Who Has What It Takes? (Part 1 of 4)

“Who Has What It Takes?” (Part 1 of 4)
By: Keith Johnson & LouAnna Valentine – Seattle, Wash (USA)

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The Audition. Job interview of the entertainment arts. Where years of training, sweating and pain come together in a burst of creative energy. And all too often for an artist their hopes are dashed immediately, in front of a large group of people including the “winners.” Yet they subject themselves to the process again and again, sometimes with success, more often with failure.

But how better to judge an artists’ training, capability, stamina, and creativity in a physical art than to see it, performed in real time, live in front of you? The audition is a time-honored tradition of the entertainment industry, and though it has evolved as performance arts have evolved, the stress on the candidate has stayed largely the same. It speaks to the courage of artists that they are willing to repeatedly subject themselves to the likely potential of rejection.

If you’re a different kind of organization, with a different ethic and mindset, must you continue to use the old audition model? If you’re Cirque du Soleil the answer is a resounding no. Taking advantage of their desirability by artists looking for opportunities to expand their creativity, Cirque has, as it has with circus arts, reinvented the audition model. One that combines the search for technical excellence with an examination of the artist’s inner soul.

When Fascination! started and we began tracking the fannish Internet network, we quickly found there wasn’t a week that went by when there wasn’t a post on Cirque Club or somewhere else that took the form of, “I’m in (gymnastics, dancing, acting, juggling classes – take your pick) and one day I want to work for Cirque du Soleil.” Or “I want Cirque du Soleil to be my first job.” A lofty goal and worthy of struggle, but often obvious in those messages was that the writer had little knowledge of the challenge involved in making it onto a Cirque stage.

Being the premiere circus company it is many artists would like to be employed by Cirque. And the numbers illustrate the challenge they face. Each year, Cirque receives thousands of demo tapes for its many disciplines (dancing, acting, singing, musicians, acrobatics and circus arts). Of that number many will come to one of Cirque’s auditions in the hope of becoming part of the larger Cirque du Soleil family of about 3000 employees’ total; of which 720 are artists and the rest are office employees, technicians, cooks, coaches, etc.

Their ages range from 13 to 72.

Auditions are held in Montreal as well as in various cities around the world each year. In 2003 there were about a dozen trips for a total of about 100 days of general auditions. And there can be even more, especially for specific disciplines. More specialized auditions are held regularly for acrobatic and circus disciplines.

Cirque’s casting FAQ list (at < http://www.cirquedusoleil.com/CirqueDuSoleil/en/jobs/onstage/specialities/artisfaq >) describes the audition process this way: “It is a very exciting time for everyone. Because no one knows what’s going to happen, it’s like the suspense before discovering a new world! It’s very important for Casting to meet the artists in person. At auditions, we assess technical performance, along with artistic potential. We also pay close attention to the individual’s personality. Open-mindedness and generosity are the key words, and you should be ready to experiment. Please note that the audition period includes several elimination processes.”

Results of auditions are entered into the expanding Cirque database. Each artist invited to an audition has a profile with all his or her personal information in the database. Files are kept on those that are “chosen” as well as those that are not (you’d need to know why a person wasn’t chosen). There are also QuickTime movies showing the best parts of their audition. These movies are for casting purposes only. The entire file can be accessed at any location, so a candidate from Montreal could be seen by an Artistic Director in Las Vegas.

So what exactly is this unique Cirque du Soleil audition like? What makes it so different from others? It was this question that we as Fascination! wanted to explore more deeply. And when it was announced that Cirque would be holding auditions in Seattle, Washington, we were quick to ask Corporate Headquarters if we could cover the auditions for our readers, to give them a better idea of just what it takes to be a Cirque audition candidate. And we were delighted, and a little surprised, when they said yes.

But, they advised us, there were some rules for allowing the media to view auditions. (How exciting for us to finally be considered “media”!) These had to do with making sure the audition process was not disturbed by media presence. And no flash photography. No problem for us!

Friday, April 23rd, 2004

8:40am – A cool dry spring morning in the Emerald City. My wife, photographer LouAnna Valentine, and I arrive at the football stadium parking lot at Seattle Center, where remnants of the 1962 Seattle Worlds Fair have been converted into museums, performance halls, and open space. Wearing our blue denim Cirque jackets we proceed to the north side of Center House to find the doors – locked! We knock loudly and a security guard lets us in, informing us we should have come to the south side of the building this early in the morning. Zipping in as the door closes is a young lady in her early 20’s with blond frizzy hair, black exercise shorts and a powder blue top. Between LouAnna and I we refer to her throughout the day by the city from which she hails, “Toronto.” She had sent her audition tape to Cirque a year and a half ago when she lived in Alberta, Canada. But by the time she got her audition callback she had moved to Toronto.
For her it was quite a long and expensive flight. Her sweet personality and excitement make us root for her throughout the day.

