Beyond the Steps

Digging deep to find a role’s essence
Published in the April/May 2009 issue.

When Sarah Van Patten first danced the lead in a Royal Danish Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet, it felt like a cinch. Just 16 years old, she was an apprentice in the company and it seemed very real. “I didn’t even think about acting,” she says.   

Now 24 and a principal with San Francisco Ballet, Van Patten has often been praised for the way she interprets roles. But when she was cast as a woman quarreling with her lover in Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, she felt a little daunted. “I can play the lyrical young girl in love,” she explains. “This was a woman with far more wisdom and experience. To be that, I needed to research it.”

Achieving the heights of artistry can challenge the most experienced dancers, coaches and choreographers. According to Violette Verdy, coach, teacher and former New York City Ballet principal, artistry means expressing all the dimensions of a role, whether or not the ballet tells a story. And ballet without artistry? “Boy, do you get bored!” she says.

Yet many dancers receive little training in how to portray a role beyond its technical demands. That may be one impetus for a burgeoning educational movement to help dancers explore ballet’s vast emotional range. Playing a glass-slippered Cinderella liberated from hearth and rags presents one challenge, but how does a dancer in an abstract ballet convey the steps’ essence? And how does one learn such subtle, hard-to-define skills?

Mavis Staines, artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School, has grappled head-on with how to approach teaching artistry. You want to do as many pirouettes as possible? “Fine,” she says. “But what are you saying?” She notes that in most companies today, repertoires are taught quickly, with little time for dancers to fine-tune their understanding of a piece. So a decade ago, Staines started a class to help students learn how to tackle the process themselves. “The schools have to take responsibility,” she says. “In companies, you can’t expect to get coaching like you used to. Students have to be self-sufficient. You have to give them the tools.”  

To develop those tools, she invited former Royal Danish Ballet soloist Sorella Englund to Toronto to teach an annual five-week improvisation course, “Drama and Expression.” Englund limits the class size to create a close-knit atmosphere and also sets strict rules to encourage openness and experimentation. “We can laugh together,” she says, “but not at each other.”

Englund then assigns a simple exercise like walking. Next, each student attempts to display a particular emotion while walking. “I ask them how it feels walking in different moods—somebody excited, aggressive, amused by a little thing, seeing a light in the sky,” she explains. Eventually, students take a partner and trade those emotions. “It forces them to concentrate on what they’re doing, and the other person’s emotions.”

To help students learn expressiveness in abstract roles, Lawrence Rhodes, artistic director of The Juilliard School’s Dance Division, urges dancers to keep in mind that there may be more to dancing than meets the eye. “An abstract ballet that doesn’t have named characters still has character,” he explains. “Think of a Balanchine ballet that’s very particular in music, style and technique. There is real drama and tension.”

Sometimes ballet masters can share a piece’s history, and what the choreographer originally wanted. But dancers must also look inward. “Don’t be shy about digging into yourself to realize a piece you’re working on,” says Rhodes. He defines that process as finding a way to live with the music, connect the movements and inhabit a piece. Even technically gifted dancers can struggle to achieve artistry, he cautions. “It’s about how deeply you sense character, space, music and relationships,” he says. “And about relating to a partner, a group, the space. And how you move through space and how you decide to develop a dance in space.”

Nonetheless, Rhodes agrees artistry can be achieved to some degree by working hard to learn the steps, counts and music and then adding elements like phrasing and épaulement. In “Modern Solos and Duets,” Juilliard students spend two or three sessions learning a solo or duet. The following 10 classes then are devoted to repetition and coaching. “You have the steps,” Rhodes explains. “Now where can you go with the piece? How do you develop it? We teach students how to dig. With feedback from the instructor, they learn how to refine it, make it better. They understand intrinsic musical values and how to investigate a work.”

Even when dancers become professionals, the digging isn’t over. In the Night’s three couples portray complex relationships. To find her interpretation of an aggressive and emotionally scarred woman—and to avoid provoking laughter as she’s hoisted upside down, arms flailing—Van Patten mined performance videos for nuance and detail, from timing to eye movement. “A lot of it has to do with watching other dancers,” she says. “You have to study them in fine detail to portray a part realistically.”

When Van Patten danced the role of Juliet with SFB, she could still tap into the same well of innocence she felt at 16, but this time, she’d seen more of the world. She realized the significance of the story, including the poignant death scenes. “It was a stronger performance,” she says. “I had more mental awareness.” And if she performed Juliet again? “It would be different,” she says, “because I’m different. With every role, you start at the beginning.” But, she adds, “If the passion’s there, you’ll want to improve. If you have the will, you’ll have the way.”

Melding all these ephemeral qualities with technique is artistry at its apex—and the future of ballet, says Englund. Like many, Englund laments that dance education has become purely physical. Yet she has no desire to return to yesteryear. “We’ve forgotten that ballet is a language to express atmosphere, emotion, energy,” she says. “I realize we can’t go back. Technique is at a high level and it should stay there. But the mind and emotions have to be hand-in-hand with physicality. If you only think of the perfect turnout, the perfect extension, then you’re trying to make art perfect.

“Art,” she says, with absolute conviction, “should be full of life.

Former dancer Susan Chitwood has an MS in journalism from Columbia University in NYC.