Saturday, December 20, 2014

From Dark Story to Sweet Ballet: History of The Nutcracker


Every holiday season, both the young and young at heart flock to see one of the world's most famous ballets. And some, including myself, have performed in it year after year, playing a snowflake, a flower, being Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Yet, I still enjoy seeing young dancers eagerly rehearsing, anxious to be a part  of this iconic ballet.

But where did the story behind The Nutcracker ballet originate, and how did a little wooden novelty become one of the world's most recognizable protagonists?

The Nutcracker Ballet is based on a story called "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" written by an 18th-century German writer, composer, and critic known as E.T.A. Hoffman (E.T.A. Hoffman being his pen-name; his actual name was Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffman).

 Hoffmann wrote spooky tales that trespassed the border between fantasy and reality. They were such famous stories that other composers readthem and set them to to music throughout the 19th century — for example, Jacques Offenbach's opera, The Tales of Hoffmann.
One of the episodes in The Tales of Hoffmann is based on a story called "The Sandman," in which evil inventors create a robotic girl. It was also — loosely — the basis for Leo Delibes' comic ballet Coppelia, about the misadventures of a young man who falls in love with a life-size dancing doll.

Inanimate things come to life in many of Hoffmann's stories. He was a champion of the imagination run wild. Retired University of Minnesota German professor Jack Zipes says Hoffmann was rebelling against the dominant movement of the time, the Enlightenment, and its emphasis on rational philosophy. "He believed strongly, as most of the German Romantics at that time, that the imagination was being attacked by the rise of rationalism ... throughout Europe," Zipes tells Siegel. "The only way that an artist could survive would be to totally become dedicated to another way of looking at the world, and to reclaiming nature, reclaiming innocence, reclaiming an authentic way of living."

Those familiar with The Nutcracker ballet will be familiar with the story that frames "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King"; this framing narrative involves a little girl named Marie and her brother Fritz who receive a nutcracker from their godfather, an inventor named Drosselmeyer. Fritz plays too roughly with the toy and breaks some of its teeth, but the gentle Marie bandages it and stays up late to nurse it back to health. After everyone else has fallen asleep, Marie witnesses an extraordinary sight as the house is suddenly filled with mice who threaten Marie and the nutcracker, but the nutcracker and other Christmas toys all inexplicably come to life and fight back.

This is where the story begins to differ from the ballet version. Marie watches the battle between the mice and toys until she eventually faints, and the next morning her parents explain that she must have imagined or dreamed the event. Then Drosselmeyer tells Marie a story about a princess named Pirlipat who, after a bizarre series of events, is turned into a strange creature with a wooden head and white beard by a vengeful mouse queen. Drosselmeyer explains that his own nephew was the one who eventually cured the princess, but in the process, he himself was transformed into a similarly grotesque creature, thus becoming the nutcracker.

That night, the relentless army of mice returns, and for several nights afterward Marie and the nutcracker must fight them off. Eventually the mice are vanquished. Shortly after, Marie proclaims that she will always love the nutcracker in spite of his appearance, and the nutcracker turns back into who he really was all along: Drosselmeyer's nephew, who was cursed to remain in his doll form until he found love. The two are married and depart to reign over the Doll Kingdom.

The Ballet Adaption

Of course, this all seems quite convoluted when compared with the plot of the ballet. However, Hoffman's version was streamlined by famed French writer Alexander Dumas in the 1844. Dumas called his version "The Story of a Hazlenut-cracker," and in the 19th century, Director of the Imperial Theaters Ivan Alexandrovitch Vsevolojsky came up with the idea of adapting this version into a ballet. He approached choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Peter Tchaikovsky with the idea.


Alexandre Dumas altered that original version, making it lighter and less scary. And in 1892 a team of Russians turned Dumas' version into a ballet. But something happened to Hoffmann's story in this progression from dark to light: Marie became Klara(Clara).  Her flights of imagination became sweeter and more tame. And her real life family — called Silberhaus (which is German for "Silver House") in the ballet — became sweeter, too.

"What is interesting are the names, sometimes, that Hoffmann uses sometimes in 'The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,'" says German professor Jack Zipes. "The family in his story, in contrast to the ballet, is called Stahlbaum, which means 'steel tree.'" Marie, Hoffmann's protagonist, "is imprisoned within the regulations of the family, the family follows rituals in a prescribed way, and she feels somewhat constrained by this."
Then, Marie's strange and provocative godfather, Drosselmeier, appears. "It's very difficult to translate the word 'Drosselmeier,' but it's somebody who stirs things up," Zipes says. "And Drosselmeier certainly shakes things up. He brings these amazing toys that he's made, and ignites the imagination of the young people in the celebration of Christmas."

In the 1980s, the Pacific Northwest Ballet wanted to return to Hoffmann's original version. They turned to an illustrator and writer who was famous for his own dark voyages with childhood demons: Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. "So when I did read it, I became very interested, because it was a very bizarre story. Is a very bizarre story, and that of course would appeal to me," Sendak told NPR in 1984. "It meant something. It had bite and muscle, the way the Grimm fairy tales do. So I thought, if we could put up on the stage in Seattle, anything approximating Hoffmann without diluting or bashing Tchaikovsky, then perhaps we would have something that was interesting." And Sendak's version of The Nutcracker — with his sets and libretto — is the only version that Jack Zipes says captures Hoffmann's original spirit.

Now, stories evolve from one author and one medium, to adapters and new media. But Zipes says that what has been lost from most productions of The Nutcracker is Hoffmann's very attitude about imagination, reality and childhood. "There is a great deal of damage done to Hoffmann's story, because at the end of his story, Marie moves off into another world, or it seems that she's going off into another world, a world of her own choosing," he says, "whereas in the ballet, it's a harmless diversion that is full of sort of dancing and merriment, but there's nothing profound in the ending of the ballet as it exists. And it's also true of Dumas' story — ends in a very fluffy, saccharine way."

Hoffmann, Zipes adds, wanted to make sure his readers knew that Marie was aware of the contrast between her life with the rule-bound Stahlbaums, and the dream world of The Nutcracker, "a world of imagination, a world of her choice, where she can also make decisions that are more in accord with her own imagination."
This essence is in almost all of Hoffmann's fairy tales, and essentially it's that we have to keep in touch with the child within us.


 Various Productions

At Right -  Photo of Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara (left), an unknown performer (center), & Vassily Stulkolin as Fritz (right) in the Imperial Ballet's original production of "The Nutcracker".Circa December, 1892.
Unknown photographer of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russian Empire.


