How to Refine Onstage Chemistry

June 4, 2008

Partnering is no easy task. You must make sure your timing is perfect, your lifts are coordinated and your movement styles match. As if that’s not enough, you must top it off with chemistry. Without that special connection, daredevil physical feats lose meaning, no matter how impressive. Here are some ways that you and a new partner can achieve the emotional bond that makes for an electrifying performance.


First Rehearsal

Start off on the right foot.
Be open and honest with your partner from the get-go. “The most difficult challenge is that initial relationship: You need a solid foundation,” says Seth Delgrasso of Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet. “I put myself out there and let [my partner] know that I will always be there to support her physically, emotionally and artistically when we’re onstage.”

Be conscious of your personal hygiene.
It’s difficult interacting closely with a stranger, so be as considerate as possible. Change out of that sweaty shirt, have a mint and avoid wearing your smelliest shoes.

Be confident in your dancing.
Know your own strengths and weaknesses, and assert self-assurance. “When you don’t know that person, all you really have is what you bring to the table. If you’re confident in what you do, your partner will feel more secure,” says Delgrasso. 

Explore Together

Talk about the role with your partner and the choreographer.
This includes discussing how you and your partner’s characters feel toward each other at every step of the dance. “Give yourself a prologue before the curtain goes up,” says Houston Ballet principal Barbara Bears. “If you can create this history for your character and the person you’re dancing with, that threads itself through the [performance] and has you going somewhere.”

Brush up on your history.
Find recordings of legends performing the roles you and your partner are rehearsing, which is especially easy if you’re dancing a classic. For Les Sylphide, for instance, study Margot Fonteyn  and Rudolph Nureyev. (Kultur stocks a number of DVDs of famous pas de deux: Observe how they relate to one another, when they make eye contact and the subtle movement nuances that make their interpretation captivating. Remember, however, that facial expressions shouldn’t be the principal modes of communication with each other, or with the audience. Your body positions and head angles must be the primary means of expression. “It isn’t like a camera is able to zoom in really close and see that emotion,” says Bears.

Draw from real life moments.
Are you concerned that you and your partner won’t be able to relate to your characters? You may doubt that you’ll find much in common with, say, a peasant girl who, after suffering a fatal heartbreak, rises from the grave to save a spoiled, albeit penitent, prince from a band of angry (and dead) femmes, as in Giselle. Reflect with your partner: Have you or has someone close to you experienced heartbreak and betrayal? Loyalty? Regret? These concepts can all be found in Giselle. What’s important is that you and your partner together explore these ideas in context. Although you and your character may be polar opposites, life experiences can still serve to help you in your portrayal. “It may not be a specific [occurrence]—‘Well this is when my cat died, and I was really upset at that moment,’—but you can remember that you were very upset and you can relate that feeling to whatever the story may be,” says Delgrasso.

Rehearse the acting full out as soon as possible.
“It’s something that I try to do very early on in the rehearsals,” says Ball. “Just as with any technical step, sometimes something you’re doing emotionally doesn’t work, and you have to figure out how it’s going to manifest itself onstage.”

Don’t be afraid to look silly.
Your peers in the studio can be more intimidating than a real audience. “To be able to go to that place standing in the studio in your practice clothes takes a certain amount of vulnerability and a willingness to look stupid, because that’s the only way you’ll really grow,” says Bears. “The thing is to really go for it, because you can always pull somebody back [emotionally], as opposed to forcing [yourself] to try and act more.”

Good Goals

Be familiar with each other’s styles.
Begin to understand and become comfortable with your partner’s body and how he or she moves. Tina Vasquez, of the NYC-based modern company Von Ussar Danceworks, practices breathing exercises with her partner, “taking deep breaths to try to ‘think ourselves together’ so that when we move, we move like one body.”

Total trust.
Be dependable, communicative and willing to work. Physical trust and comfort lead to emotional openness onstage. “I like to get to a point where my partners have so much trust they can just let go,” says James A. Pierce, III of Von Ussar Danceworks. “Once you get those fundamentals down, and you’re open to what your partner needs, you can do anything.”

Be comfortable with the technical demands.
The easiest way to ruin onstage chemistry—and risk serious injury—is to be uncomfortable executing the choreography. “If you don’t give your full strength, power, connection and devotion to that part, you could deter the flow of the movement, which would cause more harm than good,” says Sandra Brown, who dances with American Ballet Theatre and Complexions. Don’t, however, give up on a difficult step too soon. Make every effort to accomplish the choreographer’s vision. Once you’re onstage, though, you should be focusing on your emotional connection with your partner and enjoying the moment, rather than worrying about the next lift.

Final Orders of Business

Connect before your entrance.
Wish your partner good luck, squeeze his or her hand, or simply share a smile before the curtain rises: “It’s a reinforcement of, ‘I’m here with you, we’re doing this together’—a bonding moment, because you need that before you go onstage,” says Brown.

Remember that a performance may not go as planned, and good partners can adapt to any situation. “Breathe and meditate for a moment before you go onstage,” recommends Brown. “Stay calm so that you’re ready to handle anything that can happen.”