How to Prepare for a New Role—on and Off the Marley
You already know that taking on a new role requires lots of homework, from perfecting the steps to figuring out spacing. But while it's easy to become wrapped up in technical demands, a little extra research can make all the difference in your performance—because each piece of choreography is inspired by something, whether it's a person, a time in history or simply an abstract harmony created by a composer.
“No matter how exquisite her facility may be, an uninformed dancer will never perform a more compelling Juliet than one who can use her knowledge, empathy and emotion to imbue the role with realism and create a deep connection with the audience," says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson. We all might replay a dancer's tricks over and over on YouTube, but the performances that leave us in tears contain so much more than technique. By researching your subject, watching the experts and honing your acting chops, you can transition from being a pretty dancer to a true artist.
Start with “Why"
When Ephraim Sykes landed a place in the ensemble for the Broadway hit Hamilton, he wanted to understand the context of the stories he'd portray. That meant trying to answer one question: Why? “There are moments in our lives that change our minds and hearts and make us live a certain way," he says. “For instance, there was a moment in my life when I decided to start dancing. Finding out the character's motives is the most critical thing in terms of exploring a role. All their actions will be justified, because you know the baseline of their lives."
San Francisco Ballet principal Vitor Luiz agrees. As he prepares to take on the iconic role of The Creature in Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein this upcoming February, Luiz aims to understand why The Creature behaves the way he does. “He just arrived in this world and his creator rejected him. He's bitter about it," Luiz says. “There's a sense that he wants to be loved above all, but he doesn't fit into this world. That's why he becomes angry. He had a pure soul."
Do Your Research
To understand his role in Frankenstein, Luiz began by hitting the books. “There are a bunch of movie versions," he points out, “but studying Mary Shelley's classic novel helps me really know what my character is going through. If you see someone else playing a role, you only imagine the character that way." Once he's studied the book, Luiz will turn to the movies to add to his own conclusions.
While many of Hamilton's ensemble members read the biography on which the show was based, Sykes also loves the visual aspect of films and documentaries, because, he says, he can see more of the character's world and pick up on his movement and mannerisms. For both Hamilton and Sykes' recent role as Marvin on the HBO series “Vinyl," that meant seeking out political documentaries to create a broader understanding of what his characters lived through, which informed his movement quality.
Trips to museums can also be beneficial. In 2009, PBT performed Stephen Mills' abstract work Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project, a piece that requires dancers to embody the emotional weight of the subject matter with every movement. “Stephen led us through a long educational process before we started rehearsing to help us become more informed, aware artists," Erickson recalls. The dancers spoke with Holocaust survivors and even took a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
As the title character in Matthew Rushing's Odetta, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Hope Boykin was tasked with representing singer Odetta Holmes, known as the voice of the Civil Rights movement. Though it wasn't required of her, she learned all Holmes' lyrics. “I wanted to make sure you could hear her voice through the movement and my understanding of each song—not just through the counts or the choreography," she says.
Learn From Other Dancers—but Leave Room for You
It's important to stay open to advice from your choreographer, director or teacher, and don't be afraid to seek out more experienced dancers who may also have information that will help you. If you're performing in a recently created ballet, you might have the opportunity to speak to those who were close with the choreographer, or to the role's originator. The first time Boykin was cast in Alvin Ailey's 1974 work Night Creature, she sought out former company member Sarita Allen to coach her. “She was known for doing the lead," Boykin says. “One day in rehearsal, she turned on the music and told me everything that Mr. Ailey had told her. She started doing the movement, and I had to chase her around the room—she was so full of information. As dancers, we often get caught up in our lines, but there's so much more to a work."
On the other hand, it's a good idea to avoid studying others in the same role until you have a strong handle on it yourself. SFB's Luiz explains: “You start to copy the dancer, and a copy is never as good as the original." That doesn't mean Luiz shuts out all other interpretations—watching other dancers, either in videos or in person, can offer new perspectives on a role he's performed many times.
Whether you hit the library, visit a museum or talk to experts, doing your research to fully create a character will be doubly worthwhile come performance time: Not only will you be able to be in the moment onstage, you'll also transport the audience emotionally. “Learn to be an artist first and a dancer second," Sykes says. “You'll go much farther in your career if you think deeper than aesthetics."
Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in John Cranko's "Onegin" (Erik Tomasson, courtesy San Francisco Ballet)
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.
The coolest place she's ever performed:
I'd have to say the Super Bowl. The field was so cool, and Katy Perry was right there. And there were so many eyes—definitely the most eyes I've ever performed for!
Something she's constantly working on:
My feet. I'm flat-footed, so I'm always hearing, 'Point your toes!' And I'm like, 'I am!'
My hair! That, and a pair of leggings with a T-shirt or tank top.
In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to be featured!
For a long time, I was the strongest dancer at my studio. But this year there's a new girl in my class who's very talented, and my teacher's attention has definitely shifted to her. I'm trying not to feel jealous or discouraged, but it seems like my whole dance world has changed. Help!
In the dance world, Mandy Moore has long been a go-to name, but in 2017, the success of her choreography for La La Land made the rest of the world stop and take notice. After whirlwind seasons as choreographer and producer on both "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," she capped off the year with two Emmy Award nominations—and her first win. Dance Magazine caught up with her to find out how she's balancing all of her dance projects.
Marzia Memoli may be the Martha Graham Dance Company's newest dancer, but her classical lines and easy grace are already turning heads. Originally from Palermo, Italy, Memoli started studying at age 16 at the Academy of Teatro Carcano in Milan. Later, she attended the Rudra Béjart School in Lausanne, Switzerland, before heading to NYC in 2016 to join MGDC. This month, she'll perform The Rite of Spring in the Martha Graham Studio Series in NYC, and tour with the company in Florida. Read on for the dirt.