Cattle calls, stress, high kicks: Scrapping for work in the cut-throat dance world

Caitlin Marks grew up with people asking her if she wanted to be a Rockette one day.

New York’s high-kicking, 90-year-old dance company, based at Radio City Music Hall, has become one of the staples of American culture with a starring role in the venue’s annual Christmas Spectacular, a huge variety show.

And I was like, yeah, I guess I do, says Marks, now based in New York, scrapping for work in the cut-throat world capital of dance.

The 21-year-old Melburnian laughs over Zoom from her Harlem home: I love Christmas and I love dancing, so it’s like the perfect thing.

But there are dreams and then there is the reality of making a living as a young dancer in New York. When she first moved there, before the pandemic, she would take part in the Broadway cattle calls that have been a tradition for a century: lining up around the block for those precious minutes – even seconds – in front of a casting director.

Sometimes you can wait there all day, from 8am to 6pm and not get seen until the last hour – or just not getting in at all, says Marks.

Now there are virtual cattle calls, to reduce the health risks of standing around a theatre door all day. So when she tried out for the Rockettes this year, it started with an online form to pick an audition timeslot. But the pace quickly picked up.

You go in the first day and they teach you a short combo – they teach it so fast, Marks says. Then you go into the room with the panel and perform it for them in groups of five or six – and then they make cuts right away.

After barely 15 seconds of dancing for the audition panel at the Radio City gymnasium, there were those who had made the cut, and those who hadn’t. Marks held on to advice she got from a more experienced dancer: don’t think the panel wants you to fail – really, they want you to blow them away.

That helped me deal with my nerves, she says. I went in there knowing I can’t do anything else, so I may as well give it everything I’ve got, and if that’s what they want, it’s what they want.

She made it through the first cull. The next day was even more intense, she says: they learnt two new combinations, and had to sing while dancing. This time, Marks was sure she had screwed up: she’d come in with street tap shoes, while everyone else had known to wear the high heel taps the Rockettes sport.

I was like, ‘Oh gosh, I’m definitely going to get cut. ’

But others were, and she wasn’t. On day three she had to perform all the combinations she had been taught, and learn a new one. It was two minutes long – I’m not even exaggerating, Marks says. So long. And right at the end of the combination you do 32 of the jump kicks that they do. I was so tired, and it was so hard.

But something clicked. And she is down to a group of 20 dancers for a three-week Rockettes Conservatory at Radio City Music Hall, a pipeline to the annual August auditions for the Christmas Spectacular.

I feel pretty stressed but it’s manageable stress, says Marks. I need a job right now, and this job would be ideal.

She has an agent – the prestigious, dance-dedicated MSA agency. One Friday she was told to prepare for a Lil Uzi music video shooting on Sunday. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, yes . . . It’s a very last-minute industry, a real rollercoaster, she says

I do love auditions, I love the pressure, even if I don’t like it in the moment. It’s fun to be on the spot.

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