Dance Training

The 4 Cardinal Rules of Site-Specific Performance

Rashaun Mitchell (right) sees site-specific performance as a way to connect with audiences more intimately. Photo by Paula Lobo

When Rashaun Mitchell danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he yearned for an alternative to the isolation he felt onstage. “Many times, the experience as a performer in a theater was lonely," says Mitchell. “The lights are blinding. You look out into the blackness and don't see anyone's face. The show ends, and you go back to your hotel." The works Mitchell now creates and performs in collaboration with Silas Riener are frequently site-specific, offering an entirely different experience. Audiences are often integrated into the performance, and dancers rely on their instincts to navigate constantly changing environments.

Although site-specific works can be invigorating in their intimacy, dancers need to be prepared for the unique challenges they present. From performing in the elements to interacting with audiences who don't behave the way you'd expect, site-specific work requires a fresh mind-set and a different kind of flexibility than performing onstage.


#1. Don't Get Too Attached

Biba Bell thinks of a site-specific performance as an improvisation. Photo by Corrie Baldauf, courtesy of Biba Bell.

You might be used to spending weeks or months in rehearsal, fine-tuning one ideal version of the choreography. But it almost always helps to view your role in a site-specific work more like an improvisation, says Biba Bell, assistant professor at Wayne State University. "Once you take things out of a controlled environment, the elements can fall into flux and become unstable," she explains. "The ground itself can be uneven, and there are often distractions."

Mitchell says these "complicated, unpredictable conditions" are among the benefits of performing in unusual spaces. "When it's set choreography and really well rehearsed, you can do it a million times with your eyes closed. Having some things remain outside your control keeps it fresh and new," he observes. Each variation generates a different result and, over time, performing the same work for different audiences in different locations contributes to a broader understanding of the part that you play.

#2. Keep Your Distance (in Mind)

How close you are to audiences will influence how much you should project outward. Photo by Adam Jason Photography, courtesy Third Rail Projects.

When performing in a theater, you're responsible for projecting from the front row all the way to the back of the house. Depending on the venue for a site-specific show, your front row might be 2 inches from your nose—or 200 feet away. Be prepared to engage with a show's environment during an audition, says Jennine Willett, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects, which presents Then She Fell at the Kingsland Ward, a century-old building at St. John's Church in Brooklyn. "Over time, we've gotten better at understanding what we want to ask people to do that might reveal their potential for being successful in this kind of work," says Willett. In anticipation of having audiences of various sizes in different rooms, Willett might ask performers to practice presenting a phrase once as they would for a single viewer, then again as if for 100 people, and then again for 1,000 people. "It helps to think of having a 'dial' you can turn," she suggests, "to draw the audience closer to you, or, to project outward more, whether physically or in how you're using your voice."

Mitchell and Riener agree. "When someone's standing right next to you, you have a lot of power as a performer, and you have to recognize that," says Riener, "although I'm drawn to playing with that volume as well. We might moderate ourselves to set a kind of decorum, but we also might want to be 'the wrong thing' for the space we're in. Once I understand what people's assumptions about a space will be, I often find myself wanting to turn those things on their heads."

#3. Go Outside—and Back in Again

Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener say performing outside is like going camping. Photo by Truth Cole via Madison Square Park Conservancy

Some artists bring their site-specific projects out of doors. From 2005 to 2011, Bell and her collaborators ran MGM Grand (Modern Garage Movement), through which "we'd take something on the road and perform it one to three times a day, for three to six weeks," she recalls. "And we'd always have our costumes on—in essence, we were ready to perform anywhere, at any time."

Mitchell and Riener liken performing outdoors to going camping, and advise their collaborators on outdoor projects to come prepared for any contingency. Pack your bag or a small suitcase with all the footwear, outerwear and warm-ups you might need, and be sure to ask in advance what kind of dressing area or green room—if any—you'll have access to. With a laugh, Riener adds, "It's always definitely going to rain."

He still enjoys performing onstage—as do many other dancers who've gone the site-specific route. Willett even says that, to some degree, being absent from stages makes the heart grow fonder: "Once you're in the woods trying to hang clip lights and present a performance in a place that has absolutely no infrastructure, stepping back into a nice, clean theater with a light plot is so amazing."

