Ashley Anne Russ, who I know as Annie, is one of those incredibly luminous people who was born to dance. Any audience would be lucky just to watch her take class, let alone sparkle on a stage.
I met Annie back in the day when I was actually more of a director than a performer. She auditioned for a show I was directing (choreographed by the brilliant Jeff Shade), nailed every aspect of the choreography, and was instantly cast. Her work ethic makes choreographers and love working with her. Her huge heart and giving spirit make dancers love working alongside of her. Every time we audition together, I am astounded at how quickly she latches on to the choreographer’s style and executes the combination as though it were a final performance. It is truly inspiring. She is a true star inside and out, and Muscles for Musicians feels incredibly lucky that she was willing to share her audition experiences with us. So without further ado, here is Annie’s audition advice!
Can you give us a little background your dance career?
I grew up in Chicago in more of a “concert dance” world. I was fortunate to get my jazz training at Gus Giordano, and I studied ballet in a studio my mom’s best friend owned. I would also take class at Lou Conte in the city on occasion. To further my training, I was accepted into ABT summer camp as well as three years with Chicago National Association of Dance Masters (CNADM). My first taste of musical theater was with Northstage Theater Company in Chicago where I connected with Rebecca Timms (former Broadway dancer turned choreographer). She got me an audition for West Virginia Public Theater which ended up being my first taste of summerstock (2 years in a row). Upon moving to the eastcoast, I attended SUNY Purchase Conservatory. Being so close to the city, I couldn’t resist the temptation to take the train into Manhattan for auditions. Needless to say, I didn’t last 4 years… I landed my first agent and immediately booked a show in the city. Since then, I haven’t stopped doing everything from regional work & tours, as well as international with Tokyo Disney. I would consider myself a “theater jazz dancer”. While I am trained in everything from ballet, tap, contemporary, latin, etc. I am most comfortable in athletic movement that tells a clear story or emotion.
How has your approach to auditions changed over the years?
My approach to auditions has changed over the years since I have learned to not put so much pressure on myself. I am an assistant to a director/choreographer which has put me on the “other side of the table” for auditions. Casting a show is like putting together a puzzle. 90% of the time when you walk in the room, they may only be looking for 1 or 2 specific tracks. You can be cut before even learning the combination because they are looking for someone 5’8″ or someone who sings the alto line. I’ve learned to just show up, do MY best, have a good time, treat it as a free dance class or a chance to meet new people and if I’m not the puzzle piece they are looking to fill…”onto the next!”
Where do you like to stand during auditions and why?
I like to stand toward the center in auditions. I don’t always put myself right in the front because I want a full view of the choreographer, but I stand where I can see and have the most space to move.
Do you have any advice on picking up choreography quickly at an audition?
I have always been a “fast learner”, so picking up choreography has never been a problem for me. I do find that saying the steps in my head as I’m doing them helps.
When it comes to style, I focus more on making the pictures and “less is more” to start. If it’s a style that doesn’t feel as comfortable in my body, I try and copy the shapes that the choreographer is making and allow my body to RELAX when making transitions. Feeling the music helps too.
Would you suggest asking the choreographer questions if you are having trouble in an audition? If so, what kind?
YES! Always ask questions and pay attention when other people ask questions too. There is nothing worse than asking a question that was just answered. When I am unsure of something I ask for clarification, ie. “Can you clarify this phrase—“, “Would you mind breaking down the steps before/after…”, …Be as professional as possible because how you ask a question says a lot about how you will be in a rehearsal setting.
What was your most challenging audition and how did you conquer it?
My most challenging audition was actually for the Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil tour. Like I said before, I am a theater jazz dancer…the hip-hop/pop stuff isn’t my forte. I felt completely out of my comfort zone. Instead of comparing myself to the other girls in the room and trying to be a carbon copy of the choreographer, I decided to learn the steps as well as I could…have fun…show my personality…and even learn a new way of moving. I didn’t get cut right away, but I didn’t make it to the final round either. I actually learned a lot from that audition because there were dancers in the room who moved exactly like MJ—it was incredible to watch. They were made for that particular show. However, if they were auditioning against me for a show that I am perfect for, the tables would be turned.
Are there any classes you would recommend a non-dancer take to work on audition skills?
Just take class and vary it up! The more you challenge your brain & body outside the audition room, the easier it gets. I recommend Jeff Shade, Lisa Harvie, Scott Thompson…they all teach a beginner level and are wonderful at mixing up styles. All three of them were once performers themselves, so they get where you are coming from.
What is the best audition advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I can give is to just show up. There is a puzzle that everyone fits in. Don’t take anything personally, and don’t try and be someone you’re not. Judy Garland once said, “Always try and be the first rate version of yourself instead of the second rate version of someone else.” By trying to be what you think the people behind the table want may cost you a job you are perfect for further down the line… I’ve been called in for shows after being seen at a different audition. You may not be right for the show you are auditioning for, but you may be perfect for their next project! Have fun and do what you love to do!