Can Acting Lessons Give Ballet Dancers an Edge?
This story originally appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of
Five years after joining American Ballet Theatre, corps member Zhong-Jing Fang sustained a serious ankle injury. Not one to let a setback take her off course, Fang wondered: What other things can I do as an artist? She loved imitating movie actresses as a child, so she decided to try acting while she recovered. For two years, she went every Wednesday evening to a four-hour group class with acting coach Diaan Ainslee. There she learned to dissect a monologue, develop a character, listen and feel emotionally exposed. The experience thrust Fang out of her comfort zone and transformed her as an artist. “It’s a different layer of becoming a person,” Fang says, “and becoming much more real.”
Acting classes, which often incorporate exercises aimed at self-exploration, can offer dancers tools to deepen their artistry. Even simple things, Fang notes, like working without mirrors, can inspire you to go beyond image and find a deeper sense of self. “There is a lot more to say, beyond just being able to dance,” she says. Here, Fang and three other dancers explain how acting skills have made them better performers.
Ruud in “Giselle.” Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West.
Discovering “You” in All Your Roles
Acting classes can help you find your voice both metaphorically and literally. “Actors are more involved with their egos than dancers are,” says Ballet West corps member Gabrielle Salvatto, who was featured in the 2015 television series “Flesh and Bone.” “They’re taught that you really have to be 100 percent confident in yourself in order to be confident being someone else.”
In an effort to achieve technical mastery, ballet dancers don’t always have time to focus on their egos. Getting in touch with your identity can be a struggle, particularly in the early phases of your career, when a corps position requires looking like everyone else. Furthermore, choreographers can be very specific. “As a dancer, that can start to inhibit you,” says Ballet West principal Christopher Ruud. “You’re so concentrated on doing precisely what you’ve been asked to do that sometimes it can take away from what you’re portraying.”
In an acting environment, Salvatto finds that there are “different ways to say the same things.” On set, for instance, she noticed that her directors were often not quite sure what they wanted the end result to be. “They’re looking for you to provide that answer.”
Ruud, who studied at the Actor Training Program at the University of Utah, notes that his dramatic training helped him learn important character-development skills. On portraying Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, for example, Ruud says it’s not enough to “just act like a teenager on his birthday. You have to delve in and realize that he’s lived in this castle, he’s been served his whole life—he’s probably pretty lonely!”
However, relating to a character’s complex and sometimes negative feelings can be difficult for a dancer who is used to making everything look effortless and beautiful. Fang recalls a dramatic exercise where, facing another actor, she had to rapidly call out each feeling she had as it washed over her. This helped her access “moment to moment, very bare, very raw” emotions, a skill she now uses to infuse both cheerful and despondent roles with a nuanced voice.
Fang in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Nutcracker.” Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy American Ballet Theatre.
One crucial emotion that theater allows dancers to explore in depth is fear. “I learned how to see my fears, how to be aware of them, and that it’s okay to be scared,” says Fang. In fact, her classes allowed her to recognize that being injured was a very fear-filled experience; she later channeled that feeling when she returned to the stage with ABT. For example, though initially intimidated to play a harlot in Romeo and Juliet, she soon recognized that the character was not simply “sexy.” She was likely also scared and vulnerable.
While ballet dancers spend a lifetime trying to achieve perfection, Atlanta Ballet dancer Alessa Rogers found that the skills she learned from performing with an improvisational sketch-comedy group helped reduce her fear of mistakes. She describes her first training workshop with a local troupe, called Dad’s Garage, to be almost therapeutic. In improv comedy exercises, which often involve unscripted, themed games, “there are no wrong answers,” says Rogers. If one joke didn’t work, she had to let it go and quickly move on to the next one. “You don’t have time to question yourself. You just have to make a choice, any choice. Nothing bad is going to happen if you put yourself out there and you’re really invested in what you’re doing.”
Salvatton and Alison DeBona in Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free.” Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West.
Succeeding with Today’s Choreographers
Authentically expressing yourself is especially important today, as many visiting contemporary choreographers want to quickly learn who dancers are as artists. While making Games at Ballet West, choreographer Helen Pickett (who is also an actor) peppered Ruud with questions about his motivation. The ballet, a modern interpretation of Nijinsky’s Jeux, depicts a complicated love triangle. “She was very interested in the choices we made,” he says. “What choice are you going to make right here about this relationship between these people?”
Rogers found that some of the lessons she learned at Dad’s Garage, particularly the “yes, and” principle, easily carried over to making new ballets. In improv comedy, she explains, “whatever somebody does onstage, you can’t say no to them, and you can’t just say yes but not further progress the story. You have to give them a ‘yes, and.’ ” Though the phrase was new to her, the experience was not: She’s used to taking a choreographer’s material and building on it. “No dancer is going to say no to a choreographer—they’re saying ‘yes, and’ all the time.”