Chances are you’ve heard of Sleep No More, the blockbuster production loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But Sleep No More is more than just a performance: It takes place throughout a five-story building in NYC, with audience members exploring the space on their own terms. If you attend the show, you’re part of it—and that’s what sets immersive performances apart.

Immersive productions can be incredibly rewarding for dancers. But how do you prepare when all of your stage experience has probably been in a theater, with the audience planted firmly in their seats? Dance Spirit spoke to artistic directors and performers to find out what to expect when you book your first immersive gig.

Set Your Sites

Rachel I. Berman as Alice in Then She Fell. (Photo by Darial Sneed, courtesy Third Rail Projects)

There’s a rich history of site-specific choreography—dance pieces made with a particular, non-theater space in mind—that set the stage for immersive shows. Iconic postmodern choreographers like Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer made site-specific work to challenge people’s preconceived ideas about what dance could be, and helped inspire today’s immersive choreographers to let their imaginations run wild.

NYC–based choreographer Noémie Lafrance has created a number of experimental works based in audience participation. “I feel that a controlled environment (like a theater) isn’t reflective of how we live. It’s isolating. In the same way, I don’t want to isolate the audience from my work,” she says. One of her most notable works, Agora II, took place in an abandoned swimming pool in Brooklyn, NY, and featured dozens of dancers. Certain audience members received text message cues about when to join the performance. In this site-specifc and immersive work, Lafrance made sure the audience had opportunites to change the direction of the piece.

Diving In

Former Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet member Vânia Doutel Vaz debuted in Sleep No More last summer. She has extensive experience performing in immersive theater, and she says that no two shows are the same.

Nicholas Bruder as Macbeth and Sophie Borolussi as Lady Macbeth in Sleep No More. (Photo by Yaniv Schulman, courtesy O+M Co.)

For one memorable performance, Vaz danced in Laura Perez-Harris’ Belly of the Beast at Tomato House in Brooklyn. “Audience members crawled down a pitch-black velvet-lined maze and eventually fell into the ‘belly,’ where I and two other dancers performed,” Vaz says. “I think Laura was trying to get people way, way outside their comfort zones.”

“We call it ‘world-making,’ ” says Tom Pearson, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects and one of the creators behind immersive productions like The Grand Paradise and Then She Fell, which was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “The edges of the real world are invisible.”

Going Deeper

It might seem pointless to prepare for a performance where anything can happen, but it’s not. Vaz suggests attending immersive performances whenever possible, to build your familiarity. She also credits Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique for teaching performers how to develop their awareness. “All your senses need to be enhanced,” she says. “You have to be able to see in 360 degrees.” And if you’re successful, she says, you’ll be so “in it” that you can practically predict audience members’ movements.

Vaz’s ultimate rule for performing in an immersive show? Don’t break character! She cautions that your worst-case scenario might happen, but you have to trust your fellow performers to help you—and that comes from rehearsing and performing together. “No matter what, never apologize for anything,” she says. “Everything that happens is supposed to. Don’t let the audience feel guilty, in your way, or uncomfortable. As a performer, you become the audience’s guiding eyes, so it’s all about being confident and secure in what you’re doing.”

In a mirror-less dance studio, your teacher asks you to move as if you’re in the shower and the hot water has suddenly disappeared. What do you do? You twitch, you vibrate. You can almost feel that freezing-cold water pelting your shoulders. As you shiver, you imagine how that movement affects each molecule in your body. Without mirrors, you’re able to let go and dance with abandon. You’re in a Gaga class.

Choreography by Gaga’s creator, Ohad Naharin, is popping up in the repertoire of top companies around the world. These days, dancers in Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal all speak Gaga. And that means it’s becoming a must-have tool for aspiring professional dancers.

A Brief History of Gaga

Naharin took the helm of the Batsheva Dance Company—located in Tel Aviv, Israel—in 1990. He began experimenting with a different kind of warm-up—a movement language he had developed to work through his own injuries. He named it Gaga, and it soon became the basis for training in the company, in lieu of ballet.

Gaga classes are now offered regularly across the U.S., particularly in major cities like NYC, Chicago and San Francisco, and  in university settings like The Juilliard School, Stanford University and The Ohio State University. Classes are taught by Batsheva company members (current and former), as well as certified teachers.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Jessica Tong and Jesse Bechard in Ohad Naharin's Passomezzo (photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy HSDC)

Why You Need It

“Gaga isn’t a technique. It’s a movement language,” says Bobbi Smith, a former member of the Batsheva Dance Company who currently teaches Gaga at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and at Stanford. “You can use what you find through Gaga in ballet, Cunningham or Graham classes. Or out on the dance floor at a club, or when you run a mile. It gives you the keys to make your engine stronger.”

