A beautifully executed manège—a whirlwind series of steps performed in a circular pattern around the stage—can create a powerful, dramatic climax onstage. But while a manège is always impressive to watch, it isn't always easy to perfect. Even the pros struggle with them: Boston Ballet principal Misa Kuranaga remembers one rehearsal of John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet where she "cut through center stage, and didn't even realize it!" during a manège of sauts de basque and step-up turns.
So, how can you master manèges? The secret lies in figuring out how to keep your balance while constantly changing direction.
Before you tackle a manège, practice moving in just one direction. "You have to understand the coordination and dynamics of the steps before you can think about how you're going to travel in a circle," says Michelle Martin, associate artistic director of Ballet Austin. "Start by working on a straight diagonal."
Ballet Austin dancers mid-manège in "The Nutcracker" (Anne Marie Bloodgood, courtesy Ballet Austin)
Once you're comfortable executing the steps on that path, you can begin to analyze the manège. "If you're doing coupés jetés, for example, think about when the change starts to happen with each rotation," says Martin. "Determine which direction each battement will need to go." The angles you take could depend on the length of your legs and the size of the space.
Think Box, Not Circle
Martin often tells dancers to move in a box shape first, so that there are four clear lines of direction: "That'll make it easier to determine where you're stepping and spotting." Once you figure out how to navigate the corners, you can gradually round out the edges.
Or not. Jermel Johnson, principal at Pennsylvania Ballet, uses the box idea in performance as well as practice. "I used to think of a manège as a circle, but then I'd do this weird thing where I'd tilt toward the center of the circle," he says. That "tilt" is a common problem, and can reduce the span and space you're covering and distort your line. It can also sabotage your manège once you start adding harder technical elements. "It's easier for me to go in a straight line and then change direction as I get to the corner," Johnson says—and the same may be true for you.
"Point" with Your Whole Body
During the manège, think about pointing every part of your body in the direction you want to go. Let your eyes—i.e., your spot—lead the way: "Every space is different, so I'll map out the circle first and pick different places to spot," Kuranaga says. Then, during every rotation, make sure your fingers, toes, and chest are following the trajectory set by your spot, which will help propel you forward on the right path.
Work Both Sides
Martin always asks students to do a manège to both sides, even though dancers generally have the option to choose one direction when performing a variation or coda. "By working out the trouble spots that come with your less preferred side, you learn about how to make your more efficient side even better," she says.
Pennsylvania Ballet's Jermel Johnson in Matthew Neenan's "Archiva" (photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet)
Johnson, for example, has trouble doing coupés jetés to the left—but always practices them anyway. "That direction isn't natural for me, so I really have to think about the position I need to hit," he says. "But when I focus on rolling through the toes, pushing off the back leg, and timing the lift of my battement strategically, I sometimes get a compliment about being well placed!"
A version of this story appeared in the September 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Mastering Manège."