The 4th Floor of Center House is dedicated to offices and low-cost rehearsal spaces. Theatre 4, where the auditions are to be held, is hidden behind a thick white fire door, and down a long narrow hallway with brickwork on one side and pipes overhead. To us it looks so stark that we don’t think anyone would ever come here to see a performance, though it is touted as a performance space. But it looks like a place for work, not for show.

Others arrive slowly. Soon after we arrive an Asian lady from LA appears, as well as a lady from Phoenix (whose feet, with calluses and a sore, bear the marks of a dancer). Conversation is more camaraderie than competition or psyching out. They all stretch, contorting their legs and bodies into incredible pretzel shapes; impossible positions most people could never achieve but which they do as a simple part of warming up.

9:20am – People keep arriving. Yet nobody from Cirque, they are now 20 minutes late. The chatter level rises; the natives are getting restless. There are 13 people now – 5 men, 8 women. They have survived the first day of auditions, which started with 27 people – more than half of whom were cut.

9:31am – A man in his early 20’s, wearing jeans and a polo shirt with a lanyard hanging from his neck comes down the hallway from one of the business offices to use the restroom. He looks at the group with a bemused expression; he’s seen this many times before.

9:35am – The Cirque audition team finally arrives. A tall man in his late 30’s instantly spots us as the reporting team from Fascination! – we are the only ones not wearing tight fabrics and stretching. This is Richard Dagenais, who welcomes us into the audition room and helps us set up.

Theatre 4 is a sparse room about 60 feet deep and 30 feet wide with windows high along the wall to our right and full-length mirrors on the wall to our left. Curtains that allow the room to become totally dark hang on both walls. The floor is littered with strips of gaffers tape. Stage lights and speakers dot the ceiling. This room has been well used.

A small room behind the near wall has an elevated platform where the tech crew sits. The lighting console and sound equipment are here as well as a long plywood table and some stools. A window of glass separates the platform from the rehearsal space. It is from here we will watch the day unfold. LouAnna sets herself on a box with her camera; she will use this vantage point to take pictures. I set up my note-taking equipment to her left. Richard, to my left, operates the sound and light equipment and helpfully answers our many questions.

We are introduced to the members of the Cirque audition team:

Richard Dagenais – Head of Auditions and Logistics, Casting
Charles St-Onge – Audition Coordinator
Anne-Marie Duchène – Artistic Scout
Charmaine Hunter – Dance Evaluator

Charmaine is a free-lance external evaluator based in Las Vegas. Her role is to run the dance part of the audition, show choreography and judge the candidates’ technical ability. She can tell Anne-Marie if a candidate has good technique or weaknesses. “She’s wonderful and great for the artists,” says Richard, “It’s very easy to work with Charmaine with her openness and expertise.”

Anne-Marie is also a dancer, in her role as Artistic Scout she knows the profiles of all the shows and what Cirque is looking for. She will be running the afternoon session.

As Audition Coordinator, Charles deals with the logistics of the auditions, from welcoming the candidates to renting the hall to booking hotel rooms, as well as running the camera and sound/light systems. He’s been with Cirque for four years and comes from a ballet jazz dance background.

And Richard? “I supervise the auditions and all the logistics for casting in all its various aspects. I need to look at the audition process every once in a while, analyze how we do it as a whole. See if it’s still valid, if it still works, see if there are things we can improve or add. I attend the auditions in Montreal and at least once a year I try to go on a trip with an audition team. This year Seattle, last year I was in Berlin and New York.” In Montreal, Richard supervises nine people. Casting has grown a lot. When he first joined Cirque there were about 18 in the department, there are now 37.

Richard started his career as a dancer for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and was there for 10 years. Upon finishing his dance career he went to work for Canadian Actors Equity in contract negotiation and as a union rep. After being away from his hometown of Montreal for 18 years he was looking for an opportunity to be back with his family when a contract negotiator position opened in Cirque casting. In the department he was involved in contracts for the artists on several productions. Now 40 and married, he lives in a Montreal condo with his wife, a popular yoga/Pilates teacher, and counts photography and being a Big Brother as among his interests.

The candidates pin numbers to their outfits. The numbers don’t have any sort of order to them, just three digits with “Cirque du Soleil” across the top. The audition team sets up on the far side of the room, facing us. Anne-Marie opens a laptop and begins to tap away. Charles sets up a video camera on a tripod; most everything this day will be recorded. Charmaine waits and watches. Richard hops onto the technical platform and prepares the sound/light equipment, which he will control for Charles all day. He will lead us step-by-step through this second day of the dance audition process. Having arrived three days ago, they will be auditioning dancers, actors, singers and musicians during their two-week stay in Seattle.

