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What Does it Take to Dance in an Immersive Show?
Niko Tsocanos and Ashley Robicheaux. Photo by Darial Sneed, courtesy The Grand Paradise
At various points during The Grand Paradise, I was put inside a pseudo-coffin, told to help a performer undress and left alone to browse a vintage Playboy from the 70s. But the weirdest part of my night was participating in a pillow fight that turned into a slow dance with a performer who happened to be former classmate of mine. She was so completely in character that I couldn't help asking myself if she remembered me. Could she really be that good of an actress? She seemed so natural while staring into my eyes for those 20 seconds that felt like 20 minutes.
The Grand Paradise is the latest immersive show from Third Rail Projects, the creative team behind the Bessie Award-winning Then She Fell (both productions are currently running in Brooklyn). It's set in a 1970s-era beach resort that may or may not contain the Fountain of Youth. But rather than thinking about its themes of time and sexual awakening, I found myself wondering how dancers prepare for this sort of task.
Dancing inside of an audience while also physically and verbally interacting with them requires a very different kind of stage presence from what you would use to perform on a proscenium stage. You’re projecting to people just inches away, rather than in the balcony of an opera house. In this up-close context, the stage veneer has to melt away, and—as carefully choreographed as every step may be—get replaced with something that feels more genuine. Any dancer who reads as fake takes the audience out of the experience.
Photo by Darial Sneed, courtesy The Grand Paradise
In The Grand Paradise, dancers give audience members palm readings, pour them drinks, chat with them about astrology, and, yes, dance for them, among many other assignments. For most of the two-hour show, there is virtually no separation between performer and viewer.
That takes an intense kind of confidence and commitment to your role that isn’t required when you’ve got the safety of a fourth wall. It's a whole other level of vulnerability. After the show, my former classmate admitted it was even harder performing this way for someone she knew (she did remember me!). Even in most site-specific work, where audiences might surround performers on all sides, dancers don't typically acknowledge viewers directly through eye contact or speech or touch. They are "other," which can give dancers a sort of emotional protection.
Last month, a friend who's in Sleep No More and I were talking with Alexandra Wells of Springboard Danse Montreal, who mentioned that all the dancers she knew who “go immersive don’t go back.” I've been thinking about her comment ever since. What is it about immersive theater that hooks dancers?
My theory is that these are performers who dance because they want to connect. The personality types who excel in this kind of show like to see immediate audience reactions and engage on a more intimate level. That rush can be addicting. You have to be ready to improvise and interact not only like a performer, but like a real person. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that's an approach that could benefit any dancer—no matter how far away the audience.
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.