Here is a scene that any dancer would recognize: You are in a studio with a mirror, barres around the walls, a stereo system, a TV and VCR. There is an opening night coming up, and you don’t know all of your steps yet, let alone what you want to do with them as an artist. There is another, older, dancer in the studio with you, showing you the choreography (a word which means “map of the dance”).
Dance is taught in person by one generation to the next, a hands-on sharing of information and example that cannot be effectively transmitted in any other way. In many ways, dance is like the oral traditions of centuries past, in which history and lore were passed from memory to memory without ever being written down. As Anne Kochanski says, it is “… quite a beautiful and intimate exchange.”
In Passing the Torch, I wrote about my experiences teaching roles that were created on me. But what was it like for the dancers I was teaching? Rather than share my memories of what it is like to inherit a role, I decided to interview two dancers who are living that experience.
I have known Joni Petre-Scholz, principal dancer and rehearsal director for Dances Patrelle, since 1988 when we toured the Far East with Manhattan Ballet. One of the ballets we performed on that tour was Francis Patrelle’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. Joni had already worked with Mr. Patrelle before that tour, and in the decade that followed, I originated many roles for his company, Dances Patrelle. I am currently restaging his ‘Macbeth’ with Joni in my original role of Lady Macbeth.
I met Anne Kochanski, principal dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works and Leda Meredith’s Story Dance, when she replaced me as a dancer with The Works. I had the opportunity before I left to spend several months teaching Anne my roles. There was a wonderful sense of passing on a legacy, not only of the roles I had originated but of those I had inherited from my predecessor, the legendary Angie Wolf. At twenty-two, Anne has already become an excellent teacher, sharing her passion for dance with the next generation.
Q: How do you approach learning a role?
Anne: I make sure that prior to beginning, I clear my mind as much as possible of any thoughts that don’t pertain to the process. From there I soak in as much information as possible. Along with learning the basic movement, I also clue into what the atmosphere may be, what the dramatic intentions may be, all in one full swoop, as opposed to learning the basic movement and adding the dramatic intention and atmosphere on top of that.
Joni: I like to approach a role from the physical aspects first. Getting the choreography and having it settle in the body so that I don’t have to remember sequences is my first step. I like to make a story in my head so that the movement flows with the music. The music creates the accents and gives texture to what is being said with the movement. With a dramatic piece like Macbeth, it is important to define the style and period as well as the character of the person you are portraying.
Q: How is the process different if the role is being created on you?
Joni: The work process is similar. A few perks are that movements feel more natural and generally comes from your natural strengths, which is not always so when you learn a role created on someone else’s body. When you create a role, you are part of the process of creating a language for your character.
Anne: For a role that is being created on me, I find that my brain really has to be in high gear. In this case I feel that the process is much more collaborative and that I am aiding the choreographer in fitting all the pieces of the puzzle together.
Q: How do you make the role your own?
Anne: It is a bit of a process for me, one in which time is definitely involved. I can recall dancing certain roles and afterwards feeling as if the spirit of the original dancer had inhabited my body! I didn’t feel that I had just performed. But now I realize that once I have gotten all the technical and dramatic instruction, then it’s time to go back and say to myself, “Okay, how does this work on my body, how do I relate to this character?”
Joni: When working with videos it is easy to see the overall effect certain movements convey and to get tied into using another dancer’s body language. I think the key is to identify what is being said by the character and try to find out how you will say it. What are the movements that are effective? How can I make that work for me? I like to find something about the character that is like me so that I can relate to some part of their actions.
I found it interesting that Joni and Anne both mention the pitfall of taking on too much of an original cast’s interpretation. Video tape recordings are commonly used today in reconstructing choreography, but they are imperfect records of live performance. Many details simply don’t show up on performance videos, which are commonly shot from the back of the house. And even the best performance video merely crystallizes one night’s version: the same cast may have made quite different dramatic and phrasing choices the next night, but since that wasn’t recorded those options will not be learned by subsequent casts.
Q: What is it like to be taught a role by the person who originated it?
Joni: It is invaluable to have the person who created the role teaching it. They can recall why certain series of steps exist, they can define original motivation for dramatic points. Not to mention the fact that they remember the shape and feel of that character and can give you road signs and guiding markers to shape your portrayal.
Anne: I feel that I not only learn the choreographer’s intentions and desires, but I am simultaneously picking up on the subtler points of the role, points that perhaps only the original dancer, having lived in that role, could convey. I also find it to be quite a beautiful and intimate exchange. Especially when the role is one that was very special to the original dancer. I imagine that it can be quite bittersweet to pass the torch on to someone else and so I do my best to show the original dancer that I can be trusted.
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.