New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns was just 19 the first time she danced the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. “I had only three weeks to learn it, rehearse it and get out there,” Mearns says. One minute she was in the studio, figuring out where to go and what to feel, and the next she was onstage in front of thousands of people. The experience felt like a whirlwind, yet it was also a huge success: Critics and fans alike fell in love with her dramatic portrayal of the swan queen.
How did she win their hearts? What did she do differently from all the other ballerinas who have danced Odette/Odile before her? Mearns is just another name in a long line of classical dancers to take on the iconic role, but she proves that you can find something new in a part that’s been around for ages. Even though you may be stepping into a role that’s been mastered by others in the past, remember that there are ways you can make it unique.
Do Your Homework
Most classical ballet dancers dream of doing Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Kitri in Don Quixote or the title roles in Giselle or Romeo and Juliet. If you get the opportunity to learn variations from these ballets in the studio or to perform them in a full-length production, it helps to do your homework. Watch videotapes and DVDs of other dancers in these roles so you can use what you like and leave what you don’t. “Watch and learn from other people, then forget about them,” Mearns advises. “See what you can find in the role, what your best aspects are.”
You may feel insecure with your part for a little while, but don’t be intimidated by the celebrities who have come before you. Whether you’re learning the role of Velma in Chicago (which has been popularized by everyone from Chita Rivera to Catherine Zeta-Jones) or your dream is to play Elphaba in Wicked (originated by Idina Menzel), you can use your instincts to individualize the part. Rylyn Juliano, who is currently playing Cassie in the national tour of A Chorus Line, says not to be afraid of making your own choices. If it feels right to accent a certain step or give a sly smile to the audience, do it—even if it’s not what the original character did. “Don’t second-guess yourself,” she says. “Go out there and do what you love, do what you know. You have to really commit to it.”
Find Your Moments
Stay true to the style of the piece you’re performing, but try to find your own special moments throughout the show. Juliano found it helpful to break down each section of Cassie’s number “The Music and the Mirror.” She analyzed every movement and thought about how she could apply her own ideas and intentions. Directors often love it when you add your own flavor to a part—just be sure you run your ideas by the person in charge.
It’s important to bring whoever you are as a person to the role. “The audience wants to be able to relate to you,” Juliano says. They want to see people onstage, not dancers and actors pretending to be something. If you have a good sense of humor, focus on the moments when your character usually gets a laugh. If you tend to be emotional, really let yourself get into the dramatic scenes. Your honesty will make your portrayal even stronger.
What if you’re dancing a role Trisha Brown originally choreographed on herself? Modern and contemporary choreography often has this kind of added pressure: Dancers must tackle a famous role and also fill the shoes of the person who envisioned it. When Leah Morrison from the Trisha Brown Dance Company danced Brown’s famous solo If You Couldn’t See Me, she felt intimidated. “I learned so much from working with Trisha,” she says. “But it’s important to let yourself experience a role from the inside rather than just holding on to this idea of what it should be.” Learn as much as you can about the ideas behind the movement and then embody them for yourself.
Practice With an Audience
If you usually rehearse alone in a studio, step out of your comfort zone and try practicing in front of your peers. Juliano had four intense weeks of rehearsals to learn her role in A Chorus Line. She ran her solo during lunch breaks with the whole cast watching and she got a lot of personal attention from the assistant choreographer. By the time she put on her red leotard for the tech rehearsal, she felt ready to go.
Seek a Good Eye
Find a solid coach, such as someone who knows the part well or who has danced it herself. She will give you added insight about the role. When Mearns portrays Odette/Odile, she works with NYCB ballet master Susan Hendl, and together they pick Swan Lake apart. “We get very emotional with it,” Mearns says. “The hard part is completely losing yourself.”
If possible, work directly with the choreographer. He or she will guide you and tell you where you can make subtle changes. And know that there’s a reason you were chosen to perform the role. “Trisha [Brown] has a trust for our individual intelligence,” Morrison adds. “She wants us to live in it and make choices as we go.”
Don’t Hold Back
The more you work and try new things in rehearsal, the easier it’ll be to find your way into a role. “If you feel like you want to go somewhere with it, then go,” Mearns says. “Maybe it won’t be right, but at least you tried.” Allow yourself to be creative, to take chances and risk getting it wrong. Only then do you really push the limits of what you think you can do.
“What makes a performer unique,” Morrison says, “is when you really live in the moment. Allow the audience to see you experiencing the role and breathing life into it.” After all, the dancers before you came and went. This is your moment, and people want to see you.
Julie Diana is a principal with Pennsylvania Ballet, holds a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania and writes for various dance publications.