How to Make the Most of Stillness Onstage
There’s an iconic moment in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet when Juliet sits on the edge of her bed, staring into the audience. She’s completely still—thinking long and hard about her tragic situation—while the emotion of Sergei Prokofiev’s score washes over her. If the dancer does it well, this dance-less scene can speak volumes.
As dancers, we tend to focus on mastering steps and speaking through movement. Yet the way we hold ourselves when we’re not moving can also be a powerful way to communicate with an audience.
How can you make the most of those quiet moments onstage—and what happens if your muscles cramp, you have a crazy itch, or your mind starts to wander? We gathered tips from industry professionals to help guide you through.
Use Your Imagination
Keep your character in mind, and every pose will be infused with meaning. When Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Jacqueline Green approaches a role that requires holding still, she thinks about her character’s background, motivations, and emotional state to help project the right feeling. “If you’re onstage in a role where you have to be quiet or still, it helps to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. It makes it more authentic.”
Jennifer Goggans in Merce Cunningham’s “Ocean,” with Daniel Squire (photo by Tony Dougherty, courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust)
Another trick to prevent cramping is to breathe deeply, like you would in yoga, so that your muscles get enough oxygen. “Use your breath and hold everything from your center,” advises San Francisco Ballet corps de ballet dancer Madison Keesler, who had a tough time dancing in the corps of Swan Lake (for eight months straight!) when she was with English National Ballet. “Your feet and calves might be hurting, but you can’t put your focus there. Hold your stomach and back so that you take some pressure off the lower legs.”
Each moment of stillness is different, depending on the choreography and what you’re trying to convey. But the more present you are in the pose, the more successful it will be. Your commitment will keep your mind from wandering during the long holds, to a point where even a relentless itch will become secondary. “Someone who is waiting for a count is less interesting than someone who’s holding still but their body is full of the galaxy,” says Wilson. “That type of imagination really does cross over to an audience.”
A version of this story appeared in the November 2017 issue of
Dance Spirit with the title “Standing Still.”