The Show Must Go On: Dealing with Onstage Mishaps
Earlier this year, Ashley Green and Michael Hall—senior dancers at Columbia City Jazz in Lexington, SC—were performing their duet, Redemption, at a 24 Seven Regionals competition. It'd already been a long day, and they were tired. Near the end of their performance, disaster struck: Michael's leg gave out during a lift and both dancers ended up on the ground. But in the blink of an eye, Ashley made their fall look intentional. “She got up, looked at him as if he'd wronged her, and exited without him," recalls CCJ artistic director Dale Lam. “Her recovery worked so well that they changed the routine, took it to Nationals that way and won!"
For 17-year-old Ashley, stopping the piece to deal with the fall wasn't an option. “When things go wrong, I just keep moving and try not to show it on my face," she says. “No matter what, you have to make it work."
Having that never-quit mentality can pay off, but the mantra of “The show must go on," especially in the face of onstage calamity, is easier said than done. Whether it's a glitch in the music, a costume that comes undone or a partner who drops the ball (or drops you!), here's how to handle the most unfortunate of performance circumstances.
Music malfunctions are all too common, especially for competition dancers who are often playing their songs on new devices at each event. When you're onstage by yourself, turning to your improv skills when the music skips or stops may be enough to save you. But staying in sync in a group number is tricky when you don't have the music on your side. Lam has her dancers practice combinations without music, so they learn to keep time by breathing together. “You can stay on the rhythm by noticing the beat of feet on the floor and listening to each other's breath," she says. Lam has also seen dancers in musical theater numbers save the show by singing their music during a technical glitch. “They were so connected to the song, and the audience loved it," Lam says. “When things go wrong, you can get upset or you can do something totally unexpected. And in the latter case, the audience will be forgiving."
In their duet, Redemption, Ashley Green and Michael Hall used an onstage flub to their advantage. (Photo courtesy Dale Lam)
So will the judges. Professional tapper Melinda Sullivan says that, when judging competitions, she'll never take off points for a mishap that's outside of a dancer's control—as long as it's handled well. “At New York City Dance Alliance this year, I remember thinking one group number was great, but then there was an announcement that the number was running again because they'd performed the whole piece to the wrong music," Sullivan says. “Since they stayed committed, I had no idea!"
When costumes rip or come untied, dancers have a choice to make: Should they fix it onstage, make a quick exit or let it be? Choreographer Stacey Tookey remembers the first time she had to make this tough call as a teenager, when a halter top came untied completely. “I unfortunately opted to continue dancing while holding my top up for the whole routine," Tookey says. “But now I know that if you're really exposed, it's OK to leave the stage." This is especially true for a group routine: Ducking into the wings to fix a costume calamity might pull less focus than trying to retie a top mid-routine. If you can, exit and reenter during formation changes, when the audience is less likely to notice. Keep a sewing kit handy backstage in case you need to make last-minute repairs or adjustments.
While props can add an extra spark to a number, they're an inevitable performance hazard—you know someone is bound to drop something. But what happens if you're the culprit? Lam says retrieving your fallen prop is usually the smartest option, especially if there's a risk of someone tripping on the item or having to dance around it. “Everyone in the audience will be distracted by the prop on the ground for the rest of the piece, so stay in character and pick it up," she says.
Tookey agrees: “Odds are you'll need to use the prop later, so try to fix the situation and get back on track as fast as possible," she says. “But if the prop goes flying and rolls into a back corner, don't run across the stage." If your prop is truly out of reach, carrying on empty-handed is a wiser choice. And if you see someone else's abandoned prop on the ground, it might be worth taking a second to kick it offstage to prevent a face-plant.
You may remember 2 Steps Away, one of Tookey's duets for Kathryn McCormick and Jonathan “Legacy" Perez on “So You Think You Can Dance" Season 6. But did you know it included an onstage mishap? “Legacy was supposed to give Kathryn's leg a slight pull in arabesque, but he pulled so hard she landed on her butt," Tookey says. “Kathryn got up and kept going so seamlessly that even I didn't notice the mistake!" (No one else noticed, either—the routine earned Tookey her first Emmy nomination.)
Being able to carry on when a fellow dancer messes up—or messes you up—is a skill that really comes down to mind-set. “A mistake can be distracting and throw you off," Sullivan says. “But I love the statement 'strong and wrong.' If you make a bold choice and keep it moving, the audience won't know the difference." Confidence, Sullivan notes, is key when you're improvising to cover someone else's error—or your own.
Rio Anderson doesn't let herself dwell on mid-performance mistakes (photo by Sandy Lee, courtesy Rio Anderson)
Most importantly, don't let a mishap psych you out. Rio Anderson, 17, from San Francisco, CA, remembers having to recover from a fall at the Youth America Grand Prix Gala in Indianapolis. “The hardest part was that I spent the rest of the piece worrying that I messed up," says Rio, who currently trains at The Royal Ballet School in London. “Now I try not to get caught up thinking that every performance has to be perfect. As a dancer, you have to assume that things will go wrong, but you'll be able to deal with them as they come."
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Say you're perpetually impeccable designer Thom Browne. Say you're planning your Spring 2020 Paris menswear show along a "Versailles country club" theme. Say you want a world-class danseur to open the show with some kind of appropriately fabulous choreography.
Who do you call? James Whiteside, of course. On Saturday, the American Ballet Theatre principal—wearing pointe shoes and a glorious pinstriped tutu—kicked off Browne's presentation at the École des Beaux-Arts with a 15-minute, show-stealing solo. Whiteside choreographed the piece himself, with the help of detailed notes from the designer.