Going Inside the Role

May 27, 2009

A fog-swept stage, a dark forest scene with a lake in the distance. One by one birds alight on the water, rise out of the lake, and transform into beautiful women. With tremulous white tutus fluttering and arms undulating, they bourée onstage, the entire flock of bird-women in pristine formation. What could be more dramatic than Swan Lake?


But wait. Who are these girls, and what do they want? Release from evil Rothbart’s spell? Or perfect turnout, 32 fouettés, and a shot at the role of the Swan Queen? Or does it matter?


Yes, it matters—if you want to give the audience an experience it will remember. Some dancers are natural actors and bring dramatic qualities to their work intuitively. Others need to learn acting skills. Dance Magazine asked eight dancers and coaches how they integrate acting into performance.


“I dance better when I have a reason to do the steps,” says Kimberly Cowen of Kansas City Ballet. “You can’t just make a face and call it a day. You need to have a purpose.”


Another word for purpose is intention. Anita Paciotti, a ballet mistress at San Francisco Ballet, taps the dancers’ intention by asking them to invent their own dialogue. “What is your sentence? You need to know what you want and what you are doing. It translates into body language.”


Using the mirror, dancers tend to watch themselves from the outside and can forget to focus on the internal motivation. Ara Fitzgerald, chair of the dance program at Manhattanville College, observes, “If we’re paying attention to what our intention is in each moment, the quality of movement can transcend technique and reveal the idea behind the dance.” As a dancer in Daniel Nagrin’s Workgroup in the 1970s, Fitzgerald learned to look at the “why” of movement.


Sarah Stackhouse, former dancer with the Limón Dance Company, says the intention in José Limón’s work is embodied in the choreography. To understand it, dancers must first explore how his movement uses breath and space to create dramatic tension. Setting Limón’s There Is a Time on Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater last fall, she asked, “Why are you coming onstage? Where are you going? Don’t go anywhere without a thought.” She is careful not to mention the word acting, “because then they try to do something that is really not their field. Their field is movement.”


Many dancers confuse emotionalizing with acting. Playing emotion or affect, also called “indicating,” can fall into superficiality or clichés. Dancers can avoid that trap by finding a specific intention. Thinking, “I want to look sad,” is aimed at a result rather than a process that strives for authenticity. Thinking in terms of a specific action, like, “I want to sink into a hole and disappear,” will connect more deeply in the body.

The Magic “As If”

In learning the role of Giselle, Cowen studied videos of other dancers. “You have to get all your information first. You don’t want to be counting or looking at the floor when you’re involved in a dramatic role. Instead of just trying to be Giselle, I had to figure out what I would do if I were in this situation.”


Cowen may not know it, but she was using a time-honored acting tool, the magic “as if,” to bring her character to life through her own experience. First introduced by the great Russian director Constantin Stanislavski, this concept, along with his use of “sense memory,” revolutionized theater by insisting on naturalism and truth onstage. These tools spark our imaginations to really see and hear as the character. Whether portraying a dramatic role or embodying a quality in an abstract piece, life experience and sense memory help give substance to who you are onstage.


Shelley Washington, who sets Tharp’s ballets all over the world, says, “I want to know who you are when you’re dancing, what kind of clothes you wear. I want to know what kind of music you listen to, what kind of car you drive, what color your bedroom is—through your dancing!”


“Technical dancers can get boring sometimes because the person doing it is no longer experiencing the discovery of the battement, the plié, or where they’re going in space,” says Fitzgerald. Discovering each moment as though it were for the first time avoids the kind of performance that we think of as “phoned in.”


Choreographer/director Tommy Tune advises dancers to “do a thorough mental discovery on the character. Chip away anything that is you that is not that person. Leave that ‘you’ in the dressing room, and take the ‘you’ that is the character to the stage. We can only play facets of ourselves.”


Body language was key for Tune in directing his new musical, Turn of the Century, in Chicago last fall. It was a challenge to differentiate characters in two different centuries, “going from 1999 people to 1899 people, with all the mores of a high society crowd in this Central Park West apartment, but 100 years earlier.” Tune focused on carriage and gesture—“the way you sat, the way you had a conversation, to give it a formality that we don’t have today.” He had the ensemble walk, trot, and run, “but in a social form. It’s important the way they entered the room because they are the set. They represent the environment of the time.”



Peter Sparling, former Martha Graham dancer and a professor of dance at the University of Michigan, recently helped reconstruct Graham’s Clytemnestra on the current Graham company dancers. Sparling asks, “When is one permitted to work between the lines?” This is called subtext, and refers to what is implied in the choreography or text but not directly stated. Sparling stresses that shaping phrases, pacing oneself, using focus or the deflection of focus all contribute to how you bring your own body knowledge to the role. “Where can one crack the surface to allow for the vulnerability of a character, a sense of spontaneity, as opposed to the goal of ‘I want to make a really fabulous impression with my gorgeous body!’ At what point can Orestes show me this broken figure, riddled with doubt, on the edge of loss of control?”

Believe It

Christopher Barksdale, a Kansas City Ballet dancer who excels in dramatic roles, learned acting skills from KCB founding director Todd Bolender. “He’d say, ‘I taught you the steps, now be somebody. The steps by themselves mean nothing.’ He used to tell us, ‘Don’t act—be it!’ You have to make it believable. If you can’t believe it, how are you going to make the audience believe it?”


“What are you projecting?” Anita Paciotti asks. “You want to be a presence onstage, and it takes thought.” Setting Robbins’ In the Night on the Joffrey last year, Paciotti told the dancers, “The place is an outdoor terrace at night. The gestures are very conversational. Robbins wanted to make sure they didn’t just look like port de bras.”   


Sarah Stackhouse took time to let the Luna Negra dancers feel “how the breath will swell you, how you can explode or implode space.” She has them initiate a running sequence with a vocalization. “See that sound coming out of your mouth and travel with it.” She coaches them to “let your body fall against the space!”

Putting It All Together

In one way or another, all the dance artists interviewed said the same thing: If you don’t think of “acting” per se, but rather use your imagination to infuse your movement with clear intention, strong imagery, discovery, subtext, and self-knowledge, you will be more likely to enter that magical zone of “being in the moment.”


When every dancer in Swan Lake knows the answers to “Who am I?” and “What do I want?” we experience the story as metaphor, not only as a vehicle for brilliant technicians to dazzle us. We are elevated by the triumph of love over evil—and may even be inspired to take on the Rothbarts of our own lives as well.


Lynn Colburn Shapiro teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. She is a former dancer/choreographer who has written and directed plays.


Photo: courtesy PNB