#4. Your Audience Will Be Unpredictable—Embrace It

Audiences are going to misbehave—don't take it personally. Photo by Dariel Sneed, Courtesy Third Rail Projects


New York City–based artist Lia Bonfilio, cast in immersive shows with Third Rail Projects such as Then She Fell and Sweet & Lucky, is quick to confirm that "audiences never do what you planned for them to do." Especially when you're performing in intimate spaces, Bonfilio's main advice is to "love your audience, no matter what. If someone's being a troublemaker, you have to find an acceptance of that, and soften into it; if you meet it with resistance, things will go awry." Flat-out ignoring them defeats the purpose of an intimate setting, so remain engaged without taking any audience members' (mis)behavior personally.

Show Comments ()
Dance Training
Jealousy is normal—it becomes a problem when it affects your dancing. Thinkstock

A classmate lands the role you wanted. Another dancer is always earning compliments from the teacher you can never seem to please. The dance world is full of opportunities to feel envious—and according to psychologist Nadine Kaslow, that is completely normal.

"To say you shouldn't ever feel jealous is unrealistic," says Kaslow, who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet. "But when you become driven by it, rather than focusing on doing your best to improve, that's when it turns harmful." Luckily, there are ways to channel this negative emotion into positive growth.

1. Feel It

Don't be ashamed when envy strikes. Instead, acknowledge and process how you're feeling. Photo by Matthew Murphy for Pointe.

"In dance, it can seem like the grass is always greener," says Erin Fogarty, a teacher and director of programming at Manhattan Youth Ballet. "If you're a jumper, you wish you could turn. If you're long and leggy, you wish you could jump. People progress at different paces."

There's no reason to be ashamed when envy strikes. In fact, it's better to acknowledge your feelings than to ignore them. "Bottled-up emotions can be dangerous," Fogarty says. Unresolved jealousy can consume you, affecting how you view yourself and interact with your peers. You might experience physical side effects, such as excess muscle tension. Your artistry can even suffer when you're closed-off emotionally.

You can't move forward until you honestly assess and accept your state of mind. "Sometimes I encourage people to write down how they're feeling," Kaslow says. "They might discover something else at the root of the jealousy: They're hurt, angry, betrayed or humiliated. Those feelings need to be dealt with as well."

But remember: Pausing to validate your emotions isn't the same as wallowing in them. "It's fine to take a day to be mad, especially if you don't feel like you can be in the studio without coming undone," Fogarty says. "Then you have to get back to work."

2. Talk About It

Opening up to someone about how you're feeling can help you move forward. Photo by Kevin Laminto via Unsplash

After you've admitted your feelings to yourself, consider talking to a parent, teacher or close friend. Look for someone who will listen and perhaps share their own experiences, without encouraging the negative impulses that can accompany envy. "The wrong person could feed your jealousy instead of helping you understand it," says Elizabeth Petrin, who teaches at Bobbie's School of Performing Arts in Newbury Park, California. "You want someone who can build you up and offer advice."

What if the friend you usually turn to is the person you're jealous of? Taking the time to recognize your friend's excitement can start to pull you out of your rut. But, Kaslow warns, "smiling and pretending everything's fine when it's not often comes across as phony" and can damage your relationship. "Being honest and vulnerable—'I am happy for you, but I'm also really disappointed right now'—can heal your wounds."

If your dance environment has started to feel toxic, ask a teacher to facilitate a class or company discussion. "If people are constantly being negative about their own achievements or making friends feel bad for succeeding, it creates distance," Petrin says. "When you're no longer holding each other back, everyone can improve."

3. Use It

Use your jealousy as motivation. Photo by Hector Gamboa, Courtesy Petrin

Acting on jealousy can be a problem—if your response is to say nasty things about your peers or to engage in sabotaging behavior. But there are also ways to use envy for good. The key is to focus on yourself, instead of on those around you. "If someone is doing something well, and I think about how I might adopt some of that, that's motivating," Kaslow says. "If I'm so focused on them that I lose sight of myself, that's counterproductive."

