09 June 2010

Dancing & Acting

On Saturday evening, 24 April, I went to a dance program in which a choreographer friend had a piece. It was an interesting program of four pieces each staged by a different choreographer for the dancers of the same New York company, but since I’m not a dance person and know very little about the art, I’m not going to try to report on the performance the way I would if it were a theater performance. I’m not even going to name the company or identify the performance because I don’t want to give the impression that what I’m going to say here is directed at them. I want to make some observations about dance from the perspective of a theater person, however inexpert that may seem. The program the other evening will serve as an illustration, a stand-in for dance in general. Despite my ignorance of dance as an art and a craft, I’ve seen enough performances that I think my assessment is valid.

The dancers in this presentation were all young—not students and not beginners, but early in their careers. (The dancers’ bios all listed several companies with which they’d danced before, after finishing their training. I’d estimate that they’ve all been dancing for three to five seasons, perhaps a little longer.) To my eyes, the dancers were still focusing a lot on the steps and the movements, the way a novice actor might concentrate on the lines and blocking while leaving character and the action of the scene in the background. I particularly noticed this focus among the men in the lifts—they looked a little as if they were thinking, ‘Okay, be careful: don’t slip—don’t drop her!’

I think the pertinence of my observation at this program was enhanced by the nature of the pieces performed. All four dances were old ones, reconstructed by various means from performances originally given 50 years ago and more. This meant the dancers were doing someone else’s steps, dancing someone else’s role. It also meant they were less free to do what their own inspiration may have dictated or interpret the movements according to their own artistry and talent. I suspect that this circumscription required that the focus on the steps and the movements be all that much stronger. I believe this magnified the significance of a phenomenon I noticed which, thinking back, is probably evident in most, even all, dance performances.

When I said before that the performance the other night reminded me of actors who were concentrating on their lines and blocking over character work and the emotional or psychological substance of the moment, I wasn’t far away from the point I want to raise. While all the dancers were fine with respect to their dance moves, what I found lacking in much of the evening was any expression of personality—or character, if we go back to theater terms. I’m not talking about ego, and I realize that dance isn’t always narrative so that there aren’t actual characters in the obvious sense. This isn’t Nutcracker or Romeo and Juliet—the roles don’t have names and there’s no story anyone’s telling. (One of the four pieces was, in fact, a narrative dance. Its inclusion in the program served as a contrast that highlighted what I missed in the other pieces.) Still, the dancers were all people, not just moving bodies, but I got the feeling that I was watching technical movement, not dancing humans.

Okay, I know there are some dances that are pure movement and that the intrusion of personality might damage the performance. I’m going to leave those kinds of dances aside for the purposes of this discussion. They’re the dance equivalent of Color School paintings—where the viewer is meant to experience only the nature of the colors, the shapes and forms in a purely visual encounter with no meaning, emotional response, or psychological reaction intended. It’s supposed to be pure beauty and enjoyment brought on by the way the arrangement of the colors hits the viewer’s eyes—or, in the case of the dances, the way the moving bodies strike the spectator’s vision. Let’s put this kind of dance aside for the moment.

Let’s also touch on and dispatch the obviously narrative ballet like those I named earlier. It’s pretty clear that the dancers must create characters in those performances much the same way that actors do in plays. Prokofiev's Romeo is really no different from Shakespeare’s—except that the ballet Romeo expresses his character though movement while his theater counterpart gets to use words. I don’t know what kind of work a dancer does to create a character like Romeo, but I’d bet he does some variation of the work an actor does to prepare the role. The choreography must be the tools he uses to express the character, but the content, the emotional life, the psychological truth of the young lover, the most romantic youth who ever trod a stage, is largely up to the performer—actor or dancer.

Well, I maintain that there needs to be some of this same character prep in the non-narrative dance, too. One of the pieces the other night was based on a collection of 16th-century dances as reimagined by the dance’s creator. But who does dances like the pavane, the tordion, or bransles? People, right? Not “bodies” or automatons—people at a ball. As these were court dances, those people were probably aristocrats and nobles, mostly in the French courts of François I and II, Henri II and III, and Charles IX. He’s the Duc de Quelque-chose. She’s the Comptesse de Quelque-part. Those are characters. An actor would imagine a whole lifetime for people like that! Even if he were only playing the third courtier on the right or she, the second lady-in-waiting up left—they’d have a whole history devised. Is his partner his wife? Is hers her lover? Maybe they’re opponents in some court intrigue! Is this a fun ball—or one they have to attend because the king commanded it? Maybe they’d rather be somewhere else. All that’s what was missing in the performances I watched the other night. No one was a person doing the dances. They were all dancers—choreographic subjects. Sure they smiled nicely—but it was like someone said “Cheese!” and they posed for pictures. Like celebrities on the red carpet posturing for the paparazzi.

One reviewer made some of the same points I have here with regard to the dance piece itself—describing the “characters” and their “actions” (my terms, not the reviewer’s). He even formulated a little narrative for the dances. But he never remarked on whether he felt the dancers had captured the characters and my observation was that they hadn’t. The clues were there, but the dancers just didn't seize them.