When The Nutcracker was first performed in Russia in 1892, it was poorly received. It would go though several revisions over the coming decades, and finally be re-imaginged in 1954 by famed choreographer George Balanchine, before becoming the international hit it is today. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes presented a two act version of Swan Lake (1910) in which Nijinski danced a solo as Prince Siegfried to the music of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Ten years later, same company, same music, but this time used for the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty. This also included the Danse Arabe and Danse Chinoise from The Nutcracker in the last act. Anna Pavlova toured the world with Snowflakes, choreographed by Ivan Clustine to music including Nutcracker's snow scene. This is seemingly the first occasion in which a pas de deux was danced to this music.

In England, the first Nutcracker was mounted by Sergeyev for the Vic-Wells Ballet, a predecessor of the Royal Ballet, in 1934. Sergeyev had left Russia after the October Revolution of 1917 and mounted this version based on Stepanov notation scores of the Maryinsky production that he had brought with him. His untraditional contribution to this version was to cast the actress Elsa Lanchester in the Arabian dance. He had seen her perform Ariel in The Tempest and decided that he must have the "Dramateek lady." Margot Fonteyn made her stage debut in this staging of The Nutcracker, April 21, 1934. She danced as a snowflake. In 1951, Sir Frederick Ashton premiered a one act version of The Nutcracker which countered critics of earlier productions who found the first act story uninteresting. He dispensed with the story altogether and made a plotless dance fantasy. When the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo staged a one act version in New York, the prince and Marie grew up to adults who danced the grand pas de deux in Act 2. At one performance in Hollywood, future President Reagan's daughter Maureen played the role of Clara.

The first complete Nutcracker was staged in London by the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1934, based on choreographic notation by Nicholas Sergeyev. Ten years later saw the first US version by San Francisco Ballet (1944) and another ten years brought George Balanchine’s blockbusting version for NYCB (1954), now staged every year by several US ballet companies. By the 1980s, 300 separate productions were touring the US.

Sir Peter Wright's 1984 version of The Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet, still performed by the Company, stays close to Hoffmann’s original tale. It emphasises Drosselmeyer’s mission to find a young girl – Clara – who can break the curse imposed by the Mouse King on his nephew Hans Peter and thus restore him to human form. References to Nuremberg and German Christmas traditions are present in the settings, with a kingdom of marzipan featured in Act 2. Equally successful is his 1990 version for The Birmingham Royal Ballet, this one closer to the Russian tradition of having Clara double up as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but with a slight twist: it is Clara’s alter ego ballerina doll who turns into the Fairy.

Nureyev’s production for POB has a clear emphasis on symbology and the subconscious: Clara wanders down the stairs at midnight to find her family and friends turned into rats and bats while Drosselmeyer transforms into a handsome prince.

Mikhail Baryshnikov‘s 1976 popular version for ABT turns the Christmas dream into a coming-of-age tale. There is no Sugar Plum Fairy nor Prince Koklush, the focus being Clara’s encounter with the Nutcracker Prince as orchestrated by her Godfather Drosselmeyer. As the ballet ends so does Clara’s fantasy.

In the United States, the Nutcracker was originally presented as a suite of highlights comprising some of the most famous musical selections from the full-length ballet. These include the "March of the Toy Soldiers," the "Waltz of the Flowers," and the various dances representing different cultures and foods, which make up much of the ballet's second act. Led by William Christensen, The San Francisco Ballet performed the first American full length production of The Nutcracker ballet in 1944, and since then, unabridged productions have become a holiday theatre tradition. Here are a few of the most notable U.S. Nutcracker productions.


* The New York City Ballet. Perhaps the classic iconic American production of the full-length Nutcracker ballet belongs to the New York City Ballet, choreographed by the late George Ballanchine, according to the Petipa version from St. Petersburg. Complete with an enormous growing Christmas tree, falling snowflakes, and a sleigh that flies across the stage to take Carla and the Nutcracker Prince away at the end of the Second Act, this version, performed in New York's Lincoln Center, is one of the iconic American Nutcracker productions.

* The San Francisco Ballet. In addition to having bragging rights for being the first U.S. unabridged Nutcracker production, the San Francisco Ballet offers an extravagant stage setting: hundreds of thousands of dollars of scenery and handmade costumes, along with a cast of more than 175 dancers.

* The Pacific Northwest Ballet. Here's a new take on an old theme: The Nutcracker ballet production of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle has stage sets and costumes that take their inspiration from Maurice Sendak's popular children's books.

* Boston Ballet, The Boston Ballet's version of the Nutcracker features some twists on the traditional production. The stage setting shows Carla dreaming that she is mouse-sized. As the props get bigger, Clara seems to shrink, and she witnesses the battle between the toy soldiers and the mice from the vantage point of a mouse-sized human. A balloon whisks Clara and her prince into the second act, where they are treated to extravagant performances celebrating dance and, of course, candy, at the Palace of Sweets.

* Houston Ballet. Any production of the Nutcracker has its share of humor, what with Drossylmeyer's goofy gifts and the war between the mice and the soldiers. But the Houston Ballet kicks it up a notch, turning the normally staid introductory party scene into a series of mini comedies, and opening Act II with flying chef-angels on hand to concoct the confections.



Video of The Nutcracker's History

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Dancers Giving the Sick and Disabled Magic Year Round



Members of the New Beford Youth Ballet

A little girl with curly hair stared at the swirls of deep purple tulle as would befit any Sugar Plum Fairy. “Go ahead, you can touch my pointe shoes,” said the dancer. The little girl slid off the chair and gently tapped the tops of the Fairy's toes.

The New Bedford Youth Ballet had just given a 50-minute performance of a mini-Nutcracker in the upstairs lobby of St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Doctors in scrubs stood against the wall while administrators, hospital workers, and a few patients sat in plastic chairs, all watching quietly as Snowflakes and Asian Dolls glissaded across the rug and tried not to let beepers and arriving elevators distract them. One waltzing Flower launched into a grand jeté and, upon landing, found herself nose to the wall. Someone knocked over a speaker. Dancers squeezed in and out of costumes and around each other in a sandwich of a space created by scenery flats.

“Oh, how beautiful,” a member of the audience sighed.

It was just another on-the-road show for the Youth Ballet, a performing arm of New Bedford Ballet (NBB), a ballet-only school. The Youth Ballet is open to any Southeastern Massachusetts ballet student, not only those who take class at NBB. In the course of a year, the troupe will lug sets and costumes and pointe shoes through hospitals, elementary schools, and Councils on Aging. These serious dancers, ages 11 to 18, trade the comfort of sprung floors, private dressing spaces, and flattering lighting for the opportunity to share their love of dance with the most unlikely—but often most appreciative—audiences around.

