CD are used during the morning for various exercises. LouAnna snaps several pictures under less than ideal circumstances; perched on a chair on top of a large box, she has to crane her neck close to the glass separating us from the audition room.
What kind of career can a dancer have in the high-pressure world of a Cirque du Soleil show? “Acrobats and dancers have short careers,” Richard explains. You age out of the discipline, but not necessarily out of Cirque. Because we have ex-dancers or acrobats that have progressed into character roles. When you’re a dancer or acrobat you learn all these acting skills and you’re able to transpose that into acting.”
The challenge lies not so much physically as mentally. “For a dancer from a ballet company that is used to doing 100 shows a year, that has to learn a dozen ballets a year, it’s very challenging and it’s always different. When they come to Cirque it’s the same show 374 shows a year, 10 shows a week – it’s tough. Dancers have to really think if that’s what they want.”
“It’s kind of like doing a Broadway show. Some dancers find it too repetitive, some love it. You have to find the right person and they have to keep themselves motivated. It’s a different approach because you don’t get challenged and motivated because you’re doing something new, you have to find it somewhere deep in your role. Once they understand and grab that it becomes challenging and motivating for them. But it’s a new mindset.”
What kind of experience is Cirque looking for in dancers? “The most useful kind of experience with regards to dancers is stage experience in front of an audience. You learn a lot in front of an audience; you have one shot to give them the experience you’re supposed to give them, to leave an impression. It’s different than being in a studio; the studio is your kitchen, you can make a mess there. But in the hall it’s different.”
“There’s not one kind of specific experience we need. We need classical dancers for La Nouba and Mystere. We need African dancers for Dralion and Zumanity. We have a lot of modern dancers – such as the Green Lizards in Mystere. We have Indian dancers in Dralion, an exotic dancer in Zumanity. We don’t close our doors to anything.”
The Cirque casting website makes mention of this as well. “Your background may be in one of the great traditions or in one of the new dance forms; you may be unconventional, on the fringe, or totally outrageous; your dance may come from near or far; whatever the case, put your best foot forward!”
Richard describes a case in point: “Zumanity goes to show that you never know what will be needed. A couple of years ago we got a demo tape of a pole dancer – “Oh my God, look at this!” – Back then, we couldn’t use it. Then a few years later they came to us and said, “Do you have any pole dancers?” “Oh, we had a great one!” And we had to scramble to find that videotape and contact information.”
10:25am – Charmaine stops and discusses another music selection with Richard, selecting a solo bongo track. The candidates, having warmed up, start removing jackets and overshirts, bearing muscular arms and taut stomachs. As we continue talking, Charmaine is teaching moves, counting out time and beating out the count with claps of her hands.
The most important key to unlocking the door to an audition with Cirque du Soleil is The Demo Tape. “A lot of artists don’t know how to put a demo together. They’ll send a demo with a piece of paper saying, “I’m the fourth one from the left,” and there are 60 dancers on stage. So we tell them to go to the website and see what we’re looking for. If you give us a good demo it gives us a chance to see who you are. But if you’re in a group of people on your tape we don’t know. In that case we usually ask for another demo.”
Cirque has spent a considerable amount of time analyzing and refining their demo/audition approach. For Richard this meant placing a priority on refining the pre-selection process. Instead of having general auditions that involved a whole bunch of people Cirque knew nothing about, they went to invitation-only auditions. Now, “We don’t see as many people as we did before, but the number we keep has stayed about the same. So the percentage of people that we keep has increased quite a bit. In New York, we had 65 dancers audition and we kept 6.” Here they have 27 and will probably keep around the same number.
He also knew that Cirque needed to better the communication with the candidates about what was needed on their demos. “[We needed to] ask for more precise things on the demos to have a better evaluation and a better idea of their technical level and their artistry. Because our needs are so specific, we don’t want to waste the time of the people who do come in, spending money flying and so forth that might not correspond to what we are looking for. So it was important to look at ways to improve that pre-selection. Now instead of dealing with 65 people we deal with 27, it’s much easier, less stressful.”
One of the things they stopped doing was making general requests for demos in their audition publicity materials. “We realized that people stopped reading after, “Send us a resume and demo,” and didn’t go any further. So they would never go to the website (www.casting.cirquedusoleil.com) and find out what we really needed, they would just send us incomplete material. So now we say, “Our auditions are by invitation only. For more details, go see the website.” So they go and see exactly what they need to send. And it’s starting to work because the number of complete files that come in has greatly increased compared to what we’d gotten before. We don’t get so many of the “I’m the third one from the left” demos anymore. We’re starting to see results, and it’s encouraging.”
Indeed the Cirque casting website, under “How to Apply,” has very explicit instructions on what is to appear in demos for all of their disciplines. Take the requirements for a demo from a classically-trained dancer, for example: Two-minute presentation to the camera; Pirouettes – basic, attitude, arabesque, Ã la seconde; FouettÃ©s; Jumps: tours en l’air, jetÃ©s, petit and grand Allegro; Pointes; Adagio showing flexibility, strength and extension; Flexibility: split (side and front), back bend; Three-minute solo choreography in studio; a solo segment in performance. Or, this one for actors: Presentation to the camera: (2 minutes); Excerpts from a performance or rehearsal (10 minutes) or an original scene (3 minutes); Characters. Show us 4 to 12 characters in short interludes (15 seconds to 1 minute) on stage (8 minutes).
Anne-Marie agrees that being more specific has helped, adding, “We’re honing down on people’s skills. Hopefully the word will get around that the auditions are tight, we’re serious, we’re gonna push you, you gotta give it up, and really get artists that are exquisite or have really special skills and are generous.”
10:35am – The team divides the candidates into groups of three and has them perform the dance they were learning, but facing the ever-present video camera. In direct comparison to each other, candidate’s strengths and weaknesses become evident. The woman of an Argentinean dancing couple, while doing a stretch on one leg, bobbles the move; her balance isn’t very strong. In our first prediction of the morning, LouAnna suggests she will soon be cut. But there are more factors than technical talent the Cirque team is looking for. She has something else to offer, as we will soon find out. Besides, she survived the first grueling day.
We ask Richard if the people we’re seeing will all make the final cut, after the culling of half the troupe yesterday. “There are some people [here today] that are in a gray area, a few question marks. At the end of the day we have to ask; if we presented these people to an artistic director, do we think that this person would corresponds to what the AD is looking for? If we think they do, then we’re sure.”
“We try not to make an opinion too quickly. Yet there are some [people] that are obvious. Our process is very subjective. Because our taste is our taste, we are influenced in certain ways that the artistic director will never be influenced until they actually meet the artist, if they ever do. They have to see it through a camera lens, while we have a personal interaction with them. Sometimes it’s funny because you go back home and you look at the tapes and you start to doubt. “How come that’s not the person I saw?” That’s why we have our technique and why it takes two days. We need a lot of material, we need to give them a chance to really shine and be able to put on camera the talent that we see. The camera needs to be able to capture it, and it’s not always easy. It’s like when you see a live show on TV, it’s not the same feeling. And that’s one of the difficulties that we deal with.”
END OF PART TWO
Next Issue: We witness some improve exercises – and final cuts are made.