Other styles focus on perfecting form, but Gaga is different. “Ballet has a known aesthetic that you try to emulate. With Gaga, there is no sense of perfection, there is no absolute,” says Glenn Edgerton, artistic director of Hubbard Street. Gaga “is about electrifying the body as opposed to looking at your lines,” says Hubbard Street’s Jessica Tong, who has performed a number of Naharin’s works.

What to Expect

“Connect your effort to your pleasure.”

“Listen to how your skin touches the air around you.”

“Connect to your floating spine.”

“Be delicate with the availability to snap.”

“Connect to your groove.”

These are all phrases you may hear from your teacher in a Gaga class.

Teachers use detailed imagery to help dancers awaken specific body parts. “You bring focus to your legs, thighs and shoulders, but that moves into your fingertips, your palms, the back of your hands, the joints of your feet, your cheeks, your earlobes,” Tong says. “You get a tingly feeling when you’re that awake.”

Don’t expect any two Gaga classes to be the same, though. “Each class changes depending on the mood and energy within the room, from dancer to dancer,” Edgerton says.

Make It Work for You

“Dancers who are new to Gaga might feel self-conscious—you’re bouncing and shaking around a lot,” Tong says. But remember, finding freedom in the form is the whole point—and you’ll get out what you put in, just like any other dance class.

“As a teacher, I’m giving specific instructions, but it’s really up to you to explore and determine what the volume of your effort is going to be,” says Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancer Navarra Novy-Williams, who teaches Gaga regularly in NYC at the Gibney Dance Center and Mark Morris Dance Center.

If you’re a dancer who is always in performance mode, even in the studio, Tong suggests sticking with Gaga and moving through the uncomfortable moments. “It can be so liberating to break the rules.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s most recognizable work is Ailey’s Revelations—a masterpiece that’s been performed continuously since its premiere in 1960. Sylvia Waters, former artistic director of Ailey II, coached AAADT dancer Fana Tesfagiorgis through the opening steps of the haunting first section, “I Been ’Buked.”

(Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy AAADT)

About Revelations:“Alvin was inspired by his own memories, and the piece is an homage to our ancestors and to all of humankind,” Waters says. “It’s a testament to the power of the language of dance.”

See It in Action: This section doesn’t rely solely on counts, and Horton technique—the foundation of Ailey’s choreography—is extremely specific. So before trying out the phrase, watch our video of Fana Tesfagiorgis and Sylvia Waters breaking down each step with the music. All photos by Kyle Froman.

Step 1

Stand in a wide second position, with your arms held out slightly from your body and your palms facing forward. Look upward, so your chin points toward the ceiling.

Step 2

As the choir starts to sing, begin to roll your head back and to the right. Plié, reaching your right arm in a long downward diagonal away from your body, and draw your left hand upward along your rib cage.

Step 3

As soon as you reach the bottom of your plié, begin to straighten your arms and legs, passing through the starting position before repeating the same movements to the left side.

Step 4

When you get to the bottom of your second plié, reach your right hand toward the ceiling, continuing to look down past your left fingers. As soon as your right arm is straight, move back to standing by initiating the lift from the right side of your rib cage and sliding your right foot in to meet your left foot in a parallel first position.

Step 5

Bring your left elbow in to your side and straighten your legs completely. Next, reach your left hand overhead to meet your right hand and look upward.

Step 6

Lean forward and to the right—bending slightly at the waist—and trace two clockwise circles above your head. Keep your gaze on your hands. End with your hands above your head.

Step 7

Bend your elbows and bring your arms down to chest level, cupping your hands as you gaze toward them. Hold your right hand slightly below your left.

Step 8

Slowly plié and begin to tilt forward into a flat-back position, crossing your right arm in front of your left. When you reach the bottom of your plié, tendu your left foot to the side, keeping your leg parallel. Raise your arms to resemble wings—slightly bent at the elbows, with the palms facing down.

Step 9

Slowly draw your left leg in so you’re standing on both legs, maintaining your flat-back position. Leading with your fingers, scoop your arms inward as if gathering something in toward your chest.

Step 10

Simultaneously straighten your legs and flip your forearms so that they are perpendicular to your body. Straighten your arms overhead and reach your fingers and chin toward the ceiling. Finish the phrase by extending your palms toward the audience.

