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Make Magic Onstage
How to become the kind of performer audiences can’t take their eyes off of.
Lesley Rausch, here in Swan Lake, uses visualization techniques backstage. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet.
After countless hours in rehearsal, the stage can sometimes feel like a foreign country. Mirrors are replaced with blackness, your periphery is filled with light, and the floors, spacing and even the rosin feel different. Suddenly the variation you’d mastered in the studio is shaky and your performance falls short of everything you’d accomplished in rehearsal.
Performing is a skill of its own, and great dancers are not always great performers. It takes a particular kind of confidence to share yourself onstage and relax into your body when the pressure is on. But by working on their performance skills, dancers can grow beyond what was possible without an audience.
Shake Your Nerves
Dancers who flourish under the spotlight typically focus on the work itself rather than outcomes like audience reactions, reviews or possible promotions. Because such results are beyond your control, fixating on them can zap your confidence and exacerbate nerves, explains Dr. Jim Taylor, psychologist and co-author of Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence.
When those thoughts take over, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Demetia Hopkins-Greene practices deep breathing to calm down and slow her heart rate. “I focus on my goal for that performance: What’s my role? What am I trying to convey?” she says. She forces herself to stay in the moment and shifts her mind-set to revel in the blackness of the fourth wall, rather than worrying about all the people on the other side.
Other dancers learn to use their nerves to their advantage: If you can channel that adrenaline into controlled energy (while staying present), it can give you an extra boost. “Enjoy the butterflies,” suggests Houston Ballet II ballet master and coach Claudio Muñoz. “It’s the best part of the performance.”
Discover Your Ideal Prep
Whether you always listen to a certain song backstage or a put on a “lucky” pair of mukluks, there may be more power in your backstage routines than you think. “Great performers and athletes are meticulous in their preparation,” Taylor says. That means your makeup, hair and warm-up are all thoughtfully done on a schedule that makes you comfortable. “Consistency of preparation leads to consistency of performance,” he says.
Hopkins-Greene, here with Glenn Allen Sims in Chroma, uses the fourth wall to help her focus. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy Ailey.
The trick is finding what makes you feel comfortable enough to open up and be vulnerable onstage. Dancers with an internal-focus style often need space and quiet to get into that zone—you’ll find them off in a corner with earbuds in, avoiding eye contact. But others, says Taylor, will begin to stress and self-criticize if they overthink things, so they might need to spend their prep time blasting silly pop music and laughing with friends.
Either way, get into performance mode from the moment you start warming up. “Don’t wait until you’re onstage,” says musical theater choreographer and performer Al Blackstone. “Immediately during pliés, be as present as possible, actually look at your hand, engage with the space around you, project energy. Then you won’t have to make a huge shift once it’s time to perform.”
Positive imagery should also be part of every dancer’s backstage prep. Studies have shown that visualization can have a real effect on how our muscles behave. Imagining your ideal performance can help embed it in your muscle memory before you go on. “I’ll visualize doing the steps successfully rather than focusing on the time that I fell out of the pirouette,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Lesley Rausch. During the rehearsal period, go through your choreography mentally at least three times per week so that visualization feels natural come opening night.
Watch Your Body Language
The way you hold your posture can affect how an audience perceives you on a subliminal level, says Jennie Morton, an osteopath and former dancer. For example, by curling your stomach inward while pushing your chin up in a slumping position, you are communicating that you are afraid, whether intentionally or not. Similarly, elevated shoulders or tension in the neck and arms can denote a lack of confidence. “The audience will be waiting for something to go wrong because they don’t feel comfortable watching you,” says Morton. “For an audience to connect to a performer emotionally, trust has to be established.” Of course, these postures can be a choreographic or dramatic choice. But otherwise, Morton suggests aiming for neutral alignment—particularly focusing on your pelvic position—to give your body language greater authority.
Find Your Way Into the Role
When Hopkins-Greene was cast in the title role of Matthew Rushing’s Odetta last year, she was intimidated to depict the iconic singer known as the voice of the civil rights movement. But once she found herself in the role, she shined. “I can’t be Odetta,” she says, “but I can tell you what I feel from Odetta. I can show you how I see this woman.”
Claudia Muñoz coaches dancers to approach performances the same as rehearsals. Photo by Cameron Durham, courtesy Houston Ballet Academy.
Blackstone says that performers who struggle with being expressive onstage can improve by digging even deeper into the material. “Talk to the choreographer, ask yourself questions about the character and how you want the audience to feel,” he suggests. “Performance is about communication—how can you have a great conversation if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to say?”
Based on your interpretation, discover places in the choreography to play with your energy and focus, and find those moments when you can feed off other performers onstage by making eye contact. “Take those moments when you’re not engaging straight out to the audience to look down or over your shoulder or at your partner,” says Blackstone. Not only will this give your dancing more nuance, but it will leave you more energy to give to the audience when you are sending it out in their direction.
Don’t Aim For Perfection
Because the stakes are high in performance, dancers tend to put more pressure on themselves. “When I was younger I felt this sense of needing to be perfect technically in my performance,” says Rausch. She’s not alone. But this approach can backfire, aggravating stage fright and leaving dancers unprepared to bounce back from the inevitably imperfect moments in a performance.
When coaching dancers for competition, Muñoz tells them to approach it just like they do every day in the studio. “If they’re good, they’re going to win anyway.” A performance is not the time to try for an extra rotation in your turns; simply execute what you know you can do and remain open to what comes onstage. Strive for excellence rather than perfection, advises Taylor. “Excellence still sets the bar incredibly high, but it takes away the pressure of having to be perfect.”