Like the little girl at St. Luke’s, who would be undergoing surgery the next day. “She’s been so sick, but she’s been talking and talking since we came in,” grandmother and hospital employee Philomena Torres says. “I waited until the last minute to tell her she was going to see The Nutcracker because she’d get so excited.”

Outreach performances and community-based programming has long been a staple of New Bedford Ballet. Rebecca Waskiel-Marchesseault, artistic director since last September, was a member of the original Youth Ballet, which began in 1988 when then-school director Shirley Kayne insisted that her pre-professional dancers take their dancing out of the studio and into the struggling industrial city. (A nonprofit foundation had been created in 1987 to support the Youth Ballet and other outreach efforts, while NBB continued to be operated as a for-profit.)

“I remember packing up the floor, going to public schools,” Waskiel-Marchesseault says. “One of Shirley’s biggest goals was to promote arts in the community and to be seen by people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to see ballet.”

Many of Kayne’s students went on to dance professionally or teach—like Waskiel-Marchesseault, a former member of Connecticut Ballet who taught at both Hartford Ballet and Boston Ballet schools. When Kayne retired after 22 years with the ballet, Waskiel-Marchesseault happily took the helm of her home studio.

Other changes were afoot at New Bedford Ballet. Forced out of its longtime studio when the building was sold to new owners, in the summer of 2008, the organization appealed to the public for help finding a new, affordable studio. Businesspersons and city officials offered expertise and advice, parents chipped in with physical labor, and New Bedford Ballet finally moved into its new home on Purchase Street last January.

“I think we’ll remember these performances forever.” —dancer Rebecca Bier, 16

Also in 2008, the for-profit school became a nonprofit under the umbrella of the New Bedford Ballet Foundation. The foundation uses grant monies from public sources such as United Way and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, as well as private donors, to fund the Youth Ballet’s performances and numerous outreach programs.

And talk about outreach. There’s a summer Dance Arts Camp for preschoolers, an afterschool program for at-risk, underserved children, and hip-hop classes for hearing-impaired students. A multicultural program introduces elementary school children to Native American, Indian, Asian, and Trinidadian dance, while seniors benefit from an age-appropriate dance and movement program.

Terri deMedeiros, New Bedford Ballet Foundation board president says, “Fourteen students are now dancing on scholarships—half on full scholarships—thanks to the foundation.” Some dance students help with mentoring programs, such as Bringing Books to Life Through Movement, where school kids learn how to use dance to wiggle like the Hungry Caterpillar, or Mentoring Through Movement, where Head Start little ones dance out a story such as Peter Pan.

When the ballet comes to visit, everyone gets involved, says Karen Surprenant, PACE (People Acting in Community Endeavors) Head Start director. “They come with dance activities, with costumes; they talk about what it’s like to be a dancer,” she says. “All our boys and girls dance, and you should see them dance!”

On the morning of the St. Luke’s performance, Surprenant and about 40 of her tiny charges had braved the bitter cold to travel to the ballet’s studio for a Nutcracker showing. It was a lucky break for them—the Youth Ballet was to have danced, as it does every December, at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, but H1N1 flu fears got in the way. When the hospital cancelled the show, Waskiel-Marchesseault called PACE.

“For many of these children, their families don’t have the opportunity to see a live performance like this,” Surprenant says. “We do many projects with the ballet. It’s a nice relationship.”

The PACE performance would mark one of the ballet’s first showings of New England Nutcracker, set in the 19th century when whaling had made New Bedford one of the most prosperous cities in the world. Instead of Clara, this tale featured little Mary as the daughter of a whaling captain who brings back exotic animals—and a Nutcracker—from his voyages around the world.

The lights went down and the little ones were transfixed. There were cries of “Who’s that?” when a couple of Andean Bears tumbled about, and “Ooh”s of delight for two blue-and-pink Macaws. “Whoa, look at the pirates!” yelled another. (Actually, the “pirates” were whalers, but who cares?) Everyone wiggled and clapped when the Nutcracker and the Mouse King crossed swords, but the excitement was too much for one little tyke. “Quick, somebody stab him!” he shouted.

After the performance, the dancers and the Head Start kids mingled, laughed together, traded hugs. With three annual performances at hospitals, greeting children is a scene the dancers know well. “Talking to the audience after the show is the best,” dancer Rebecca Bier, 16, says.

Sugar Plum Fairy Elizabeth Mello, 17, and dancer Emily Bungert, 17, agree. They and Bier have stories galore about dancing on “vomit-proof” carpet (sticky and slick at the same time), adapting choreography to avoid trampling each other in small spaces, carrying so many flats up so many steps that their arms ache. There’s always that killer week in the spring when the Youth Ballet brings a spring production such as The Snow Queen or Peter and the Wolf to eight elementary schools in four days.

Minutes after the Head Start children climbed aboard their bus, the Youth Ballet dancers tore out of their costumes and prepared to move the show. Soon a heap of costumes and props was growing on the studio floor. Cold air whipped in an open back door as everyone picked up the edge of a flat and headed to the U-Haul. Carpool assignments were discussed, and it was off to the other side of town.

At St. Luke’s, the process unfolded in reverse. Dancers carrying flats were briefly flummoxed by the hospital’s revolving door, but soon they were hauling the scenery across the main floor and up the open-air staircase, oblivious to the stares of hospital patrons. Some warmed up holding onto telephone bays. Tiny Mice sprawled across the floor to chitchat. Waskiel-Marchesseault discussed a decision—pointe shoes or no pointe shoes?—with the senior dancers and adjusted a little dancer’s makeup. In less than an hour, the familiar first strains of the party music had begun again.

The dancers love it. “Honestly, it’s just crazy—the whole process of getting everything together,” Bungert says. “Once you are into the performance and you look at people, and you see you are brightening their day, it’s worth it.”

The annual spring trip to Boston Children’s Hospital is particularly special. There, many audience members are battling major illnesses. The dancers look out from their makeshift performance space to see tiny bald heads, feeding tubes, IVs in the aisles—but plenty of smiles. One little girl wearing a tiara told Bier, “If you get to look pretty, then I do too.” Two boys fussed to try on a reindeer head. One patient missed most of the show but was still happy. “I get to go home today,” she said to Mello.

The girls say that one of the “best shows ever” happened last year at a senior center. They danced in a space little bigger than a postage stamp, but the audience of elders was so grateful that some were in tears. “I talk to friends who dance other places. Technique here is important, but this is all just so different,” Bier says. “I think we’ll remember these performances forever.”

