“We couldn’t say it was for Kanye—we couldn’t say what was going on,” Yemi recalls. “So in the beginning, for the first audition, I just had 60 or 70 people show up. They were sitting on the floor and I was saying, ‘OK, so we’re gonna do the show. It’s for one of the TV shows that runs here in the states, you might know it, Saturday Night Live. They were giggling. Then I said, it’s for this rapper named Kanye West.”
Auditions would sometimes last eight hours, as Yemi was adamant on learning the backgrounds of each of his potential dancers and finding out what they had to offer. “If I’m working with someone, I want to know not only if they’re a good performer, but that they have something more from their background.” Early in his career, he auditioned for both Michael Jackson and Britney Spears, without ever getting a chance to actually dance, so he was determined to run auditions differently when it was his turn to select talent. And apparently, so was Kanye.
“I was watching one of the biggest moments in touring, with the biggest artist in the world, off the best album of the year, doing the purest form of hip-hop.” – Pusha-T
“[Kanye] would spend time in most of the rehearsals,” Yemi says. “I could see it was both ways: It was not only that his music would influence the movement, it was that the movement would influence his music. When there was a solo like for ‘Runaway’ or ‘Love Lockdown,’ he would totally connect with the dancer, play the machine, and look at the person. From a five-minute song, he’d make a 20-minute song. The dancers were always so afraid like, ‘Oh, he’s gonna play forever.’ He could see with the tension in their body, what their reaction was to the music. It’s a beautiful moment, and I don’t think it’s ever happened this way.”
Dancer Caitlin Conlon, who at the time was only 21 years old when she unknowingly auditioned to perform with Kanye on SNL, still remembers the moment Kanye walked into her audition, before she had any clue she was auditioning for him.
“We all gasped and held our breath, like, ‘Holy shit, are we auditioning for Kanye?’ Not only that, but there weren’t that many of us left, so are we performing? He sat there and continued to watch the auditions and they got us down to the last girls that would be performing.”