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ACTING FOR THE DANCER by Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen

November 15, 2011 Leave a comment

L'Academie Americaine de Dance de Paris -- Photo Credit: Vincent Desnoes

     Shut out — unable to buy a ticket to the Paris Opera’s performance of Othello because it was sold out; an opera! —  like a rock concert in the States. I doubted whether too many operas were ever sold out back home; maybe at the Met . . . maybe not.

     So why did I care? I had plenty to keep me busy while in Paris, but I was truly disappointed at not being able to see Othello, and I’m not even that big an opera fan. The answer was obvious: Othello is a great story, told by a master. I had recently seen the original Shakespeare version directed by that most quixotic and surprising of theatre/opera directors, Peter Sellars. I had loved it. Iago stayed with me, as did Desdemona. That’s my personal test of great theatre; does it change me while I’m at the theatre and, then, most important of all, does it stick with me months after — that performance had. So, what had made it so powerful? And then it hit me: the subtlety and complexity of Shakespeare’s Othello derives from the fact that his characters are human; they are rich, contradictory and layered; we can relate to them on a very personal level.

     This is not an article on Shakespeare, it is an article on ballet and ballet dancers. In this essay I will make the case for actor training for ballet dancers.  I will use examples from Antony Tudor’s work and my teaching experience and suggest that teaching ballet dancers to be strong actors is both necessary and teachable.

    Back to Shakespeare.  Here’s the connection: when ballet enables us to empathize fully with the characters we are watching we leave better for it; changed, challenged. However, and this is where the two diverge, when it is solely about beautiful bodies doing amazing things in fabulous costumes we do not necessarily leave with, as dance historian Judith Bennehum puts it, “ a heightened sense of who we are and what we represent”. This is a critical point, and one which I believe is often overlooked.

     Ballet is many things to many people. For me, it is a way to communicate without the need for speech; to find freedom through its seeming opposite — dedication and discipline; to approach universal ideals of beauty, control and grace. It is also a unique opportunity to engage others in thinking about the human condition, if approached with that intention. Unfortunately, it rarely is. Most ballets lack the emotional depth of Shakespeare; they are more interested in technique and less in character development. This should come as no surprise, given ballet’s origins when the importance of display and elegance often took precedence over the intrinsic potential of the art form. Of course, ballet has come a long way since Catherine de Medici and the court of the Sun King; but we can go further.

     In the world of ballet, the 20th century English choreographer Antony Tudor stands out as a shining example of a choreographer who went further, who got what Shakespeare was after: the turmoil and transcendent possibilities of the human condition; the inevitable consequences of both duty and selfishness, hope and despair.  Tudor brought real people to the stage through his characters, and had them reveal their inner lives to us, the audience, through the unlikely medium of classical ballet. Whether the ballet is about a forced marriage in Edwardian England (Jardin aux Lilas) or heinous war crimes during the German occupation in WWII (Echoing of Trumpets), we care about the story that is unfolding, care about the individual lives it reveals. Tudor accomplished what all great artists seek to accomplish: to make the story unfolding on stage relevant to the audience; to have them respond to the universal truths, trials, and triumphs which define each one of us.

     Tudor was also a master of comedy. Another mark of greatness for, through humour, we also find truth; often more easily, though not always less painfully. His comedies were poignant, sardonic peeks at the less glamorous side of things. From the ironic characterizations of diva ballerinas in Gala Performance   to the somewhat pathetic attempts at seduction in  Judgment of Paris  he saw with a laser-like eye what comedy always looks for– the asymmetry of life, the contradictions and the touching nuances . . . the unexpected.

     So where does all this take us? Although Tudor died in 1987 his work is consistently presented in such companies as American Ballet Theatre and throughout the world. He continues to be considered the “Stanislavsky of ballet “ a reference to the great Russian actor who founded the technique associated with honest gesture and powerful character development.  His musicality (The Leaves are Fading) and complex narrative (Pillar of Fire) are still stunning examples of a great artist’s work within the ballet genre. But his reputation is transient, as is so often the case in dance. Unlike the master works of visual artists, musicians and writers, ballets are quickly lost if not painstakingly videotaped and notated. The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust is doing an extraordinary job of preserving and sharing Tudor’s masterpieces under the energetic and visionary direction of Sally Brayley Bliss. This work is critical in large part because of Tudor’s masterly use of character. He is considered the Proust of ballet because of the strong development of narrative and character that identifies every masterpiece we know as “Tudor’s”.

