Simone Messmer was 19 the first time she used cocaine. She was at another company's gala when someone pulled out a bag of the white powder. There, at the coat check counter, party guests took turns snorting the drug. "I was hesitant, but at the time I was willing to try anything once," she says. "Everyone around me was getting hyped up. But for me, it made me feel grounded."
She would later learn that her reaction—feeling grounded instead of hyped—probably had to do with undiagnosed ADHD. The sensation kept Messmer, then a corps member at American Ballet Theatre, returning to the drug multiple times a week for a year. And it nearly jeopardized her career.
When conveying a story onstage, certain roles come more easily than others. Some dancers naturally possess the regality of the Lilac Fairy, others the attack of Kitri. Some take on the naïve Aurora with ease, but have trouble with Myrtha's complexity. Tackling a role that's outside your character wheelhouse can be tricky—especially since ballet's princesses, creatures and sylphs can be hard to relate to.
But luckily, just like your technique, you can strengthen your acting chops. American Ballet Theatre's go-to acting coach Byam Stevens, who's worked with everyone from Kevin McKenzie to Isabella Boylston, shares how he helps dancers connect with a character.
It's the end of a long rehearsal day for the dancers of Abraham.In.Motion. They're reviewing phrases of a new work, Dearest Home. It's a pretty typical rehearsal scene. Some dancers cluster around a laptop trying to piece together steps learned long ago. Others review choreography together, working to figure out who remembered which arms correctly.
What isn't typical: The company's director and choreographer, Kyle Abraham, is nowhere to be seen.
That's because while the company is based in New York City full-time, Abraham spends most of his year teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he joined the faculty last September. It's an unconventional model for a single-choreographer–led troupe, almost functioning like a repertory company in which choreographers drop in for a week to set a piece, leaving it up to the rehearsal directors and dancers to keep the momentum going.
Postmodern choreographer David Dorfman grew up watching experimental theater, so it makes sense that elements like text, abstract set design and socially conscious through-lines pepper his work. Choreographing for theater seems like a natural next step. The opening of Indecent on April 18 marks Dorfman's first outing as a Broadway choreographer. The play is about the making of God of Vengeance, a 1923 Broadway production based on a landmark Yiddish play, and deals with homosexuality and freedom of expression.
How did you get involved in Indecent?
I've known Rebecca Taichman, one of the creators, for 13 years or so now. We did a project together called Green Violin in Philadelphia.
What research went into choreographing this play?
I did more research for this than I normally do. Some of it is a bit tongue-in-cheek. In order to do that you have to get in deep about the hand gestures and rhythms of Hasidic dance. I don't believe that we have to produce a totally authentic version. But you have to know exactly where something comes from in order to stray.
Small details can have a huge impact on your performance.
Juliet’s pedestrian movements should differ from Aurora’s. Here, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in Romeo and Juliet. PC Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy OBT
As a dancer, you spend hours looking at yourself in the mirror perfecting your lines, and try time and time again to fit one more rotation into your pirouette. But stop for a second, and think about what you admire in other performers. Sure, your favorites probably have nice facilities and can pull off great tricks. But there’s something else that makes them sparkle onstage.
That’s because dancing is all about the details—the way you connect movements, how you hold your hands and the way you walk onstage, for instance. “It’s about how you inhabit the steps,” says Linda Kent, who teaches modern dance at The Juilliard School. “Because guess what: It’s a performing art. Why are you dancing? To be a good little machine? One hopes not.” These details can bring out your artistry in new ways—and have the power to make or break your performance.
The most individual dancing happens within the connections from one movement to another, but dancers often forget to give proper attention to these transitional moments. “I don’t want to see a step,” says Kent. “I want to see the impulse.”
“So often we’re focused on what the final picture looks like,” says Kristin Sudeikis, who teaches contemporary jazz at Broadway Dance Center. “But the reason we’re interested is because of everything that leads up to that.” Build this sense of anticipation by playing with your timing and musicality.
Sudeikis says dancers have particular trouble transitioning from left to right. “I sometimes think of the tide of the ocean—you drop down and in before you switch to go another direction.” Thinking about things like your arm placement and turnout can help you maintain control. Remember that the audience can see you, even if it feels like a small moment.
Hands can be the most expressive part of the body, so pay attention to what every part of your extremities looks like, including your wrists, knuckles and fingertips, says Sudeikis. Fixing a bad habit doesn’t always start with the hands themselves, though. “You want to be aware of them from the spine, to the shoulder blade, through the bicep, tricep and elbow,” she says.
It can be difficult to find a happy medium between energized and relaxed, and to adjust your approach for different pieces. “Think of your hands for each role: If you were doing Giselle, you would want them to be softer. If you were doing Swan Lake, you have to feel those wings right to the end of your fingertips,” says San Francisco Ballet School’s Tina LeBlanc.