To come up with a game plan, get specific. "Is what you're jealous about something you can fix?" asks Petrin's choreography partner and fellow teacher Mandy Korpinen. You may not be able to change how you're built—or what a choreographer is looking for—but you can improve your strength, flexibility, stamina and work ethic.

Of course, there's a delicate balance between homing in on your growth and beating yourself up. If you have a tendency toward self-criticism, find ways to boost your spirits. "One of my teachers growing up made me write three things I was good at on the mirror in my room," says Korpinen, "so every morning I was reminded of my strengths."

Popular

Allow me to start with a question.

In the average graduating class of any dance program (in styles that use pirouettes), how many of the graduates can do a quadruple, clean, controlled, pirouette with consistency? Forty percent? Fifty? Seventy percent? Think carefully before you answer.

Keep reading... Show less
News
The company is searching for an artistic director who is "humane"—and who might not be a choreographer. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Ever since Peter Martins retired from New York City Ballet this January amid an investigation into sexual harassment and abuse allegations, we've been speculating about who might take his place—and how the role of ballet master in chief might be transformed.

Until now, we've only known a bit about what the search for a new leader looks like. But yesterday, The New York Times reported that the company has released a job description for the position. Though the full posting isn't available to the public, here's what we're able to discern about the new leader and what this means for the future of NYCB:

Keep reading... Show less
25 to Watch
Yeman Brown in Reggie Wilson's Citizen. Photo by Aitor Mendilibar, Courtesy Brown

It's no wonder Yeman Brown was nominated for a 2017 Outstanding Performer Bessie for his performance in Reggie Wilson's Citizen. Amidst the marathon of broken-up solos, Brown flies through the lightning-fast choreography. His movement is both gestural and athletic—not to mention deeply poetic—and is driven by a particular force which exudes a matter-of-fact command of the stage.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan (at right) sang and danced as Maria in Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

When Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan was 5 years old, her mother took her to a Pennsylvania Ballet production of Swan Lake. "One day, you'll be a ballerina," her mother said. Ryan replied, "I already am one." Even at that age, Ryan was confident about her future; with good reason, it turns out. Sixteen years later, she's starting her third season at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Though still a corps member, she's already danced Sugar Plum Fairy, featured roles in Crystal Pite's Emergence and William Forsythe's New Suite, and the pas de deux in Balanchine's "Rubies."

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Why yes, we did just photoshop Jennifer Garner's head onto our 2017 cover with Isabella Boylston.

In case you missed it, our favorite actress/dance fangirl Jennifer Garner hit the studio this weekend to brush up on her technique (stars, they really are just like us). And the end result might be even better than Garner's #TutuTuesday posts. At the request of American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, Garner took to her Instagram story to participate in Lil Buck's #GoinInCirclesChallenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance on Broadway
Christopher Gattelli's Broadway choreography, here in My Fair Lady, is rooted in moving the story forward. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy Lincoln Center Theatre.

The 20-somethings doing Broadway Dance Lab's first-ever Choreography Summer Intensive ended their recent tour of Lincoln Center's New York Public Library for the Performing Arts with something special. In the seminar room, Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli awaited them with a conference table laden with Broadway treasures from the library's collection. Decades-old original sketches and black-and-white production photos from My Fair Lady, The King and I and South Pacific served as visual aids for Gattelli's discussion of these shows' Lincoln Center Theater revivals, as well as My Fair Lady's 2016 60th-anniversary production at the Sydney Opera House, directed by the original Eliza, Julie Andrews.


Prodded by BDL founder Josh Prince, Gattelli talked about tackling those three musical theater classics and the art of Broadway choreography in general. Here are some highlights, edited and annotated for clarity.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Recovery doesn't always follow your ideal timeline. Photo by Jairo Alzate/Unsplash

You've rested and rehabilitated. But what if an injury still bothers you? Health-care professionals share eight reasons dancers might heal more slowly than expected.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
All hail Queen Marianela. Photo by Laura Gallant

After 20 years at The Royal Ballet, Marianela Nuñez has more than a few words of wisdom to share. As writer Lyndsey Winship points out in our September cover story, over the past two decades Nuñez has never missed a season, and never once had a serious injury. She's stayed with the company through four directors, rising through the ranks to become its star.