     By contrast, many classical ballets use the characters involved as a way to move the plot along; to serve as scaffolding for the choreography. They don’t really matter, they simply exist as tools, not as people.

    On the other hand, Tudor has characters as real and tormented as any Lady Macbeth or Iago in almost every one of his dramatic ballets. Because of this ‘playwright-esque’ ability to create powerful characters within ballet choreography Tudor deserves to be studied in the same way as an art student studies (and copies) Rembrandt, or a music student Beethoven, or a theatre student, that’s right, Shakespeare. As it turns out, Mr. Tudor is the perfect choreographer for college and university dance programs because of his proclivity towards delving into deep, sociologically rich themes. For him it was not simply about technique or entertainment; it was about meaning. He meant for us to care about his narrative line, not simply follow it. It is the stuff of great literature, music and art — all of which he loved. It is still hard to define exactly where Tudor fits in today’s world of classical ballet, but he does clearly belong there; if nothing else, as an example of how it can be done . . . how it was done.

     My personal experience with Mr. Tudor goes back to my childhood. My mother studied with him both at Jacob’s Pillow and at the Metropolitan in NYC. She had been a theatre major in college and came to ballet quite late for a dancer. For exactly these reasons, Mr. Tudor was the perfect teacher for her. I grew up hearing stories about how he would single her out during class and say, “Now everyone, watch Trude run, she actually looks like she’s going somewhere! That’s what I want.” That interest in honest movement (movement that had a motivation and a need) was quintessential Tudor.

     Today’s dancers need that kind of attention to detail and motivation as much now as they did then. In our “continuous partial attention” 1  culture we can hardly wonder that our dancers seem lost when we ask them to fully engage in the moment . . . in one moment, not four scattered, disparate moments of multi-tasking-communication. The building blocks for powerfully projecting character on stage have not changed: To be fully in the moment; to be both kinesthetically and emotionally aware of your surroundings; to find honest gesture. These are skills I find are sorely lacking in most dancers these days. But they are skills, not gifts from above and, as such, I believe they can be learned.

     The lack of artistry or the inability to embody a character as a dancer, are common complaints among many dance professionals.  As a dance professor at Principia College (a small Midwestern, liberal arts college) I teach theatre movement, as well as dance, to both actors and dancers. I have observed this need for what I will call “artistry” first hand. I have also observed how it can be addressed, specifically for ballet dancers, but it can extend to all dancers. I believe that Antony Tudor’s oeuvre and legacy has much to teach us, and that exploring his work can bring illumination to the training of today’s dancers (and future choreographers); to make them artists, rather than simply athletes. I also believe, and have experienced this in my classes, that a combination of Laban Movement Analysis, Bartenieff Fundamentals, good old-fashioned Stanislavsky intention work and small doses of Alexander alignment can also work wonders.  

     For the last three summers I have had the privilege of guest teaching at L’Academie Americaine de Danse de Paris in the peaceful residential 16th  arr.  It has been a transformative experience as an artist/educator mainly because the Director, Brooke Desnoës, has allowed me autonomy in teaching the four week International Summer Intensive dancers in my “Acting for the Dancer” classes. Our philosophies for teaching dance are eerily similar. In her own words, “Respect, honesty and hard work are at the centre of everything we do. Classes are kept small and instructors get to know each student individually, in turn students are provided with encouragement and confidence to challenge themselves in new artistic ways.”

     Part of my guest teaching while at AADP included a traditional ballet class; this has enabled me to experiment with how best to coordinate the two so that the students learn in a circular pattern. The last two summers I introduced Laban’s eight effort actions, some Bartenieff Fundamentals and a few Alexander exercises. We did some character work with the Laban effort actions (i.e. wring, press and float to name a few), as I do with my theatre movement students. I also had the dancers do some work outside the classroom — observing gesture and movement in strangers.  This year, however, was the breakthrough.

