The Eyes Have It

May 18, 2010

My debut with the New York City Ballet in 1953 was my first appearance ever onstage. A few hours before that performance at City Center, I tackled my face with newly bought makeup. Just as I had suspected, the most troublesome part proved to be my eyes. Still, I never thought to practice this skill beforehand. Panic ensued. The false eyelashes didn’t work. Liquid adhesive had its own will. Accidentally I glued one eye almost closed and pulled it open with sticky fingers. The corps girls sitting around me looked amused and sympathetic.


Barbara Walczak, on my right, suggested beading, and showed me how to do it. Melting black wax in a teaspoon over a match, she applied it to her eyelashes with a toothpick. This was fun—the process so arcane, so much black mud.


While studying other girls’ faces, I decided to put pure white on my eyelids. The result—Egyptian. I looked as if I were going to spend a night on the Nile instead of an evening in the corps de ballet of the second movement of Symphony in C. After the performance, Balanchine chose not to say a discouraging word. He sent the ballet mistress back to say that it was good. I don’t think he meant my makeup.


I did receive some input, but four years later. Maria Tallchief told me, “Your eyes look too round,” and my beloved teacher Felia Doubrovska, “Not enough rouge.” Later still Lincoln Kirstein told me, “Not too much makeup for Seven Deadly Sins.” And that was it.


Poets, artists, and children look into the eyes for emotional meaning. Babies stare into their mothers’ eyes. It’s one of their first major connections after the umbilical cord—their mirror into the world. Of course, the eyes don’t exist in isolation. In dance, they complete the line, the gesture, the tilt of the head, and the beauty of the musical phrase.


To learn more, I spoke to three dancers about their insights and discoveries.



Stella Abrera
Soloist, American Ballet Theatre

Alexei Ratmansky made Seven Sonatas on us. Learning the choreography and the music was the immediate challenge. Eye use came later as the story evolved.  This process made me dig deeply into myself. My pas de deux with Gennadi Saveliev was slow, beautiful, and heart-wrenching. It revealed the inner turmoil of the couple in a struggling relationship. Eye connection with my partner created the atmosphere, yet this is a plotless ballet. I use my eyes to exaggerate feelings and carry them across to the audience.


Ashton’s Birthday Offering, first performed in 1956, was recently staged at ABT. I was the understudy for the Margot Fonteyn role, and suddenly I had to do it. It was a magical time. I was super-happy. That night I shared my emotions with the audience. Christopher Carr, who staged the ballet, emphasized this thought: “Make your eyes sparkle.” His simple but inspired direction made me use my back differently. It made the space lighter. It changed my whole demeanor.


In MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, I was one of the harlots. Putting on the white face, the very bright cheeks, and the garish eyelines was so much fun. With this look, it was easy to flirt with the men and be angry at the women. When I played Lady Capulet, I had to look as mature and glamorous as possible. So I extended my eyes a little more and used two sets of eyelashes on each eye.


If you don’t use your eyes or your face when dancing, you might as well be sleepwalking. Focus is the most important part of expressing conviction. If you really believe in your dancing, it shows on your face and in your eyes.


When Megan Fairchild and I were in Hawaii alternating roles in The Nutcracker, we noticed stylistic differences in the makeup of our two companies, NYCB and ABT. The NYCB dancers use bolder eye shadow and darker lines. ABT dancers use a more natural look. Megan and I exchanged makeup every other night.


Annmaria Mazzini
Paul Taylor Dance Company

There are no mirrors in our studio, so right away we go with how it feels, not how it looks. When Paul starts a work, he’ll leave me alone and let me play and find my own way before he fills in exact eye usage. As the piece progresses, he starts to edit and zero in on specific eye advice. I follow the mood and the music and let them lead me. If I’m looking at the audience, it’s directly at them; if Paul feels that it’s too confrontational, his solution is to use the downcast gaze. I pick a spot on a diagonal in front of me. It’s an inward gaze.