So what's the secret of her staying power?

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
A successful career takes more than great technique. Photo by Thinkstock

Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.

"You may have the best teacher in the world and the best work ethic and be so committed, and still not make it," says YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev. "I have seen so many extremely talented dancers end up not having enough moti­vation and mental strength, not having the right body type, not getting into the right company at the right time or getting injured at the wrong moment. You need so many factors, and some of these are out of your hands."

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Instagram tags don't pay the bills. Photo by Andrei Lazarev/Unsplash

Earlier this week, a friend of a friend reached out to me seeking recommendations for a dancer/choreographer to hire. She wanted someone who could perform a solo and talk about their process for an arts-appreciation club. After a few emails back and forth, as I was trying to find out exactly what kind of choreographer she was looking for, it eventually emerged that she was not looking to pay this person.

"We are hoping to find someone who would be willing to participate in exchange for the exposure," she wrote.

Why do people think this is an okay thing to ask for?

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
via capezio.com

Time for a quick pop quiz: What does "BTS" stand for?

A. Back To the Studio

B. Behind The Scenes

C. Back To School

D. Back To Shopping

Answer: All of the above! We've searched far and wide to round up a trio of blockbusting BTS online sales that you won't want to miss. Ready, set, stock up on everything you'll need for the 2018–2019 year of dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
It doesn't have to be diagnosable by the DSM-5 to be dangerous to your health. Photo by Dominik Martin/Unsplash

When the cat food started smelling good, I knew I had a problem.

I'd always considered eating disorders to be extreme. Someone who never eats. Someone who weighs less than 100 pounds. Someone who gets hospitalized.

My behavior didn't fit the mental health definition of an eating disorder. I ignored it because I didn't know how to articulate it. It took me several years after the cat food smelled good to have the language to describe what was going on.

Keep reading... Show less
News
MOMIX dancers in "Marigolds." Photo by Max Pucciarello, courtesy of MOMIX.

For most dancers, the costumes act as the finishing touch. At MOMIX, however, the costumes are just the starting point. In order for the company of dancer-illusionists to become marigolds or stars onstage, founder and artistic director Moses Pendleton sets his movement to the costumes (designed by Phoebe Katzin), letting the sometimes-unconventional designs shape the finished piece.

So, what's it like working on a piece like Paper Trails, where the dancers are costumed in paper that later transforms into a 12-foot dress? We spoke with Pendleton and MOMIX dance captain Sarah Nachbauer to learn all of the details of how they get their concepts from the studio to the stage—and all of the costume mishaps in between.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
As director/performer Julie Gautier's AMA is shared and reshared by video aggregators on social media, the late choreographer Ophélie Longuet has been largely uncredited.

Viral dance videos can be refreshingly surprising: You're scrolling through your Facebook feed, and suddenly a clip flashes by—maybe it's a ballerina's dizzying string of fouettés, a b-boy deftly spinning on his head or flamenco dancers in a fashion show. These days, it seems like movement-driven video snippets are being shared by fellow dancers and non-dance friends alike.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Misty Copeland in Dying Swan, photo by Karolina Kuras, via Instagram

Last night, Misty Copeland posted a call to action in a pair of Instagram posts, calling for her followers to share the names of African-American ballerinas.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
David Hallberg wants to give choreographers a place to experiment. Photo by Patrick Frenette, courtesy ABT

The Metropolitan Opera House is a stadium; an ornately lush stadium, but one nonetheless. The 3,800-seat challenge that American Ballet Theatre readily tackles is typically filled to capacity because of the stalwarts: Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, the classics that, without doubt, have stood the test of time and have brought people in droves to the Met.

A new commission is a risk best handled by the choreographers who can produce works that offer seasoned polish and dependability. Rarely is it given to an "unknown." And although, in the history of large commissions, there inevitably exists a freedom of creative impulse, that freedom must not reach too deep, for the fall off the cliff is steep and far. There is simply too much at stake: time, money, reputation.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Sponsored

Viral Videos

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways