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Trying for the top: every year Cirque du Soleil auditions hundreds of aspiring dancers. A handful make it under The Big Top.

Running away and joining the circus hasn't lost its allure, at least for the dancers who piled into Studio 6 at the San Francisco Dance Center one winter day not long ago. Breakdancers, belly dancers, and baton twirlers, twenty-eight in all, turned out for a Cirque du Soleil dance audition, one of ninety-five auditions Cirque holds around the country each year.

The innovative Montreal-based troupe requires that candidates submit a resume, a fifteen-minute video, and photos in advance. Based on that, the circus decides whom to invite to an all-day audition. The dancers invited to the San Francisco Dance Center had typically diverse backgrounds. Male and female, tall and short, stocky and slender, from Africa, Canada, Cuba, Japan, and the United States they represented as many countries as body types.

A TEST OF PASSION

Four Cirque du Soleil judges presided that chilly morning. "In the auditions, we look for talent, open-mindedness, technical precision, stage presence, and versatility. Circus experience is certainly not a criteria," says Anick Chartier, who works as a marketer in the troupe's casting department. For dancers aspiring to join the troupe, the audition, which is videotaped, generally consists of two parts: dance class and improvisation. At the San Francisco tryout, the dance class portion consisted mainly of combinations which demanded a great deal of dramatic extension and flexibility. The dancers, performing in groups of six, then, and finally in pairs, were scrutinized, and then the judges made their first eliminations.

Next came a free-style section where judges invited each dancer to perform a solo and show her or his specialty. A feast of bravura turns followed: a breakdancer performed on sneaker skates, flipping upside down, and spinning on one hand. A hip hop artist "popped" his body from every visible joint. A belly dancer lay belly-up to the sky, stomach muscles percolating. A baton twirler spun her baton higher and higher. A Khatak dancer turned swiftly and rhythmically, ankle bells ringing, filling the room with sound and motion. A Puerto Rican folk dancer who performs bomba brought her own conga drummers to keep the beat.

COUNTING DOWN

More elimination then whittled the number of dancers to half and the improvisations began. This section of the audition gauges the performers' theatricality, a key element in Cirque du Soleil's presentation. Each dancer had to perform splits in all directions, backbends, contortions, or any unique movement in the dancer's repertoire. Gymnastics, acrobatics, and theater open that portal where circus meets dance, and experience in these disciplines can help aspiring circus artists scale their presentation.

The dancers also learned a bit of choreography from Mystere, the show that Cirque currently presents in Las Vegas. It's familiar turf for any performer seasoned in auditions: watch, count, execute. Next judges asked dancers to become court jesters, devils, monsters, sumo wrestlers. Be a seductress from England, a seductress from Denmark, a seductress from New York. Then each dancer performed a song, even if they felt they couldn't. "If you don't know a song, sing "Happy Birthday," a judge reassured one embarrassed performer.

As the day wore on, the number of dancers dwindled. Finally, six remained: the dancer who practically flew when he leaped; the ballerina who performed an elegant classical solo on pointe; the expressive dancer who could spin with fire; the stiltwalker who could cover the stage with one single long-limbed stride; the baton twirler and her animated baton; the dancer with some voice training and a face seemingly destined for clown white.

Even reaching the shortlist clearly meant a great deal to each. Ai Notchara, 23, a fine arts student in Japan, began baton twirling at age 3. She went to high school in Canada, where she studied dance and baton and competed at world class baton-twirling championships.

"I want to use my full dancing and twirling abilities," says Notchara of her circus dream. In the audition, a judge coached her to bring her baton to life, encouraging her to "make it breathe." For Notchara, it was a fresh way to approach her skills, and she clearly was still absorbing the instruction even as the audition wound down.

The judges at a Cirque audition don't cast on the spot. Instead, those deemed strong enough to join a Cirque troupe are notified as slots open that suit their skills and strengths in a show. The company now tours five shows internationally, as well as having two permanent venues, one in Las Vegas and the other in Orlando. This past year, Cirque du Soleil auditioned more than fifteen artists and acrobats around the country. Those interested in learning more about the audition process should visit the "Join Cirque-On Stage" section of the troupe's website, at www.cirquedusoleil.com, or call the troupe's Montreal headquarters at 514.723.7646.

D. Woodhull has studied at Arina Isaacson's School of Clowning in San Francisco.
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Title Annotation:Auditions Guide 2004
Author:Woodhull, D.
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Words:807
Previous Article:Front and center: dancers and artistic directors tell their audition secrets.
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