dance auditions: "the strangest combination lock you can imagine" | auditioning for Shen Wei | Arts

dance auditions: "the strangest combination lock you can imagine" | auditioning for Shen Wei

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The first rite of passage for students at the ADF School got underway last night.

Several hundred of this generation's most promising dancers. Paper numbers pinned to sweaty clothes, like marathon runners. Hurried descriptions and demonstrations—followed by demands for immediate (and perfect) playback. For the chance to dance for the world on the ADF mainstage in the last week of the festival.

Video documentarian Jessye McDowell's coverage will be with us in a bit. But before that, in 2002 the Indy published my essay on what's really going on in dance auditions. The same article explored what was really different about auditioning for Shen Wei, during the summer he first presented The Rite of Spring.

I've added a bit to it since then. Here it is.

Fair warning: you have to do a lot more than dance to pass a dance audition. You also have to be an excellent recording and playback unit. Really: Since you have to faithfully reproduce a physical language you may have just been exposed to, in real-time, this potentially means being equal parts dictaphone and VCR. Oh, and artist, of course.

Now let's talk possession – as in “allowing your body to be entirely controlled by an outside entity.” Actually, this can go both ways in dance auditions: You're open (of course), so after seeing someone’s steps and gestures several times, you should somehow then be able to move into their skin and sentiment, take on its innate characteristics, and then convince the original inhabitant that it fits you, and that you belong there. On a more or less permanent basis.

And you can demonstrate that in less than ninety seconds. Right?

Decryption's next. After all, who knows what that inhabitant is really looking for when they look at you. A collaborator? Someone who can take a gesture or concept, open and extend it—and potentially open and extend both choreographer and dancer in the process?

Or would that freedom, that equality be too threatening to your choreographer? Are these moves the beginning of an artistic two-way conversation, or its end? Should you demonstrate imagination and creativity over and above what you’ve received? Or just be a human parrot, a mirror to their, er, perfect image—an able action figure, perhaps?

If that's all of you that they have use for, can you still respect them? Respect yourself?

What are the politics of use? What are the poetics? What's the price?

Do you need someone to dictate your every move and breath on stage? Is that the last thing you need? What does this suggest to you?

Can you craft yourself into the human key which fits the door before you? Because your moves will turn the tumblers in the strangest combination lock you can imagine. Put the right ones in the perfect order and you open up a future. Who knows? It might even be a good one.

Can you do this once?

Since the combinations always change from audition to audition, can you do it again and again?

And if you finally are that good a safecracker, then riddle me this: Do those combinations open you as well?

Do you actually know your own combination?

Fine, then. You are ready to begin your dance audition.

= = = = =

They move like the rays of an anemone, or a slowly-animated weather map, the hundreds of students surrounding choreographer Shen Wei on the floor of Duke's venerable East Campus dance studio, the Ark. In some ways, it's an audition unlike most these dancers will likely experience in their lifetime, a point that will be proven repeatedly during the afternoon auditions for repertory classes at the American Dance Festival.

Time seems all but suspended as Shen calmly, slowly moves his arms about his head to the crisp, simple dignity of Arvo Part's solo piano piece, "Fur Alina." Rail-thin, with quiet eyes and voice, he moves in a contemplative manner. His motions are strikingly economical; their simplicity draws attention to the melodrama and overstatement implicit in much contemporary work. A choreographic haiku, of sorts; one entirely sufficient to the music and the moment.

As he moves, the group reciprocates Shen's motion, slowly radiating out in all directions. The effect is sidereal, nearly meditative. It's also deceptive, to some degree, since intense activity is occurring here, as all eyes zero in on Shen. The students auditioning for his repertory class at ADF are closely reading him, in intricate detail, from all sides, analyzing every nuance, every gesture of the phrase he's teaching them from 2000's Near the Terrace, and simultaneously trying it on for size.

The sheer number of them, instantly amplifying every impulse all the way across the space, extrapolates each movement into a wave with larger force, larger implications. This must have been what Don DeLillo was getting at when he wrote about the fundamental power of iterative crowds in Mao II.

Later, a final demonstration splits the Ark into two equal parts. On the left is a beachhead of students who sit behind a remarkably straight dividing line. Beyond it is the right half of the room, empty except for Shen. Though he uses but a fraction of the space in his performance of the solo, it's clear that the empty space is as important as the one he occupies. Silence reigns. A CD player begins, and Part's sidereal clockwork unfolds once more.

As student groups reenact the movement, some more easily find a home in the gesture than others. The borrowed clothes of this maneuver simply fits some better. Some embody its spirit more readily than its technique. For others, the reverse is true; mechanical precision is unaccompanied by context.

Shen is open to question, unfailingly polite; in all, a most considerate host. In time the dancers will also learn how rare these commodities are, and how welcome.

As he moves around a group of auditioners, one catches a glimpse of Shen's dilemma as well. There's so little time in which to interpret and assess the external signs that intimate just who's home in those forms in front of him. Then there's the measuring, not only of who's in there at present, but what their potential is. Slow movement invites interpretation. There are so many, and so little time.

A young woman lies on the floor, her posed form conveying a model of alienated dignity, mingled with sadness. As Shen Wei's gesture ends, she looks down; her head turns slowly, solemnly away. A melancholy unfolds about her in this moment, apparently one not of recent vintage. It's the air of a dream's inhabitant, one who knows that perfection ends, and that dreams cannot last. As clearly as I understand it, it's one of the things at the heart of Near the Terrace.

Does she know that her signal was not just received, but valued? Whether or not she made the list for Shen Wei's class, does she know at least that this moment is truly hers?

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