My favorite thing about auditions is when they end. I get to watch the sea of beautiful numbered bodies pour out of the room, the big, important teacher and her dutiful assistant trailing with a big clunky suitcase. I get to exhale, releasing the air and anxiety in my chest. For a second, I’m the only one left, sprawled on the floor in my tights and sweaty shirt, tracing the imprint the ballet shoes left on my now refreshingly bare ankles. I have ten seconds before the next group of anticipatory auditioners comes and fills the space. One part down. One to go.
This particular audition, one of four I’ve attended since January, was for the Hubbard Street Summer Intensive, a contemporary dance program for dancers aged 18-24 that takes place in Chicago. The intent of the program is to train young pre-professionals in contemporary movement techniques, pushing them to physical and artistic boundaries. This is reflected in the length and intensity of the audition itself, where dancers take a full hour-and-a-half ballet class, only invited back for the contemporary portion if they make it past the first round of cuts. The contemporary piece of the audition then consists of a variety of improvisational exercises that stretch into the night: mostly sixteen counts of going across the floor by yourself, inventing a contemporary phrase in front of forty pairs of judgmental eyes. I wait my turn as dancer upon dancer assumes the space, cuts, undulates, slices, writhes, gyrates, and is safely on the other side of the room.
The purpose of improvisational exercises in the audition is to cultivate the dancers’ uninhibited, liquid “movement quality.” Ostensibly, “what they are looking for” is for one’s body to be a new, shocking, and revelatory instrument, used in a way that has never before been seen. During the exercises, the teachers bark suggestions, some of which could do nicely embroidered on a pillow. “I want to see y ou.” “Feel the sensation.” “Your artistry is what is important to us.” As Hubbard Street Dance Company’s website proudly proclaims, “You’re not like other dancers. Get unique at Hubbard Street.”
After ten years spent in the world of ballet, where “expressing yourself” is tantamount to civil disobedience, these instructions perplex me. You want to see my soul? You want an honest expression of what is going on in my head, instead of an exact placement of the arms, the elbows, the ankle bones? I take the bait; it’s irresistible. I create the pictures and textures in my mind, I apply the corrections that have to do with movement quality, not precise placement of the limbs. But as I stand waiting in line to go, the number 159 on my chest, watching “unique” dancer after “unique” dancer twist through space, moving through molasses, feeling the sensation – I began to realize: these people are all trying to look the same. They’re all trying to look b a d a s s .
“Contemporary” is a term used to describe a form of dance that blends together elements of ballet and modern dance, sometimes rejecting both. The line between contemporary and modern is often blurred, but the word contemporary is increasingly used to describe the work of prominent international choreographers today who work outside of a particular codified dance technique. The rising trend is toward a cadre of artists creating pieces that involve earthiness, a sensual, rippling quality, and “freaky,” unusual, impressive athleticism. From the framework laid out by pioneers like William Forsythe and Jirí Kylián, a network of highly revered, extremely trendy international choreographers has emerged, among them Ohad Naharin, Mats Ek, Sidra Bell, Akram Khan, Shannon Gillen, and Crystal Pite. This creative hive-mind of exceptional artists and creators are the new generation of dance, their works being snatched up by the top contemporary dance companies worldwide. And their commitment to originality is key: these artists are looking for new movement. But the by-product of the dance world’s iconoclasm for these few people is a generation of salivating young sycophants. They have created a sea of 20-somethings eager to slither seductively along the floor, articulate their neck muscles, and show the world exactly how deep and impressive their second position plié can be. There is no trace of vulnerability in this physicality. It is visually inhuman–metallic, animalistic – and enrapturing.
The mad dash for this one vein of contemporary is not unique to dancers who have come of age during the post-postmodern dance trend. Huge, influential ballet companies have leapt upon the contemporary bandwagon. Big news was made in artistic circles when the Paris Opera Ballet, a bastion of classical heritage since its founding in 1669, announced that for the first time that half of its program would consist of contemporary works. Almost every American ballet company now does mixed contemporary and classical repertory. With every passing year the shift gets more and more obvious.
At my recent audition for Ballet BC, a contemporary company in Vancouver, Canada, the auditioner shrilly announced, “You have to know ballet inside and out so you can destroy it. We will never put ballet on stage.” The future of dance is contemporary, and often cited as explanation is that ballet is limited, while contemporary is vast, varied, and expanding. But in the trenches, contemporary movers, through no intention of their own, have created an army of adolescent adherents ready to codify, limit, judge, and eliminate the chaff. All movement is acceptable, as long as it’s smooth, sensual, dark, animalistic, and intimidating. Seeing the limitations of ballet being replaced by new, equally restrictive limitations, I found it hard to understand what all the excitement was about.
At Princeton, the orange bubble has largely shielded our student-run dance companies from the onslaught of homogeneous, liquid-mercury-like movement. But in the places where it has seeped in, something about its placement is actually perfect. Flowing, slithering, textured writhing paired with “fierce” faces belongs on stage in front of an audience of 18-23 year olds. We are in that headspace where it is fully appropriate to be edgy, to be trendy, to want to be cool.
That movement speaks to us, and it should. But the audience that attends dance performances beyond Nassau Street is an ocean of enthusiastic gray and white hair. For people who have worked, raised a family, and retired, arriving at theaters by the bus-load from their nursing homes, what significance does a badass twenty-something in tight-fitting dark clothing, moving as if through honey, hold?
Back in the Hubbard Street audition, I’ve spent the past fifteen minutes in line shifting my weight between my legs. 156, 157, 158. Three different bodies, three different safety-pinned numbers, three similarly undulating movement qualities. I’ve been planning how in this moment, the 45 seconds alone in the spotlight, I’m going to show them me, be vulnerable, be expressive, be authentic. 159 is announced. My mind goes blank. I venture forward into the space. I make eye contact with one of the auditioners. And I slither forward, copying those that went before me with a lithe little body roll. I have become badass.