Want to land a spot with Gallim Dance or Alonzo King LINES Ballet? You’d better head to modern class. But if you’re new to the style, don’t freak out! Just as ballet relies on a specific vocabulary, much of modern choreography also stems from a group of fundamental movements. DS spoke with master teachers to give you a leg up on three that are at the heart of the style.

THE CONTRACTION

Origins: Always partnered with a release, the contraction is the core of Martha Graham’s technique.

Who uses it today: The Martha Graham Dance Company, and choreographers including Ohad Naharin, Paul Taylor, Mark Dendy and Pascal Rioult. You’ll also see it in jazz classes and in the works of experimental ballet companies, like Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

DO breathe with the movement. Exhale as you contract and inhale as you release.

DON’T crunch your spine as you contract. “The sacrum [at the base of the spine] moves backward as your upper body moves forward, keeping length in your body,” says Marcus Schulkind, former member of Batsheva Dance Company and founding director of the Green Street Studios center for dance near Boston. He adds that it may help to imagine contracting in a bathtub: “You’d displace the water forward and backward, not up and down.”

THE SWING

Origins: Stemming from the work of modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey, the swing epitomizes the fall-and-recovery philosophy of the José Limón technique. (Limón was one of Humphrey’s students.)

Who uses it today: The Limón Dance Company, and choreographers including Mark Morris, Lar Lubovitch, Larry Keigwin and Trey McIntyre.

DO release your neck. “When people are afraid or insecure, they tend to tighten their necks to feel control,” says Alan Danielson, director of the Limón School in NYC. “Some techniques are based on shapes, but this is rooted in the sense of motion. You need to allow gravity to take hold of your body.”

DON’T break the flow of movement. “Think of a basketball bouncing,” Danielson says. “It doesn’t stop at the top or the bottom.”

The Flat-Back

Origins: A major part of Lester Horton’s technique, flat-back exercises are performed in a series at the beginning of a Horton class to mobilize your hips, stretch your hamstrings and stabilize your core.

Who uses it today: Primarily incorporated into choreography by Alvin Ailey (who was Horton’s student), it’s prominent in jazz classes, too.

DO start with your feet parallel and hip distance apart, advises JoLea Maffei, who teaches Horton at Steps on Broadway in NYC. Hinge from your hips and keep your weight over the balls of your feet.

DON’T release your rib cage. “Keep the torso long so your ribs are controlled in the body, not dropping towards the floor,” Maffei says.

Jenny Dalzell is an associate editor at Dance Magazine.

Photography by Erin Baiano

Laura Halzack and Robert Kleinendorst in Paul Taylor’s Mercuric Tidings (by Tom Caravaglia)

Think bunheads don’t belong in Graham class? Think again! Modern dance is one of the few truly American art forms, and its various techniques can benefit dancers of all persuasions. We got some pros in the know to debunk five negative myths about modern dance.

1. Modern dancers are “failed” ballet dancers. 

“The assumption that a dancer only chooses modern because she doesn’t have good enough technique to cut it in the ballet world is ridiculous,” says Laura Halzack, who has danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company for the past seven years. “In most cases, ballet dancers switch to modern when they discover the great things it has to offer. It requires just as much technique, athleticism and brains as ballet.”

“I started off in classical ballet because that’s what I knew and saw around me,” says Katherine Crockett, principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. But as soon as she tried Graham technique, she knew she’d found her home. “What drew me to Graham was its incredible expressiveness,” she says. “Graham is about showing effort rather than effortlessness, and I really connected with that.”

2. Like jazz dance? You won’t like modern. 

Actually, jazz and modern are not-so-distant cousins. “So much of jazz came out of the modern techniques,” says Freddie Moore, a Horton technique teacher at The Ailey School. “Like modern, jazz also has a rhythmic connection to the pelvis and back,” Halzack adds.

Moore suggests researching your favorite jazz dancers’ backgrounds—because you’ll almost always find they’ve trained in modern dance.

3. If you want to be a professional ballet dancer, you don’t need to take modern.

Take a look at any ballet company’s current repertory, and odds are you’ll find a bunch of modern or modern-influenced works. Graham pieces have been set on ballet companies all over the world; Mark Morris regularly choreographs for ballet companies; Paul Taylor’s work is in the reps of Paris Opéra Ballet, Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet, to name just a few.

