Career

A Mid-Show Fire Alarm? How to Prep for Onstage Mishaps

Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers in Santuario. Photo by Robli Photography via kyld.org

Just as the Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers reached an emotional moment in an April performance of Santuario, inspired by the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, the fire alarm began blaring. Timed as it was with the actual reenactment of the shooting within the piece, most of the audience remained in their seats expectantly, thinking this was part of the show. But the onstage fog effects had combined somehow with the humidity in the theater so that there was a real need to evacuate until the fire department could give the all-clear.

An actual break in the action like this—where the lights come up and you're forced to file out into a parking lot—is probably one of the most extreme distractions dancers could encounter during a performance. But thinking about how to refocus can help you prepare for any wardrobe malfunctions, prop flubs, lighting miscues or other onstage stumbles that could happen in the middle of a show.


Plan for Distractions

Quinn Wharton

Practice for the unexpected just as you'd practice for a challenging solo. "The most successful performers aren't more perfect; they know how to visualize performance success and mentally prep for when things go wrong," says Dr. Charlie Brown, a retired performance psychologist who has worked with dancers from Charlotte Ballet.

Make a list of every distraction you've ever experienced onstage—how did you react? Could you have handled it better? Armed with this information, come up with a refocusing routine. "Get to where you can say, 'If something goes wrong, these are the stretches I'll do to get back into my rhythm again,'" says Brown. Some athletes even have drills or distraction days—one Olympic swimming coach would throw things in the pool during practice for the London games.

"Your abilities are enhanced by thinking through the scenario and identifying how you'll react," says Brown. "Uncertainty is the stress factor, so just by bringing additional awareness to what could go wrong, you'll have the confidence to regain balance."

Find Your Way Back into the Piece

Quinn Wharton

No matter what mishaps occur, calm your mind and tell yourself that the rehearsal process has prepared you to start from any section of the piece. "Breathe deeply to relax your body and then try connecting with imagery—the kinesthetic sensations, pictures, and music that help you relate to the story of the work—to drop into the part of the brain that doesn't use words," says Brown.

Keep Safe and Warm

Quinn Wharton

If a performance actually stops mid show for something like a fire alarm or power outage, remain ready to perform. Do what you can to stay warm and mentally sharp, but if you're inactive for more than 10 minutes, start at the top of an abbreviated warm-up routine.

And spend the time you need to get back into it: If the audience has stuck with you this far, they'll wait. KYLD choreographer Lin says that very few ticket-holders left during the commotion, and the experience may have even enhanced the performance. "The audience had so much compassion for the dancers," he says. "So they didn't give up. They were patient, came back in, and brought a very different chi into the theater. I think they were even more engaged in the dance itself, with its messages of compassion and love."

Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

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I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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Joan Marcus

Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?

The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."

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January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.

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Advice for Dancers
A dance career can send you on a roller coaster of emotions, but evaluating reality can help give you perspective. Thinkstock.

I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.

—Terry, Philadelphia, PA

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