Dance and the Acting Challenge

One of my recent posts was about the wildly different expectations that different kinds of audience have when attending a ballet evening – that explain why so many leave necessarily disappointed.  Now, I’m addressing a certain kind of audience, MY kind, most of all – the premises being: good acting is important, body-language is important, meaning is necessary – technique must be subordinated to them.

Different from theatre and movies, where natural, life-like acting is used almost 100% of the time, in dance there are many choices.

Believable Acting
“Suspension of disbelief”: Vanessa Redgrave – Heath Ledger – Johny Depp – Adrian Ross Magenty, Emma Thompson, Helene Bonham-Carter

No acting at all is the first of them – and the strangest one for me: that a performance art should give up meaning, that dance should give up body-language, and become just pure form!

Then there is formalistic acting, more than one kind. The traditional one is grounded on century-old mime, and looks very strange to me, but has fierce fans. More modern kinds are used mostly in contemporary dance, usually a choice made by the choreographer himself, and I can see their value, even if it is not the kind I like most.

Traditional mime
Giselle’s mother warns her of her weak heart, and the risk of death.

And finally believable acting, of course, the kind that “suspends your disbelief” – the only kind I consider GOOD acting, and the most difficult one.

So there are choices to be made by the choreographer, or even the artistic director, and then by the dancers themselves. I always hope they choose the kind I prefer – that theatre and movie actors prefer -, but there are so many obstacles to see my wish fulfilled!

The training

In the great Ballet Schools acting is part of the program, but not a central one, it remains far, far, very far behind all-important physical technique – with special care to traditional formalistic mime.  A dancer with natural acting skill is always in danger of having to un-learn intellectually what he already knew instinctively…

The training in Contemporary Dance Schools and in Performance Arts courses in universities is a lot better, but aimed mostly… at Contemporary Dance, of course! And for all I have seen, emphasis is on expressive choreography (a good, very good thing, by the way!). So what about the classical trained dancers?

Needs x requirements

There are so many dramatic ballets, by so many important choreographers: Tudor, Ashton, Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, MacMillan, Neumeier, Liam Scarlett, Grigorovitch, Ratmansky, and on it goes… These ballets deserve good acting! These ballets NEED good acting!

Marcia Acting
Marcia Haydée – Lady of Camelies (Neumeier)

But acting skill, and I mean GOOD acting, is NOT a real requirement when selecting, promoting or hiring a dancer – again, physical technique is far more valued!

When it comes the moment to perform, however, all expect (at least the audience does!) the dancer will know his acting! What do dancers do, then? Try to be the best they can, learning maybe from his fellow-dancers or by themselves… not an easy task, either way – his fellows are at a loss just as he/she is, and learning alone has limited efficacy and is time-consuming.

The traditional Standards

Many dancers complain of the tight acting standards they must obey in the big companies, that go from a prescribed way of acting to an open disapproval of any display of individuality.

Type-casting

This is a tough one, that wastes the rare natural acting talents in roles that do not require acting, and also the contrary, using in dramatic roles dancers that do not have (“my” kind of!) acting skill.  A real shame!

Alina Somova as Juliet
Alina Somova – Romeo and Juliet

The audience…s

There are several kinds of audiences, with different expectations on acting. Choreographers, coachers, dancers, artistic directors, when they make a choice, are also choosing the kind of audience they will be addressing – it is impossible – read that again, I beg you: it is IMPOSSIBLE – to please all of them at the same time! It means that, if we ALL keep attending ALL kinds of performance, THEY must know they will certainly displease many of us… an uncomfortable trap!

Acting Itself

When a dancer is cast in a dramatic role, and willing to make a good job, he/she has challenges to win that are intrinsic to acting.
To make a character believable, it must be coherent throughout the play, and, at the same time, full of nuances – no matter what kind of character.  This requires a deep understanding of the human being, and great empathy, to perform even someone the dancer is not, or does not feel like.

Alina - Giselle 1
Alina Cojocaru – Giselle Mad Scene

He must also grasp what the choreographer, and the artistic director, intended from his character, and incorporate these intentions to his own interpretation.

The role he creates cannot exist alone, it must interact believably with the other roles in the play – may the other dancers be good actors, too, or not!

The dancer is not acting in front of a camera that can show the slightest tremor of the lid – he must reach down to the last rows – and THIS requires great skill!

He/she must be able to create on-the-run empathy, to feel how we-seated-there-in-the-dark are reacting, and make us follow, feel with he wants.