Ailey School instructor Freddie Moore teaching Horton (courtesy the Ailey School)

“Ballet dancers must be versatile enough to perform modern,” Crockett says. And “having modern training will give ballet dancers an edge,” Halzack says. “You can climb faster through the ranks if you have a more thorough understanding of movement.“

“Don’t lock yourself in and say, ‘Ballet is all I need to be the best ballet dancer out there,’ ” Moore says. If you want to make it into a prestigious ballet company, “you need modern training to balance your ballet training.”

4. Working in parallel in modern class will mess up your turnout. 

Not only is this false, but the opposite is true! It seems counterintuitive, but working in parallel actually helps balance out the muscles in your legs, ensuring that you don’t overdevelop—or strain—the muscles involved in turned-out positions.

“While we do work in parallel, we also work turned out a lot—and the combination of the two has made me much stronger,” Halzack says. Moore says honing your muscles in parallel positions will also improve your balance. “The parallel line will allow you to figure out how to shift your weight and place yourself properly.”

5. Modern class is boring.

“Before I found Graham, I took a general ‘modern dance’ class and hated it—it was boring to me,” Crockett says. “For two years after that, I didn’t step into a modern class. I thought I already knew what it was. But it turned out I just didn’t like that one teacher’s style.”

There’s a wide range of modern techniques, which all feel very different. If you have the modern blahs, try taking classes in specific styles (Graham, Cunningham, Limón, Horton, Taylor) instead of a generic “modern” class. That’ll help you figure out which style speaks to you.

And once you find the right fit, “modern class is anything but boring!” Halzack says. “You’re developing your technique and musicality, but not by standing at a barre. You’re out in the center getting in touch with yourself from the beginning of class.”

Photos by Sibté Hassan. Demonstrated by Martha Graham Dance Company member Xiaochuan Xie.

Diversion of Angelsis one of modern dance legend Martha Graham’s most iconic works. First performed in 1948, it showcases all of the major principles of Graham technique. Virginie Mécène, director of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and artistic director of Graham II, walked Dance Spirit through an eight-count from the piece.

About Diversion of Angels

“This work is all about love,” Mécène says. “In the complete piece there are three couples: one representing young love, one representing passionate love and one representing mature love. The chorus dancers introduce each couple’s duet—they turn the pages, so to speak. This particular eight-count is from a chorus section. The dancer should move like she’s head over heels in love, with everything big and off-balance.”

Graham Glossary

The Graham contraction: Deep contraction originating at the pelvis that causes the torso to react in a curve

The Graham spiral: Twisting of the torso around the spine

The Graham Cup

Martha Graham often used cupped hands in her works. The Graham cup is more than just a position, Mécène explains. “Your hands are doing a contraction of their own, related to the Graham contraction of the spine,” she says. “They’re connected to the center of your body.”

WATCH IT BEFORE YOU TRY IT. Graham technique is complicated,  so before you test out this eight-count, watch Mécène break it down with MGDC member Xiaochuan Xie.

 

1, and 2, and 3

Piqué out on your right foot (1), arriving in a side tilt with the left leg at about 90 degrees and the head looking out to the right. At the same time, shoot your right arm out with a cupped hand (see sidebar), and wrap your left arm behind your back. Retract your right arm in against your side and step across with the left leg in plié (and), then repeat the piqué (2), traveling to the right, with the left arm staying in place but the right arm shooting out again. Step across again (and) and repeat the same piqué sequence (3).

Mécène’s advice: “As you step out, spiral the right side of your back around toward the front.”

 

and 4

Step across with the left leg (and), then do a piqué turn to the right on your right foot (4), with your pelvis contracted, your body in a tilt leaning to the right and your left leg raised in parallel attitude. During the turn, curve your right arm into first position, raise your left arm so it’s parallel to your left leg and look down over your right shoulder.

Mécène’s advice: “Use the right side of your back to pull you around. Contract deeply so your body feels like it’s scooping into the tilt.”

 

and 5

Swing your left leg and both arms down as you plié (and) in preparation for a jump (5) on the left leg with the right leg extended to the side at 90 degrees and the torso tilted to the left. Your left arm should arrive in fifth position over your head, and your right arm should end up parallel to your right leg. Your gaze should be up and out.

Mécène’s advice: “Suspend for a minute before swinging into the jump. Then feel the left side of the back come forward as you jump up.”

 

and 6

Swing the arms and legs down in plié (and) and repeat the jump (6) on the right leg, reversing the arm, leg and head positions.

 

 

 

 

and 7

Contract to initiate a quick spin to the left in plié on your left leg (and). Stop the turn with a deeper contraction (7), anchoring your weight into your left foot. Your arms should rise in front of you slightly in response to the contraction.

