A last-minute performance opportunity can be the biggest challenge—and the biggest break—of your career. Five dancers share their stories.
It’s a dancer’s nightmare: You’re thrown into a part last minute and you don’t know what you’re doing. With just a few hours—or minutes—to learn the steps, memorize spacing and grasp the musicality, you have to perform something you’ve barely rehearsed. The situation is high stress with high stakes, but it doesn’t have to be a bad dream. With the right approach, you can use the opportunity to tackle new roles and get noticed for even bigger parts in the future.
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet
On tour, a girl in Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement got injured. I had been learning the ballet, but I thought: There’s no way they’re putting me on for her! It’s not my spot. Just as we were getting changed, they said Peter Boal needed to talk to me. He had seen that I was paying attention in rehearsal, so he had faith I knew what I was doing. It was the most stressful situation I could imagine. I had about 30 minutes.
I was wearing a costume for another ballet, with a French twist and diamond earrings. The first thing I did was breathe. Then I redid my hair into a low bun and got rid of the pointe shoes. Wardrobe cut up another girl’s leotard for me and gave me another dress lying around. I followed the ballet master into the studio to figure out the steps. I tried to focus on the choreography, nothing else, and we did it over and over for 20 minutes.
The biggest challenge was keeping my body calm. The movement is grounded, core-centric and very dropped. I tried not to let the adrenaline make me shake. Usually I don’t worry about the steps and get lost in the movement onstage, but I absolutely could not do that. I had to keep thinking the whole time.
On the next tour, I was the understudy for every role.
Advice: Learn as much as you can, even roles you’re not scheduled to do. Anything can happen!
Pennsylvania Ballet soloist
I was scheduled to perform in the corps of Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina and was understudying the lead. But I hadn’t done the principal’s steps full-out since I wasn’t able to take space in rehearsals. Two days before the show, they told me I was going on!
Merrill Ashley rehearsed me and my partner for one and a half hours, since I still had a dress and a performance that night. We had no pianist, just a DVD that was extremely fast. The next day I got a stage rehearsal to go over spacing. My performance was my first real run-through! I had to cut out a step or two because it was so quick and I wasn’t keeping up. But I knew the music, and it was easy to cover. My feet were completely numb by the end. There’s no way I could have had the stamina I needed with such little time to prepare. Being thrown in at the last second, you don’t have the work built up behind it, or the confidence.
Ballo is lyrical, but it has a lot of sharp technical aspects that I hadn’t done a lot of, so it was a rare opportunity for me to show another side of my dancing. The next season I got promoted to soloist.
Advice: Get a lot of rest, even though you don’t want to sleep because you’re so excited!
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago member
Eight years ago, when I was new to the company, I was a general cover for The Constant Shift of Pulse, by Doug Varone. I learned two or three roles, but never rehearsed them full-out in the studio. Then another dancer got bursitis in his knee.
I found out the night before. After about a half-hour or hour of rehearsal, I went over it by myself in the hotel room, figuring out which parts I knew, which ones I didn’t and the ones I needed clarification on. It was a group piece and I had to fit in. You can know all the steps, but to do them among other people is the only way to understand spacing. Luckily, the show went well. It was a combined effort from everyone, and the other dancers were really supportive. I showed that the company could count on me.
Advice: Intention plays a huge role. If you cover things well, it might not be what the choreographer wanted, but it’s not going to ruin the dance.
Christina Lynch Markham
Paul Taylor Dance Company member
In my first season at Lincoln Center with the main company, someone fractured her foot the weekend before we opened. I had to forget everything I was doing in Black Tuesday and learn the “Big Bad Wolf” solo. What helped me most was repetition. I watched videos over and over, like cramming for a test. I would close my eyes and envision myself doing the movements very slow, to build a connection, and get faster and faster. Sometimes I would do it hyper-speed in my living room. Then I would go early to rehearsal and do it full-out. If I accidentally slipped up, I knew that I would slip up in the Taylor style.
Two hours before the show, I had such dread! I made myself breathe very deeply. The more grounded you are, the more you can shift your weight faster if you accidentally go the wrong way.
Onstage, I had a heightened awareness: I felt all my senses open, and my eyes were probably so wide I didn’t have to put eyeliner on! It was my job to make sure the audience got what they paid for. And for me, I got to dance a role that I probably would have had to wait years to perform. I didn’t want that to leave my grasp.
Advice: If you flub one count of eight, forgive yourself and don’t let it sabotage your entire season.
New York City Ballet soloist
I was getting ready to leave one afternoon when I found out I was going to do Raymonda Variations the next day. I had never seen any of the principal’s steps. I was so shocked! I had rehearsals right away: Joaquin De Luz and I worked for about an hour, then we had an onstage run where I did as much as I knew. Later, I had an hour to learn the rest, and another run the next day.
The night before, I sewed shoes and watched the tape over and over. I actually slept really well—my mind was so exhausted, it just shut down. Onstage, I tried to stay calm and do one step at a time, take one entrance at a time. There were no mishaps. I was so happy!
I hope that because I did so well in such a short period of time, they’ll give me bigger opportunities. It would be really awesome if I got to do Raymonda again with more preparation. But I got three more shows of it right away, and tried to bring something new each time. I had a blast! It was like a party onstage.
Advice: Remember, they can’t get mad at you: Even if you mess up, you’re still saving the day.
Former Pennsylvania Ballet principal Julie Diana is the executive director of Juneau Dance Theatre.