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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Meet Chris Hoggatt. He’s a 20-year-old student at the College of the Desert and a graduate of Palm Desert High School who works at the Yard House.

Oh, and one more thing about Hoggatt: He’s a hip-hop dancer.

Hoggatt will be making his big-stage debut alongside 21 other individuals and groups this week as part of Open Call, the McCallum Theatre’s annual talent project. This is the 15th year for Open Call, which is part of the McCallum’s education and outreach program.

Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, the director of education at the McCallum, has been a part of Open Call since the beginning. She says that Open Call started as part of an effort by the McCallum to live up to a then-new slogan—“It’s your theatre”—as the organization emerged from tough times in the late 1990s.

“It’s an effort to closely work with the local community to create a community event,” she says.

Here’s how it works: In the fall, non-professional members of the community (within 45 miles of the theater) who are least 8 years old are invited to send in a CD or DVD of themselves performing—dancing, singing or doing anything else that would work on a stage. The McCallum folks call in the performers with the most talent and/or potential for in-person auditions. The judges then select the finalists, who must commit to six straight days of mandatory rehearsals under the direction of professionals, as well as four open-to-the-public shows over three days at the McCallum. While there’s no fee to enter the contest, finalists receive a stipend and compete for three prizes: a $2,500 grand prize; a $750 second-place prize; and a $750 audience choice award.

Hoggatt says he’s been dancing all his life, and joined a dance company—he can’t remember the name of it—when he was 8 years old. (The company, interestingly enough, performed at the McCallum, Hoggatt says.) However, Hoggatt then put dance aside for sports, before getting involved in “dance battles” while he was in middle school. In high school, he performed at assemblies as part of Palm Desert High’s Hip-Hop Club (yes, the school really does have a Hip-Hop Club), and performed at the COD Live show last spring.

It was the College of the Desert show and an increasing interest in theater, he says, that led him to take dancing more seriously, and to look at it as a possible profession. That’s why he decided to send in an audition DVD for Open Call last fall.

“It was a real chance to test myself and challenge myself,” he says.

This is actually Hoggatt’s second brush with Open Call fame. He says he sent in a video during his freshman year of high school, and was asked to come in for a live audition—but got sick and could not go.

So why did he wait five years to try out again? He says he lost confidence in his abilities; he started watching shows like America’s Best Dance Crew, and thought: “I can’t do what these guys do.”

“I was sitting there, and I didn’t know if I wanted to try out again,” Hoggatt says.

Hoggatt says the Open Call experience has been rewarding—especially the chance to work with choreographer Jennifer Backhaus, the founder of Orange County’s Backhausdance contemporary dance company. He says Backhaus has been very helpful in pointing him toward studios and other ways to help him go beyond his current, largely self-taught dance methods.

Joana CiurashAnother finalist, opera singer Joana Ciurash, 50—who, by day, is an associate professor of chemistry at College of the Desert—took a different path to Open Call. She was born in Romania and came to the United States 27 years ago. Her mother was an opera singer.

“I was never interested in singing,” Ciurash says. Instead, she was interested in dancing, and wanted to become a ballerina.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t good,” she laughs.

Around the age of 40, she started singing in church choirs, and while she earned her master’s degree at Cal State Northridge, she took an opera workshop—not for singing purposes, but to help her overcome her fear of speaking in front of a crowd.

When she got her job at College of the Desert about seven years ago, she took an opera class there, and kept getting the lead singing role in the class productions. (Look for videos of her singing in La Boheme on YouTube.)

It turns out she inherited some talent from her mother.

“My mom came to a performance, and she was shocked,” Ciurash says.

Those opera-class shows (sadly, Ciurash says, the class was a casualty of budget cuts) were followed by several other performances—she sang at a benefit concert a colleague organized following the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake, and she performed at her own recital at COD.

She credits her friends for nudging her into trying out for Open Call.

“Many of my friends, they want to hear me sing again, and want me to take any opportunity to get exposed more,” she says. “I thought it was a good opportunity to send in my tape.”

At the Open Call, each of the performers/groups does an individual number; then, for the finale, all of the performers come together onstage—where everyone sings, and everyone dances, regardless of whether one is a singer, a dancer, a ventriloquist or something else.

Both Hoggatt and Ciurash cited the finale as one of the biggest challenges.

“An opera singer usually just (stands) on the stage,” Ciurash says. “I mean, they do acting … but they don’t dance. And for me, all the moves I have to do (in the finale) … oh my gosh. I told them to put me in the back.”

The Open Call shows take place at 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday, April 18 and 19; and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, April 20, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert. A limited number of tickets remain; the shows will sell out. Tickets are $7 to $55. For more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Published in Local Fun