Whether you are dancing the role of a swan queen, a pirate or portraying an abstract idea – all dancers face the challenge of dramatically channeling and communicating with the audience. Great technique is not enough to get the audience to feel the impact of your role. In a recent interview prima ballerina Diana Vishneva described her dramatic ability as a divine gift one can cultivate with hard work. Fortunately, for those of us to whom drama comes less easily, there are ways to develop and hone acting skills.
If your role is actually a character, that’s a great place to start. “For me it's impossible to perform until I'm able to feel the role, until it's under my skin and I take my breath as my character,” says Vishneva. What does it mean to let a role “under your skin?” Imagine her or his life, beyond the character’s moments on stage. Are you at a party? How did you feel when you got the invitation? Who else is there? Why would their actions affect your character? Are you a member of a cursed entourage (say, of swans or willis)? What was your life like before the curse? Do you identify with your co-cursed corps? In any case, how and why does your every motion convey and come from your character’s experience? Empathy is a powerful force in art. If you can truly empathize with your character, odds are much higher that the audience will empathize with you!
In addition to empathy, it is just as important to recognize your inner voice and have the confidence to express yourself freely. Examine the artistic process of Alessandra Ferri. Known as one of the world’s greatest dramatic ballerinas, Ferri spoke with Dance Magazine about her experience with melding the dance and acting worlds. To unleash a full breadth of expressions onto an audience “wasn’t casual,” Ferri explains, including that “it was a real search and experiment.” Susan Jaffe recalls her time as ABT principal dancer with Ferri, “Alex broke the mold of what it meant to be a ballerina. She was focused on dramatic impact and freedom of movement rather than ‘purity of style.’”
What if the role you are dancing is more abstract? You can begin your exploration with the music. “Everyone has life experiences that are emotional,” says Associate Artistic Director of Ballet Academy East’s pre-professional division Darla Hoover, in this Pointe article. “I’ll ask them, ‘How does this music make you feel? What happened in your life that fits that feeling?’”
Your choreographer will provide cues as well. For example, while working with dancers Stella Abrera and Alexandre Hammoudi during a workshop of his new piece, “Tocare,” choreographer Marcelo Gomes used evocative imagery to coax out subtle nuances from the dancers. At a section of the piece that was in no way pantomime-y, Gomes urged Abrera to think of “throwing a tantrum.” The suggestion of anger and was channeled into sharper footwork and more edginess.
Don’t forget that your face is part of your body and an important part of your performing instrument. In this Dance Magazine article, ABT soloist Sarah Lane, who was Natalie Portman’s dance double in the movie Black Swan, reflected on what she learned about acting from her experience in the movie. “Watching Natalie and the other actors made me think about how different it is when you’re seeing something up close. When you’re onstage, the audience is so far away. But it did make me think about how I could use my face more. And also just being more of a real person when you’re acting onstage, rather than overdramatizing something.”
It can be challenging to overcome feelings of self-consciousness. Channeling emotions requires some vulnerability. You must feel something to make the audience feel it, and that can be scary — especially if you’re worried about looking silly on top of it all. As with so many other challenges, practice and preparation help. Don’t wait until dress rehearsal or opening night. Practice your role from the beginning trying to understand it from different dramatic perspectives. By the time you get to the stage, it will look and feel far more natural, and your rehearsal director will notice your work along the way.