"THE Lion King" is back in town -- and it eats dancers like so much zebra meat.
On a sunny mid-November morning, more than 100 dancers of all shapes and sizes, in prim ballet tights, bright African prints, hip-hop gear or sexy Spandex, lined up outside North Hollywood's Screenland Studios at an open casting call for the Broadway and touring productions of "The Lion King."
And that was just the women -- male dancers were called for that afternoon.
One of the touring productions of "The Lion King" opened this month at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre; at the time of these auditions, that show had already been cast. But these hopefuls knew there were six more hungry "Lion King" companies worldwide, with two more being added in 2007, creating a constant demand for fresh dancing blood. Contrast this stampede of would-be gazelles with auditions that took place just one week later at Lula Washington Dance Theatre on Crenshaw Boulevard seeking "dancers of all ethnic backgrounds interested in concert modern dance" for local performances and tour dates in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Canada and other locations. The company's audition notice was, in fact, posted on Screenland Studios bulletin board at auditions for "The Lion King."
Two dancers showed up.
This came as no great surprise to company artistic director Lula Washington. When "The Lion King" took up residence at the Pantages for the first time, from September 2000 to January 2003, the producers hired a number of local dancers. "It devastated my company because they took, like, six of my dancers, and my company only had eight," Washington said.
"You can't blame [the dancers], because many of them have not been able to make a significant living; you'd be surprised at what some of them eat to get by," Washington added.
"And many of my dancers who don't get into 'Lion King' or something like that are gone off with Madonna or some of the big-name singers, earning $1,500 or $2,000 a week -- no way can I compete. It's made the field out there for concert dance pretty desolate."
It's a fact of life: Dancers must make the choice between the artistic challenge offered by a concert dance company (a loose term that implies an artistic entity that presents stage performances of modern, ballet or other styles, for which dancers and choreography are the focus) and the steady work, paycheck and benefits that come with a big Broadway touring production, a pop concert tour, an industrial show or even a cruise ship.
Pat Taylor, artistic director of the locally based JazzAntiqua Music and Dance Ensemble, said it was "nail-biting time" when the earlier "Lion King" company came to the Pantages. "I had, I think, three women go to the audition, and they got quite far in the process," said Taylor, whose choreography will be seen Dec. 16 at the Wilshire Theatre in the new musical revue "Here & Now: The Legacy of Luther Vandross." You wish them well, because they're young and they need to dance. At the same time, my company was only six or seven, and you feel like you might have to start over."
The financial realities
DANCE salaries vary wildly, but Grover Dale -- founder of L.A.-based Answers4Dancers.com, an informational service for professionals -- says that today's standard minimum for a touring company of a Broadway show such as "The Lion King" or "Mamma Mia!" is about $1,450 per week for a tour that might run for months or even years. Compare that with the $750 to $850 a week a dancer might earn during an average season of 30 weeks for one of the larger contemporary dance companies, such as New York's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
And the financial landscape is much bleaker for dancers who don't get into big companies like Ailey: Though no statistics were available for Los Angeles, John Munger, director of research and information for Dance/USA, a national service organization, said that in dance-heavy Chicago, 41% of the city's 256 "dance-making entities" paid their dancers nothing at all, and only 12 companies offered salaries. Those salaries are usually not year-round, only for the weeks the dancers perform, and they often include no benefits.
Erwin Washington, Lula's husband and executive director of the company, said that their dancers receive $500 a week during a big tour or performance and get only $100 to $250 per show for less prestigious engagements; unlike the larger companies, these runs might be only a few performances or a few weeks. Even that is a feast for dancers, who often are asked to perform free or for a meager honorarium. Erwin recalled one troupe director who paid her dancers with chocolate.
It's not always easy for dancers to choose between the two worlds. "They're different," says dancer Diane Angela Fong, 23, who had flown from the Bay Area to audition for "The Lion King." She had to juggle her elation at being selected for the second round with knowing she had a plane to catch: back north for that evening's performance of "The King and I" in San Jose.