And last but not least, he/she cannot be self-conscious! On stage, an actor cannot be Mr. X making a careful performance of Macbeth… he must be Macbeth himself – as a dancer cannot be Mr. Z performing Armand, he must BE Armand. When acting is good, you forget about X and Z, and see only the role. Not an easy feat… careful, self-conscious performers as most dancers are!

While dancing!

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Alessandra Ferri and Hernan Cornejo – Cheri

All this challenges, of course, must be faced while making a great display of balletic technique, caring for the partner, finding his cues and place on stage, following the music…
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Is it not incredible that the acting of some dancers, despite all that, is able to blow me off my feet? More than that, is it not incredible that some of them blow me off my feet, not at the expense, but while displaying great dancing?

Awesome creatures!

Some of them are as good in dramatic as in comic roles, like amazing Alessandra Ferri, or great Manuel Legris… Some of them are as good seen from afar as in a close-up, in fact good enough for an Oscar (now I’m thinking of Alina Cojocaru)…

Manuel Legris - Die Fledermaus
Ketevan Papava and Manuel Legris – Die Fledermaus – Click on image to link to video, it is delicious!

They are ALMOST inexistent in the triangle USA/Russia/England (I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true!), most dancers who are also good actors come from France, Germany, Spain, Latin America… a handful of them nowadays, no more – with so much obstacles, if the dancer hasn’t natural skill, and a persistent drive to use it, he is doomed.

 In the newest generation they are even rarer, especially in classical ballet. It is not surprising – nowadays Form and perfect physical technique are valued much higher – overrated, I would say – and not only in Dance, it is a wide-spread characteristic of modern society! Content? meaning? well, so long it does not overshadow technique, it may receive some attention…

The greatest exception between the younger ones in Triangle of Bermudas of acting is Ivan Vasiliev, the only one of his generation to cope with the whole array of acting challenges from the start, with flying colours. He is able to bring life and meaning to any role, tragical or comical, from Czar Ivan, The Terrible to Colas in La Fille Mal Gardée – besides having a wealth of other qualities.

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He must make deliberate choices about each of his perfomances, because the outcome is always unique and specific, deeply coherent in both the dramatic and technical dimensions of the role.

Ivan Vasiliev, of course, is not unanimity in the audience, as no other dancer is – one could not expect THAT with so different kinds of public. Maybe he is aware that the choices he makes will please many of us, but not all – those like me, luckily, seem to be priority number one in his book!

02ivan-vasiliev
Le Jeune Homme et La Mort

 

I wish more of the classical trained younger dancers were like him…

After all, concert dance is a Performance Art! Or is it possible to disagree even on that?

This blog’s nice Quest: “Psst, you!, come, you will love Dance!”

Dance was the first great passion in my life, but even when I was part of our Dance community, little information about what was going on “there, where it matters” reached us – if at all, with great delay. We were just too far away, and Communication Age had not yet begun. I was lucky, I had teachers that were ex-dancers that had gone abroad and eventually came back with solid knowledge and great technical skill, but this happened so seldom, less than once in a decade! All I knew by then was pure classical (the most contained, severe English style!) and Martha Graham.  When I gave up dancing, I kept the greatest possible distance between me and all that concerned Ballet, by my own choice – a kind of Dance “coma”…

I awakened to a “new” world, a world I had not been aware existed.

I was searching YouTube for classical Music works  that had never graced the shelves of my city’s stores, when I linked to a piece that was just score to a ballet. BALLET! I realized, for the first time, that I could now see ballets, performances, dancers I had only heard about before – and was suddenly overcome by an urgent longing for Dance. I started with Martha Graham, and went on on suggested links, Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch, Twyla Tharp…  Awesome! I remember clearly my amazement,  as I realized all that had happened during the time I had been “away”.

Eventually I clicked on Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello” staged by San Francisco Ballet, Desmond Richardson and Yuan Yuan Tan as principals. I was mesmerized! So beautiful this blend of classical and contemporary, so different from all I had known, the richer choreography, the amazing male roles – these men were REALLY dancing!  And choreography and dancers were all so deeply expressive! I watched it three times in a row before I could go on.

I went on to Othello’s PDD danced by Marcelo Gomes and Alessandra Ferri. WOW…! Until that moment, all I knew about him was that he is a Brazilian ballet dancer who succeded abroad.  I searched more.
AlessandraFerriOthello

Wow!… WOW!…

Two more days with my eyes glued to the screen, and I knew ALL about him and Alessandra I could get on the web: clips, interviews, pictures, reviews. Marcelo Gomes led me next to the Kings of the Dance.