So what is that sparkle? The je ne sais quoi that makes certain dancers seem magical onstage? Simply put, it’s you. “The dancers that I enjoy watching the most are the ones who are very comfortable with who they are outside of the studio because they allow themselves to be that person onstage, too,” says Rausch. Watch other dancers to see what it is about their performances that you respond to. And replay videos of yourself performing to see how you’re coming across, whether you look comfortable in your own skin.
“With performers, their whole identity can be wrapped up with their label as a dancer,” says Morton. “It’s those who manage to retain their humanity, that connection with the self, that find it more natural to be expressive.” Make time for activities and friends that help you stay in touch with all the quirks and oddities that make you uniquely you. And once you’re in front of the footlights, don’t hold anything back. n
Kathleen McGuire is a contributing writer to Dance Magazine.
When Rachel Hamrick was in the corps of Universal Ballet in Seoul, her determination to strengthen her flexibility turned into a side hobby that would eventually land her a new career. "I was in La Bayadere for the first time, and I was the first girl out for that arabesque sequence in The Kingdom of the Shades," she says. "I had the flexibility, but I was wobbly because I wasn't stretching in the right way. That's when I first started playing around with the idea of the Flexistretcher. It was tied together then, so it was definitely more makeshift," she says with a laugh, "But I trained with it to help me get the correct alignment so that I would have the strength to sustain the whole act."
Now, Hamrick is running her own business, complete with an ever-growing product line and her FLX training method—all because of her initial need to make it through 38 arabesques.
For the new Broadway season, Ellenore Scott has scored two associate choreographer gigs: For Head Over Heels, which starts previews June 23, Scott is working with choreographer Spencer Liff on an original musical mashing up The Go-Go's punk-rock hits with a narrative based on Sir Philip Sidney's 1590 book, Arcadia. Four days after that show opens, she'll head into rehearsals for this fall's King Kong, collaborating with director/choreographer Drew McOnie and a 20-foot gorilla.
Scott gave us the inside scoop about Head Over Heels, the craziness of her freelance hustle and the most surprising element of working on Broadway.
Dance in movies is a trend as old as time. Movies like The Red Shoes and Singin' in the Rain paved the way for Black Swan and La La Land; dancing stars like Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers led the way for Channing Tatum and Julianne Hough.
Lucky for us, some of Hollywood's most incredible dance scenes have been compiled into this amazing montage, featuring close to 300 films in only seven minutes. So grab the popcorn, cozy on up, and watch the moves that made the movies.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
If you want to know how scary the AIDS epidemic was in the 1980s, come see Ishmael Houston-Jones' piece THEM from 1986. This piece reveals the subterranean fears that crept into gay relationships at the time. Houston-Jones is one of downtown's great improvisers, and his six dancers also improvise in response to his suggestions. With Chris Cochrane's edgy guitar riffs and Dennis Cooper's ominous text, there's an unpredictable, near-creepy but epic quality to THEM.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
This time last year, Catherine Conley was already living a ballet dancer's dream. After an exchange between her home ballet school in Chicago and the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana, she'd been invited to train in Cuba full-time. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that was nearly unheard of for an American dancer. Now, though, Conley has even more exciting news: She's a full-fledged member of the National Ballet of Cuba's corps de ballet.
"In the school there were other foreigners, but in the company I'm the only foreigner—not just the only American, but the only non-Cuban," Conley says. But she doesn't feel like an outsider, or like a dancer embarking on a historic journey. "Nobody makes me feel different. They treat me as one of them," she says. Conley has become fluent in Spanish, and Cuba has come to feel like home. "The other day I was watching a movie that was dubbed in Spanish, and I understand absolutely everything now," she says.
Chantel Aguirre may call sunny Los Angeles home, but the Shaping Sound company member and NUVO faculty member spends more time in the air, on a tour bus or in a convention ballroom than she does in the City of Angels.
Aguirre, who is married to fellow Shaping Sound member Michael Keefe, generally only spends one week per month at home. "When I'm not working, I'm exploring," Aguirre says. "Michael and I are total travel junkies."
Akram Khan and Florence Welch (of Florence + The Machine) is not a pairing we ever would have dreamt up. But now that the music video for "Big God" has dropped, with choreography attributed to Khan and Welch, it seems that we just weren't dreaming big enough.
In the video, Welch leads a group of women standing in an eerily reflective pool of water. They seem untouchable, until they begin shedding their colorful veils, movements morphing to become animalistic and aggressive as the song progresses.
Savannah Lowery is about as well acquainted with the inner workings of a hospital as she is with the intricate footwork of Dewdrop.
As a child, the former New York City Ballet soloist would roam the hospital where her parents worked, pushing buttons and probably getting into too much trouble, she says. While other girls her age were clad in tutus playing ballerina, she was playing doctor.
"It just felt like home. I think it made me not scared of medicine, not scared of a hospital," she says. "I thought it was fascinating what they did."
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
A Jellicle Ball is coming to the big screen, with the unlikeliest of dancemakers on tap to choreograph.
We'll give you some hints: His choreography can aptly be described as "animalistic," though Jellicle cats have never come to mind specifically when watching his hyper-physical work. He's worked on movies before—even one about Beasts. And though contemporary ballet is his genre of choice, his choreography is certainly theatrical enough to lend itself to a musical.