Encompassing the Role of Sleepwalker.

Posted by on 01.20.2011

A couple weeks ago I received a question on my Tumblr about the challenges faced by the ballerinas who dance the Sleepwalker in George Balanchine’s La Sonnambula.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the ballet, the Sleepwalker catches the attention of the principal man (The Poet) as she enters the stage.  This woman wanders around her husband’s mansion like a ghost, entranced, with her hair down and a lit candle in hand. The man begins to dance with the Sleepwalker and attempts to wake her, but to no avail.  This role is very complex, not to mention technically difficult.

So in order to better understand what goes into this role, I asked one of the ballerinas who first performed this role last weekend in Broward Center for the Performing Arts, MCB Soloist Jennifer Lauren.  I sat down with her today to chat about her experience in this role.

Shoes. Choosing the right shoes for a performance is a must for every dancer.  One must think about the kind of steps they will be doing, in order to determine how they want the shoes to function for a particular role.  I asked Jennifer about the shoes she chose for the Sleepwalker, as the choreography has her on her toes the majority of time she is onstage.  To my surprise, she told me she chose soft shoes, both in the box (the tip of the shoe) and the shank (the sole of the shoe).  “I didn’t want my shoes to make noise when I danced.”

Jennifer as The Sleepwalker
Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty

Hair. Ballet dancers mostly dance with their hair pulled up tight, out of their face, however Balanchine loved women’s hair, and in many instances asked his ballerinas to wear their hair loose.  The role of the Sleepwalker calls for hair to be worn down, which adds so much to the choreography.  As Jennifer will tell you, she has a lot of hair, so she had to find a way to make sure that she didn’t have to worry about it.  After experimenting with different products and procedures, she found what worked best for her.

She told me she had been rehearsing the part with her hair down since day one, so at this point, it feels natural to her.  She said, “Having loose hair really makes the part.  The Sleepwalker is feminine and real.  She emerges onto the stage with just a nightgown and her hair down.  She is raw.”

Expressions. Since the Sleepwalker is, well, asleep, the dancer’s eyes need to appear to be unfocused.  To me, I would think this would be a huge challenge, so I asked Jennifer about it.  She told me that she was aiming for her eyes to portray a glassy look, where it seems like she is not seeing with her eyes, but rather with her body.  And yes, she does find it a challenge, “Sometimes I think my contacts will fall out, they get so dry!”

Coaching: Allegra Kent is best known for her interpretation of the Sleepwalker and came to Miami City Ballet studios earlier in the season to work with our dancers who were learning this role.  I asked Jennifer what kind of things Ms. Kent had to say during rehearsals.

“Your arms and feet are your feelers.”  The dancer should not appear to be seeing through her eyes, so she uses her extremities to find her way.  Her arms are never by her side, but always extended as if searching for something.  When the Sleepwalker first enters, she is feeling more “guarded” so she holds her arms further away from her not allowing the Poet into her aura.  As she begins to feel more comfortable she brings her arms in more, closing the space between her and her suitor.

Though the Sleepwalker is asleep, Ms. Kent told the ladies that they can react to their surroundings.  For example, in the first entrance, the ballerina glides on pointe back and fourth across the stage, ending abruptly in a pose in the corner of downstage right.  Upon learning the choreography, the women all ended this pose with their bodies extended slightly forward.  Ms. Kent told them that, in fact, they should do the opposite.  Since the Poet is standing behind the ballerina watching her, the ladies should be leaning a bit more back, as if to sense his presence and react to his gaze.

Jennifer commented on what it was like to watch Ms. Kent illustrate the movements during rehearsals; “She has a very unique way of portraying the character.  It was her part; she did it for many years and was known for her interpretation.  It was particularly wonderful to watch her expressions as she demonstrated.”  Jennifer told me that Ms. Kent really stressed the individuality of each dancer.  “When she was giving corrections, she would take the dancer’s natural tendencies and build upon them.  She would never say, ‘Do it just like this.’  She wanted us all to add a little bit of ourselves to the role.”

Worries. There are many moments in this ballet that are challenging for the Sleepwalker.  I know if it were me, I would have many things to worry about before a performance.  So I asked Jennifer what parts gave her the most anxiety before her first show last Saturday.  There is one part in the choreography where the Sleepwalker does a series of four arabesques on pointe; one to the audience, one to the right, to the back, and to the left.  Changing directions like this can become very disorienting on stage, even if you are not acting like you are asleep.  “You can’t allow your eyes to focus like you normally do when you dance.” The music in this moment is also very slow, causing the ballerina to have to be very controlled.

The Sleepwalker enters and exits from a doorway in the scenery, which proves to be Jennifer’s next source for concern.  There is a slight ramp that leads up to the doorway.  The Sleepwalker enters on pointe down the ramp and exits moving backward, on pointe, up the ramp.  Jennifer said, “It is really important for me to make my entrances and exits smooth, and that is not something that we can really rehearse except on stage.”

The most well-known moment from this ballet is perhaps the very end, when the Sleepwalker carries off the Poet’s dead body backwards disappearing into the scenery.  This is of course, another unique challenge that comes with the part.  Four soloist men place the Poet’s body into the Sleepwalkers arms in a sort of fireman’s lift.  “It depends a lot on how the men place his body into my arms.  If he is too far to one side, I will have to take a step to adjust once I am holding him.  It is a challenge to get it just right.”  I asked her if her Poet, Reyneris Reyes, is able to help her at all.  “Yes, he holds on and pushes down on me, so I am carrying his weight over my upper body, rather than with my arms.”

Jennifer in The Sleepwalker
Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty

The ending. The ending of this ballet is very powerful, even “creepy” as Jennifer describes.  After the Poet dies, the Sleepwalker enters,”She knows that something is wrong.  She walks around his body searching for something.”  When she reaches the body she stops abruptly. She immediately knows what happened.  “Allegra told us when we stop at his body, we should seem as if we are feeling the same stab wound that killed him.”  The Sleepwalker then plies while bending back and rolling her head around.  “This head roll is her crying, her mourning over his death.”  She then proceeds to take a few steps straight forward looking eerily at the audience (the moment shown in the above photo). “Balanchine created a powerful moment with the slow steps toward the audience.  It really touches the audience.”

I want to extend a special thanks to Ms. Jennifer Lauren for taking a moment to talk with me.  (And for those of you who were wondering, her performance of the Sleepwalker last weekend was stunning.  We were all breathless in the wings.)  Photos have been brought to you by fellow Miami City Ballet dancer Leigh-Ann Esty, who took these gorgeous shots from the wings last Saturday night.

4 Comments

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  2. I just love this post. I'm curious though- do you know exactly what shoe she chose, aside from it being "soft" to avoid noise?

  3. I saw the performance last Saturday night at the BCPA. It was breathtaking, such a beautiful performance!

  4. Rebecca, this is another excellent interview. I didn't realize that ballerinas wore different shoes that varied in hardness. I just thought that they were dyed to match the costume, but otherwise the same.

    I would think the unfocused eyes would be extremely difficult. It is a natural for me because I don't have a clue what I'm doing, but the girls in class are usually very focused.

    I noticed in one of the Balanchine ballets I saw that the hair was down as well. I didn't realize it was one of his elements.

    It is also nice to see that you are using your fellow dancers for photographs.

    I look forward to reading your blog posts and you haven't let me down with this one. Thank you.

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