Mécène’s advice: “Deepen the contraction even further after you arrive facing front.”

 

 

and

Step backward on your right foot into an open allongé position. Both feet should be flat on the floor, with the right leg bent and the left straight. The arms should rise sharply, with the right coming to fifth over your head and the left arriving out to the side, parallel to the floor. Your gaze should be up and out to the left.

Mécène’s advice: “Initiate the step backward from the lower back, then release the upper body as you arrive in allongé.”

 

8

Brush the right leg forward into a dégagé as you contract deeply from the pelvis, plié-ing the left leg. Your arms should rise in front of you in response to the contraction, with your hands cupped.

Mécène’s advice: “You should be off-balance here almost immediately, letting the contraction pull you backward.”

Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Dance Company members sport bare feet in Duncan’s Bacchanal. (Vladimir Lupovsky)

When you’re sporting a pair of jazz shoes or ballet slippers, you can throw off strings of chaînés and multiple turns without a problem. But when you shed your footwear for modern class, everything changes. Your feet get sweaty and stick to the floor, making your movements jerky and uncomfortable. And those triples you can pull off in ballet shoes? Not happening.

Learning to dance barefoot like a pro takes time and patience. But for aspiring modern and contemporary dancers, the ability to move seamlessly without shoes is essential. And even ballerinas and commercial dancers can benefit from having this skill up their sleeves; you never know when a choreographer will ask you to shed your shoes. DS talked to the pros about the trials—and joys—of dancing barefoot.

Feeling the Floor, Then and Now

The history of barefoot dancing in the U.S. begins with Isadora Duncan, who shocked early-20th-century audiences by refusing to wear shoes when she performed. Duncan’s bare feet were a rebellious act, representing her desire to push dance beyond the rigid confines of classical ballet.

But there’s another side to this story, too. Some modern dance innovators, including Martha Graham, actually adopted the practice of dancing barefoot for practical reasons: Without shoes, Graham’s dancers could maintain better balance and stability. Emily D’Angelo, a current member of Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Dance Company, enjoys working barefoot for the same reasons. “When you’re barefoot, you have a larger area of contact with the floor, which makes balancing easier,” she says. “Your feet can widen into the floor and use their natural moisture to make a connection.” Next time you’re feeling frustrated in modern class, remember this: While your pirouettes may be suffering, your balance has probably never been better.

Making the Transition

Madelyn Ho and Justin Kahan in Paul Taylor’s Esplanade (Tom Caravaglia)

While D’Angelo grew up dancing barefoot, most dancers don’t begin to do so until later in their training. Taylor 2 dancer Madelyn Ho had never danced shoeless until her first college modern class. “It was so weird not having anything on my feet,” she remembers. To get used to dancing barefoot, Ho recommends dancers take the time to break down challenging steps, like turns and slides, moment by moment. Practicing movements slowly can help you figure out the places where your bare feet will stick or slip naturally. Instead of trying to work against the traction your feet feel on the floor, learn how you can work with it. “Once I learned to stay grounded while turning,” says Ho, “pirouettes without shoes came more naturally.”

Toughening Up

When you’re just beginning to dance barefoot, it doesn’t only feel strange—it’s often painful, too. Blisters, floor burns and split skin are no fun. But don’t worry: You’ll begin to build protective calluses on the toes and balls of your feet quickly. According to Dr. Donald J. Rose, director of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, you can accelerate the process by soaking your feet in black tea, which helps prevent skin damage. “The tannic acid in black tea helps harden the skin,” he says.

If you do experience a particularly bad split or blister, proper care is important. (Studio floors are dirty.) “Clean raw and open wounds to keep them from getting infected,” Rose advises. “Cover them while you dance with elastic athletic tape, but make sure to remove it at night to allow the wounds to heal.” Your calluses need a little TLC, too. “Thick calluses are likely to split or tear from underlying skin layers,” Rose warns. “Use a pumice stone to gently exfoliate calluses if they grow too dense.”

Practice Makes Perfect

As with most elements of dance, regular practice is the only tried-and-true way to get comfortable dancing shoeless. Don’t be tempted to “save your feet” by rehearsing a barefoot piece in socks or shoes—even if your choreographer allows it. You’ll only set yourself up for more challenges when it’s finally time to perform. Instead, advises Ho, relax and enjoy the experience. “I actually feel better when I’m barefoot,” she says. “It makes my dancing so much freer.”

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