In one section of Company B, there’s a duet with a couple facing each other but looking past each other—it’s a physically close, but emotionally distant, communication. It’s a living woman dancing with the ghost of a dead man. The music is the song “There Will Never Be Another You.”

In Changes, the audience is a character in the dance as well. The mood is more like a rock concert, and I enjoy finding someone in the audience to make eye contact with. This gives me the freedom to break the fourth wall.


In my paint box I have my blues, pinks, and purples. I just started using false eyelashes a few months ago. Some of the younger girls in the company showed me how. Paul said, “I think you’ll enjoy them.” I feel they open my eyes more—they certainly make me feel prettier and flirtier.

I love a duet in which you look in someone’s eyes. You can give him energy and he can give it back to you. Everyone in this company is so generous sharing energy—when to give, when to encourage. Eye contact is like breath: It connects you to the moment, the now. It lets you feel free and at your purest.


Sara Mearns
Principal dancer, New York City Ballet

Swan Lake
is my favorite ballet. I learned the dual role of Odette-Odile in three weeks when I was 19 and still in the corps. Merrill Ashley taught me all the steps. As far as eye use, I knew instinctively what I wanted to do. In the White Swan your eyes have to have a softer look—I don’t look at the Prince intentionally. In the Black Swan you make him look at you because you want something from him. There are different interpretations; I didn’t want to look mean, just tempting him. As soon as I’m out there, I stare him down. I don’t change my makeup from the White to the Black Swan, just my lip color. While dancing Swan Lake with Jared Angle, I really saw into him and he saw into me. It was a deep connection; we were really looking.


When I was an apprentice, Michael Avedon taught me everything I know about makeup. I still remember the smells of the makeup he used. He always went out front with his binoculars to look at our makeup.


With my green eyes, I use dark purple or blue mascara over my false eyelashes to emphasize my eye color. Because my actual eyes are relatively small, I try to make my eye shadow big. The ladies with bigger eyes, like Maria Kowroski, don’t need as much makeup—their eyes are already open.  I have fun in Brahms-Schoenberg. It’s so colorful—the costume, the gypsy character. I go wild. I want to reach to the back of the Fifth Ring. I take out my makeup box, not really planning anything. Using the inspiration of the moment, I put on all different shades of purple and hot pink. For the lower line I use black, then dark blue, and then purple on top—this opens up the eyes.


Makeup is a magical part of who you are. I feel beautiful when I go out there and my partner has something nice to look at.  When I take a bow, I try to find a particular face in the audience with my eyes and say “Thank you” with them.



After gathering these interviews, I think of the moment when the dancer is eye to eye with her own image in front of her makeup mirror. There she starts creating her self-portrait—a transformation that fuels her imagination and helps her give the performance she wants to give. Her real and theatrical selves merge and emerge. The audience anticipates magic, and their eyes will have it.



Tips from the experts


Michael Avedon, former makeup artist of the New York City Ballet

• Simplify what the audience sees of your beauty. Consider your own eyes from the front, three-quarters, and profile. If your face is narrow, open it up by pulling your eyes outward. Downplay your eyebrows to set the tone.

• Adapt to the theater. If there are no footlights, every detail is visible so don’t use heavy black lines; they are not expressive. With all top lights, shadows are emphasized, so apply less shading.


George Vargas, makeup artist for the Los Angeles Ballet and
The Addams Family

• Your makeup should be an organic exaggeration of yourself. Eyes should not look unnatural with lines that fly into outer space. Eyeliner is best in black or dark brown. The brow bone should be a darkish flesh tone with variations, creating a very visible eyelid. A wash of color can be used above the brow bone for a bit of fantasy.

• Eyelashes should not be a black curtain that veils your eyes. Light should go through them. Curl your lashes before applying the false ones. Use mascara at the tips to join your own eyelashes and the false ones.   

• If your costume or headpiece is very elaborate, adjust your eyes by making the lines bolder. The undereye line can have a touch of sepia, pink, or reddish tone.



Author of
Once a Dancer, Allegra Kent teaches ballet at Barnard College, Columbia University.



Pictured: Sara Mearns in
Swan Lake. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB