Stage Makeup

October 31, 2007

Like the satin of new pointe shoes or a flaming Firebird costume, makeup helps create stage magic. From flesh-toned innocence to provocative, kohl-lined eyes, it can enhance natural features or transform a woman into a fantastical creature. Even though the effect is undeniable, the steps between mirror and stage are often glossed over, as habit trumps glamour. But would a performance be complete without the touches of lashes and lipstick?


Most dancers would say no. Samantha Klanac of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet puts it this way: “After rehearsing all day, putting on your makeup refreshes you and fires up that adrenaline for performance. It is the first notice that performance is on its way—and your body knows it.”

The Foundation

For a solid underpinning, follow these steps. Moisturize your face (use an oil-free moisturizer for acne-prone skin, a thicker one for dry skin) immediately after washing so that the makeup floats on the surface instead of settling into crevices. Then apply a base (MAC and Makeup Center versions are popular) over the entire face, neck, and upper-chest with a sponge or brush followed by translucent or neutral-tone powder to set the foundation. Make sure you blend the base without harsh lines. Next, sweep blush on your cheek apples and dust powder on the jawbone, temples, and high forehead to contour bone structure.


From this clean canvas, you can now accentuate your features. Highlight directly below the eyebrow with a white shadow followed by a deep brown (or purple, grey, etc.) on the mid-lid and crease. Then add a lighter brown on the lid from the crease to the upper lash. Draw a thick black line (with pencil, gel, or liquid liner) along the lash line, following the natural shape of your eye and extend it just past the eye. Coat your eyelashes with mascara before (yes, before!) you apply false lashes. A second coat of mascara will bond the two layers together. Fill in brow hairs with brown or black brow powder, shaping as you go. Complete the picture with a plum-red lipstick and a neutral-tone lip liner.

Varying Shades

Although many dancers use some version of this routine, each may also have a unique regimen. For traditional contouring, brown streaks highlight the bones (cheekbones, jawbone, temples) so that the audiences in larger houses can discern features. This is also beneficial for performers with smaller, receding features.


However Valerie Madonia, a freelance dancer formerly with American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, and Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet, says, “When I was younger I contoured from my brow line down the bridge of my wide nose on each side to try to thin it. But as I have gotten older and gotten more feedback, I don’t think that the contours are really noticeable by anyone past the third row. The approach that I have embraced is rather than trying to change the way you look, accentuate what you already have.”

Eye Variations

Many young dancers opt for the dramatic effect of the extended sideways “V” that continues far past the outer eye corner. Gillian Murphy, a principal with ABT, dislikes that overzealous liner. Instead she focuses on the eyebrows “because they really frame the face.” The shape you draw with a pencil or eyebrow shadow can influence and support your portrayal of a character.


And then there is the issue of false eyelashes. With widening and brightening effects, they are favored as a quick way to make the eyes pop. However, messy glue and tricky application can be annoying. Miho Morinoue, a freelance dancer formerly with Complexions, says, “Eyelashes make your eyes look great, but they hinder my eyesight.”


Many dancers brave the downsides to achieve a more glamorous visage. To optimize the effect of those extra lashes, Madonia recommends that dancers put a small gob of glue on the back of the hand and gently swipe the lash edge through it so you get a minimal amount on the lash. As you apply from the inside of the top lid out, place the outer edge of the lash in a straight line instead of on the natural slope (as you might assume), and leave a little space between the lash and your real lash line. Fill in that gap with black liner. “This,” says Madonia, “makes your eye look incredibly wide.”

And for the Guys

For Uri Sands, formerly of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and now co-artistic director of TU Dance in Minneapolis, his approach has been gleaned from snippets (instead of reams) of advice and by observing the women around him. “As a man, I am not extravagant,” he says. “But even though it is minimal, makeup is essential preparation for performance. I learned my simple routine after Tracy Inman of Ailey took it upon himself to teach me. Other than that I just watch the ladies and sometimes borrow their products.”


He uses powder for a smooth base, eyeliner pencil and mascara on his eyebrows and mustache. “Even as a guy,” he says, “not wearing makeup would be like not wearing tights!”


Character Roles

While the basic routine might become rote, the occasional character role can reveal greasepaint’s magic. When Sands played a guru in Geoffrey Holder’s Prodigal Prince, he had to put on white face. “It was ghostly and eerie and really evoked the character,” he says.


Murphy also had to wear whiteface when she played a harlot in Romeo and Juliet, but to an entirely different effect. In order to project a vulgar, exhibitionist character—a far cry from Murphy’s own personality—the pale look was combined with exaggerated eyeliner, blush, and lipstick. “It made me more comfortable because it felt like I was wearing a mask in which to explore the character.”


Other types of makeup help Murphy adapt quickly from one role to another during ABT’s season. “When I play Juliet,” she says, “I wear a much softer, lighter lipstick than the bright, warm red which I use as Kitri in Don Q.”


Even for mild characters, makeup can add a layer of sugar to an already sweet role. Madonia adds purple sparkly shadow for Sugar Plum; Klanac uses glamorous pink tones for Trey McIntyre’s sexy loveCRAZY.


The Power of Powder Past the Footlights

Murphy points out that in a huge theater like the Metropolitan Opera House, makeup can illuminate facial expressions that might otherwise be washed out by the lights and distance. Since the main purpose of performing is to deliver the artistry past the apron lights to the audience, the trick is to be wise yet bold with your makeup choices.


“Without makeup I feel bare and less powerful,” says Madonia. “But once it is on, people can see me as vivid and present. And then I am the strongest version of myself.”

Lauren Kay is assistant editor at Dance Retailer News and a dancer and dramaturge.