Onstage, your eyes can communicate as much as your entire body. “They can be dropped by a quarter of an inch and it can say something totally different,” says Kent. “You want your sternum lifted and your eye level above the horizon a little bit so we can see you.”
But focus isn’t just essential when you’re looking at the audience, says Sudeikis. Think about how you engage with the dancers around you. “Don’t look past the person to your right, even if you’re not making eye contact with them,” she says. “Look at their shoulder or pick out another specific point so that you really see something.”
Like most details, this is something that can be practiced in the studio. Know where your focus should be at all times, and think about what kind of energy you should be expressing, whether soft, intense or somewhere in between.
Walking and Running
When done carelessly, traveling onstage can be one of the most distracting parts of someone’s dancing. How you approach walking and running should be different for every genre and piece. Obviously, running in pointe shoes will feel very different from doing it barefoot; but it also depends on whether you’re dancing Paul Taylor’s joyous Esplanade or a heavy Graham piece.
“It’s all about the weight transfer,” says Kent. “As you give weight into one foot, you’re taking it from the other, and you want to make it seamless.” Don’t forget about the rest of your body, though. Using your shoulders and back effectively, like leaning into a series of runs, can completely change its look and feel.
It helps, too, to think about how your character would run. “Juliet is going to look different running than Aurora,” says LeBlanc. The same goes for abstract pieces. If you have to create a character in your head to help clarify how they would travel, do so. And stay in character until you’re offstage, adds LeBlanc. “One of my pet peeves is seeing a dancer’s energy drop before she is out of sight. You should exit like you’re running the length of a football field.”
A piece isn’t over until you leave the stage, but bows are often left unrehearsed and unrefined. “You see this incredible piece and then the bows are kind of messy,” says Sudeikis. “It immediately takes the sophistication of the work to a different spot, and you’re doing yourself a disservice.”
How you bow is going to depend on what you’re doing. Of course, if you’re bowing during a ballet after a variation, you should stay in character. But other styles may call for something a little more “human.” Think about being yourself, and expressing genuine graciousness for the applause you’re receiving. Thoroughly rehearse your bows. Are your feet all the way together or hips-width apart? Are you trickling through your spine or staying more formally stiff? Define your finish, so you can leave it all onstage.
Being a soloist has its perks, like bigger roles and a bigger paycheck. But it has a less glamorous side, too. Soloists take on corps roles, principal roles and everything in between. The rank comes with more pressure and a demanding schedule, which can take its toll mentally and physically. Though the promotion validates a dancer’s hard work and achievements, many find themselves stuck in the rank waiting for a promotion that may or may not come.
For Houston Ballet's Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, the soloist rank has been demanding but fruitful. PC Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy HB
“I know dancers have very strong feelings about it. And I see how it could be demoralizing,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal. Focusing on the work rather than the rank is the only way to take advantage of the promotion, and use it to move forward.
All Work, No Play
Being a soloist can be taxing because of the inconsistent workload. “If you’re one of the upperclassmen, it’s very rare that you ever have any time off,” says Ballet West first soloist Allison DeBona. She says it’s common to have to learn two different spots in the same ballet or be cast in every piece in a show. “Mentally you feel lost, and physically you feel broken.” Many soloists miss the camaraderie and support system of the corps de ballet they left.
Running on overdrive makes it difficult to find time to cross-train and stay injury-free. Houston Ballet’s Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, who was promoted to principal in 2016, sprained his ankle and broke his fifth metatarsal shortly after becoming a soloist. “The injury made me think quite a bit more about taking care of my body,” he says.
But having a lot on your plate doesn’t just make it hard to keep up physically. DeBona says that especially when she was a demi-soloist, one of the most frustrating things was not having as much time as a principal would to devote herself to bigger roles. Even now as a first soloist, she says, “I always feel like I’m at a disadvantage. Imagine a two-show day. A principal might dance in the afternoon and have the evening off. A soloist could be juggling a principal role during the day and another role at night.”
On the other hand, soloists can see slow periods where they’re barely cast in anything at all. “We do six programs a year, plus Nutcracker, and there could be a program that a dancer is not in,” says Boal. “That can mean a full two months off the stage. They’re always covering something if they’re not cast, but that can be hard.” It’s up to the dancer to take advantage of this downtime by devoting extra energy to daily class, understudying and cross-training.
Becoming an Artist
The soloist rank gives you the freedom to grow as an artist in new ways. “When you’re in the corps, you feel like you have to do things the way they’re shown to you. You’re afraid to show your artistry or musicality,” says DeBona. “It was liberating to let go of that.”
