Dancing on camera has always been a part of the industry: Music videos, commercials and televised dance competitions are nothing new. But this year, dance on video has taken off—and along with it, new demands on dancers.
Dance Spirit spoke with Sophie Pittman, former contestant on "So You Think You Can Dance," Fiona Claire Huber, background dancer on "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," Oliver Halkowich, first soloist with Houston Ballet, and Kaycee Rice, former contestant on "World of Dance," for behind-the-scenes input on what it's like to perform in front of a lens.
Transitioning From Crowds to Cameras
Halkowich has danced his entire career at Houston Ballet in a theater that seats 2,300 people. But when onstage for the company's film series, In Good Company, this number dwindled drastically. "There was no hum of an excited audience past the curtain," Halkowich says, "just four people in masks and a camera."
"There's a big difference between dancing to one audience member—the camera lens—and dancing to an entire audience of people," Pittman says. It affects how you move, emote and connect.
On camera, move bigger than you think. "The camera takes away about 15 to 20 percent of the energy that you give," Pittman explains. "You have to dance even more full-out."
But be conscientious of how your movement matches your role. "With background work, like 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,' I never want to be too sharp, too distracting," Huber explains. "Whereas with a music video, my movement can be sharper and more dynamic."
Shooting Take After Take
On set for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," Huber danced a 10-hour day…to shoot a two-minute scene. While you may have multiple tries to get it right and smaller chunks of movement to dance each take, stopping and starting can wear you down.
"You have to be vocal," Pittman says. Don't be afraid to let the choreographer (or the director, if the choreographer isn't present) know that you need a minute between takes to grab some water or catch your breath. "Come prepared and know how to pace yourself," Pittman adds.
In every take, be mindful of what you're doing. "Consistency in spacing, in timing, even in how your costume lies is more important in film than in a live performance," Halkowich says. While filming for Houston Ballet's In Good Company, ballet master Amy Fote took notes on a whiteboard. "It was important to keep track of spacing and camera movement so things would line up in editing," Halkowich explains. "On the first day of filming I wore a jacket that we realized at the end of the shoot had torn. I came in the next day to refilm everything without the jacket."
Live performance is about the big picture. "There's more room for choices," Huber says. "Whereas on camera, it's about the details. Every time you do the scene, it has to be the exact same for continuity."
But don't let the lull of repetition dull your moves or affect your attitude. "Make it feel like the first time you're dancing each and every time," Rice says. If you have a bad take, shake it off. The camera catches variations in your approach that an audience member may not.
"A camera picks up authenticity at a faster rate," Halkowich says. "If you are feeling free and having fun, the camera recognizes that. If you are feeling anxious and uptight, the camera also understands that."
Houston Ballet first soloist Oliver Halkowich filming Stanton Welch's "In Good Company" for Houston Ballet's film series
Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy Houston Ballet
Locking on the Lens
A lens captures a more personal view than an audience member can see alone. "There was something more intimate about dancing for a camera, as if I was dancing for a single person," Halkowich says.
Use this close relation to the camera as a way to connect—with the audience and with yourself.
When Rice looks into the lens, she imagines looking into someone's eyes. "I'm talking to them directly, and my movement is conveying what I would say to them," Rice says. Relate that imagined person to the intention behind the piece. "Say the song's about love," Pittman suggests, "then the camera has to be my boyfriend."
"Another thing is connecting with myself," Rice says. "Because when the camera is so close, I want to make sure that I am in touch with how I'm feeling and what I want to come across."
Having this awareness is a sign of star quality. "When I watch a dancer on camera and they can make me feel something through the lens," Pittman says, "I know that they are a star."
Be wary that this dancer–camera connection depends on the job. Sometimes a choreographer or director may want you to look past the camera, ignoring it's there. While filming for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," for instance, Huber did not look directly into the camera, knowing her character was dancing as if in the middle of a 1960s party. "I think it's kind of like breaking the fourth wall," Huber says, referencing the imaginary boundary between a performer and the audience.
Pittman says it's always a good idea to ask the choreographer where to look before shooting.
Conquering the Camera
Dancing for film is a way to immortalize a performance, reach audiences beyond a theater's capacity and inspire others. But being in front of the camera can be intimidating, bringing new emotions, pressure and stressors to the prospect of performing.
"A lot of the last year working on film, I felt the most awkward I ever have about my dancing," Halkowich admits. "I would do the eight-counts and hear 'Cut,' and look at four people watching playback on a monitor and wonder, 'Did I do it right? Was I any good?'"
Rice, too, admits to the added pressure on camera, from how she moves to what she's wearing. "In this day and age of social media, too, it's scary because people judge," Rice says. But what she reminds herself and warns others: The worst thing dancers can do on camera is get in their heads.
"Be secure in yourself and who you are as an artist," Pittman urges. "You can't compare yourself to others or let what people say about your dancing impact you. Know your worth. Know your value."
This includes embracing your mistakes rather than fixating on them—an oftentimes easy thing to do when caught on camera. "Imperfections are what make us all human and interesting and different from one another," Halkowich says. "In movies, the flawed character is always more interesting to watch than the perfect one. The camera eats that up. Striving for perfection is a necessary part of a dancer's life, but remember, the audience wants to watch a human being."