The Most Surprising Things About Dancing in a Met Opera Production

April 11, 2018

The last place you might expect to find a graduate of New York University’s decidedly contemporary dance program is onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, scuttling around in a single three-inch heel, a massive petticoat and an ostentatious wig. But 2016 Tisch Dance graduate Andrea Pugliese can be found doing exactly that in The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Cendrillon, running April 12–May 11.

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It might not seem like the most obvious fit for someone more accustomed to concert dance, but booking an opera job has major benefits—the dancers are unionized, which means good pay, and clear guidelines for rehearsal and performance schedules and conditions.

For Pugliese, a summer gig at Santa Fe Opera in 2017 (which she booked through Tisch Dance department chair Seán Curran) led to an AGMA membership—allowing her to attend the AGMA- and Equity-only call for Cendrillon—and opened up a new career path. We sat down with the contemporary dancer to find out what it’s really like transitioning from concert dance to opera gigs.

What has been most surprising to you about stepping into the opera world, as a dancer whose primary experience is in contemporary concert dance?

When you’re part of an opera, you’re one of the many, many pieces that it takes to make something so grand, and to really create the magic for the audience. I was surprised just how many people are necessary to make these productions happen, so many more than is necessitated by concert dance.

Backstage, there’s an entire microcosm that’s bustling behind what the audience is seeing to make the magic happen. You have to learn your surroundings to stay out of the way of the stagehands who are handling sets, and stage managers cue you for everything, which is very different. In concert dance, everything is on you, whereas here there’s a specific person or persons for each niche—props and costumes and wigs.

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What are your interactions like with the singers?

With this production, there’s a lot more movement and activity onstage than is typical of a lot of productions. A lot of the chorus members have never done this much movement before, because “park and bark” is the usual. I feel bad for the chorus in some sections, because we’re doing all this movement and running, and then they have to sing! They’re all phenomenal and open and willing.

What styles of dance does the choreography cover?

We’re in all four acts, and each act has a different tone. There’s contemporary partnering based in contact improv, ballroom partnering, polka steps, contemporary ballet. If you’re dancing, there’s a layer of acting on top of the movement in a theatrical way that’s similar to Broadway.

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How much leeway have you had with your characters and the choreography, since this is an already-existing production new to the Met?

The choreography is very set, except for the third act. Female and male dancers come in and out in moments of duet, and that we created ourselves. We used images and lifts from the Royal Opera House production, but the choreographer, Laura Scozzi, gave us a lot of space to play with partners and find new movements. And then we had to find news ways to do it with the limitation of holding large red books the size of your torso! That section was fun to create.

A lot of times they give you feelings and intentions, and it’s your responsibility to create a character that’s within those parameters. It’s not, “Put your hand here and act surprised,” it’s, “Okay, she’s here, and you’re seeing the most beautiful thing for the first time.” And then they’ll structure your choices as you go along—in a way, it’s similar to creating concert dance.

Do you have a favorite scene in

The second act, at the Prince’s ball. We’re in these massive red dresses and very kooky wigs, and everything is very over the top and everyone is so animated. It’s such a fun environment, to behave as excitedly as one would be going to a prince’s ball, and getting to not only play with the other dancers but also acting with a chorus.

What’s the biggest benefit of the gig?

A lot of these dancers do Broadway or immersive theater or ballet. We all come from different backgrounds, so being able to meet and experience a production like this with them is pretty amazing. You’re working with people at the top of their craft.

The biggest challenge?

In concert dance, you choose a costume specifically because it works with your movement and the atmosphere of the piece. Whereas here, the costumes are created to the atmosphere and you adapt the choreography to work with three-inch heels and a petticoat. Also, being in such a large theater means you have to make sure everything you do is projected—is the person in the very back of the audience going to be able to see what you’re doing?

Do you have any advice for a dancer who might be interested in pursuing this kind of work?

Be open to any possibility that presents itself. I never thought I’d be working in opera; it was never a possibility I considered. It’s not what I had envisioned for my career, but it’s been amazing to experience a world that is so different from anything I had been involved with before.

Cendrillon footage courtesy The Metropolitan Opera.