Waskiel-Marchesseault remembers her days with the Youth Ballet. An admittedly nervous performer, she found it difficult to dance for her peers at a public school, but she felt the joy of unconditional appreciation from nursing-home audiences. It’s why she came back to New Bedford—to continue what Shirley Kayne started, to serve the community through dance.

“Until last September, I was with Boston Ballet, and I loved being there. The prestige of that school is amazing,” Waskiel-Marchesseault says. “But when this came up, I thought—New Bedford needs this more. This school has done so much for the community, and I want to help that continue.”

Monday, December 15, 2014

When The Blues Affect Your Dancing: Dealing With Depression

By Linda Hamilton

Imagine a dancer who gives the appearance of "having it all"--talent, prestige, admiration, lots of friends, and best of all, a promising future. Then, imagine this same person laid low by depression. Confusing? No one is immune to mood disorders, whether a top performer or a straggling dance student. Population estimates indicate that depression afflicts approximately 17 million Americans across the country.

Depression is a real medical illness, like diabetes or ulcers. This means that you can't "snap out of it" like you can from a temporary ease of the blues. Instead, symptoms of depression typically last for two or more weeks due to biochemical changes in the brain, creating feelings of sadness that permeate your life. Worrying and irritability are also common, as are problems with concentration and memory. It may be difficult to think, sleep, dance, or even have sufficient energy to do your daily activities.

 For many dancers, injuries are more than broken bones or torn tissue. They come with a deeper kind of loss, one of precious stage time, the momentum of a burgeoning career, even personal identity. In the early stages of a serious injury, the physical pain is often overshadowed by the emotional trauma. Dancers’ fusion of self and body is so complete that when they can’t move, their world unravels.

“Injured dancers may experience a form of grief,” says Elizabeth Manejías, MD, who works with dancers at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. She says mild depressive symptoms and anxiety are common. Lynda Mainwaring, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, led a study on the topic. “We found that dancers, both here in Canada and in the United Kingdom, reported that often the psychological aspect of injury was the most difficult component to cope with,” says Mainwaring.

Dancers are trained to be stoic. And because their whole world is connected to their physical presence, when they’re forced to be stationary, there’s a void. “Especially when the injury is serious and involves long-term recovery, it threatens a dancer’s identity,” says Mainwaring. When dancers can’t dance, they temporarily lose not only their career but also their lifestyle, their means of expression, their sense of purpose.
“I’ve been dancing since I was 8; without it, I felt incomplete,” says the Joffrey Ballet’s Miguel Angel Blanco, who spent a year off the stage after two consecutive surgeries on his Achilles tendon. “I had days where I asked myself, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ I missed a lot of great shows, including a world premiere by Edwaard Liang and Wayne McGregor’s Infra.”

The danger of depression is twofold: In addition to the emotional drain, it can put the brakes on recovery. “Depression can hurt concentration, sleep and appetite, all of which are necessary to support the healing process,” says Manejías. A 2001 study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that patients with leg wounds who had depression were four times as likely to experience delayed recovery. “Also,” says Manejías, “there are studies to suggest that depression can heighten the experience of pain because similar areas in our nervous system process both feelings.”

Dangerous Territory: The Studio

Every dancer has a different coping strategy. Some feel so betrayed by their bodies that they want to avoid dance at all costs. Others find comfort in maintaining a connection to ballet. For Houston Ballet’s Madison Morris, who was out with ankle injuries at the end of last season, deciding to watch her peers proved a turning point. “I feel ashamed to admit that I had to drag myself to see our mixed rep program ‘Made in America,’ ” she says. “I knew it would be difficult to watch them while I was still unable to dance.” Ultimately, she found viewing the performance helped her feel closer to the work she loved.

“Some dancers may benefit from attending rehearsals and taking notes, or assisting in some way that helps them feel involved,” says Mainwaring. “Some may not feel comfortable watching others perform when they can’t.” The ability to return to the studio also evolves over the course of a recovery. Many dancers can only handle being back once they can start marking again. “Every step of the process is important,” says Dec. “I got my hope back once I was reaching certain milestones, getting closer to dancing again.”

Expand Your Artistry
Exploring a new passion while sidelined can be enormously beneficial. “I encourage dancers to focus on nurturing activities and exercise to give themselves the space to process any emotional turmoil,” says Manejías. Having another outlet helps keep dancers from getting obsessively wrapped up in their injury, and what they were—or weren’t—able to do in physical therapy that day.

It isn’t just about distracting your mind. Many dancers discover new dimensions of themselves. Whether it’s photography or Pilates, developing other talents will help you return to the studio as a more complete artist. Morris, for example, taught private ballet lessons, choreographed for a youth group and even joined a 24-hour film project. “I thought acting would be a fun and a less physical outlet while I recovered,” she explains.

Morris also found support from an unexpected source: an audience member. One day, while Morris was in the theater, a woman approached her wanting to know when she would be performing again. “Her concern during that simple conversation made me feel like I was still part of what was happening onstage,” she recalls. “I was still part of our talented team even if I was riding this one out on the bench.”


Different types of depression may produce additional symptoms. Dancers in the northern hemisphere who develop seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during the late fall and winter months may crave sweet and starchy foods and gain weight. In contrast, individuals with bipolar disorder report mania in addition to depression, making rash decisions, such as maxing out their bank accounts, when elated. Dancers with the most benign type of mood disorder, known as dysthymia, suffer chronic, low-grade depression over many years, often beginning in childhood or adolescence. While some dancers are disabled by depression, others continue to function with difficulty. Still, clinical depression should never be ignored, since it is involved in more than half of all attempted suicides.

Although depression tends to run in families, factors apart from heredity can trigger an episode. These factors may include illness (such as an underactive thyroid), stressful life events, a decrease in exposure to sunlight, fluctuating hormones (associated with oral contraceptives or premenstrual syndrome), substance abuse, and burnout. Psychological makeup can also lead to depression, especially in high achievers. In fact, countless accomplished people have suffered from depression, including the late co-founder of the New York City Ballet, Lincoln Kirstein. Does this mean that talented people are more vulnerable to feeling down when others feel up? According to Dr. Sidney Blatt, a psychologist specializing in depression at Yale University, the same qualities that create significant achievement can also lead to self destruction, depending on one's perfectionistic tendencies.

So is perfectionism destructive? Yes and no. Like accomplished people throughout history, successful dancers tend to have extremely high standards. In fact, giftedness and perfectionism often go hand in hand. This is positive up to a point because it drives you to constantly push to achieve excellence. It becomes negative if you must avoid failure at all costs. Unfortunately, the dance culture's emphasis on an ideal body and technique may push certain vulnerable dancers over the edge, especially if teachers refuse to make allowances for fatigue, injuries, mistakes, or anatomical flaws. For example, I know one 16-year-old dancer who became seriously depressed after she was ridiculed in class for having "knobby" knees. Over time, her quadriceps muscle developed, making this problem much less noticeable. However, the emotional damage was already done.