I clicked on Labyrinth of Solitude.

Ivan Vasiliev in Labyrinth of Solirude - chr. Patrick De Bana - Photographer: Nikolay Krusser
Ivan Vasiliev in Labyrinth of Solirude – chr. Patrick De Bana – Photographer: Nikolay Krusser

I had never seen anything so beautiful and heartbreaking before. It was so overwhelming I  stopped  all I was doing , and went for a walk to think about what I had seen. My life had suffered a division: there is a before and an after Labyrinth.

THIS much meaning, feeling, power could be conveyed through Dance!! I knew, back from my days, that for those who dance, it can be a deep sensorial and emotional  experience, but I had been also sadly aware that this experience was not extended to our audience! A Ballet evening was just a sophisticated event that  people with cultured tastes felt obliged to attend, but the moment the curtains closed, they started talking about where to have dinner,   the stock market…  – had that evening existed or not, nothing was changed.

But THIS! this was something else. Labyrinth had blowed me off my feet! Not as a dancer, but as audience. And not in a theatre, seated in the dark, magic flowing from a lighted stage, but at home, my pets fooling around me, phone ringing, – on a 14″ notebook with awful sound quality…

It became my favourite work, and a sort of standard. I like everything about Labyrinth. The theme; the music (Vitali, strange composer, who created this one sweeping, emotional score 150 years ahead of his time…); the way it is danced by Vasiliev, believable and intense;  the absence of settings and costume;  De Bana’s expressive choreography, and how he blended all of it into something that was more than the sum of parts.

After gathering  my wits back, I searched further (my ethernal gratitude to YouTube’s inventor!), and started to identify  which choreographers and dancers had been – and are now – responsible for this new (for me) richness.  I knew several by name or a rare photo, but had never SEEN the real dancing, believe it or not!  My personal  “hall of fame”  became a mix of active and retired professionals, even some  long passed away – problem is, they jumped into my life all at once, it took me some time to correctly locate them in space and time – they were all very “here and now”  in my mind  – they still are, and I like it that way.

I fell deeply in love with Dance again, more than before. I saw, at last, Dance becoming an Art like her sisters. THIS was what Dance should be, anyone could appreciate, could  love it now, men and women, young and old, expert or not. Anyone should be given the opportunity to experience its power, everyone should be exposed to its magic: I had a Quest!

My other projects (I always have too many, anyway) became less important, as my knowledge and awareness grew steadily. I’m fortunate that I can now, as never before in a too busy life, open my door and let Dance and Music come in and make themselves really comfortable in me. (only problem is, I suffer from fits of goose-bumps at an alarming rate nowadays).

The Quest means no hard work at all:  I use it as an excuse to write about beauty and art gifted people create for us – giving Dance some thought while I write – not as an expert, but as the grateful receiving end, and then throw it in the wind/web, hoping it makes a difference, even the tiniest one, in bringing Dance closer to a wider audience. The other task is to win people around me over… making  them some pleasure,  too,  when I succeed.  Is that nice or what?

Quote of the Day – Sylvie Guillem

Sylvie-Guillem“For all of you, who are sending me all those incredible notes thanking me… It’s the opposite I have to thank all of you who followed me and bought tickets , filling up theatre showing to all the” professionals of the profession” you , as me, were thinking there was a different way to approach classical ballet , there was a different way to tell stories ..those fantastic classics as Swan Lake , the scariest one to dance, is not a stupid duck with a tutu a point, but a woman who suffers , accepts to die for the man she loves, who care about the triple pirouettes and the quadruple fouettes if the public is not touched by what you are saying .”

Posted on her Facebook Page on this date. The whole text and the following comments are worth seeing!

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On Ferri and Vasiliev, or Magic and the Comfort Zone

Magic and the Comfort Zone

A short time ago Alessandra Ferri posted this on her Facebook Page. OF COURSE she would like the little drawing – this is what she is, someone who is always taking risks, and delving further and deeper into her artistry. She is wonderful, all I ask for in a dancer! If there is an example that all dancers should follow, it’s hers.

It was sad when she retired some years4_194451 ago, and I hoped she would at least coach a whole new generation of dancers to become as amazing as she was. But she had really retired…  And then, two years ago she did something that was Alessandra Ferri all over: she dared to come back, after 7 years away, when she was 50 years old.