Here’s what I think seems to be missing from the development of performances like the one I saw—and others I’ve seen over the years. The dancers need to learn something about acting. Without meaning any disrespect to dancers as artists, I know that in the production of musical plays, when directors decide they need someone in the ensemble to say a line or two, they turn to singers, not dancers. The reason, they’ll tell you, is that singers just say lines better than dancers as a rule. Only one member of the corps listed musical theater credits in her bio. Only one of the choreographers offers any theater-related credits, and there’s no one listed on the troupe’s artistic staff with any theater in her or his background. I wouldn’t have expected there to be any of that in a dance company—I suspect it would be most uncommon. But that’s what I think is needed in this world.

About 30 years ago, opera companies saw that their exclusive focus on singing and voice left their acting weak or even nonexistent. The operas were sung well, but there was no drama coming from the stages of opera houses. So they began to hire stage directors who either staged the operas themselves or worked as acting coaches alongside opera directors. The result, within a few years, was that Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette had an impact on its audiences more like its Shakespearean source than what had previously been little more than the appreciation of the singing on display. Instead of the elaborate costumes and complicated sets serving as window dressing for a bunch of magnificent voices, there was drama on the stage! The singers were . . . acting! Well, what’s to stop ballet companies from doing the same thing? And why aren’t they? I mean, we know that acting and dancing—theater and ballet—aren’t incompatible. We have Oklahoma! and West Side Story, among other examples, to prove that.

With all they have to do, first in their training days and then as members of a ballet company learning and then performing the repertoire, maybe it’s too much for dancers and choreographers to study acting in their conservatories or in their dance troupes. I don’t know that opera singers take acting classes either. But what they do get is acting coaching during the rehearsal period. They either get it directly from the director or there’s a stage director as part of the staff who serves as the acting coach. Dancers could do with some of that. At the very least, they need to be taught to think in acting terms—to consider character and circumstances—even if they don’t get basic acting instruction on technique. I think they need the latter, too, of course—and I’d recommend to dance companies that they put an acting coach on staff to start developing this aspect of the performances just as the opera companies have done. Listen, no one’s taking anything away from the choreography. It’s not going to be diminished—this isn’t a zero-sum equation where you have to reduce one expression if you increase the other. It’s a pure enhancement: the choreography remains; you just add an aspect to the whole.

I believe that dance people, reviewers, ordinary dancegoers, and artists alike, don't realize anything's really missing. Dance in the West has been divorced from acting so long that no one expects anything out of the ordinary. (It’s different in, say, Asia where dance, opera, and ballet are all one performing art form—Kabuki, Kathakali, Beijing Opera—and the distinction just doesn't exist.) Unlike opera, perhaps because it’s closer to theater, the dance world hasn't noticed that acting is missing from the performances, which is why I think most dance reviews are so technical—they address almost exclusively how well the dancers execute the movements and steps.

By the way, going back to the pure dance pieces I dismissed earlier. I believe that acting has a place even there as well. Remember, no one needs to know what the dancers are up to inside. In the narrative dances, it shows, of course. It’s supposed to. In the expressionistic/impressionistic, non-narrative dances, it can show up a little, as much or as little as the choreographer wants. (Those aristocrats dancing in the French court can show as much or as little of the character as the creative director determines is appropriate.) But in the pure dance performances, the audience doesn’t have to see anything specifically character-revealing. It all remains internal. As I’ve written in other contexts, the dancers are up to something, but the audience never knows what it is. They only see that there’s an inner life operating on the stage, coming out over the footlights—something dynamic and engaging that they can’t name or describe. The dancers’ bodies and faces are animated and vibrant. An astute spectator might say to herself, ‘That guy’s got something going on,’ but she won’t be able to name it. But she’ll feel it. (I wrote about this acting phenomenon in one context or another in four other posts: “Phèdre,” 13 October 2009; “Psychological Gesture & Leading Center,” 27 October 2009; “An Actor’s Homework, Part 1,” 19 April 2010; and “An Actor’s Homework, Part 2,” 22 April 2010.) I know that this might sound like I’m describing something magical or mystical—but I’m not, believe me. It’s one of the fundamental techniques actors work on from the start of their training. It’s the difference between cooking with only the main ingredients of your recipe—the meat, potatoes, and veggies—and then making the same dish with the addition of spices and herbs. The one’s nice. The other’s extraordinary!

[This article marks the 100th I’ve posted on ROT since I launched the blog on 16 March 2009. All the columns I’ve run haven’t been my original work; I’ve been glad to post pieces by friends (and hope to do more of that) and I’ve republished writing by authors from Mark Twain and Francis Pharcellus Church to more contemporary writers like David Macfarlane (and I’ll do more of that, too). I’ve focused in theater, some on other arts, and then ranged beyond into many unrelated topics I just thought were interesting. I’ll do more of that, too, you can be sure. I hope anyone who’s come across ROT and liked what he or she’s found will keep coming back to see what I’m up to. Thank you. ~Rick]

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