Here’s a scenario: You’re in the studio, building strength, stretching, and working up to faster speeds. You repeat steps over and over again to ensure muscle memory and to improve your aesthetic line. You’re in peak physical condition and ready to tackle any choreography that comes your way. But what if that piece is a drama? What if the part demands more artistic interpretation than athletic gumption? Will you be ready?
In school, very few of us are exposed to the subtleties of acting. Instead we drill our exercises and try to master the newest, craziest trick that someone came across on YouTube. While it is important to focus on technique, it is just as important to think about how to portray a character. For example, how can physicality enhance your emotion? How can you suck the audience into your story and make them feel something?
Pop in a video of Carla Fracci dancing “Giselle” and study, frame by frame, her brilliant mad scene. Though the images on screen might be fuzzy and dated, watch how she slowly loses her mind. She does it with such sincerity and uninhibited conviction—you can’t help but believe her!
Talk to yourself. At the beginning of a rehearsal process, it always helps me to speak the pantomime (if there is any) and to actually say what I’m feeling with each step. If you don’t make sense to yourself, the audience will be confused too. When I danced Kenneth MacMillan’s “The Invitation,” Lynn Seymour made me scream at the top of my lungs as I ran across the studio to my partner. It took me about 20 tries to muster up the courage, but I finally understood her purpose—you can’t be authentic without fully experiencing the moment.
Pay attention to your hands! Our fingers tend to be the most neglected extremities. Clench them in a fist to show anger, fiddle with the hem of your costume if you’re nervous, hold them limp if you’re about to surrender yourself…the possibilities are endless.
Use the mirror, and then forget about it. Try practicing different facial expressions and gestures in front of your reflection to see what other people will see—what feels over the top to you might barely register with the audience. Once you feel comfortable with your choices, work on expressing yourself from the inside out. Always remember that natural emotion is a million times better than forced, painted-on looks.
Given the choice, I’d almost always dance a dramatic role. It is the perfect opportunity to explore a character, make it my own, and then lose myself in the action. But I’m not suggesting that artistic interpretation should take the place of polished technique! The two are meant to enhance one another, to raise the performance to higher level. An evil Black Swan is mediocre without her 32 fouette turns just as a technically beautiful Juliet will disappoint if she has no passion. But if you can achieve both, you’ll find that you and the audience are transported to an entirely different reality. Dramatically speaking, of course!