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Two Feet From Fame : Dance: Hollywood hopes soar for 130 at casting call. But only 24 will be chosen for motion picture.

September 24, 1993|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — Like over-bred gazelles dressed in muscle shirts and spandex pants, the dancers crowded into the lobby of a Strathern Street studio on Thursday, pumped to wage a fast-paced hip-hop battle to the last man and woman.

Weeks before, their agents had alerted them to the casting call of the season--a feature film to be called "Ballhouse Jam," in which professional and amateur performers would be given a once-in-a-lifetime shot to both dance and act on the Big Screen.

No disco. No heebie-jeebies. No fooling around.

It would be "Flashdance" meets "The Turning Point," producers promised in Hollywood-speak. This was going to be big, big, big, kids! Stars would be made. Careers catapulted.

In all, the producers received more than 300 resumes, which by Thursday morning had been sliced to just 130 performers. Now the chosen many maneuvered among each other at the Performing Arts Center, ready to be winnowed down to the chosen few--12 men and 12 women.

It was backstage Miss America meets "Pumping Iron." Tautly muscled, beautiful bodies were everywhere, each with a fashionable gym bag tossed over one shoulder.

Dancers in various stages of undress pirouetted in place. They swiveled their necks, tensed their jaw muscles, flexed their fingers, tilted their toes. Men in shorts. Women in shorter, tighter-fitting shorts.

This was a jeans-jacket crowd. Dancers in Danskins. See-through underwear. Calvin Klein was definitely big. Stretch marks were out. Fishnet stockings were OK. Some dancers looked as though they were on their way to a construction site. Others, like they were ready to slink up the runway of an erotic dance bar.

In the hallways, they talked only of the thrill of being chosen. This was not a crowd used to rejection in their personal lives.

Jealously, some sized up the competition. Others ignored them.

"You can never second-guess what they want in L.A.," Alan Luzletti said. "It's not just how you dance. It's how you look. How you dress."

Inside the studio, a large, airy room with a wall-length mirror, director Brian Gendece told the dancers he was looking for both moves and character. He wanted his cast to be appealing but natural. Not too perfect.

Since shooting begins in January, there wasn't a moment to lose. So it was "Hurry! Hurry! Places everyone!"

For two hours, this silent chorus line stormed about the floor to the same repeated 20-second blast of danceable rock 'n' roll, like a huge jazzercize class that had already lost its weight. Over and over again, as the movie-makers peered into the sea of sinewy bodies.

Some dancers made constant eye-contact with their jury. If they flubbed, they looked. If they pulled off a hot move, they still looked. When they started to sweat like prizefighters, they looked away. Some hung around the judges' table, like children seeking approval.

"Look at that girl in the white," whispered Gendece, motioning toward a woman in a one-piece white workout outfit who had no idea her future in the project was hanging on these next few seconds. Suddenly, she spun out of control. The judges raised their eyebrows. "Next," they thought.

For the first hour, the dancers were taught the moves they must perform. It's called marking the steps--a staccato series of moves that, like rehearsed words, must be later translated into a single, fluid sentence of movement.

"They're all waiting to fly," Gendece said as the 130-strong pack moved together, some bumping heads and elbows in a non-choreographed slam dance. "This is the warm-up. They're waiting for space to show us what they can do."

In the end, the dancers got to show their stuff five at a time before the decision-makers, who chose the keepers in a "You, you and you" fashion. The rest walked away silently--deflated, maybe or maybe not defeated.

"My heart bleeds," said Gendece, who has directed on Broadway. "But in New York, we'd have been tapping people on the shoulder a long time ago."

Alan Luzletti made the first cut, smiling and high-fiving with friends. But Harvey Leder wasn't so lucky. That last dance had been his swan song.

He wasn't chosen. Afterward, he sat by the wall, sweating, exhausted.

"The frustration is never knowing where you messed up," he sighed. "There's so little feedback. You just never know."

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