The Mirror Mystique

November 10, 2011

Allegra Kent muses on the mirror as both friend and foe.

New York City Ballet’s Janie Taylor and Craig Hall in Robbins’
Afternoon of a Faun. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

When a dancer walks into a rehearsal room, wall-to-wall mirrors are nearly always present and can serve as an immediate reference point as to one’s appearance. In effect, the mirror acts like a second self, obligingly answering questions. “Do I look alright?”  “Yes.”

In the famous fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the evil queen questions her mirror and it answers honestly. During class or a practice session, a dancer might ask, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, Am I dancing well at all?”  “Are you accusing me, or am I accusing myself?”  “Am I too enveloped in your appraisal?”

When did mirrors become so important in ballet? Probably in the earliest days of classical dance, when it was performed by nobility. From the beginning, the mirror has been a device to affirm identity and authority—and, of course, it is an indisputable costume consultant. It may have evolved from these early beginnings with a little jump—perhaps an entrechat—to become an alluring technical assistant. Martha Graham liked mirrors, Paul Taylor doesn’t. Actors and musicians don’t use mirrors; dancers, costume designers, and painters do. Think of a great self-portrait—an image that seems to move and breathe and achieve another physical reality. Dancers are the choreographer’s paint.

After joining New York City Ballet at age 15, my first assignment was to dance in the corps de ballet of the second movement of Balanchine’s Symphony in C. I had never performed onstage at all. I had three sessions to learn the steps in a room without a mirror and one rehearsal for placement onstage. During the performance, the bewildering dark fog of City Center and the glaring stage lights were disconcerting: I felt off-balance. My theatrical innocence was detrimental. I couldn’t place myself in this foreign territory. Later, I discovered the kindness of the stage—the mirror wasn’t there.

I asked the mirror questions, and history answers: When Balanchine was creating the leading role Anna II for me in The Seven Deadly Sins, I became his mirror. I centered my focus on him, learning the choreography, perceiving the emotions of my character, and feeling the pulling pulse of his rhythm. While rehearsing with him, I occasionally gave a quick glance forward to see if our reflections were in sync, checking form, shape, and intent. Of course, additional rehearsals would refine and perfect the movement, but these initial choreographic moments were sublime. The mirror was my friend.

Experiences abound. I loved being an understudy for the last pas de deux in Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. I stood in the back of the room and saw everything—Mr. B, Violette Verdy, and Conrad Ludlow at work. I could detect the electrical current of their beating hearts. At times, being very far from the front of the studio was my desired location. I wasn’t actually looking at myself in the mirror, but it was a presence enlarging the space of creativity. The surface became a distant audience; I was the stagehand.

In 1949, Bronislava Nijinska moved from her regular ballet studio in Los Angeles to a carpenters’ union hall. At the beginning of each class, her husband and the pianist propped up a single framed mirror against the wall. Every­thing she presented to her students from the first pliés onward came from a very deep place within her. I believe the mirror didn’t affect her one way or the other. (The only thing that disturbed her was if one of the mothers was chewing gum.) In these classes, I tried never to look at my reflection, but occasionally I caught a fleeting, distorted figure leaping in lively fashion from one corner of the room to another. This formidable teacher was my inspiration.

Yet my beloved teacher at the School of American Ballet, Felia Doubrovska, used the mirror as a teaching tool. She used to say, “I have eyes in the back of my head,” and she did. Whenever she faced forward, she looked toward the mirror, to see if her corrections and her impeccable style had been absorbed by her students.

Every dancer has her or his own approach. I remember when Violette did her own barre in the practice room of the New York State Theater: She used to wear multiple layers of warm apparel. She was thinking of her muscles and was acting like a cook who wasn’t quite ready. A few more ronds de jambes and a few more leg warmers, and the dish will be juste à pointe. Violette knew who she was—the mirror was superfluous.

Recently, I spoke to Justin Peck, a dancer in the New York City Ballet and the new resident choreographer at the New York Choreographic Institute. Justin, who started dancing late, at 13, said, “I found the mirror a way to self-correct certain aspects of dancing, like the spot of the head in pirouettes. When I choreographed my second piece, Enjoy Your Rabbit, for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative, I found it a struggle: I was simultaneously dancing in it, choreographing it, looking in the mirror, and partnering my ballerina, Teresa Reichlen. I was multi-tasking. Artistically, this was very challenging.”

Justin pointed out that mirrors can be a source of inspiration for choreographers. In Christopher Wheeldon’s Scènes de Ballet, an imaginary mirror diagonally divides the stage into two uneven spaces. There is a moment in this piece when a very young dancer looks into the mirror and sees her future as a ballerina dancing in a pas de deux. “The effect,” he says, “is extraordinary.”

Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun (1953) tells of an encounter between two young dancers. Their first awareness of each other’s presence is when their eyes meet in the mirror of the studio, where both have come to practice alone. As attraction builds during their pas de deux, they find the most comfortable area to carry forward their relationship is in and through the mirror. On the stage itself, there is no mirror—it’s the fourth wall.

When I rehearsed Faun with Jerry in the 1950s, he corrected every second of my focus, facial expressions, and movement. I found Faun was easier to perform onstage than in the practice room. Working with him was difficult, because he was a perfectionist.

In contrast, NYCB principal Janie Taylor told me that she learned Faun from ballet master Victor Castelli. “Victor felt strongly about my being natural. Faun is different from other ballets because you are dancing as if the audience isn’t really there. I found it easier to do in the practice room because it’s really so natural for dancers to look at themselves in the mirror. For me, the stage performance was harder because the mirror was gone. During performance, I tried to imagine seeing myself because I knew the choreography so well. It’s like a typical dancer coming into a classroom, fixing her costume, and trying out a few steps to see how they look.”

Janie continued, “When I take class I often look at myself in profile to see details—for instance, is my fifth position closed? The mirror helps me correct myself accurately. A lot of dancing is muscle memory, and when I feel I’m in the right position, I check the mirror and then memorize that feeling in my body.”

Edward Villella, founding artistic director of the Miami City Ballet and former NYCB principal dancer, had this to say: “Mirrors have an amazing impor­tance for dancers. Obviously, we can adjust our positions and see how we are moving in relation to time, space, and certainly to music. But the mirror can become complicated when people get lost in it. They will just look in the mirror and their entire attention is there, and they stop dancing. They basically become mirror observers. My biggest concern is when a dancer concentrates on a specific part of the body, let’s say the legs and feet, and they don’t pay attention to the upper body—port de bras and hands. So we have to be hypersensitive about its use. So, in rehearsals, I watch every detail.”

Yes, dancers yearn to be perfect, and mirrors are seductive. But when the curtain goes up, the classroom melts away. Dancers must go through the looking glass to give an ecstatic, fully realized performance.

Allegra Kent, a former principal of NYCB, is the author of an autobiography,
Once a Dancer.

Inset: Allegra Kent and Jacques d’Amboise in Balanchine’s
Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Fred Fehl, DM Archives, ©Balanchine Trust; Violette Verdy and Edward Villella in Balanchine’s Electronics (1961). Photo by Martha Swope ©New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, DM Archives, ©Balanchine Trust; Justin Peck while choreographing. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy NYCB.