Everyone loves a dancer that can truly become whatever character they are playing. I like to think that no matter what kind of ballet I’m doing, there is some sort of story involved-even if it is a short reperatory piece. If there is not a plot, I create one in my head. It is important that you approach your roles in a way that the audience will believe you. If you simply ‘act’, it will look fake. No matter if you are in the back of the corps or the principal out in front, thinking about what you are doing makes a world of difference.
Many dancers like to research the roles they are dancing. I like to do a little bit, but not too much. For instance, when I first danced Juliet, I read the play and watched a few tapes of different dancers in the role. However, I did not study for hours and hours. That would have completely overwhelmed me. Plus, I like to make a character my own. So I used them as inspiration and built my own version of her from there. To me, something much more important than the research is becoming the character in the moment. It honestly doesn’t matter HOW much preparation you do, if you do not ‘feel’ the character, it won’t look right. Something I do is to constantly have dialogue going in my head. For example, in dancing Juliet, when I see first Romeo, I literally think to myself “Who is that?”. When I am doing a big mime scene with my parents and the nurse, I have that dialogue in my head- “Why are you doing this to me?” or “Please don’t make me marry him!”. You get the idea. It sounds silly, but this allows your facial expressions to read correctly. If you are simply acting “sad” or “in love” or “angry”, it doesn’t work. This applies to any ballet. When I recently danced Swan Lake, I also had a story going in my head the whole time. That helped me really become either Odette or Odile, depending on what part of the ballet I was dancing. Many people like to draw on personal experiences to feel emotions onstage. That is great and works well, but it is not something I do. I bascially take my character’s brain and put it in my head. I think their thoughts and feel their emotions. Either way, you want to make sure everything will be realistic and not look “acted”.
Throughout a performance, different dancers maintain their characters in different ways. For instance, many like to stay in character the entire time- even in the wings between entrances or in the dressing room. For me, the minute I get offstage, I drop it. I find that maintaining my character, even offstage, tires me out. This allows me to have every entrance be fresh and exciting. For example, I remember between entrances in the white act of Swan Lake, I would joke around with Rothebart. Then the minute I went back out onstage, I switched back into Odette’s brain. Same happened for me in Juliet- between a really emotion scene with her parents and meeting the friar, I had a little conversation with a friend. Then, I snapped right back into “Juliet Brain” when I went back out onstage. There is NOT a right or wrong way of maintaining your character. You just have to find what works for you.
Finding a story in an abstract or “story-less” ballet can be difficult. Ask yourself “What is the music telling me?” or “What do I get or feel from this choreography?” Make up your own little plot! That keeps it interesting and gives you a purpose behind your dancing. The audience does not want to see you just “do the steps”. They paid for more than that! This also helps keep things
exciting when you have to do the same performance over and over. I remember when I was in the corps and danced all 46 performances of The Nutcracker, every show, all of us in Snow would come up with a theme for the day- we would pretend we were kids playing outside, Disney princesses, different jewels, etc. The steps all stayed the same and the audience had no idea, but to us, it really kept things new and different. Little things like that can really make each and every performance satisfying.
As I said earlier, it is SO important to remember that it doesn’t matter if you are in the last row of the corps or the lead ballerina, you need to dance as if you were the only one onstage. Believe it or not, the audience DOES see you, so really give everything you have to them. Plus, you will feel infinitely more satisfied in the long run!