Get in the Modern Dance Door

September 7, 2009

(L to R) Elizabeth Disharoon, Gen Hashimoto, Pascal Rekoert and Rosie Lani Fiedelman of Jennifer Muller/The Works (Photo by: Carol Rosegg)
(L to R) Elizabeth Disharoon, Gen Hashimoto, Pascal Rekoert and Rosie Lani Fiedelman of Jennifer Muller/The Works (Photo by: Carol Rosegg)

Acrobatic floorwork, video installments, avant-garde costumes: There’s an endless list of ways modern troupes stretch the genre. If you’ve ever sat mesmerized by a boutique company, you may have already looked into auditioning for one. But perhaps you hit a bump in the road when you couldn’t find said tryout. Unlike the behemoths of modern dance—Mark Morris Dance Group, Martha Graham Dance Company, the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Merce Cunningham Dance Company, to name a few—many modern companies don’t hold auditions often. Instead, lots of them regularly cull dancers in other ways—often in a longer, more personal process.

Troy Ogilvie, dancer with Gallim Dance and Sidra Bell Dance New York, joined both companies through nontraditional routes: She and Andrea Miller, founder of Gallim Dance, went to Juilliard simultaneously but really connected later at an alumni project. Afterward Miller scouted Ogilvie for her company. And in her senior year at the conservatory, Ogilvie asked Bell to choreograph a trio for a showcase (you probably couldn’t ask Merce Cunningham to do that!). It didn’t work out because of scheduling, but since they enjoyed working together in the one rehearsal, Bell hired Ogilvie when the timing was right.

Although it might take more effort than a single-day audition, persistence, sound judgment and thoughtful communication can help you land a gig with a company that inspires you. DS spoke with five choreographers/artistic directors of successful modern troupes to get the scoop on how to get you in the door—or window.

Inside Info

First, make sure you understand the essence of these groups. For the most part, many of them have grown organically from one artist’s desire to create, often with little or no budget and a loose organizational setup. So, your commitment and understanding needs to match this type of personal connection! Sidra Bell, founder and artistic director of Sidra Bell Dance New York, says, “After graduating from Yale, I wanted to start an intimate and accessible collective. I pooled dancers I knew from my training. We had no budget, we performed at community centers and my dad, a musician, got his friends to play for us!”

To find the right match for you, see as many performances as possible. Also, do your research. Many choreographers have websites with not only class and performance information, but also comprehensive calendars, mission statements, histories and collaborator lists that can help you get a feel for the dancemaker’s schedule, aesthetics and creative leanings.

And this isn’t the only homework you should be doing. Being articulate and well-educated in many areas—think literature, art, architecture, music—is ultra-important in smaller groups where collaboration and thoughtful contribution is an essential part of every dancer’s job. KT Niehoff, founder of Lingo Dancetheater in Seattle, says, “In an idiosyncratic, contemporary scene you need to be a well-rounded artist. There’s a give and take between the choreographer and performers and that flow is what makes the work happen.”

Cue the Classes, Work the Workshop

To get a feel for this flow, if your choreographer of choice teaches class in your area, take it—regularly! Nicole Pierce, artistic director of EgoArt, Inc. in Boston, MA, teaches in Cambridge, MA. “Nine times out of 10, I draw dancers from my class,” she says. “They already have my timing, musicality and way of thinking in mind.”

If you’re a student in high school or college, Miller suggests asking the choreographer to work on a solo for you: It’s an opportunity to try out her movement while letting her see you work and dance. Just make sure to inquire about any fees up front.

If these options aren’t possible, keep an eye out for workshops—a series of classes with a master teacher/choreographer that focus on her specific technique or style and usually include a repertory section. These are one of your best bets for getting precious face-to-face time with the artist. Plus, sometimes they conclude with a private audition. “It’s hard to see how someone will really be to work with from an audition,” Bell says. “A workshop is a more honest setting to see someone work and play.”

In terms of your attitude at a workshop, Jennifer Muller, artistic director of Jennifer Muller/The Works, says, “Have an openness and an eagerness. It’s better to be aware with great energy that moves than to be perfect.” She also notes that a tidy and unique appearance is important, even in a more free-flowing, modern setting.

It’s also essential to be ultra-sensitive and tuned in to the vibe and style of the class or workshop. Andrea Miller says, “Pay attention to what the choreographer puts value on. It might be different from what you think is important! Once you tune in, you get closer to the choreographer’s plane.”

Since a workshop is not an audition, leave your competitive streak at home. “It’s not about showing off and getting the job,” Bell says. “In a workshop—and freelance—environment, a competitive spirit is not attractive. It’s about the process. Being engaged is the most attractive thing you can do.”

Creating a connection by talking to the choreographer after class is also an advantage of the workshop. But tread lightly: You don’t want to come across aggressively. Instead, offer what Miller terms your “elevator pitch.” Briefly mention how much you enjoyed class and the movement, and that you are interested in any possible work. This is most effective when you have either taken the class regularly or attended much, or all, of a workshop, showing you mean business. Offering your resumé and headshot (full body shots are better!) is also appropriate here, but only if the choreographer seems receptive. “Find a moment where I can look in your eyes and hear what you have to say,” Miller says. “But don’t insert yourself in a moment if a teacher looks unavailable.” And she adds that if you know you will only be able to take that one workshop or session, you might consider talking to the choreographer beforehand.

Tailor Your Communication

Even if you aren’t able to attend a workshop, communicating with the choreographer is still possible. Many websites list e-mail addresses, and you can usually join a mailing list. But don’t just send your favorite choreographer a form e-mail! Use your research and go through your mental Rolodex to find a point of connection. “The best place to come from is a mutual relationship or something in common,” Miller says. “That makes it more personal.”

After you’ve found your hook, be brief, clear and friendly, showing that you respect the choreographer’s time and attention. Make sure to check in every so often (once a month should do the trick without being annoying) to “keep your face in the front of the choreographer’s mind in case they need a dancer,” Jennifer Muller says.

Another resource to tap is dancers from the company. If they’re available to chat, their insight into the company’s inner workings can be invaluable. The same respect and consideration should be used when approaching them. “Andrea [Miller] has so many people talking to her,” Ogilvie says. “But if they talk to me, it’s easier for me to remember and make a note of it.” And Miller says she trusts her dancers’ recommendations for other dancers highly.

Although it may be a more circuitous path, you can navigate the road to a modern dance job. With research, workshops, sound judgment and clear communication in your tool belt, you’re well on your way to spending time in an inventive installation with fascinating movement.

Did you know?

Sometimes choreographers will choose dancers from workshops and class to place in an apprentice program. Jennfier Muller/The Works does just this in her Scholarship Apprentice Program. Keep your eyes peeled for this type of extra opportunity!