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‘Every Little Step’

Determined steps to success

by Kaori Shoji

Cameras go behind the scenes of a Broadway audition for the first time in “Every Little Step” (released in Japan as “Broadway Broadway”), a documentary about dancers auditioning for a part in the revival of “A Chorus Line,” itself a musical about dancers auditioning.

Directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, the film plays off the echo effect of this premise with skill, grace and heartfelt sympathy; it’s clearly the work of people who love dancers, whether they’re grinning in the spotlight or fighting back tears after a failed tryout.

“In this business you have to look in the mirror and like what you see, because people are going to be saying ‘no’ to you all the time,” says one seasoned dancer as the story charts the struggle of her auditioning process. “It’s 100 ‘nos’ to every one ‘yes.’ That’s what it’s like.”

“A Chorus Line” was the brainchild of late Broadway legend Michael Bennett. Over the course of one night in 1974, a group of dancers — fueled by cheap red wine — poured the stories of their lives into Bennett’s tape recorder. Bennett then called Oscar-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch and asked him to condense the stories in the 12-hour-long recording into a series of songs lasting no more than two hours. Some lyrics are word-for-word confessions straight from the tape, others poetic collages of recounted episodes and chance remarks, but all have their roots in the reality of struggling dancers whose lives, it seems, haven’t changed much in 30 years.

Every Little Step
Rating
Director James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo
Run Time 93 minutes
Language English

Back then, dancers talked of difficult childhoods, divorced parents, discovering dance, training and auditioning. Dancers today tell pretty much the same tales, but what surfaces in the film is the fierce dedication they have to their craft and the sense that they’re here singing and performing their guts out in front of choreographers and producers because there’s no other place on Earth they’d rather be.

Stern and Del Deo’s crew is there on the morning that 3,000 hopefuls line up outside the double doors of an old brick building in Broadway. The road to the final casting process will take eight months, and just 19 dancers will get the final nod. Among the 3,000 are people who have traveled across the country in a friend’s car, got off an all-night Greyhound bus, or, in the case of one young man, “just flew in from Australia.”

The dancers are initially judged on basic dance skills such as jetes and pirouettes, and as the field narrows they are tested for acting and verbal skills, personal aura, and how they relate to the judges (and by implication the audience).

Yuka Takara, a dancer/singer from Okinawa, works her way up the ladder, rung by bloody rung. The committee of judges, consisting partly of former “Chorus Line” dancers and Bennett’s collaborative choreographer Bob Avian, complain that her accent isn’t American enough and would take much work to whip into shape. The refrain for the opening song, “I Hope I Get It,” is “I need this job,” and this would seem to be Takara’s mantra as well. A diminutive woman in child-size leotards who radiates determination, her name stays on the list despite opposing voices, and she keeps coming back for another round. When asked what keeps her going, Yuka replies plaintively: “My unemployment checks are running out. I need this job.”

As the auditions go on, it becomes clear that the dancers who remain are the dancers with experience. Some have acted on daytime TV, almost all have performed in other Broadway productions. A prime example is Alisan Porter, who played the title role in “Curly Sue” at the age of 8 and became a Broadway dancer like her mother, an original “Chorus Line” cast member.

The rare exception is Chryssie Whitehead, who has movie appearances in her resume but has never been in a Broadway production. Before the final audition, she calls her dad and asks him to say a prayer. The film shrewdly avoids immediately showing the result of that prayer — we never know until the final two minutes whether she made it or not.

In the end, what is most impressive is the incredible stoicism of people who dance for a living. After a moment of joy and triumph, the 19 cast members must commit to a grueling, nonstop cycle of work. As one retired ballet dancer (the father of a finalist) says: “It’s the price you have to pay to want to dance and to keep dancing.”