“Auditions are one of the first ambassadors of Cirque du Soleil,” explains Richard. “We (auditions) are the first contact artists have with Cirque. Even [though there are] scouts that go to festivals and shake their hand and make contact with a lot of them, this is really the first Cirque du Soleil experience they have. So it’s important that the process be an interesting and positive one for them, because they will leave with that impression.”

“[Artists] discover a lot during our auditions. They have probably never been asked to do these kinds of things. So they learn and a lot of times surpass themselves, they will go beyond their limit and discover new aspects of their talents. So far we’ve had very good feedback and they love our auditions. Sometimes they want to come back just because they love the process.”

But wouldn’t a more traditional “cattle call” casting process bring a wider variety of talent? “We don’t want hundreds and hundreds of people to come in. We’d rather work with a smaller group of people and go into very specific things. Our auditions are different from any other audition. We want to go further with them, to see how far they can go. Because all of them have something. They’ve come a long way just by getting to this point. We like to treat everyone with respect. And we want them to have fun and learn something, because the artists that we do not select could potentially be selected during the next audition they attend.”

“It’s not like a Broadway audition where they show choreography, the director is there, and people are chosen on the spot. We try to make [the selection process] as simple as possible, considering that we don’t have the artistic director with us. If you look at a ballet company or Broadway show the artistic director of the show is at the audition table. He makes the cuts, he makes the decisions. So people that are picked at the end of the audition are the artistic directors’ choice. With us, we have to be [the artistic director’s] eyes and ears. The reason we videotape everything is to be able to show these images to the Artistic Directors or the Creators in order for them to decide who they want in their show.”

Of course, along with the joy of telling a candidate they have been chosen to be part of the database, there is the sad job of disappointing those who aren’t chosen? “It’s part of the process. We try and do it as respectfully as possible and give them a little bit of feedback. We try to open the door for them to write us if they want more feedback about the audition and why they weren’t picked. If we give someone specific corrections, in two years they may come back and impress us. And eventually they might end up on our stage. It makes good business sense for us, and they leave with a good feeling. They leave the audition and they have a smile on their face even though they may not have been selected. And they’ve learned something.”

Anne-Marie agrees. “Very quickly, especially in the audition process, if people aren’t prepared, we know right away. If they choose to accept [our feedback] and accept that they didn’t prepare, it’s all good. It’s a learning experience, they’re going to go back and get all their tools and create a really solid foundation, a great toolbox, and in another year they’re going to re-apply. And they’re going to remember that scouts name because they’re going to call him/her. We scout for new artists but at the same time we have a precious database of artists that we go back and review. We know that if they’ve already auditioned for us there’s a maturity, knowledge, an acceptance that they know, “I’m going to get my booty kicked, but it’s worth it.”

Can the pressure of an audition really show a scout an artist’s true personality? “Auditions are nerve racking,” Richard admits. “And sometimes an artist isn’t at his best because of his nerves. We try to get them to forget they’re in an audition and feel relaxed. The more comfortable they are the more they’ll let go and the more we’ll see who they really are, what they can do, what they have to offer. So the more comfortable we make them, the better it is and the better results we get.”

“We don’t look for “cookie cutter” type of artists. We like the fact that they’re different, that they have personality and quirkiness, little “weird” things that they do. We ask them, “Is there anything you do that is different?”

What’s the most fun about going to an audition? “Contact with the artists. There is openness when they come to our audition that is fun to see. Singers for example: sometimes somebody comes to the studio and touches you with their voice and their choice of songs and you’re almost in tears; it’s wonderful.”

So what exactly is Cirque du Soleil looking for in an artist? “We’re looking for talent, of course. And we have specific things because we have specific profiles for each of our characters, so sometimes there are height and look requirements. There’s a fullness to an artist that we’re looking for which includes talent, maturity, openness, and experience. Sometimes, especially with acrobats, we get lots of competitive experience but they’ve never stepped on stage before. But they’re incredibly talented as gymnasts. That’s why we have general training for acrobats every year so we can teach them a little bit of how to be an artist Cirque du Soleil style and what it’s like to be in front of an audience. We try, in the short amount of time we have to work with them, to make them a more complete performer.”

The Cirque casting website is also to-the-point: “We want to get to know dancers of every background and origin. Avant-garde, new dance, solo creators, performers… the basic requirement is technical mastery. The pace of 8 to 10 shows a week requires sustained commitment and self-discipline.”

While positions for circus acts and acrobats might be obvious in their needs, dancers and actors are less so. Where does Cirque utilize dancers, we asked Richard. “The dancers in our shows are characters. In Mystère for example, we have Green Lizards, the Black Widow, the Bird of Prey, and the Beauty Queen. They are all dancers, but they all have their own character to play in the story. We also have some pure characters that could be played by a dancer. Eugen in “O”, is played by an actor, but could potentially be done by a dancer. Target in Quidam is presently played by a dancer.”


Next Issue: The audition begins, and we discuss how Cirque handles auditions for its many disciplines