Don't just get up and dance when auditioning for Rob Ashford, the Tony-winning choreographer of Thoroughly Modern Millie, currently delighting audiences at the Ahmanson Theatre. He'd better see some characterization, some commitment, some acting—the same effort you'd put into auditioning for a speaking role.
Ashford spoke with Back Stage West from London, where he is choreographing a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; he's also working in preproduction on Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darrin biopic. His work there begs the question about differences between American show dancers—gypsies, if you will—and their English counterparts. "I find the biggest difference is the approach to the material," he notes. Both groups learn the material quickly, but of the English dancers he says, "They're a lot more cerebral, they really think about it, they really try to process it." Americans, he says, are "performing" the choreography by the second week of rehearsals. "We at home are a little more emotional and driven by our energy—the energy of the music, the choreography, the story we're telling. We allow ourselves to get to that result sooner."
Of course everything starts with training—particularly studying acting. "I think most of the great gypsies can do everything: acting, singing, tap, ballet," he says. "There are certainly people who are more specifically suited to certain things. There are gypsies who have more of a classical background, and sometimes that's what you need. There are certain ones who are stronger hoofers. But what plays a huge part is the acting. As ensembles get smaller, everyone has to cover and understudy and play small parts. When I first moved to New York and was auditioning and performing in Broadway shows, the requirements weren't as strong. Yes, you had to sing, act some, dance great, but it's becoming more and more refined, more and more specialized. The dancers are required to do a lot more now than just dance in the show and sing in the chorus. And you want to find an understudy or two out of the dancers."
Ashford got an unusually late start in dance. At age 20, he was pre-law in college at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va. An advisor suggested he major in English or theatre. Having been in drama clubs in high school, he opted for theatre. In summer stock, a dancer didn't show up to rehearsals. Ashford was asked, "Can you try?" He recalls, "I did and it went pretty well. Suddenly I'm in dance class and dancing in a show." The dance captain of his show told Ashford he should dance professionally, and she introduced him to a professor at Point Park College in Pittsburgh. There he entered the dance program, which included theatre and musical theatre.
It's hard to become a dancer at a late age, but, says Ashford, "You have a determination at that age, so you work your butt off. It's always easier for a man because they need men, and they push men harder. And I was never an athlete, so I had no sports muscles to un-train."
He moved to NYC, working as a gypsy for 15 years. As Victor/Victoria's dance captain and swing, he says, "My body was just wrecked." The opportunity arose to assist choreographer Rob Marshall (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Says Ashford, "I loved being on the other side of the table, teaching, trying to pass ideas on, trying to get from the actors and the dancers the story, to get them to commit to the movements." He gave himself one year to see what he could do as a choreographer. He went to see Hal Prince, who directed Kiss of the Spider Woman, and said, "I think I want to be a choreographer. What should I do?" Prince told him, "Show me your voice." Ashford prepared a 20-minute audition piece, using his friends. Prince came, as did several casting directors, and word was out that he was interested in choreographing.
A Pointed Foot in the Door
To be cast in one of Ashford's shows, a dancer should either attend the open calls or be an established gypsy. At the Equity calls, he also tries to see non-Equity dancers. "I feel you never know what's out there, and as long as we're not swamped, anyone who shows up we try to see." But coming to his invited calls are Broadway veterans. "You love their work. You know exactly what you're getting. And you want to put them into your mix. I don't think they should have to come to a big open call. They need to come to a private call. We never make any cuts with that group. When you're invited everyone dances, everyone sings. I think it's earned after five, six, 10 Broadway shows. It's the least we can do. They're stars. They're Broadway dance stars. You're lucky to have any of them in your ensemble."
As for the skills he looks for, they depend on the project. For Millie, he says, "I love dancing and moving. So we don't start with the tapping. We start with the opening number to see how someone takes on style and uses their body. To me, if someone is a great dancer but doesn't have a perfect double pullback, OK, they'll learn a double pullback. But if you don't 'dance,' if your body doesn't move a certain way or with a certain kind of commitment, that's much harder to teach—and certainly not in a six-week rehearsal period. Of course I always look for technique, for someone who's got a ballet background of some sort—beautiful stretched legs, nice feet are always a prerequisite—but there's no particular type of dancer I look for."
At his auditions he expects dancers to learn the dance combinations quickly: The quicker a dancer picks up the steps, the more of the show's style he or she can add. But, he warns, "Any choreographer, myself included, is not really interested in someone else's interpretation of the steps as much as we're interested in someone bringing themselves and their true personality to our steps and our style. At an audition people can be quite accomplished dancers, but they want to put their spin on everything. At an audition, that can be off-putting. We want that quirky personality, but we don't want them to alter our choreography so that they can do their thing." Once his dancers are cast, though, he enjoys their participation in the creative process.
And because he thinks acting is so important, he says he always tries to give a clear, specific idea of what the auditioning dancers are trying to get across, what they're trying to achieve with these steps. "I would never come in a room and just say, 'Start on your right foot; one, two, three….' People shouldn't treat an audition like a class. In a class, you're concerned with just getting the steps. I think people at an audition often get the steps and then think, 'Good, I'm done.' It's not about that. It's about layering everything on it: bringing yourself to it, trying to put the style on it that the choreographer or his assistant is doing, and it's also about trying to incorporate the acting of the scene."
Getting That Leg Up
One of the best ways of improving performance skills is to experience life, he suggests. "Save every penny and get a cheap flight and go to Italy and stay in a hostel. Or go to London and see shows."
As for getting those acting skills primed, he says, "Honestly, I think they have it in there, but it's a fear of commitment. Dancers, who are so in tune with their bodies, when they're acting or singing and they're inexperienced, they become out of tune with their bodies. You sit there and go, 'You just danced like a fiend and impressed me beyond belief, and you can't even stand here and read four lines? You're so uncomfortable in your skin.'"
For example in Millie, many of the girls in the show have lines. "Every girl at the audition has to read so we see who can do what," he says. "I can't tell you how many great dancers are eliminated because they can't read three lines. They're so uncomfortable, they read real fast, they look on the floor, they just want out of there. And that's their moment to secure the job. And they blow it."
Therefore, he says, dancers should take acting classes. "The more you know—about everything—the better off your chances are going to be. It's always best if you do one thing extremely well and everything else really well. You need to pop at something to be employable. Some phenomenal dancer who sings well and acts well will always work. Some phenomenal actor who sings well and dances well will always work."
And, yes, a show dancer must be able to sing. "Don't fool yourself," he says. "Not with the economics of today." BSW
"Thoroughly Modern Millie" continues at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7:30 p.m. Through July 25. (213) 628-2772.