Given the relationship between low self-esteem and depression, it is safer (and more productive) for teachers to focus on learning goals, where the dancer's self-worth is not tied to being perfect. Examples include learning new tasks and acquiring information. Taking a positive approach in dance training can also help dancers manage their own perfectionistic tendencies and set more realistic goals.

Not surprisingly, depression often catches dancers off guard, particularly in a culture that prizes stoicism. As a result, dancers and teachers may view certain red flags associated with depression, such as a loss of energy and concentration, as signs of weakness. Likewise, substance abuse, whether it's cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, or food, may represent a futile attempt to self-medicate for depression. Although it's never a good idea to rely on self-diagnosis, you can use a simple self-screening test developed by the National Mental Health Association to help you determine if you or someone you know is depressed.

But this is in no way a substitute for a medical diagnosis. First, check all the symptoms that apply. If they add up to five or more and have lasted for more than two weeks, the next step is to get a diagnosis from a licensed therapist, such as a clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker--not some amateur who may want to analyze your past lives. The NMHA Resource Center can put you in touch with mental health services in your community (800.969.6642).

The good news is that depression is a highly treatable medical illness. In some cases, psychotherapy is all that is needed, although the length of treatment may be more extensive for negative perfectionism. Antidepressant medication can also be a useful adjunct to therapy--but he aware that using alcohol and illicit drugs along with certain antidepressants can be dangerous. At the very least, remember to set realistic goals and seek out supportive people. And never underestimate the healing power of laughter.

Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a lecturer, a psychologist in private practice, and author of Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass).



Friday, December 12, 2014

Ballet's Unsung Heroines: The Corps

You’ve finally been cast in Coppélia, and you’re thrilled. Before the show, you spend extra time on your hair and make-up. You do a long barre to get warm and slip into your gorgeous costume. The performance starts, you make your first entrance…and then you sit in the same position for the next 15 minutes.

Why? Because you’re not dancing Swanilda, the lead role—you’re the doll. If you’re a corps de ballet member cast in full-length story ballets, chances are that at times, you’ll feel like you’re “living scenery,” the equivalent of a canvas cottage or basket of plastic fruit. While the swans in Swan Lake and the sylphs in Les Sylphides have significant dancing to do, they also have extended sections during which they’re posed and nearly motionless.

For dancers who are dying to be in a company that does the big classic ballets, playing a villager filling out a market scene or an attendant to a princess is a necessary thing. The trick is to make the most of your time onstage and breathe life into even the most static moments. Here are some tips to help keep you from feeling lost in a mob of villagers or smothered in a cluster of sylphs.

Standing still is often the hardest part of being a corps dancer. In Swan Lake, for example, dozens of swans line the stage, standing motionless in “B-plus,” throughout most of the second act. But what the audience doesn’t know is that many of these serene swans are cramping in their lower legs and feet. Elizabeth Mertz, a corps member at American Ballet Theatre since 2004, is a veteran swan. She recommends drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated and eating bananas for potassium, both of which prevent cramping. “And when you’re holding a pose on the side,” she says, “it’s very much like yoga, like a meditation. You’re listening to beautiful music, you feel the energy of your fellow dancers around you, and it’s a little bit of mind over matter.”

It’s also important to stay warm over the course of the evening to prevent muscle aches and pains. But most corps dancers can’t do a new barre before every act—they’re too busy backstage getting ready for their next entrance. Texas Ballet Theater’s Victoria Simo, who’s about to begin her eighth season with the company, knows this all too well. “When I’m not onstage,” she says, “I’m running up and down the stairs to change my costume or reapply makeup. Still, I always make time to stretch and do relevés hanging onto the light trees in the wings before I make my next entrance.”

And what if you’re onstage and you have to sneeze, scratch an itch or cough? “An itch isn’t going to kill you,” Mertz says with a laugh. “But it’s funny: When you enter the stage, it’s almost like something magical happens. The adrenaline takes away a lot of those little urges.” That being said, nothing ruins the beauty of a forest scene faster than the sight of a nymph hacking in front of the trees. If you’re truly sick, take the night off!

Staying Engaged

With all that non-dancing time onstage as a parent in The Nutcracker or a villager in Giselle, night after night, it’s easy to let your thoughts drift to dinner or where to take your parents after the show. But there are ways to keep your mind engaged and focused on the production. Silver Barkes, a corps dancer at Ballet West, has found that her fellow corps members help her stay in the zone. “Sometimes, I’ll look at another dancer across the stage and we’ll start our own little eye conversation,” she says. But be careful: “If you get too involved in the side story, you might miss an entrance or not have the right reaction to what’s going on with the ballet at the moment.”

Many dancers enjoy coming up with background stories for their characters, which can keep them involved during otherwise tedious scenes. “When we were doing Manon,” Mertz says, “we were cast as harlots, and it was kind of fun to come up with a little name for ourselves, or a story for how we got there and what we were doing.” As a peasant in Swan Lake, Mertz is shy one night and envious the next. Or, if she’s playing one of the aristocrats, she might be flirtatious or snobby and aloof with the peasants. “You definitely want to mix it up so that it feels fresh and natural,” she says. (Just make sure “mixing it up” doesn’t involve altering the given choreography or stealing the scene. If you choose to be a flirtatious aristocrat in Swan Lake, don’t start flirting with Prince Siegfried at center stage!)

The Benefits of Being a Living Prop

You might be sitting or standing on the side, but you’ve got front row seats to all the action onstage. The principals (who you may be one day) dance inches away from your toes, giving you the most intimate view in the house. “You can really learn from them even if you’re just standing there,” Barkes says. “One of the best ways to learn in ballet is by watching.” Some dancers also appreciate performing in a large corps
because it’s a low-pressure way to get comfortable with being onstage.

But don’t lose sight of the fact that the corps must still create an atmosphere for the audience to enjoy. A stage full of committed dancers raises the level of a performance and reflects the overall strength of a company. And while principal dancers might perform once or twice a week in a big ballet, the corps is the heart of the ballet company, quick-changing from role to role in nearly every performance. “We can be exhausted,” Mertz says, “but in the end our hard work is rewarding.”

