Several years ago I was coaching a young dancer in a dramatic role and I asked what her interpretation of the character was. She looked at me with utter confusion and then described the mood of the entire ballet. She hadn’t thought about how her role contributed to that “mood”, and had no clue as to how to go about building a believable character. Suddenly I understood why, despite the dramatic angst in her dancing expression, I had not been moved. I was shocked, because this dancer was (and is) a soloist with a major company.
There is a misconception in the dance world that some people are born with a talent for dramatic work, just as some dancers have more flexible bodies than others. The assumption is that no further learning is necessary. But just as it takes training and strength to translate flexibility into a high extension, it takes training in specific skills to translate a good dramatic instinct into a believable performance.
The dancer I mention above is very, very good from a dance -savvy person’s point of view. But she does not have the knowledge she needs to be able to deliver a performance that could also appeal to a non-dance audience.
Does this matter? After all, isn’t dance one of those aristocratic arts in which the general public’s understanding isn’t expected? Wouldn’t it cheapen the art form to appeal to a wide audience?
If so, then please explain to me why so many ballet companies still schedule a Nutcracker every December. And please don’t complain about how little dancers get paid: if audience equals the ability to pay the performers, then we need a wider audience for dance! (For more on this subject, please read How Often Do You Get It?).
Believability has a charismatic appeal that can only benefit both audience and artist. It requires excellent and imaginative acting skills from a dancer. I strongly believe that all dance schools should include acting training for their students. Unfortunately most do not. This leads to many well -meant but either dry or overacted performances.
There is more than one article’s worth of information here, but I’ll begin with two of the points dancers often miss when working on a role:
Who, Not What
In Essential Imagination I wrote:
The situation is the writer or choreographer’s job. You can’t play a situation. You can only play a specific character’s thoughts and emotions as they live through a situation. You don’t play the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, for example. You play your specific character’s hope, action, love, desire, fear, and despair.
Who, not what means that within a tragedy yours may be a comic role that provides needed contrast. Within a comedy, somebody has to play the straight man. Identify what purpose your part serves in the piece as a whole, and then play it clearly and believably. Trust that the mosaic of all the elements of the piece, including your role, will create the intended effect.
You Can’t Fake It
In order for an audience to believe, you must believe. Period. While you are dancing you must believe what you are doing one hundred percent. (Even if you don’t agree with the direction, even if you don’t like the choreography).
Each of us already knows how to do this. When you read a great novel or watch a great movie, you find yourself caring about what happens next even though it is fiction. That ability to suspend disbelief and to care about an imaginary person’s life is exactly the same door you walk through each time you step onstage. It is also what you are asking the audience to do.
Part of creating believability is not repeating. What worked beautifully last night will fall a little flat if you try to repeat it tonight. The smile that lit up your face as you held that arabesque balance will not be as luminous if you try to conjure it up at exactly the same moment night after night. Trust your creative imagination. There will be a new smile somewhere unexpected during the show, and all the more memorable because it will be genuine and spontaneous.
The audience will journey exactly as far as the creators and performers do. There is magic in believing.
Leda can also be found at ledameredith.net
As a performer, Leda Meredith’s career spans contemporary dance, classical ballet, and theatre. Her performances have taken her to twenty-five countries on four continents. She has been a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre II, Edward Villella, Manhattan Ballet, Dances Patrelle, and others. She was a company member of Jennifer Muller/The Works for over seven years, and originated numerous roles in the repertory. She returned as Artistic Associate Director for the company’s 25th anniversary season in 1999-2000.
Her piece Lullabye Lane, premiered as part of Jennifer Muller/The Works 25th anniversary season at the Joyce Theater in New York. With original music by composer James Sasser, Lullabye Lane marked their seventh collaboration. They recently completed the full evening work Small Talk At The Volcano. In Spring 2000 she co-created a cabaret style piece entitled All About Angels and Eggs, with Michael Jahoda and Maria Naidu at Dansatelier in Rotterdam. Other choreographic credits include works for Malaparte Theatre Company, the Gene Frankel Theatre in New York, Dixon Place, Peridance International, the Hatch Saturday Series, First Fridays at Five, and the Arts on the Hudson Festival.
She is a returning guest instructor for the Henny Jurriens Stichting in Amsterdam, Western Washington University; and Dance Loft in Rorschach, Switzerland. Leda is currently on faculty with Ballet Academy East. She has taught as part of the 1996 Iles de Danse in France, and for the Artist’s Trusts International Course in England. In December, 1999 she was guest instructor for Carolyn Carlsons Atelier de Paris. Other dance programs she has taught for include the California State University at Los Angeles, and Brigham Young University in Hawaii.