     Having worked all year with the Tudor Trust Committee on the innovative Antony Tudor Dance Studies Curriculum for Colleges and Universities headed up by Sally Bliss, I was more fully aware of some aspects of Tudor’s work that I had not fully appreciated before. For one thing; his fascination with dancers who could embody their role was a defining factor in his process. This took me back to Tudor’s roots: he trained as an actor before he ever trained as a ballet dancer, and he studied music from a very young age. Therefore, I gave my dance students a scenario in which to work; something all actors are well acquainted with. We were not working with actual Tudor choreography as I am not a Tudor repetiteur, and, anyway, I wanted them to find honest gesture on their own to begin with . . .  to realize what that meant and how it felt; not an easy task for most ballet dancers.  Based on the concept that their movements should have meaning, should express something about the character they had chosen for themselves, I asked them to come up with pedestrian movement that was real. They were given a beginning, middle and end point, and a partner, but that was all.  This autonomy enabled them to have some ownership of the process, a key component in higher modes of learning. They also had to find a reason for their movement. I kept reminding them of the Tudor “mantra” which is to let the movement do the communicating and the facial expressions and other needed expression will follow. I had showed them excerpts from Jardin aux Lilas at the beginning of our time together and I kept referencing what they had seen, and playing bits of it again (specifically the opening scene) for clarification. They were not to recreate it, but to use it in their own work of creating honest gesture.

     They quickly learned to open up, to become less concerned with “getting it right” and more concerned with just doing it wholeheartedly. I explained that that sort of approach inevitably leads to honesty, as it is inherently honest.  As one student who had trouble finding expression in her dancing put it, “I learned that I must immerse my whole self and go past the point at which I feel “comfortable”.”2

     The final two days of classes included a scenario which I choreographed for them. The scenario follows:

     You are alone in a forest, sleeping; a noise wakes you; you get up and look for what it might have been. While  searching you are startled by another noise; you slowly move away but are drawn back to see if you can discover what it was; you do, and flee in horror, exiting stage left.

     I introduced this scenario in stages, giving some of the steps in technique class earlier on and then incorporating them into the final 72 count phrase. Repetition was critical as dancers are so accustomed to it, and especially need it when trying something new like this. Some of the comments from the group of older dancers with whom I worked the most are included below:

     From a French student: “Il faut effectuer les gestes sur scene sans les anticiper” or “You must not anticipate your gestures on stage.” 3 This idea of not anticipating what you know is coming is critical for honest responses on stage (sur scene). It is also very difficult and requires the dancer to understand and be able to recreate, time and again, the ability to be “in the moment” — a concept that seems harder for dancers to grasp than it is for actors. Perhaps it’s because, as my mentor in theatre movement Margaret Eginton from Asolo Conservatory explains, “dancers speak with steps and so need more in the moment preparation of their instrument   

    Another important piece of this puzzle is how dancers approach the work itself.  They are typically uncomfortable with “acting”. . . and rightly so. To be told to “Look happy now” or, “You need to look scared here” is very unnatural for dancers. They have been trained to do the steps well and to listen to the music, but mostly so that they will be on the beat with the others on stage; not as a catalyst for emotion. To graft onto a difficult combination of steps a feeling is hard for them and usually turns out badly; as I often say in class, “That was fake”.  We worked a lot with this issue right from the start. One of my students from the intensive puts it far better than I could:

       “I was never presented with the opportunity to be a character so fully that I truly felt I was that person. It is a completely different world.  Your exercises present dancers with a difficult challenge that is as much about self exploration as it is about discovering different characters. …I tried to embody the music. We learned to constantly dance in the moment and to observe those around us in order to comprehend the meaning or emotion behind a certain gesture.” 4

     As Desnoës puts it, “ “Incorporating “Acting for the Dancer” classes into the summer curriculum has helped the young dancers to get ever so close to that artistic freedom experienced when one “becomes” a character. It is delightful to watch their faces when they are able to feel that for the first time. I am certain that this connection between dance and feeling the character remains with them as they continue their dance studies and, more importantly, kindles the artistic process inside them.”

     That “artistic process” is really what this work is all about. It has a lot to do with both discovering how to become a character and to embody the music, that elusive element that was also a key concept throughout their training. To really hear and feel the music, not just count it is something of an anomaly for many dancers today. Like the character work, however, it can be learned. Many times I have found that all a dancer needs is explicit permission to “let the music move you” from the choreographer or teacher and they are eager to do so.  All of the dancers found a road they could travel to find expressive gesture and honest movement . . . my basic goals for the class. 

     Antony Tudor is not the only ballet choreographer who has ever worked to find honesty in movement; but using Mr. Tudor’s works as an example of where this can be found in classical ballet has been most helpful. For today’s college dancer the use of various techniques to achieve this end seems both logical and in tune with the ideals of a liberal arts education. In exploring these paths some of them came from reading or hearing about exercises Mr. Tudor had used in his technique classes; some I observed while Tudor repetiteurs Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner worked with my dancers at Principia College. Other ideas came from Margaret Eginton’s coaching and observing her classes and my graduate work on my MFA where my thesis was on how to incorporate Laban Movement Analysis in my work with actors and dancers. Years of teaching theatre movement, choreographing and teaching ballet have also informed this practice and lead me in new and different ways.

