What It Really Takes to Be In An Immersive Show
The fourth wall has come down, and it has opened up a whole new kind of gig for dancers. Since Sleep No More became a hit in 2011, immersive theater experiences have been shattering expectations by inviting audiences to move through the world of the performance as they please. What kind of skill set does this burgeoning art form demand?
The biggest difference between performing on a proscenium stage and dancing in an immersive work is the proximity of the audience. In many cases, spectators will be close enough to literally reach out and touch you. And this brings some unique challenges. First, you can't play to the top of the balcony, says Danielle Rowe, choreographer for FURY, an immersive concert experience inspired by the film Mad Max: Fury Road. "You're more of a screen actor than a stage actor when the audience is that close," she says.
It's not a given that everyone will be standing in front of you, either, says Alison Ingelstrom, who danced in Ryan Heffington's immersive World War II–themed Seeing You before joining the cast of the off-Broadway interactive pop musical Cleopatra. "You can't just project in one direction like you would onstage."
Start a Movement
Another hallmark of Sleep No More–inspired shows is the audience's choose-your-own-adventure journey, where performers are sometimes responsible for initiating the movement of the crowd. "You're not herding cattle and you're not a flight attendant, so finding a way to camouflage the action and handle it creatively is an interesting challenge," says Ingelstrom. "It's better to be clear but to do less—take two people by the arm or put light pressure on someone's back."
Grow with the Flow
Since audiences can be unpredictable, working out the kinks may require making changes in the middle of a run. Keone and Mari Madrid, whose immersive Beyond Babel opened last fall in San Diego, debrief with the cast after every performance and incorporate changes often, so dancers need to be flexible as things shift.
Make It Work
A nontraditional set might be located in a less-than-ideal space, says Ingelstrom, so dancers should be prepared to roll with the punches. "There may not be marley, sprung floors or someone handing you your props," she says.
You will also learn how unpredictable an audience can be once you take away the seats. "You have to be able to recover quickly when the unexpected happens, like if someone sits down when they're not supposed to or you need to make the movement work in a more confined space," says Rowe.
Check Your Gaze
Holding prolonged eye contact with an onlooker might make you uncomfortable at first. To get used to this, Ingelstrom started making intentional eye contact in everyday interactions. Locking eyes with castmates in those first few rehearsals was also good practice because they were still practically strangers. "It's a little embarrassing, but I would try to make eye contact with people on the subway, too," she says.
Remaining absorbed in the world of the performance helps bring the audience along for the ride—and takes incredible focus, says Rowe. "Our performers are onstage for the entire hour-long show, so having physical and mental stamina is a requirement. You have to be completely in it, no matter what happens."
With nonperformers all around you and no way of knowing how they'll react, you're bound to make some missteps and have nights when the audience is not responsive, says Ingelstrom. "I had to learn not to hold things so precious, because if you're punishing yourself for messing up, you're not present for the audience." Besides, Rowe says, if you're fully committed and making choices that are true to your character, how wrong can you be?
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.