Posted by Rebecca King on 03.12.2011
I have recently received a well thought out list of questions from a great lover of ballet. This man often comes to Miami City Ballet performances; by often, I mean he never misses a program, and generally attends more than one show each weekend. He has a wonderful appreciation for what we do, and has a great understanding of the ballets we perform.
Because his questions are so wonderful, I have decided to create a new series called, “Questions With Bart.” The first installment starts now!
Corps de Ballet dancers often find themselves with down time on stage; some ballets less than others. For example, in ballets like Don Quixote or Romeo and Juliet, the corps members are often towns folk who are engaged in what is happening on stage and reacting accordingly. This leaves the dancers with a lot of artistic freedom. As a result it is really easy to stay in character.
Other ballets, like Giselle’s Willi section, Swan Lake, etc., are not quite that way. These are the moments when the corps dancers stand in a solitary pose for an extended amount of time.
For these more stationary moments, many things are going through the dancer’s heads. First, they are probably in some sort of discomfort that they are trying not to convey to the audience. Though you may not expect it, standing very still on one leg after dancing, can be very uncomfortable! Often it causes the arch of your foot and your calf to cramp. For me, Balanchine’s Swan Lake sticks out in my memory as the most painful, followed by Concerto Barrocco.
I never mind standing on the side as long as I can watch what is happening. That is always a welcome distraction that allows me to focus on the beautiful dancing of my colleagues, making it easier to stay “in” the ballet. However there are some ballets, such as Giselle and Swan Lake where the corps are often facing front or turning their heads away from the “action”. In these instances, many things are going through the dancer’s heads. We often look for ways to distract ourselves, which sometimes can include creating mental grocery and to-do lists, singing the alphabet backwards, practicing vocabulary in different languages…
Obviously, it becomes a challenge to maintain your “presence” onstage. Corps dancers are a very important part of the ballet, even if they feel as if they are just serving the purpose of so-called “human-scenery”. They are part of the picture, and part of the experience for the audience.
My biggest challenge in this area is remaining engaged towards the end of a program run. At this point, the ballets no longer feel new and exciting to the dancers, and it can be even easier to lose focus. Nutcracker is the perfect example. We do about 20 shows every year and many of us have done countless shows across our careers and childhoods. But we need to keep in mind that there are people in the audience who are seeing it for the first time! It needs to be fresh for them!
For example, the party scene in Nutcracker can become very dull if the dancers look bored. So we develop story lines to keep our parent characters engaged during the show. For example, sometimes a wife is having an affair with another man at the party. Or other times, two women may be gossiping about the host couple’s misbehaving children. We also create “themes” for other dances in Nutcracker. For example for Waltz of the Flowers we may do a “Bendy Flowers”, where we all add extra upper body bending into the choreography. Or “First Snow-Fall of the Season”, when we all feel an extra sense of wonder and excitement when we see the snow falling on the stage. These sorts of tricks allow us to bring new life to choreography that we could do in our sleep.
I think each dancer needs to find their own trick for saying engaged during these moments. As with anything else, this sort of stage presence may come more naturally to some than to others. I think it is most important to acknowledge if this is a challenge for you, and focus on keeping your character throughout downtime on stage.
Stay tuned for more “Questions with Bart”!