So the next time you’re cast as a nameless villager, perform as if you’re in the spotlight. You’re not just scenery—you’re part of a team.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Not Your Ordinary Circus: Dancing With Cirque du Soleil

It's a clichéd fantasy - running away and joining the circus. But if you're a highly expressive dancer with a creative bent and an interest in long-term employment, you may want to seriously consider turning that circus fantasy into reality with Cirque du Soleil. Because while the groundbreaking shows it produces all over the world feature performers with traditional circus skills, the esteemed organization also employs numerous dancers. So even if you have no acrobatic, clowning, or aerial abilities, you should not rule out auditioning for Cirque. For the right kind of dancer, it can offer extremely gratifying work.

"That acrobatic stereotype has been my biggest challenge over the last five years," says Rick Tjia, senior talent scout in the organization's dance casting sector. It seems that the dance community doesn't realize how many opportunities Cirque du Soleil now offers dancers who are not circus performers. About six years ago, he says, "when I first came to work in casting here, there were only about 20-some dance roles in the entire company, but within two years that number had jumped to over 100. The exact number varies as we create new shows, but I'd say that now we fluctuate between 130 and 180 dance roles at any given time."

Originally a small theater troupe formed by a stilt-walking, fire-breathing accordion player named Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil began to tour in 1984, as part of Quebec's 450th anniversary celebration.Today, it's one of the world's biggest and best-known circus shows with some of the world's best gymnasts, trapeze artists, contortionists, jugglers, ballet dancers, parkour practitioners, clowns, mime artists, musicians and synchronized swimmers.

A Cirque du Soleil dancer needs to have a strong interest in the creative process and a willingness to play an integral role in the development of a show's dance material. "The way this company works is that the roles are created around the dancers who are cast, rather than the choreographer first setting a role in stone and then finding a dancer to fill it," Tjia explains. "We look for dancers who will inspire the creation of the material. Being a technically strong dancer or just being able to do tricks is not enough. Imagination, an open mind, and the willingness to jump into something unknown and find a way to make that interesting together with the creators are what's essential."

Even a dancer hired to fill a role in an already-running production is expected to participate in the creative process, as it doesn't end when the show opens. "The big difference between dancing in a Broadway show, for example, and what we do," Tjia says, "is that we like dancers to evolve in their roles, to bring something new and fresh and different to every performance. It's a lot like what actors normally do but that dancers usually don't."

According to Tjia, when audiences come to see a Cirque du Soleil production, they expect to be wowed and touched: "But 'wowed' doesn't necessarily mean you're going to do 10 pirouettes. That won't sustain an audience's attention for two hours. You have to wow them through the heart. That's what makes this company's shows so special—the artistic, expressive side. We want the kind of dancers who can really touch people through the execution of their movements." Once hired to work on a new production, dancers will often receive classes in physical acting, in addition to a daily morning technique class.

Among the various Cirque productions currently playing, there are roles for dancers who specialize in a multitude of styles. "The type of dancer for which we have the most roles is contemporary," says Tjia, "but right now we also have 12 or 13 tap-dance roles, around six hip-hop or B-boy roles, three Georgian folk dancers, a Romanian folk dancer, and a role that mixes contemporary or jazz and classical Indian dancing, which is one of the most difficult roles to fill, because of that mix."

Dancer Laura Cota is performing in "Love," Cirque du Soleil's Beatles-inspired show, at the Mirage in Las Vegas. After many years of dancing in music videos, with concert dance companies, and on cruise ships, Cota decided to audition for Cirque du Soleil because she wanted a job "that had a little more longevity to it," she says. Though she has been dancing in "Love" for a year and a half, she is the show's newest cast member. "Every other dancer has been here for at least two and a half years," she says. "It's a very positive work environment, and we've become like a family." She also notes that dancing with Cirque never gets boring, because of all the creative work involved and the educational opportunities: "I have never done another job that offers as much training as this one does."

In addition to performing two shows a night, the dancers in "Love" take a mandatory biweekly dance class and get daily workshops focusing on different forms of dance or physical performance, such as clowning or aerial work. Though Cota describes a Cirque du Soleil show as a "demanding" job—her audition alone took 18 hours over the course of two days—she also claims it's by far her favorite.

“Cirque du Soleil is a moment in time—an hour and a half—where you forget everything. It’s like taking a trip to the moon, it’s magical—somewhere between art and entertainment.”


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Taking a Leap: Going from Classical to Commercial Dance

You’re a total bunhead. Whether you live for Swan Lake or worship Jirí Kylián, you can’t imagine life without your pink tights. Except—at the back of your mind—you’ve always wondered about the commercial dance world. What would it be like to dance in a movie or to work with Mia Michaels on an industrial? DS has news for you: Many classically trained ballet and modern dancers are now finding success in the commercial realm, without sacrificing their technique or artistry. Here, five performers offer advice on making the transition.

Use What You’ve Got

There’s no question that classical training will get you noticed during a commercial audition. “When people see Hubbard Street Dance Chicago on my resumé, it’s like a gold star. It’s respected,” says Mark Swanhart, who moved to L.A. to choreograph and dance after a concert dance career that also included River North Chicago Dance Company. The lines, extension and carriage you’ve cultivated will be hard to miss, so flaunt your skills and don’t be embarrassed if your background makes you stick out!

Your training can even be useful for jobs that, on the surface, aren’t about dance. Ballet Hispanico dancer Candice Monet McCall does commercial work in NYC when her company is on layoff. She did an Asics print campaign in which models were asked to jump into the shot. “There were models there that were really awkward,” Candice says. “They couldn’t figure out how to move their bodies. But that’s what I do all the time! Having classical dance training helped me get the gig.”

You may not have been trained to speak and memorize lines, but you’ve probably done your share of ballet mime, which will help you in the acting department. “So much of dance is acting,” says Emaline Green, a former classical ballet dancer who performed with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and is now pursuing commercial jobs full-time. “I did a lot of story ballets growing up, which develops your physical acting. You learn how to carry yourself as a character.”

Supplement Your Skills

If you think commercial work is in your dance future, take these six steps to ease the transition. Try other styles. Study jazz, hip hop, contemporary and even tumbling. “As classical dancers, we’re always pulled up, and we can look rigid,” says Kelby Brown, who danced with Hartford Ballet and Les Ballets Grandiva and has since performed in Céline Dion A New Day… and choreographed for Justin Timberlake at the Kids’ Choice Awards. “Studying other styles and learning to improvise will help you become a better dancer, and it fosters creativity,” Kelby says. You may also benefit from singing and acting classes.

