From Screen to Stage – Web Exclusive

January 18, 2012

Look inside most company studios and—in addition to barres and a piano—you’ll likely find a television monitor, DVD player and VHS recorder. Production offices moonlight as video libraries, stacked with row after row of past performances. And with websites like YouTube, you can now watch umpteen versions of almost any variation instantly from home. Videos have become an integral part of company life, and while they can’t replace human interaction with choreographers and ballet masters, they supplement the learning process in a variety of ways—whether you need to research a role, break down tricky partnering or record an inspired choreographic idea. Pointe spoke with three pros about how they use film.

Yumelia Garcia, The Joffrey Ballet

Before the Joffrey Ballet’s Yumelia Garcia starts rehearsing for a role, she watches a video of the production to prepare. “I always like to use video as research, no matter what role I’m doing,” she says. “I think it enriches the process of putting the ballet together for the role you’re trying to interpret.” She finds it most helpful when she’s unfamiliar with a ballet or choreographic style, like when she was slated to rehearse Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. “I’d never seen The Merry Widow in my life—I didn’t even know what it was about,” she says. She found a copy of The National Ballet of Canada’s production and “threw it in like a movie” to absorb the whole ballet. Then, once casting was announced, she went back and watched her character’s specific scenes.

Garcia doesn’t try to learn choreography off of video, preferring to wait until she’s in the studio with the rehearsal directors. “But sometimes seeing it once makes it easier to visualize how it’s supposed to be done,” she says. “It helps me grasp the steps faster.” Once the day is over she’ll also often pop in the DVD to go over counts and review everything she’s learned. “It helps settle everything in my brain.”

Katherine Lawrence, Ballet West

For Katherine Lawrence, a principal dancer with Ballet West, video comes in especially handy when she’s learning classical variations. For BW’s production of Sleeping Beauty, the principal dancers were allowed to dance whatever version of Aurora’s variation flattered them best. In this case, Lawrence found the numerous clips available online enormously helpful. “I looked up different versions of Sleeping Beauty and found steps I liked,” she says. “The next day I showed it to my director, and he decided whether it fit with the rest of the production. It was nice to find what suited my strengths.”

Lawrence also finds video beneficial when she’s learning a ballet she’s not scheduled to perform right away. “If the company rehearses something at the start of the season, but we’re not performing it until later in the year, we’ll videotape a rehearsal,” she says. “Then we can go back and look at what it was exactly. Everybody remembers it slightly differently, but the video helps us avoid arguments.”

John Welker, Atlanta Ballet

While video can be helpful during the rehearsal process, leading Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker notes that it’s integral to the creation process, too. Recording rehearsals allows him to review the phrases he’s choreographed each day and to make necessary changes. “It also helps me remove myself from the piece and see it from a distance, from more of an audience perspective,” he says.

Welker, who is currently a student at Kennesaw State University, had his first opportunity to choreograph last year on the dance department—and he decided to put his camcorder to good use. “I only had two hours of rehearsal a week, so I videotaped them to make the most of it,” he says. Reviewing the footage allowed him to arrive for the next rehearsal prepared and ready to go. “I wasn’t just going from memory. We could move forward rather than rehash stuff.”

Video can also serve as a memory bank for future ideas. When Twyla Tharp came to Atlanta Ballet last summer to start choreographing her new ballet The Princess and the Goblin—which she’s been conceiving for the last 20 years—much of what Welker learned came from improvisational material she’d recorded years ago. “From that respect, video is an amazing archival tool.”

Video Drawbacks

Video is an important teaching tool, but it has significant limitations. Victoria Simon, a ballet mistress with The George Balanchine Trust, cites human error as a major reason why she doesn’t take what’s on a tape as the final word. “A video is just one performance,” she says. “And things go wrong in a performance. I often look at several if I’m setting something for the first time.”

Problems occur on the production end, too. Simon mentions one made-for-television video of Balanchine’s Western Symphony where the music is incorrectly synced with the dancing. “Everything is literally off one count. When [the dancers] are up they should be down, and when they’re down they should be up.”

Even more importantly, relying too heavily on video can sometimes stifle a dancer artistically. “If you just see one interpretation, that dancer’s way of doing the role gets stuck in your mind,” Simon says. “While you don’t want to change the steps, you also don’t want to copy somebody else—you want to be able to develop your own interpretation.” Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker agrees. “Artists sometimes get flexibility with how they interpret a role, just to give it more life and breath. What you see on the video is not necessarily what the choreographer set or will set.”

Dancers should be thoughtful about their use of video because it can never answer all of their questions, says Johanna Bernstein Wilt, a ballet mistress for Cincinnati Ballet. “You can see the steps, but you don’t necessarily know the motivation behind them,” she says. “You need the memories of the people who danced them to pass it along. For me, that’s what keeps the work alive.”