She, nonplussed, got involved in wonderful, daring, beautiful projects – I’m grateful she constantly steps out of her own limits in search for more – and keeps creating magic for us. Now she’s working with Wayne MacGregor on a project about Virginia Woolf’s works!

Art cannot exist except in constant change, constant experimentation, constantly going beyond what IS… because that is how Life is! Art withers away, becomes empty and dry if it does not encompass evolving Life, and more than just that, goes beyond it. So I have a great respect, and a special fondness, for artists that are restless, that constantly experiment, seeking new kinds of challenge, new ways to serve their Art.

See this photo.

Ivan The Terrible
Ivan Vasiliev – Rehearsal of Ivan, The Terrible

Are you WOWing? I’m too! That Ivan Vasiliev even DARES such a jump! I only hope he did not fall flat on his nose after this incredible moment, because I like his handsome nose!  Luckily, if there is someone capable of landing nicely after that, it’s him!

Now see this short video (a few days later – and whole nose!).

Underwood

Ivan Vasiliev is dancing (with Denis Savin)… a choreography of his own. I don’t know about you, but I am WOWing again! About the choreography’s value? Too few seconds, no way to know if it is good, yet.  NO, this is not what I’m cheering here.

Even before I can see the whole piece, I applaud that he is trying new ways that early in his artistic life. Others did try their hands on choreography, a lot later most of them, and given their experience by then, maybe could be a lot surer about their work. Ivan challenges himself so much, I bet he is never sure of what will happen.  Even so, he goes for it, and goes with all he has.  Sometimes things work out nicely, sometimes not that much – and often he creates magic so powerful as to melt us in our seats. THAT is all I ask!

When he first appeared on stage, I believe a lot of ballet-lovers thought THERE was someone that could be the ultimate Perfect Dancer, and were disappointed that he never became this idealized being (even grudging him for that – badly – a problem that is theirs, not his).

Against all safety (not only physical!), against ballet’s status quo approval, sometimes against audience wishes, against a lot of opinions on his private life, his technique, his looks, his behaviour, Ivan goes his way, not unerringly, but HIS way –  a road he is opening as he goes on. Not arrogance, but bravery is needed to do that. He is brave, and is doing EXACTLY what every artist MUST, and should do. The effort needed – inevitably – is making him grow all the time, if we see it or not, if we like what he is growing into or not.

I never looked for a perfect dancer, I always looked for magic-creating dancers, and for Dance’s vitality and evolution. That means that I’m not only NOT disappointed over some failed idealization of Ivan Vasiliev, on the contrary, I like the notion that he has human flaws and artistic flaws the same as EVERY SINGLE artist, dancer or not, that came before him and will come after him – ALL have, more or less, their specific weaknesses and strengths – and still, is an outstanding artist. As a fact, THIS is, in my eyes, what make artists so special:  that even being imperfect human beings, like we all are, they are able to raise above mediocrity and become great, and create something special! The beauty of that notion – that Humanity, imperfect as Nature always is, is able to create Art!

I wish we could let artists, whatever Art we may be speaking of, be free to be what they are and do, and just be grateful when they create something almost too good to be true… then they could continuously try without fear of making mistakes or being “not perfect” (in all the ways different minds deem necessary)! Myself, I can certainly patiently wait, through several performances, until I hit the one that blows me off my seat! THIS one is worth all the trials, and eventual errors, that came before! There is no safety in Art, no way to secure a miracle each single time.

Alessandra in Pavane
Alessandra Ferri in Pavane by Hidemi Seto

If artists are allowed to try and make mistakes, they eventually find THEIR way to do things, and become ALMOST a certainty of a small miracle each single time. This will not happen, however, if we demand certain behaviour, or a certain kind of skill of them, or a certain kind of performance.  Artists must be free, and technique… ah, technique…  must be just the necessary and sufficient not to limit them in what they want to achieve!

Rehearsal of Notre Dame
Ivan Vasiliev rehearsing for Petit’s Notre Dame

It is not for us to say what they should achieve, or how… we are at the receiving end, a passive end, we totally depend on them, and our efforts to guarantee a certain result always have the exact opposite effect… The most we can do is tell them how we feel when they perform – with no expectations – because if their drive to go forward is too strong, they will not be interested, not even in us.  And that’s the way it should be!

We, reviewers, audience, fans, are often mighty preposterous (and silly) in what we demand of artists – as if we had the ultimate knowledge on how they should be and create. My, we know nothing about ourselves and make a mess out of our own lives, how can we be so arrogant about these special, gifted people that give us so much?

Grateful! We must be just GRATEFUL!