Performance Story: Once Upon a Ballet

The walls of the theater look like the walls of a castle, don’t they? And scenery is like the page of a storybook…

“She sleeps: her breathings are not heard
  In palace chambers far apart.
  The fragrant tresses are not stirr’d
  That lie upon her charmèd heart.”

-The Sleeping Beauty by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Stepping inside a fairy tale never gets old.

Growing up, I loved getting so lost in a book that I felt like I was in its story. I went on to major in English in college.

But, with narrative ballets, I discovered a more thrilling way to be lost in a story—by becoming a character in it.

I also love music, particularly classical music. So, I find it special that, in this form of storytelling, music plays a large role in creating your character’s feelings within you, sweeping you into the plot and inspiring expression in motion.

Sleeping Beauty is, thus far, my second favorite story ballet to perform in after The Nutcracker. I’ve been in it three times now, most recently this past winter when I entered the tale as a member of the royal court and as a villager.

 My costumes! Garlands and flowers for the village Kelly Milam as the Queen

 1. My costumes 2. Village garlands and roses 3. Kelly Milam as the Queen

Being absorbed into a drama is also liberating on a personal level, because, like many performers, I’m rather reserved in real life.

During rehearsals, it’s harder to come out of my shell and act in the studio than onstage. In the theater, the atmosphere of fantasy created with costumes, sets, lighting etc. helps dissolve feelings of self-consciousness. In the studio, that alchemy of elements isn’t present.

One little thing I found that helped the dramatic process this time though was giving my rehearsal look a makeover.

In the past, I typically wore everyday clothes to rehearsals for character roles. But it was time for a change. My fellow adult ballerina Kelly Milam usually wears a lovely, long dance skirt to practice in. I used her as my fashion inspiration.

I looked for character skirts online, but the reviews of most available styles said the sizes ran very small. So, I ended up purchasing a Body Wrappers worship dance skirt to wear with a leotard.

The movement of the skirt’s fabric as I rehearsed formed its own dance, simulating the sensation of wearing the kind of costumes I would wear in the performance. It helped me be more immersed in the story and feel freer.

A new look.

The week before we transitioned to the theater, I thought I knew pretty much everything I’d be doing in the show: attending a royal christening, birthday, and wedding, whirling through village merriment…

Then, I got a last-minute surprise.

I found out I was going to be dancing with one of the professional male dancers who were guesting from Madison Ballet in Wisconsin.

Phillip Ollenburg and I would dance together in a passage of the “Garland Waltz”– which just happens to be my favorite part of the ballet. (As Disney fans know, the song Once Upon a Dream is based on the music used in this scene.) Our dance was composed of balletic folk/historical type-steps: natural, uncomplicated choreography that allows you to enjoy the movement and the moment. Yes, it was as fun as it sounds!

Sleeping Beauty unfolded during the last weekend in February.

Yes, it was all over too soon, as always.

Inevitably, with any performance, there are things you wished you’d done better, but that’s the nature of live theater. And, by the end of the week, you feel like you’re ready for your own hundred-year nap! At the same time, you’re wishing you could come back and do it all again the next weekend and the next weekend after that.

Post-performance blues? Ouch, they hit hard afterwards. To any performer, I highly recommend Dance Spirit’s article Coming Down Easy. It’s a great breakdown of the slump you feel following a show, why it’s normal, and how to deal with it.

Still, coming out of that slump is different for each performance. This one proved more difficult than others. Well, I guess that’s a good thing. It means it was that much more enjoyable!

Hopefully, it won’t be long before it’s time for “once upon a time” again…

Guest Post: Performing Character Roles

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 Party Scene in Birmingham Ballet’s Nutcracker

Adult ballet students often find themselves cast as party guests, mothers and fathers, royal court members, and villagers. On the surface, these can seem like “little” parts. But, as veteran performers know, character roles are challenging, rewarding, and worthwhile–not to mention being important to the plots of story ballets! Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet, told Pointe Magazine, “In a character part, the dancer doesn’t have the technical framework of a traditional role to fall back on. It’s all acting. People really have to go deep into their emotional side, and it takes guts to get out there and do that.”

Ideas for Preparing for Character Roles…

Think about the “who, what, and why” of your character –what motives them, how they respond to different situations, and why they respond this way. If your character doesn’t have a name or back story, create one yourself.

In her video Becoming a Character – NutcrackerKathryn Morgan, a former New York City Ballet soloist, says that you should ask yourself the five key questions that actors are taught to inquire about their characters:

“Who am I?

“Where am I going?”

“Who am I going to meet when I get there?”

“What do I want?”

“What extent am I willing to go to get that?”

Morgan also advises that you consider, “What is the music telling me?” She says, “The music is your guide to your character.”

Watch movies with characters similar to one you’re going to play. 

When New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin was preparing for the role of Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, she turned classic childhood films for inspiration. She told Pointe Magazine, “I called my dad and asked him to send me tapes of every Disney movie that had an evil witch! I took a lot from 101 Dalmations’ Cruella de Vil in particular.”

The first year that I was cast as the feisty, flirtatious maid in the Nutcracker party scene, I used Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolitte from My Fair Lady as inspiration for interpreting my part. Like my character, Eliza is working-class, spirited, romantic and enjoys dancing and chocolates. I also liked Eliza’s animated body language and I tried to imbue some of that energy into my performance.

If your character’s personality is more open to interpretation, such as a party parent or royal court member, period dramas or movies and tv series from the fantasy genre might be a place to find a character to inspire yours.

Remember, you don’t have to directly mimic every aspect of a film character, you can just take elements of their personality, expressions, and body language that you like best and that work well for your role.

Watch performances of ballet character parts on YouTube, DVDs, or live if possible.

Do strengthening exercises like Pilates. Movement is part of acting and greater strength will improve your overall movement quality. This will help your performance even if your character doesn’t dance or isn’t supposed to be graceful. American Ballet Theatre director Kevin McKenzie explained to PlaybillArts, “Character performances must be defined by energy—by how the dancer moves.”

Film yourself rehearsing at home. Experiment with different expressions, reactions, and gestures. See which ones you like best.

Have fun! Character roles are great opportunity to explore your dramatic side and become more fully immersed in the fairy tale onstage.

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Photo by Rachel Hellwig.

~Resources~

Pointe Magazine: Quite A Character

PlaybillArts: In Character with ABT: Exploring Character Roles in Ballet

Becoming a Character – Nutcracker | Kathryn Morgan:

Rehearsal of Carabosse for the Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty: