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Every Little Step

Director: Adam Del Deo, James D. Stern
Cast: Bob Avian, Michael Bennett, Baayork Lee, Charlotte D'Amboise, Marvin Hamlisch

(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 17 Apr 2009 (Limited release); 2009)

Review [16.Dec.2009]

Power of Persistence

Every Little Step is all about repetition, documenting the casting of the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, a musical about the casting of a Broadway musical. The lifelong dedication of professional and wanna-be-professional dancers as well as the very audition process that both A Chorus Line and Every Little Step chronicle are similarly studies of repetition. All the thousands of professional, equity, and amateur dancers who responded to the open call for auditions and whom we hear from in Every Little Step tell how they have been literally dancing their entire lives, learning styles and steps and repeating them for countless hours over decades. In the audition process, the performers are taught a dance sequence in a matter of minutes, are expected to execute it perfectly minutes later, and are judged immediately on their approximation of that perfection.


Such mastery of dance detail is, of course, only a small part of A Chorus Line, which also retells performers’ stories, their professional and personal desires. What Every Little Step demonstrates is that despite the different circumstances and backgrounds of these dancers, their passions over time are strikingly similar.


Famously, Michael Bennett, the creator and original choreographer of A Chorus Line, gathered the stories that would become the musical by bringing together a group of professional dancers in the middle of the night of 26 January 1974. Their narratives were translated by Bennett into the characters and musical numbers of the show, and several participants, like Baayork Lee as Connie and Donna McKechnie as Cassie, went on to perform their own stories as members of the original cast.


Bennett was dogged until his death in 1987 by accusations that he plagiarized these stories and that the individuals who told them to Bennett were never compensated. But as he foregrounded the motivations behind each story, a number like “At the Ballet,” becomes not one story of three girls’ escape from the abusive realities of their childhoods by identifying with ballet heroines, but rather a “universal” saga of human aspiration.


The performers who audition for the revival in Every Little Step demonstrate their own identification with the various roles’ perspectives and experiences. At the start of the documentary, we meet Jessica Lee Goldyn, auditioning for the role of Val. Her solo, “Dance Ten, Looks Three” (known more conventionally as “Tits and Ass”), is one of A Chorus Line‘s most celebrated numbers. Video footage of Jessica’s high-school performance in the role, along with her interview, make clear she is moved in particular by Val’s story. It is something of a disappointment for Jessica, then, when she makes it through the first round of auditions to call-backs, but not for the role of Val, but as a potential understudy for Cassie.


Here Every Little Step demonstrates a complex understanding of the power of repetition. Jessica’s technical precision and aspiration aren’t “enough.” She’s missing some ineffable quality that the casting crew, led by director Bob Avian, can’t quite name. The team isn’t looking for strict fidelity to the iterations of the role in the past, as this won’t revitalize the role and the musical for contemporary audiences. With reinvention in mind, Baayork Lee focuses on the fact that Yuka Takara, favored for the role of Connie, wasn’t born in America, as Lee was. At this point, Lee is implicitly reminded by her peers that Connie is not her, and that Lee doesn’t have any proprietary claims on the role.


In auditioning for Sheila, Megan Larche runs into another sort of repetition problem. When she seems to lag on a call-back performance, Avian counsels her to think back to what she did last time, and reproduce the quality of that performance. We see her desperately trying to figure out her state of mind at the previous audition, to remember what was going on in her life at that time, on that day, and how that would have been translated into her performance.


The performer whose audition most fully demonstrates the potential of repetition to revitalize is Jason Tam. He auditions for Paul, whose monologue about his first professional gig in a drag revue and his parents’ discovery of his queerness, is one of A Chorus Line‘s most powerful. In his audition, Tam is riveting, and his nuanced and vulnerable performance reduces the casting crew to tears. As director Avian confesses after Tam leaves the room: “I haven’t cried at that monologue for 30 years.” Despite the familiarity of the show and its themes, Every Little Step shows that repetition isn’t necessarily the death of creativity, that it doesn’t inevitably desensitize. Instead, it can reassert the power of persistence and passion.

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16 Dec 2009
There’s something reassuring and refreshing about the indomitable optimism and tenacity of these dancers who are able to endure the constant rejection and Darwinian ruthlessness of the audition process.
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