Yoshiyama says that his years as a soloist, though sometimes overwhelming, have been the most fruitful of his career. Part of that is because the promotion gives you a mental boost. “I was more motivated after the promotion because you’re looking forward to upcoming shows,” he says. “You feel pressure to keep up with your technique. You want to become a principal, and there are so many talented up-and-coming dancers.”
Ultimately, soloists are working towards a goal that no one can guarantee. “But you have to stay level-headed and remember why you’re actually dancing. You’re getting opportunities and enjoying yourself onstage,” says DeBona. “When you retire, that’s what you’re going to remember.”
New York City Dance Alliance’s summer intensive pushes dancers beyond their comfort zone.
When you’re heading into your final training years, there’s a lot of pressure to decide what kind of career you want and perfect that technique, be it Balanchine, Horton or hip hop. So dancers often opt for summer programs with a narrow focus. Sometimes, it pushes them to new heights; other times, it creates a one-note training bubble.
Kim Craven’s ballet class at NYCDA. Photo Courtesy NYCDA
New York City Dance Alliance takes a different approach to summer intensive study. At its two-week program during July and August in New York City, dancers study everything from ballet to tap to voice. While it offers strong training for students who want to become triple threats, it also gives them time to explore less familiar styles. “We want the dancers to have a safe place to work outside their comfort zone,” says NYCDA managing director Leah Brandon, “to discover areas of the dance world that they may not know exist or didn’t see themselves in.”
The intensive’s list of teachers echoes this idea. Last year’s staff included regular NYCDA faculty members, plus guests like Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell, Ballet Next artistic director Michele Wiles, Nederlands Dans Theater’s Jon Bond and Luis Salgado from On Your Feet!
Amanda Mitchell, a junior at Pace University’s dance program has attended the intensive four times, and still returns as an assistant. “I’ve done a lot of different programs, but NYCDA’s is so versatile,” she says. “After my first summer, going back to my studio, people were like, ‘What did you do? What changed?’ The program really sparks something new inside of you.”
Experimenting Across Levels
Most dancers who attend the program are selected at one of NYCDA’s regional conventions, though you can also submit a video online. Instead of traditional levels, the students are randomly divided into groups of about 25 which changed throughout the intensive. The theory is that all the students have strengths in different styles, and can learn from each other. “You’re dancing with people of all ages from all over the country,” says Mitchell. “And everyone has something different that they’re good at. It pushes you to be better.”
The schedule for each day varies, and the dancers don’t know what they’re in for until the night before or that morning. Usually, the day begins with either ballet, jazz or modern, followed by classical or contemporary partnering, or conditioning like Pilates or yoga. After lunch, dancers take styles like musical theater, hip hop, tap and ballroom, among others. There’s also an opportunity to hone triple threat skills through acting and voice classes. Career-oriented workshops like injury prevention, resume building and nutrition are also on the schedule.
In the evening, dancers rehearse for the end-of-program performance. Each dancer is cast in two pieces, choreographed or set by faculty and guests. Weekends are reserved for tourist activities and seeing shows around the city. Last summer, the group saw CATS on Broadway, had a Q&A session with the cast and learned choreography from the show.
The Bigger Picture
One big advantage of the NYCDA program is its close relationship with Pace University, which has one of the country’s first programs dedicated to commercial dance. Classes are held in Pace’s studios, and dancers stay in the dorms and eat at its cafeteria. “It’s like a mini college experience—a trial run,” says Brandon, who brings in reps from NYC-based college dance departments to speak. For Mitchell, the connection helped her get a spot at Pace—and a scholarship.
The intensive’s emphasis on audition prep, through mock auditions with one-on-one feedback, also helped her prepare for professional auditions. “A casting director will sit you down and walk you through your resume,” she says. “You get personal feedback about what they liked about your audition and what they didn’t, down to what you’re wearing.”
The end goal is to get students thinking about what kind of career they’d like to pursue—even if that means going down a totally different path than they thought. “Each kid leaves with a clearer idea of what they want to do and what they need to do to get there,” says Scott Jovovich, who has been teaching ballet and theater dance at NYCDA for 15 years. “I sent my own son to this program, because for me, this is the place to figure out who you want to be.”
Attendance: 100 students, split into classes of roughly 25
Timeline: Two weeks
Ages: 14 to 18
Housing: Students stay in Pace University dorms
It starts with a tight feeling in your chest. Your breaths become shallow and high, like your lungs are sitting at the back of your throat. Then, panic sets in. You're gasping for air, and the anxiety is only making it worse. I was diagnosed with asthma in my early teens, and it would act up whenever I was rehearsing something extra-strenuous. While it rarely put me in immediate medical danger, it certainly changed the way I danced. I approached difficult phrases with less confidence, and tried to save so much energy in the early minutes of pieces that I moved too cautiously.