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.

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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!

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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?

About graceful dancers – Part 1: the Girls

The last sentence I wrote in the Quote of Alina Cojocaru, a few days ago, kept ringing on my own head:  “And she is so graceful!”. Some months ago I also wrote about this quality of Ivan Vasiliev’s dancing that can only be called manly gracefulness, as I don’t know any other word that fits. Why did I see the need to state it? Are not all dancers graceful?  Yes, they are… but I meant it in a very specific, not self-evident,  sense of my own.  What I had in mind was:  they move with natural, seemingly effortless, maybe even unconscious, perfect grace.

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Alina Cojocaru in Giselle Act 1
with Manuel Legris

Some dancers seem to have studied for a long time how to make their movements the most beautiful … and some seem to just BE beautiful moving.  I don’t know exactly WHAT the difference is, but I get it after the first minutes of watching anyone dance. How I perceive it still eludes me. It’s not in the beauty itself, as I’m talking about a group where all are outstanding,  but about the kind of beauty, and how it is achieved. Some have this more fluid, free, almost instinctive quality to their movements – graceful movements  seem to spring out of them  as natural as breathing, and are lovely exactly because of that. Other dancers move so carefully, I sense – somehow – there are endless hours of rehearsal behind every port-de-bras.

I realize it does not make sense, since ALL dancers have this love/hate relationship with the studio’s mirror, the severe critic with whom they spend most of their time, and most respect! But still… it’s as if some dancers don’t worry, or forget the mirror when they are on stage, and just… dance!  They LET themselves dance, while others deliberatedly, self-consciously, MAKE their bodies dance.

—– A metaphore: it’s like the difference between an artificial, perfectly formed flower, and a real flower, where life’s miracle expresses itself in texture, fragrance, shades of colour, singularity. It’s a matter of taste: some prefer the silken man-made perfection, I prefer vitality and natural beauty. —

To me as audience, it makes a great difference. The careful dancers don’t seem at ease, and don’t let ME be at ease. I see – somehow – their great effort to create beauty, and then I cannot forget myself into their dancing, it makes magic more difficult to happpen: they push me into a role of my own, I am the Mirror now…

Some people are just born that way, I mean common people, not just professional dancers: they are graceful  sitting, laughing, talking on the phone, running, whatever. I suppose all dancers have this inborn grace – or they wouldn’t be dancers, would they?  Why , then, the painstakingly worry about the ideal form? Maybe they don’t trust their own grace? or their training/coaching damped it down, so they could achieve a certain aesthetic? I mistrust Vaganova, the Royal Ballet, ABT, for example, too much dancers there are… so careful!

So I have this unanswered question: are only my graceful ones born dancers, or what I see is the consequence of hiding natural beauty under an artificial, carefully construed one?  I don’t know.

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Alina Cojocaru in Giselle – click to link
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Alina Cojocaru in Sleeping Beauty – click to link
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Uliana Lopatkina in Carmen – click to link

Examples!

Alina Cojocaru is Grace itself wearing point-shoes. I could watch her endlessly. There are two more links on her, chosen at random.  Compare with other famous dancers and you will see what I mean (I hope).

Alonso’s Carmen is a ballet I had a hard time liking, it’s so odd – but Uliana Lopatkina made me love it, she seems to be enjoying the dancing, and her Carmen to be having fun with her seduction games – a wellcomed change to other Carmens, that stretched way too far the seductress choreography. Her Nikiya is also lovely, as is Lucia Lacarra’s. Compare!

Marcia Haydée in anything she choosed to dance was enchanting… Not an all-encompassing list, but anyway the graceful ones are rare nowadays!

Natalia Osipova is a special case: she is THE most self-conscious one,  but adds such a lot of  (also very careful) acting to it, that it compensates, to a great extent – and most of the times – for her visible effort to create perfect moving Beauty, It’s a successful effort – but it must take enormous amounts of work, and of energy while performing, to get it all done at once. I wonder… if she would just let herself go at some point, and recklessly forget anything but the joy of dancing…

Natalia-Osipova-Firebird
Natalia Osipova in Firebird

Quote of the day – Alina Cojocaru

In an interview when she was still principal of Royal Ballet, in August 2012:

jr_fille_cojocaru_close_012_500“I try to go on stage and be honest with myself. I can only rely on my feelings. My main aim is to share what I feel with my audience. When I go on stage I forgive myself if my show’s not perfect, but I don’t forgive myself if I did not become who I should be on stage. (…)
What I love about working in Hamburg is the creative environment. Even working on ballets that have been created so many years ago, you can bring something to it, and feel like you’re still part of it, bringing ideas to the ballet. That’s nowhere to be found in London of course. You have the people in charge of the ballet trying to protect the choreography… protecting it to keep it looking like it used to be. I do respect the choreographers [but] it’s a constant battle there to bring something to every ballet I perform, to bring something new into the old.”

…but then Neumeier created Liliom for her in Hamburg, she won the Benois Prize on it, and moved on to Tamara Rojo’s now revolutionary ENB. Our luck! When she is on stage, her deeds speak for themselves  – she IS what she says! Admirable dancer… AND person!

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A battle to bring something new, of her own, to a ballet?  Indeed!