Put yourself out there. “When I first started going to commercial auditions, I went to everything, even if I wasn’t sure I was suited for the job,” says Luke Lazzaro, who danced with San Francisco Ballet, Louisville Ballet and others before moving to Las Vegas to perform in The Phantom of the Opera and pursue commercial jobs. Don’t think of auditioning as an exercise in rejection: “You’ll get a taste of the process and perspective on things you need to work on,” Luke explains.

Get representation—but be prepared to rep yourself. “Sometimes, if you want to work, you have to be your own agent,” Emaline says. “Read Back Stage and find casting calls yourself.”

Learn to network. “In L.A., you have to show up at parties and exchange numbers and business cards, because you never know who you’re going to meet,” says Kelby. “Tell people who you are and what you have to offer.” If you feel awkward talking yourself up, remember that in the commercial world, who you know can matter as much as how you dance.

Fit the part. “You have to give choreographers what they ask for,” says Candice. “If they want a girl with a funky personality or hip-hop style, you have to go in with that attitude even if it’s not you.” This includes your audition attire—don’t show up to a music video or artist tour call in a leotard and tights!

Have fun! “Ask yourself if you can have a good time doing commercial work,” Luke says. “Decide if hip hop and jazz are things you actually enjoy. If you find a passion for it, you’ll be fine. Then you’re motivated and it isn’t a chore.”

Find Fulfillment

The money might be amazing—a one-day commercial shoot can net you the equivalent of a week’s salary with a concert company—but you’re coming from the world of Marius Petipa, Twyla Tharp, Ohad Naharin and William Forsythe. Can you possibly be fulfilled doing music videos and fast food commercials?

First of all, recognize that today’s commercial dance world is nothing to look down on. Even though many directors and choreographers do still have a “there’s no time to make art” mentality, there are artists (Mark cites Mia Michaels, Vincent Patterson and Wade Robson, for starters) who are raising the bar. If you’re choosy with your projects, look for choreographers who will push you technically and artistically.

Still, Mark advises dancing for a company first, if you can. “Dance eight hours a day and perform works in the repertoire. Find a roommate and make $500 or less a week,” he says. “You’ll be so fulfilled—and it will make you a better dancer, too. Do that first, then move to L.A. There’s no reason not to do it all.” (You can also follow Candice’s lead and begin a commercial career before leaving company life.)

And who’s to say that the commercial realm won’t turn out to be just as satisfying as your previous, classical life? “I’m getting work and loving it,” Kelby says. “I love being on set. I love to hear the word ‘action.’ I love watching the magic happen. I want to live my life on television and film.”

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Spotlighting Dancers For Less Money: The Frugal Lighting Designer

When Olga Berest moved her school into a 150-year-old Dutch Colonial house, she didn’t anticipate making it into a performance venue. But the local Port Washington, New York, theater, where she now stages twice-yearly shows, was undergoing renovations. She created a makeshift stage by hanging a muslin curtain from the ceiling, and she rented four free-standing, professional-grade lighting fixtures and some color gels to create lighting effects with her bare hands.

“I just shut them off and on. The lights were plugged in on an extension,” Berest says. Each fixture, called a light tree, had different colors; two were filled with cool tones, like rose and blue, and the other two trees had warmer colors, like red and orange.

“It lit the dancers from the side and threw different colors on their costumes,” she says. Though simplistic, the setup worked, and Berest now uses her curtained room for performances of the Berest Dance Center’s youngest students.

Ideally, every dance group, large or small, would have access to a professional theater with a full, theatrical lighting rig and a lighting designer who specializes in dance. But sometimes you’re working with a high school technician who only knows how to run the light board. Or, you’re on a tight budget and find it necessary to convert a space, like a community center or your own studio. Whatever the situation, it is possible—with a little bit of lighting knowledge and some creativity —to achieve a wide range of sophisticated lighting effects.

What's Your Angle?

Lighting is the final design component, the last element in a long creative process, that enhances the choreography, music and costumes. When thinking about lighting a space, the first thing to consider is the performance’s purpose. Kevin Bender, who runs Bender Performing Arts in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Meri, says that for many shows, “Parents are there to see their kids, so the lighting needs to help them do that.” Sherry Moray, owner and director of The Academy of Dance Arts in Downers Grove, Illinois, agrees. “If the lighting isn’t highlighting the costume and the dancer’s face, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is.”

In order to achieve this, choreographers and studio owners often think that more front light is needed. But, in fact, this can actually make it more difficult to see the dancers. Peter Jakubowski, assistant professor of production/design at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says that the best way to brighten a dancer’s face is by using top or side light. “When you add more front light,” he says, “you’re not only making the dancer brighter, you’re also making the floor brighter.” Without a contrast between the dancer and her surroundings, she disappears.

To fully cover the stage in brightness, you need to have lights downstage, center stage and upstage. If you’re adding lights to a studio space, it’s best to hang three or four pipes horizontally at different depth points above the performance area. “Using four pipes gives you the most flexibility, the most even look,” says Jakubowski. “So often we’re really lighting things so we can get a good video. This setup gives you the ability to have an even wash.” When you hang top lights at all three points on the stage—down, center and up—Jakubowski says, “No matter where the dancers are, the lighting is equal.”

Side light is a favored angle for both choreographers and lighting designers. When Bender wants to create shadows and mood, particularly for a lyrical or contemporary piece, he will use side lights alone. At the Performing Arts Center in Van Nuys, California, Joseph Malone and his wife Nanci Hammond have a convertible studio that becomes a 175-seat performance space. Malone does most of the lighting. Side light, he says, “sculpts the body quite a bit.” And in a smaller room, Malone says, side lights add drama.

Most often, side lighting angle is achieved with light trees like those Berest rented for her studio. The low lights on a tree, often called shin-kickers or shin-dusters, can be very useful for tap pieces, when you want to draw the eyes down to the floor. Tony Waag, artistic director of the American Tap Dance Foundation, says, “If you can make the stage completely dark, you can then bring up a light in just one area so you have isolated action. You can make it more interesting because you can focus a light on one area of the floor.” With low-lighting placed at the front of the stage, you can create silhouettes against a backdrop. “You can get a really nice shadow depending on how close the person is to the light and how close the back wall is,” says Waag.

But take care, as trees can be dangerous for young students. Nestled in the wings, light trees get very hot and can be blinding, presenting a real hazard, especially for inexperienced dancers.

Debra Dumas, who teaches lighting design at Pace and Adelphi universities, suggests an alternative. If you want the benefits of side light without the danger of trees, and you’ve got someone on your team who is comfortable doing some structural work, “You could do a goal post arrangement on scaffolding,” she says, hanging lights off a cross beam supported by two standing pieces that are spaced like a doorway for students to exit and enter through, “as long as it’s secure.”

