Dancers Share Their Key Takeaways After a Year of Dancing on Film

April 11, 2021

Creating dances specifically for film has become one of the most effective ways that ballet companies have connected with audiences and kept dancers employed during the pandemic. Around the world, dance organizations are finding opportunities through digital seasons, whether conceiving cinematic, site-specific pieces or filming works within a traditional theater. And while there is a consistent sentiment that nothing will ever substitute the thrill of a live show, dancers are embracing this new way of performing.

Still, it’s been an adjustment. How are dancers developing performance energy? How can artistry best be communicated through the camera? What is the best angle to present technique? Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Derek Brockington explains that dancing for film is “about acknowledging that it’s not going to be the same experience—it’s a different way of dancing.” Below, Brockington and several other dancers share their takeaways after a year of dancing on camera.

Adapting to New Spaces and Timelines

Rehearsing in the back of a crowded studio used to seem like a challenge, but since the pandemic began last year Zoom rehearsals became the norm, and gave new perspective to exploring movement in small spaces. Dancing an entirely digital season this year, Jessy Dick, a company apprentice at The Washington Ballet, explains that learning contemporary movement via Zoom last fall was confusing to translate into the body. “It is hard to feel the movement,” says Dick. “I never realized how expansive moving in the studio can feel. The walls mess with your head.”

Dick had to adapt and develop mind flexibility, which she says later carried over when the company began dancing in site-specific locations and adjusting to the quick pace of a filming day. When shooting Something Human, by TWB artist Andile Ndlovu, last October, considerations such as natural lighting and weather shaped a single day of filming at Maryland’s Patapsco Female Institute. There was little time for dancers to acquaint themselves with the space, adapt and, as Dick says, “just go for it.” Yet she adds that the challenge of performing outdoors on unfamiliar surfaces and in tennis shoes or bare feet was balanced by the inspiration of dancing with the wind and sunshine. “The location fueled us to be able to turn it on and off quick,” she says, especially when doing multiple takes throughout the day.

Jessy Dick, wearing a light blue turtleneck, pants and socks, kicks her left leg high and holds the side of her head with her right hand. Her right elbow is bent in towards her leg and she dances outdoors on a marley floor and in front of a white wall..

The Washington Ballet’s Jessy Dick on the set of Andile Ndlovu’s Something Human

Mena Brunette of XMBPhotography, Courtesy TWB

Even when filming in the familiar confines of a theater, the recording experience can be intense. San Francisco Ballet principal Aaron Robison describes recording George Balanchine’s Jewels at the War Memorial Opera House in January as “one run-through, notes and then a quick touch-up, and we did it again.” While rehearsing his role in “Emeralds” was relatively typical (save Balanchine répétiteur Sandra Jennings coaching via Zoom instead of in the studio), the recording day included two back-to-back run-throughs. When asked how he rallies performance-level energy multiple times in a row, Robison explains that knowing that a performance run is complete in one single day of filming gives him the fortitude to push to his max.

Turning On Performance Mode—Without the Audience

The energy between dancers and audience members during a live performance is hard to replicate digitally. Since films are often shot from different angles, dancers have had to explore how to project through different parts of the body and with specificity, depending on the shot. “It involves more thinking than you normally have to do,” says Brockington. He says he has to have keen awareness of where the camera is, while also trying to project beyond it and considering the different angles it is potentially capturing.

While Robison’s filming process of Jewels was a straight run-through from one angle, he was still performing to an empty theater. Yet he says he drew energy from “the fact that we haven’t been able to perform for all this time, and I felt fortunate in that moment being back on the stage.”

Wearing a long, green Romantic tutu, Sasha Mukamedov does a high croisu00e9 arabesque with her arms moving out towards her sides. Aaron Robison, wearing a dark green velvet tunic and white tights, lunges right and holds onto her waist with his right hand, with his left arm out to the side.
San Francisco Ballet principal Aaron Robison and soloist Sasha Mukhamedov in George Balanchine’s “Emeralds”

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Regardless of the circumstances, being committed to the moment is imperative for a filmed performance to be effective. Not only do viewers need to feel it, dancers want to do justice to the choreography in a way that stands the test of time. “That’s the thing with a film,” says Robison. “It stays.”

Reaching a Global Audience

One of the major advantages to online performances is that anyone can watch from anywhere in the world. On a personal level, dancers from international backgrounds can share their dancing with family, friends and teachers who supported their training. From a more global perspective, virtual performances allow dancers and companies to share their missions on a broader platform.

When DTH initially created Dancing Through Harlem, a virtual submission for Harlem Week last August, it went viral with over 7.6 million views. Brockington and his roommate, fellow DTH dancer Alexandra Hutchinson, conceived, produced and edited the film—with choreography based on Robert Garland’s New Bach and set throughout beautiful spaces in Harlem—over seven days in August using an iPad. Not expecting to reach such a large audience, Brockington says that the video’s popularity is why representation matters. “I grew up not seeing many ballet dancers who looked like me.” Brockington says he was honored to share his dancing and the stunning architecture of Harlem with the world while representing DTH’s mission of inclusivity and accessibility.

Another audience added to the pool of viewers is the dancers themselves. Waiting for a film to debut can produce greater anticipation than pre-performance jitters, especially when you’re not sure what the final product will look like. Robison explains that while he knows which takes he felt particularly good about, the chosen cut will be what best represents the entire cast—and that isn’t revealed until the film is released.

For dancers, being able to watch the work they were a part of is a reward that is entirely new. “There’s nothing that compares to the feeling of performing onstage,” says Dick. “But it was beautiful to watch my colleagues blossom in front of the camera.”