What are they so afraid of, there in Royal Ballet? Protecting choreography is more important than “ME”, in the audience? Odd way of thinking – choreographies are already very well recorded, that should be enough!

How nice there is ENB now, where I’m taken into account… I don’t have any doubts where I will chose to be in my ballet evenings – there where Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru will be giving us new choreographers, new ballets, new, individual, ways of performing the worn out old roles! 

IVAN VASILIEV ACTED SOCKS OFF…

I surrender! I thought I had already seen a Swan Lake too much, BUT PLEASE I WANT TO SEE THIS ONE!
I was hopeful on the Alina+Vasiliev partnership, but they exceeded by far my expectations. “Poetry in Motion”, indeed!!! “Like vodka and caviar”…

Of all that was written about this Swan Lake, I liked Sarah Crompton’s informal tweet the most: “Impressive Swan Lake @ENBallet last night. @DancingAlina on heart-breaking form and Ivan Vasiliev acted socks off as well as flying thro air”…

The first review I read about Vasiliev&Cojocaru must have been written fast and soon after the performance – it appeared only a few hours after (link in Worth Knowing on this blog).
It made me so happy I suffered from a recurring beaming smile all day long – a day with lot of appointements, I had to wait impatiently until evening to learn more about audience and review reactions – and then I was even happier. Yes, I am a fan of them both, especially Vasiliev but what was more important was that he had proved, even to myself, to what degree what this blog’s defends is correct.

We knew from start that Alina Cojocaru is wonderful, both in technical as in acting skills. “Her Act IV, though, is terribly affecting, all frail hopelessness in the knowledge of her inescapable approaching death.” The Swan may fit her like a glove, but she went well beyond dancing it beautifully.
Vasiliev’s case is different, audience and reviewers had so identified him with his bravura roles, that they did not know, anymore, where the role (even choreography) ended and Vasiliev began… they could not stop seeing this “chimera” everywhere, and it was getting worse during last year. Some still do, but as a whole, the stunned reaction to Swan Lake is a relief: it seems he was able to lift at least some of the confusion resting upon their minds.
Swimming against the current (a pretty strong one), I always saw his stage behaviour as it is, just acting, not a new personality – probably because I always valued Vasiliev’s expressive “power” as much, or even more than “Our usual tricks”, it comes with the way I see Dance. His performances in different kinds of roles are always in my mind, I try not to be fooled by the stage-filling showman of bravura roles. Since the beginning I placed heavy bets on his acting talent – again and again he has proved me right, stepping well outside the stereotyped image and making a great job of bringing content to dance. Every time this happens, I forget my place as the grateful fan of a great dancer, and become SO proud of him, this unwittingly champion of this blog’s position. With his Siegfried, he once more showed that long-standing rules in Ballet should be viewed suspiciously, and that a lot of assumptions and prejudices that had been piling up about and against him were just  *********, I mean, silly.

Even I was wrong in my prejudice against what I called hard-classical ballets – I believed they were hopelessly pure form – dismissable except for being beautiful – and he rekindled my interest in them…

“…one its finest current interpreters…”, ” …I hope ENB might think of persuading him to return in Giselle as he would excel in this too…”, said one reviewer. So much for ’emploi’…

His triumph. And winning one more challenge,  he also gives Dance one more push forward. Great!!!

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Important reviewers must be intellectual, knowledgeable and sophisticated in their opinions, or they would not be reviewers. I suppose they struggle hard against being carried away, so they can give us an objective, expert-wise opinion. It’s their loss (see Sir Ashton’s quote in this blog). I’m relieved I’m not under that obligation, and free to enjoy without second thoughts.

Most reviewers, specially the important ones, dwelled, once more, in… “their usual tricks”, as I will call them from now on: lenghty paragraphs on Vasiliev’s body shape and technical flaws. (Sigh). His height and thigs, AGAIN? do they not tire? It has become a boring issue by now – all audience knows how he looks by now, since all have eyes, too! And are able, and entitled to form their own opinions on the visual aesthetic of dancing, ’emploi’ or not. And technical flaws: boring TOO! all non-experts  are unable to see them – provided they are there, of course – so what should they do: start looking for them and spoil the pleasure on the play as a whole?….

Dance reviewers should consider – seriously! – stop writing from a Dance millieu’s perspective, and start writing to a larger audience. This kind of remark neither informs me of something more I should know, nor is helpful to a growing understanding of Dance. What the audience would like to know is: what was so special about this performance, that made me like it so much – or what was wrong with this performance, that I couldn’t like it?  THIS is educational… If a dancer makes such technical blunders that it spoiles the whole thing, this is the moment to point them out, and explain them – the audience will understand, and then avoid similar experiences. If they loved a performance, and a reviewer sees flaws only an expert can see, what should they do? Repent of their liking and start disliking?

Quote of the Day – Alina Cojocaru

“I can’t do the same thing twice, even if I try. But at the Royal there was one way of doing things – the Royal Ballet way. Now I’ve cut the ropes that were holding me, I can experiment, and I’m not afraid to fall.”

Yeeeesss! I love brave dancers!

Now she will be in ENB’s Swan Lake (7, 11, 13, 16 January) with another brave one, Ivan Vasiliev (not that Swan Lake’s choreography leaves you any room to experiments!).

It would be so nice if they could be partners more often, in the future! She is SOOOOO good!