When Onstage Nightmares Come True
Every dancer has bad performances. But what do you do when your worst fears—forgetting choreography, running into the scrim, falling feet over tutu—come true in front of a packed house? Six dancers reveal some of their worst moments, and how they’ve learned to let them go.
Alonzo King LINES Ballet
Worst performance: I once fell face down in a solo when I was with Victor Ullate Ballet in Madrid. I could hear the audience gasp. I was mortified, but had to just swallow my ego and keep dancing.
How long do you let yourself “mourn”? It actually takes a lot of energy to feel bad. I let myself wallow for the night. The next day I get a game plan going: I’ll look at the steps, maybe with my partner, and try to rethink the approach. We all try to support each other in LINES, so if I’m helping someone else, I won’t have time to dwell on myself.
What do you tell yourself when things go wrong? Sometimes at intermission I literally have to say, “This is a new evening.” I try to trick myself into starting over. Because if I don’t, it’s almost unfair to the rest of the dancing I have to do.
The benefit of failure: You grow from the tough stuff. It’s like eating your greens. Knowing that mistakes have helped me get wiser in my dancing has helped me to not be afraid of them.
Wilkes with Robb Beresford in Alonzo King’s Writing Ground. Photo by Margo Moritz, Courtesy LINES.
Worst performance: I was a swing in Billy Elliot, and one night I was in for the older Billy track. There’s a part where young Billy flies on a wire in a circle around the stage, and older Billy catches him. But I didn’t catch him...and he kept on flying.
How often do you leave a show dissatisfied? When I first started performing professionally, it was a few times a week. If a line didn’t get as big of a laugh, or if a lift didn’t go as high, or if I was off my leg in a turn. Silly stuff that only dancers worry about. But I’ve learned to laugh about it. If I know that I tried my best, there’s no point in being down.
Coping methods: I curse, but in my head. Having that negative energy backstage is dangerous. If I’m having negative feelings I try to keep them in until I leave the theater. Then I talk about it with friends who aren’t performers—it takes you out of it even more.
How long do you let yourself “mourn”? Five minutes. I think it’s important, if you do feel upset, to give yourself a moment to recognize that something went wrong, and process it.
Steele in Newsies. Photo by Deen Van Meer, Courtesy Disney.
American Ballet Theatre
Worst performance: In my premiere of Gamzatti in Bayadère at the Kennedy Center, I fell in the fouettés—feet over my head in a tutu—and sprained my ankle. I was still a new soloist, so I was really determined to finish, and I did. But had I known that injury was going to put me out...
Most upsetting: What’s hardest for me is if I feel like I’m not 100 percent present. When I was younger, I would critique myself while I was dancing: “You’re not convincing” or “That wasn’t good.” By constantly self-criticizing myself onstage, I was making it impossible for me to be in the moment.
The after-effect: I usually have a really hard time sleeping after a show because I’m replaying it like a movie in my mind. I can recall every detail—what worked, what didn’t, what I want to change, what I need to work on.
Confidant: I rely on my coach, Irina Kolpakova, so much. She’s Russian, so it’s always like, ‘Oh, that was a little better,’ not ‘Oh, great job!’ She always tells you that you could do more, and that’s great because you never want to stagnate.
How long do you let yourself “mourn”? It can last for a couple of days if you don’t snap out of it. I’ve definitely had shows where I woke up the next morning with a knot in my stomach. But, especially when you’re in season, you have so many performances that you have to give yourself a bad show once in a while. You’re not a machine. Usually the most exciting performers are the ones who aren’t perfect all the time.
Boylston as Odette. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
Worst performance: I once got sick during a run of Lar Lubovitch’s Othello, and was off my legs the whole show. I even did a grand jeté down to a crouch, and had to put my hand down.
Most upsetting: If I blow something in the partnering, because I’m responsible for someone else. Even if she had a mistake and I wasn’t there to fix it, it will upset me.
The after-effect: I’ll watch the video, like basketball players do. People say, “Dylan’s at the video again.”
How often do you leave a show dissatisfied? Not often. I’ll usually question things, but I try to have a short memory about it. You have to forgive yourself—what we do is really hard!
What do you tell yourself when things go wrong? “The audience will forget if I forget.” Most of the time onstage you’re playing a human, and humans make mistakes.
Gutierrez as Othello. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Worst performance: I fell off the stage once. In the moment, I was like an animal in survival mode—I jumped right back up, and the audience gave a big bravo. After the show, I was bawling. I didn’t want to see anybody.
Moving on: The day after I fell off the stage, I had to put it behind me and know it was a new audience. I told myself, “Nobody knows about it but your co-workers—who will probably make fun of you for the rest of your life!”
Coping methods: Sometimes I go to martial arts practice and let that energy out. Yoga and listening to music also help me re-center.
What do you tell yourself when things go wrong? “Let it goooo, let it goooo...Work on it tomorrow.”
Jimbo (right) with Manelich Minniefee in Skyscrapers. Photo by Grant Halverson, Courtesy Pilobolus.
The Forsythe Company
Worst performance: I try not to judge a performance as “good” or “bad.” Really crazy mishaps like falling down or running into something are usually the result of excitement or anxiety or a stage that’s a different shape, so I tend to excuse things like that.
Have you always felt so resilient? There were times early in my career when I just mulled and mulled about how bad a performance was. But I realized that the idea of perfection was the thing that was making me feel like I failed. I had to get rid of that idea of a right or wrong. Otherwise, I would never enjoy a performance.
Do you ever leave a show dissatisfied? Afterward, when I’m changing or showering, I give myself time to reflect back on what happened. But I try to keep it from affecting me too much negatively, or even positively, in a very emotional way. Art is subjective, so the way I feel about something could be completely different from the way an audience member feels. You can’t really control it.
What makes a show successful to you? The most successful thing I can do in a performance is to be true to myself onstage. Jim Carrey said, “Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. Risk being seen in all of your glory.” I think that’s a pretty cool thing to try to do as a dancer. What does it mean to risk being seen in all of your glory? You could fall down. You could blank out or mess up. But that is your individuality.
Chiaverini with Janna Diamond in Shannon Gillen’s Clap for the Wolfman. Photo by Corrine Furman, Courtesy Chiaverini.
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.
Say you're perpetually impeccable designer Thom Browne. Say you're planning your Spring 2020 Paris menswear show along a "Versailles country club" theme. Say you want a world-class danseur to open the show with some kind of appropriately fabulous choreography.
Who do you call? James Whiteside, of course. On Saturday, the American Ballet Theatre principal—wearing pointe shoes and a glorious pinstriped tutu—kicked off Browne's presentation at the École des Beaux-Arts with a 15-minute, show-stealing solo. Whiteside choreographed the piece himself, with the help of detailed notes from the designer.
I'd been a professional dancer for five years when I realized the pain I'd been feeling in my hip and down my sciatic nerve was not going away. I had been treating it for two years as we dancers do—with regular visits to my masseuse, physical therapy, baths, ice and lots of Aleve—but I never stopped dancing. It finally dawned on me that if I kept going at the speed I was going (which was, well, speedy), the pain would only get more severe and unrelenting, and I might never dance again.
I told myself I'd take two months off, and all would be better.
That first morning when I woke up at 10 am, I had no idea what to do with myself. My life until that moment had been dictated by class and rehearsal, every hour accounted for. How should I fill the huge swath of time ahead of me?