How SFB's Joseph Walsh Does Performance Prep

December 4, 2016

Right after Joseph Walsh joined San Francisco Ballet as a soloist, the company went on a grueling three week tour where they performed 20 ballets. Originally, Walsh was only cast in one. But he ended up dancing 10. A few months later, he was promoted to principal.

Clearly, Walsh knows how to shine in difficult performing situations. Taking on unexpected challenges requires a carefully planned show prep routine—which we learned is another area where Walsh excels.

In the latest episode of our video series, “Behind the Curtain,” we tag along Walsh during a program in Los Angeles this fall. The Celebrate Forsythe event brought together SFB, Houston Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers to perform three works by legendary choreographer William Forsythe.

Hanging out with Walsh for a day is like getting a lesson in smart pre-show prep. Here’s what we learned from him:

Morning Class Approach

“Today is exciting because we get to see how people take class with their own director,” Walsh says about the class taught by PNB director Peter Boal. “I’m excited to see how he gets his dancers prepared for the day, and at the same time I’m just trying to center myself before the show.”

(This part of the episode is also a fun game of “Spot Your Favorite Dancer”—I found Maria Kochetkova and Angelica Generosa taking barre among many other stars from the three companies.)

We should all strive towards a dual focus like Walsh’s. He manages to think about both learning from the new director and dancers around him and using class to ground his body and mind for the day ahead.

Nerve-Beating Strategy

Even the most distinguished pros get nerves. And everyone has a different way of tackling the pre-show jitters. Walsh’s strategy is inspired by nature—and Michael Phelps: “There’s a tactic that one of my friends told me about,” Walsh says. “When you see a gazelle getting attacked by a gator, it gets out of the way. It kinda goes off to the side and it shakes itself really quickly. And it’s this release of adrenaline.” He refers to this pre-show shake off as the “Michael Phelps routine.”

Attitude of Gratitude

Before joining SFB three years ago, Walsh danced for Houston Ballet for seven seasons. “I loved my time there. [HB artistic director] Stanton Welch gave me so many opportunities,” Walsh says. “I can’t express my gratitude enough for what they’ve given me.”

Walsh’s appreciative mindset and warmness toward his old company eases a potentially stressful day and makes a collaborative program like this one all the more enjoyable.

Forsythe Inspiration

Rather than being intimidated by the fact that Forsythe was there to watch Walsh perform Pas/Parts 2016, Walsh used the choreographer’s presence as fuel. “I feel comfort when he’s here because I know that he’s hoping we’re pushing ourselves beyond what we’re capable of,” Walsh says. “If you mess up, you mess up. He only cares that you’re trying your hardest.”

Focus on Fun

The biggest takeaway from Walsh’s performance day approach is his focus on enjoying himself. “Onstage, I feel joy,” he says. “If William Forsythe came up to me after the show, I hope he would just say, ‘It looks like you had a lot of fun’.”

Watch the episode here.