     The overarching goal of training more artistic dancers through giving them a way to find expressive gesture is ongoing. In this age, dancers in university programs need to have both a goal and a map: the goal is to be able to fully express any character they may be asked to embody through their movement. The map is a clearly articulated yet flexible set of exercises and approaches that enable the dancer to arrive at honest gesture and let go of self-imposed limitations and fears. I don’t know if Mr. Tudor would be pleased if we reached this goal, but I know I would.

  1. “Does America Have ADD?,” U.S. News and World Report, March 26,2001, 24.
  2. Camille Kemache at AADP workshop, summer 2011, Paris, France
  3. Fanny  Serenque at AADP workshop, summer 2011, Paris, France
  4. Mikkailla Bolotenko at AADP workshop, summer 2011, Paris, France

Sally Bliss: Travels of the Trustee

April 19, 2010 1 comment

The past few months have been a hectic travel time for me fulfilling my role as Trustee of Antony Tudor’s Estate, Board Member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and other dance related business.

I really enjoyed David Parsons’ new and improved full evening work, “Remember Me,” based on famous and popular opera arias sung by members of the East Village Opera Company.  I’d seen the work in St. Louis in November and liked it, but the finished product at the Joyce Theatre in New York was even better.  The Parson’s dancers were wonderful.  For me it worked and was one of the best dances he has created.

From New York I traveled to Indianapolis, arriving in time for Butler University’s dress rehearsal of its’ mid-winter dance program.  Included in the program was Antony Tudor’s “Dark Elegies,” staged by Donald Mahler, Senior Repetiteur of the Tudor Trust.  What an eye opener for me!   Butler has a very strong dance program with talented choreographers on staff and lovely dancers.  I had seen some of the students dance in St. Louis (my home) as guest artists with Alexandria Ballet, but what I saw here was a quality and level of performance I was not prepared for.

I was so startled and immediately pleased, starting with the amazing dress rehearsal right through to opening night.  Each of the Mahler “Kindertotenlieder” songs one though five was danced with incredible reserve and great intelligence.   Each and every dancer in the program showed a level of depth I have rarely seen before.

It was after seeing this performance of “Dark Elegies,” I knew I was on the right track:  developing a Tudor Syllabus for university dance programs is a MUST; a priority at present, and, most important for the future of Antony Tudor and his great ballets.  I hope there is a DVD of Butler’s performance we can use as part of our syllabus.

As I mentioned, there were other dances on the program, three of which were of a pretty high standard.  As I get older, having watched a great many dances/ballets, I find myself maybe a bit jaded and less and less enthusiastic about choreography today.  This program made me sit up and watch.

I arrived home from Butler University and went into a joint rehearsal of “Little Improvisations” with COCA, Center of Creative Arts, a St. Louis performing arts school, and Principia College, a liberal arts college in Elsa, IL, (see previous blog for more in Principia.)  I’ve worked with both before but was so pleased to see how much they had improved.  I can’t believe what a difference only one year of study can do.  It was quite amazing.  Again, I’m impressed with the minds of university/college students.

I had a brief stay at home in St. Louis, saw a well danced performance by River North Chicago and then back to New York for two days of Paul Taylor.  I arrived in time to get to City Center theatre where I saw three dances by Paul Taylor.   “Brandenburgs,” created in 1988, was maybe the finest dancing and performance by the company I have ever seen.  The two New York premieres, also by Paul, were quite different from each other.  The first was “Brief Encounters.”  I liked it a lot.  The music was Debussy and, as with many of his works, there were humorous moments.  The evening ended with “Also Playing,” a very hilarious, fun piece about Vaudeville, that was very well danced.  It was a perfect end to Paul Taylors 80th Birthday Gala, my reason for being there.

The next morning Donald Mahler and I went to see the almost completed renovation of the company’s new office and studio space.  It is absolutely terrific.  I listened to Donald and Paul reminisce about their time at Syracuse University.  At that time there was no dance program at Syracuse, nevertheless it was there they both discovered dance.  So too did both give up their scholarships to study in New York.  And, as we say, the rest is history:  Paul went to Juilliard, where he worked with Antony Tudor and then followed Tudor to the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School.

The following week I headed to Denver for Colorado Ballet’s stage rehearsals of Tudor’s “Echoing of Trumpets.”  Be sure to check out our News section on the website for reviews and commentary on that performance.