Cirque gig a dancer's dream

Jawkeen Howard already has danced for Michael Jackson.

OK. So it was "Legends in Concert" at the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut.

There's a bigger Michael gig up for grabs in this callback for Cirque du Soleil, which last week auditioned dancers in a local studio.

"I'm here to show them what I've got for the fourth time," says the 25-year-old native Las Vegan. Howard is one of the lucky 80 or so who made it to Wednesday's callbacks for hip-hop and street dancers, from an initial turnout of around 400.

"This is what every dancer wants. Even though they don't say it, they want to be a part of Cirque," says 24-year-old Cassandra Strickland. The tall Las Vegan is doing pretty well for herself dancing at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas' Marquee nightclub. "It's the spot to be -- unless you're in this one," she says.

If Las Vegas has become a company town for Cirque, getting into the company is a good thing. "The Immortal" Jackson tribute will tour and eventually land on the Strip. Cirque also opens "Iris" in Hollywood this summer and later, "Zarkana" at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

"I think everybody I know wants to be in the Michael Jackson show," says Strickland, who auditioned for the arena tour in Los Angeles. There were 300 people in her group, and two more calls that day. "They only kept like seven girls from the first call."

Some of the Las Vegans in the group, such as Porcia Hendrix, have grown up with Cirque in their backyard. The 18-year-old is only one year older than "Mystere," which she believes was the first live show she saw. "This is starting from the bottom trying to get to the top," she says with a laugh.

The hopefuls all herd into a room where talent scout Giolio Scatola eases the mood with a few jokes as he teaches them the six-part combination. They cheer each other on as they audition in groups of four, adding their own freestyle moves -- sometimes handstands and headspins -- at the end.

"I give it to 'em man, that's amazing," Howard says of the B-boy acrobatics. "You never know what they're looking for. It's pretty much a confidence thing."

Strickland "gave 'em ghetto girl from the dirty South," she says with a laugh. Cirque and nightclub dancing are "at different ends of the sphere. Vegas is more about just, sexy, sexy, sexy."

With Cirque, "I think they're looking for uniqueness. It's not about the technique anymore, it's about what you can create with your body, what shape can you create. How can you make yourself look like a creature? That's Cirque for you.

"We don't know what's in their minds," she adds, "so you can only give them what you know."

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at or 702-383-0288.