Roma Flowers, an assistant professor of Dance Lighting Design and Production at Texas Christian University, suggests forgoing trees altogether and using backlight to achieve a similar effect. Back light, she says, “creates an edge of light around dancers’ bodies.” Jakubowski says that blue light specifically “helps punch the body out of the background.”

Color Creativity

If you’re working with older or more experienced dancers, your needs go beyond simply washing the stage in light. Color adds another layer, but how do you know which colors to choose? Most designers recommend having a red, blue and pale warm color, like Bastard Amber (which has a touch of red), which can be combined to create other hues.

Choreographers often describe color choices by mood or emotion because this is what color adds to the stage. While many people are familiar with the idea of lighting a “cool” or a “warm” piece—a somber lyrical number versus a punchy jazz piece—these two descriptions are not always specific enough when working with a less experienced designer or a lighting technician. Jakubowski suggests bringing in a photo or image that evokes the scene or feeling you’re imagining in your mind.

One of the most common places to use color is on the cyc, short for cyclorama, which is the vertical backdrop hung upstage. Jakubowski recommends lighting the cyc from both top and bottom if possible. “If you only light from the top, it becomes the hottest spot and the audience’s eyes can’t help but travel there,” he says. Dumas advises saturated hues for the cyc because a dancer won’t blend in. “If the cyc is light, the dancers have to be lighter,” she says, which can be difficult to achieve if you’re working with limited resources. In fact, says Dumas, sometimes it’s a good idea to leave the cyc black (if it works with the choreography) because the dancers will stand out against it.

Costume color should complement the choreography and the music. But think about brighter, lighter colors that will stand out when you have less light. Most lighting designers recommend fabrics with some reflective quality, especially in an unconventional space where light bouncing off the costumes will help maximize the light you have. White costumes will pick up whatever color you’re using, while “black can get kind of flat onstage,” says Jakubowski. And Dumas recommends staying away from yellow. “It’s the hardest color to light, especially if you need to have blue for a cool or evening piece. Yellow looks green under blue.”

Creating Texture

To add texture, designers often use gobos, or metal cutouts that sit in front of a light. If you’re looking for a specific graphic, like a lamppost or a boat, you might want to purchase a gobo. But if you simply need an abstract shape to break up the dance floor, you can make your own.

Dumas remembers lighting designer Craig Miller (who worked internation-ially with opera and ballet companies, and passed away in 1994) using a screwdriver to create holes in a pie tin, what he called the “punch and twist.” “You just punch the screwdriver through the pie tin,” Dumas says, “and twist it, which makes a little ‘V.’” For a more durable do-it-yourself gobo, Jakubowski suggests you visit a local newspaper and ask for a leftover printer’s tin, which can be cut using a utility knife.

Placing a gobo on a high side light, says Flowers, is a good angle if you’re using the pattern for more than one piece. Jakubowski agrees. “For texture, I like to do it from a high side position that criss-crosses the stage,” he says. “The point that the lights on stage left cross the lights from stage right is directly over the center. It creates almost a tepee shape and keeps the eye focused down and center.” Just make sure to focus the light so that the pattern is soft. “You don’t want it to be too descriptive,” says Flowers. “You just want a dabbling of light and dark.”

Do It Yourself

If you’re attempting to avoid theater rental fees altogether, you can do what studio directors Olga Berest and Joseph Malone have done and add lights to a studio space. But if you’re installing professional-strength lighting fixtures, make sure you have enough electricity. Peter Jakubowski of UNLV recommends 200 amps. “For every 20 amps that you have, you can have about three standard stage lights,” he says. “Two hundred amps really allows you to have some side light, a little bit of backlight, a little front light and a few specials (individual fixtures used to create single pools of light) which are the basic things you need to present something that looks professional,” he says.

But even hardware-store floodlights can provide a very inexpensive option for makeshift spaces. Curt Steinzor and Elaine Gardner, who run Pick of the Crop Dance company in Buffalo, New York, created a piece that was performed at various schools as part of an educational program. Steinzor, who is the musical director and de facto lighting designer, built wooden bases onto which he clamped floodlights. The dancers stood in front of the lights and a sheet hung in front of the dancers. “We got some pretty convincing shadows and silhouettes,” he says.

To create memorable stage pictures, you only need a few extra lights. Roma Flowers of TCU says that singular, visual moments onstage can have a strong impact. She gave this example: If a piece begins with a slow, meditative solo upstage right, put a separate light, or special, on that dancer. You could have it come up slowly, a gradual gain in intensity. Then the stage goes to full light and the audience sees the other dancers. At the end of the piece, the lights go back down to feature the soloist, who’s now down stage left, where you have the second special focused. A high contrast, intense image will set the mood for the piece. “Even if you use those two extra lights for only 9 to 10 seconds, you can make the beginning and the end look great and dramatic,” she says. “Go for that special moment that will define the whole mood for the audience.”

If you’re installing stage lighting, you might want to purchase a light board, but a household dimmer switch can also do the trick. “If you can get even a little control of light and dark, you’ve got a pretty basic setup,” says Flowers.

Another option to consider is light-emitting diodes, commonly known as LED lights, which use less electricity and can provide a wide range of colors on a single strip of lights. If you desire overall coverage, Flowers warns that LEDs don’t emit as much light. But they also don’t get as hot as traditional stage lights, making them a good alternative for side lights.

At Malone and Hammond’s Performing Arts Center, they usually cover the studio mirrors with parachute material that acts like a cyc. But sometimes, for less formal performances, they go without the material and let the lights reflect off the mirror. Experimenting with what you have can often create unexpected yet rewarding results.


Make the Most of your Tech Rehearsal

If you’ve rented theater space, you might have to cram together your dress and technical rehearsals to save money. Prepare and organize before you arrive to use the time efficiently.

When working with the Long Island Dance Consortium’s annual concert, designer Debra Dumas had only half an hour with each company to set lighting cues. But even before the dancers stepped onstage, she had generated lighting ideas based on a form she sent to directors in advance asking for information like the mood and costume color of each piece.

Sherry Moray of Academy of Dance Arts in Illinois has her teachers prepare tech sheets for the tech team a week before performance dates. “They know whether the students are using props, whether they’re entering with or without music,” she says. “We’re all on the same page.”

Communication is key when working with a lighting designer. Peter Jakubowski, assistant professor at UNLV, advises choreographers and directors to be “specific and clear” about what they want. “Talk in terms of what’s in front of your face. ‘I need more highlight on the head and shoulders,’ or ‘I need this piece to have an edgier quality.’”

And most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask questions and assert yourself.

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