By Leda Meredith
“It’s just your imagination.”
Was there ever a more detrimental thing to say to a child, especially a child who may someday wish to be a performer?
Think about it: the computer screen you are looking at would not exist if someone hadn’t imagined it first. The design of the chair you are sitting upon had to be imagined before it could be built. Even something as basic as what to have for dinner depends on your imagination.
The essential function of imagination may be more obvious in the performing arts. What dancers and actors do “isn’t real”. It is all make believe, right?
Yes and no. The emotions and situations you are watching depend on the imaginative skill of the performers, writers, choreographers and composers. They also depend on your imagination as an audience. But the belly laugh that escapes you is very real, as are the tears that fill your eyes, and the disturbing new point of view you may walk home thinking about.
It is my experience that a performer who can cross the bridge between fictional situations and the audience’s very real response has a highly trained and disciplined imagination. In this article I hope to give an overview of some of the skills of imagination which make the difference between a performer who leaves us unmoved (even if impressed) and one who awakens our emotions and challenges our perceptions. In future articles I will share specific techniques that I have found useful both when I am onstage myself and in teaching performers. Each of the general headings below will be developed as an article unto itself.
Detail and Nuance
“God is in the details,” William Blake said. Let’s say you are watching a piece about a love affair. The dancers have smiles pasted on their faces and their eyebrows are pinched upward in some sort of angst. This is supposed to represent passion. Is this what your face felt like the last time you looked at someone with undeniable desire? Probably not. So you will watch this performance somewhat outside the action, recognizing what it is supposed to be, but not experiencing it.
Now suppose that one of the performers reaches out to touch a stray lock of hair. And their attention is truly on that lock of hair, as if no other color, no other scent, no other texture but this could please them. Perhaps this has happened in your own life, or you hope it will?
Who Not What
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 entire tragedy of Romeo and Juliet in a single line, for example. You play your specific character’s hope, action, love, desire, fear, or despair from moment to moment. It is the tapestry of those moments woven together that creates the author’s message. Playing the situation rather than the person in the situation leads to overacting and generic emotion that leaves the audience with nothing to personally identify with.
This is the individual artist’s domain. The steps or words are set for them, the overall point of view dictated by the director, but how to express that point of view through those givens is where choice and artistry begin. This is why no two performers will ever play the same role exactly the same way. Young performers need to be encouraged to make personal choices about how they want to do the material, and learn to wed their choices with the director’s vision. This takes training, even if the performer’s instincts are usually good. It is a learned skill to be able to recognize an instinct, explore it, determine its appropriateness to the direction, and use it onstage.
Getting Home Again
Many times I have had a performer back off from the specificity and choices I describe above because they would be “too real” or “too personal” or “too revealing”. Indeed. That is what we offer as performers. Our willingness to risk ourselves, our personal points of view in full view of an audience is what makes an audience willing to trust us. But when the curtain goes down, we must have the skills to step back out of the world we have been creating during the show. That lock of hair may belong to someone entirely inappropriate for us to be attracted to in everyday life. I’ve found that performers are only willing to dive in as far as they trust themselves to get back out again.
Leda can also be found at ledameredith.net
About the writer:
Leda Meredith’s biography deserves to be reprinted in full. the-vu proudly welcomes her exceptional talent to our pages.
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.