Marching -- that's how the gladiator audition began. The 20 chosen men, after all, will not merely be shiftless gladiators -- just standing around onstage with blank faces and holding long spears.

They must move.

They must move while carrying spears and shields.

And they must move while wearing the gladiator outfits -- but then, those won't be very constricting.

"No gladiator outfits tonight," said Kelley Ryan, from the Kennedy Center's public relations office. "That comes later -- in dress rehearsals. It's a leather deal. A loincloth. It's got straps," she said. "It's hot in Rome. You know. It's a real Rome scenario."

Last night the would-be gladiators for the Australian Ballet's production of "Spartacus," which opens Friday night, wore shorts, or jeans, or khakis, or army pants, or black tights -- whatever they wanted. A piano was set up in the corner of a large warm-up room at the Kennedy Center. The march music from the score of the ballet began. .

"It's not the usual stand-in part," explained Colin Peasley, the re'gisseur master of the Australian Ballet. "There's a whole lot of marching and actual dancing."

About 40 potential gladiators listened to Peasley. He called them "gents." He paired them off in twos for a practice run, and watched very carefully with Maina Gielgud, the ballet's artistic director. The gents began to march. They weren't exactly built like Victor Mature, but many seemed capable of good solid marching. Others, though, picked their legs up too quickly, or lifted their thighs too high. One would-be gladiator -- more aged than the rest by perhaps four decades -- wore white shoes and a string tie. His march was more like a shuffle.

"The only specifications were that they be between 5-foot-8 and six feet -- and that they could move," said audition coordinator Steve Quinn. "You never really know what these companies are looking for." Quinn posted notices of the audition, he said, "in all the area dance schools. And when I found out they really had to move, I went to gymnasiums and aerobics studios."

He also posted notices at the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery and Bob's Ice Cream Shop.

The weeding began after several marches. Half of the gents were thank-you-but-no-thank-you'd. This group included the one aged marcher and several who looked more like they were trying out for a part in a ballet about computer engineers.

"I never wanted to get into acting or anything," said Cobb Ervin, 24. He's a musician. He wore a black T-shirt with blue baggy shorts setting off his calves, and prototype gladiator hair -- shoulder-length, in honey-colored ringlets. "I just like getting up on a stage," he said. He admitted having been a "super" (for "supernumerary") twice before for the Washington Opera. "I did 'Tosca' in '89," he says, "and met Placido Domingo."

Peasley started to tell the group about Spartacus. A quick rundown -- leader of the slave revolt in 71 B.C., that sort of thing.

He handed out the spears and shields -- from a crate that contained other prop-weapons made of painted fiberglass. "The unfortunate thing," Peasley told them, "is that this ballet begins and ends with you. So this is very important."

Rehearsals then began.

"First of all," said Peasley, "these spears are held the way you'd hold a thermometer."

"In your mouth," an Australian Embassy staffer whispered on the sidelines.

"Grasp them in the center," said Peasley, "and keep them under your armpit."

Complicated movement got underway. Not just marching; the gladiators were asked to do spear drills, like a platoon of Marines. Peasley showed how to move a spear "forcefully" with elbows locked.

Even though J.C. Rincones is a dancer with D.C. Contemporary Dance Theater, he seemed a little concerned about the maneuvers. "But this way," he said, "I get to see 'Spartacus,' since I can't afford the tickets."

"I wasn't even going to come," said Daniel Martin, 26. He normally delivers balloons. He wore cowboy boots and jeans to the tryout. "It's going to be fun," he said. "My adrenaline's definitely running."

Was he worried about the costume?

"No. Not at all."

"They almost didn't pick me," said Roderick Ware, 33. He works in the health benefits department of a marketing association. Told he wasn't chosen, Ware had started to leave when somebody from the ballet company ran after him to say there'd been a mistake. "Thank God," said Ware. "I was at the elevator, thinking about committing suicide once I got home."

Was he worried about the costume?

"Why? What does it look like?"