Becoming Your Character - Acting Through Dance
“The Dancer believes that his art has something to say which cannot be expressed in words or in any other way than by dancing.” Doris Humphrey, one of the pioneers of modern dance, may not have had any formal acting training, but her ideas about dance certainly suggest that acting is an integral part of dance. While dance requires grace, strength, technique, and flexibility, among other things, the art form has always included the element of storytelling to communicate to the audience. Max Vasapoli and Robb Gibbs delve into the world of acting through dance in this week’s blog!
Competitive dancers are adjudicated on everything from precision to technical excellence, but in the professional dance world, often technical ability can be second to storytelling ability. What separates dance from sport is communication. “Dancers are storytellers bringing a choreographer's narrative to life through their emotional connection, phrasing, and physical execution of the movement,” Max Vasapoli, dancer and teacher from Philadelphia, explains. “Dance is what you do in class, perform is what you do on stage.” As a performer, there will rarely be a time that a choreographer only wants to use your technical skill. Of course there are some exceptions, but for the most part, acting the story through dance will be required. Max continues, “I'll never forget a routine I saw in competition about the life, death and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The performers rose above the somber tone of the piece to play moments of exaltation, mourning, and remembrance. Their focus and complete commitment to the story led audience members to tears, but the dancers remained stoic throughout the number in order to convey their message. I don't think their objective was ever to make the audience cry, but they succeeded because of their commitment to a full-bodied and enlivened performance. It's moments like this that acting elevates technique and rehearsal into an unforgettable performance.”
Robb Gibbs, dancer and actor from NYC, sees forgettable performances often at competition. He says, “If you don't incorporate acting into your dance pieces, it could turn out to be another empty routine on stage. As dancers we are always striving to better our performance whether it be with elevated leaps, multiple revolutions in pirouettes, or elongated lines. The thing that sets a true performer aside from all others is their ability to bring an idea to life. It's our job as dancers to incorporate so many facets of performance quality to the stage. We not only have to work on stretching our feet, staying on our supporting leg, or remaining in formation. We also must strive to bring every story to life. It's our duty to be the best at this performance art we call dance.” As a choreographer, it can be challenging to come up with new ideas to present, or different ways to approach on old story. However, the story you tell doesn’t have to be complicated or brand new. Often, a simple idea presents much more clearly than something complicated (especially in a three minute time limit!) To begin, Robb says, “I always think a piece should start with a discussion of character and portrayal. The storyline could be as simple as having a party in a jazz routine to as complex as telling the life story of a well-known character. If the choreographer is eloquent enough to breakdown their vision, the dancer then has the tools to put their vision into motion. Strong acting pieces don't happen overnight or by the knowledge of one individual. All parties, choreographer and dancer, must have an understanding of all of the details. Everyone involved must take time outside of the studio to process information given or acting choices that will only develop more strongly over time.” If your students are struggling to bring your vision to life in group choreography, make sure to take the time to break down the routine and explain the emotion of each section, and what you want to the audience to experience.
“Performance requires a certain level of presentation and projection,” Max says. “One of the essential questions dancers can ask themselves when performing a piece is not, "How does this make me feel?" but instead, "How do I want others to feel or think after my performance?" This structures a performance for the audience rather than the performer. I think this is an important learning tool for young performers who may think that performing relies on their ability to be emotional on stage. When I think back on the most emotionally gripping pieces I've seen in competition, they all have a strong sense of focus, complete preparedness, and range of actions that the performers played in order to bring the through-line to life.” So often, especially in solo work at competition, dancers get so caught up in their own emotion (think eyes closed, internalizing the performance) that it discourages the audience from interacting with the piece. Of course, many if not most dancers dance because it allows them to feel emotions for themselves, that they cannot express through words. But if a dancer is not communicating those emotions to an audience, it becomes more self-serving than self-expressing, and can alienate an audience.
So, do dancers need to take acting classes in addition to their dance training? Not necessarily. “If a dancer is directed well and does enough homework,” Robb says, “their piece can take flight. That's not to say that an acting class would hurt any performer. If a dancer has enough understanding of the story they're trying to tell and is guided in the right direction of how to properly portray it, the possibilities are endless. When a dancer understands how to build upon a scene or build a relationship with the audience/other dancers, their performance can skyrocket. You must be able to push all performance-driven qualities aside and just be humans. The stage version is only heightened emotions. If you're directed to "see" something in a piece, you cannot form a reaction until you have "seen" the subject. You cannot react to another dancer's touch until you have tangibly felt them.” For teachers and choreographers, there are easy ways to incorporate acting into your classes to help students feel more comfortable visibly emotionally expressing themselves. Improv exercises to different styles of music can encourage emotional connection. Traditional acting games can be modified to suit dancers’ needs - teach a phrase of choreography and have dancers draw emotions or circumstances out of a hat and perform the phrase in the style of that emotion/circumstance. Use the mirror to do the piece with only facial expressions. In solo work, involve the dancer you are choreographing on by having them write the full story of the dance, from beginning to end. Find moments of clear focus within the choreography and assign an emotion to each moment. There are countless ways to encourage more expression through choreography.
As human beings, we crave stories. As artists, we are tasked with telling them. Stories can inspire, inform, entertain, commiserate, and provoke. Our task can be challenging at times, but it is so necessary to our craft. Bringing stories to life through dance has served as a tool for many communities over time, and we have a duty as artists to continue this legacy. “There are times when the simple dignity of movement can fulfill the function of a volume of words.” - Doris Humphrey
Photo Provided by Diva Dance Competition