Sparks and Slow Burns

April 30, 2015

The secrets of creating onstage chemistry

Kochetkova and Boada in
Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

As Lasha Khozashvili eases Lia Cirio down from a lift, the pair work out the exact angle of her hips. They try again and again, reading each other’s responses until they have it right. They’re rehearsing for their first Swan Lake as partners. But after four years of dancing together, these Boston Ballet principals have created what feels like an innate rapport. “I know her now like my 10 fingers,” Khozashvili says later. Cirio playfully interrupts him to add, “Sometimes we bicker like an old married couple.”

A successful dance partnership is not unlike a successful romantic relationship: It requires an intimate emotional process that involves caring, respect and trust. It also takes that ephemeral quality known as chemistry. “Chemistry can be that instant drawing together in a physical and an emotional way,” says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers. “It is a combination of biology and psychology.”

But in contrast to romance, dancers don’t typically get to choose the person with whom they have to connect. If that natural spark isn’t there, how can you nurture the kind of relationship that leads to transformation and spontaneity onstage?


Sync Up Your Styles

No matter how well you get along with your partner personally, whether you’re close friends or strangers, what’s most important is developing a sense of trust in each other as professionals. Amy Fote, ballet mistress at Ballet San Antonio, coaches this in her rehearsals through repetition and allowing for trial and error. “Once you know how to deal with the steps, as well as how your partner deals with them,” she says, “you can be more daring and go for it.

Being open to your partner’s learning process in the studio is key. “I am a dancer who likes to have time to work things out in the studio, not a big fan of going onstage unprepared,” says San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Maria Kochetkova. She and regular partner Joan Boada get extremely focused on the technical details whenever they’re paired together. “We try to make the technical aspect of the performance perfect so when we go onstage, we can just enjoy and be in the show.”

Cirio and Khozashvili in Petr Zuska’s
D.M.J. 1953–1977. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

When Fote observes two dancers struggling with different ways of moving, she tells them to go back to the music: “In order to move the same, you have to hear the music the same.” Take time to listen to the music together without dancing, making sure you are on the same page with counts, phrasing and interpretation.

And, of course, eye contact and acting also come into play. “Once you look at someone, things begin to be more natural,” says Fote. “It’s not a solo, so you have to ask ‘What are we trying to convey? Are there key words you could use to describe the feeling of the dance?’ For Black Swan it might be toying, tempting, sharp. These are tools that might help you feel and respond to your partner as a character more.” Talk through these concepts together after rehearsal; you can decide on key words together, or you might find that simply being clear about your character’s motivations is enough to send the right vibe during a pas de deux. Either way, communicating with your partner about ideas is as crucial to creating chemistry as giving each other feedback on technique.

Get To Know Each Other

Spending some time together outside of the studio can expedite a friendly rapport. Kaslow recommends that partners hang out and talk in a place where you both feel comfortable, and that’s likely to “loosen up a warmer side of yourself.” Taking a walk in a park can sometimes feel more casual if having dinner or a drink seems too stiff.

It can also be helpful to get to know the loved ones in your partner’s life. “Sometimes people are afraid to feel a spark with a partner because their romantic partner gets jealous,” says Kaslow. Getting together in groups can temper this mistrust and make everyone more comfortable. Understanding your partner as a human and finding a way to genuinely appreciate each other’s company can help bridge gaps that may occur when working through trouble spots in the studio.

If your partnership continues to struggle, Fote pragmatically recommends returning to the discipline of professionalism: “Just remember that you both have the same goal—it is simply your job to pay attention to the details and work for the best product.”

Collaborate Honestly

Nobody is perfect, so don’t expect your partner to be. In fact, struggling to get something right can often be the glue that brings two partners together. “When mistakes are made, that is when you are your most genuine, that is when you are alert and grow,” says Fote. “If something isn’t working, grab your partner after class to work on it again, or, better yet, swap partners with the second cast and see if there is anything new you can bring to each other that would be helpful.”

Try to switch your mindset from success-or-failure to viewing your partnership as an evolving collaboration. “If someone is easily offended, the process is not going to go anywhere,” says Kochetkova, who adds that one of the secrets to her and Boada’s success is being completely open with each other. However, people respond to feedback based on the manner in which it is given. Kaslow recommends bringing up suggestions or questions that apply to both of you in order to avoid blaming your partner. If there are language barriers, don’t be afraid to get hands on and experiment with demonstrating your thoughts. And if your partner’s feedback is overly harsh? Remind yourself that you both just want to create the best performance. Frustrations can run high, especially when two people are exhausted, so practicing patience with one another is essential.

Cirio and Khozashvili laugh at their misses in rehearsal, and their shared humor keeps the tone light even while working out some important notes. They tease each other about a missed moment of eye contact that made them both look like lost puppies instead of Siegfried and the Black Swan. They give each other nods of approval after nailing fouettés and a manège in the coda. “No matter what, I am always working for her,” says Khozashvili.

When you and your partner are able to enjoy your time with each other, it becomes something the audience will enjoy watching, too. Though there is an element of risk in truly opening yourself up to another person, the reward of a thrilling onstage relationship is worth it.

Candice Thompson is a former dancer and frequent contributor to
Dance Magazine.