Known By Heart

September 11, 2011

Gillian Murphy, a principal at American Ballet Theatre, performed her first shows of Twyla Tharp’s
Known by Heart pas de deux in London this February. Critics described her as “stupendously sexy” and “serene in the most daring slides.” She will reprise the role this November at New York City Center. Here she talks about the rehearsal process and shares her advice for learning a new role.

Last November I began learning the “Junk Man” pas de deux from Known by Heart, a fun and funky Twyla Tharp ballet. There are a lot of factors to consider when trying to learn and interpret a part, but unless it’s a character-intensive role, like Juliet or Lizzie Borden, that requires extra research, I like to break the process down to four main steps:

1. Learn The Vocabulary And The Choreography

First, think big picture. Try not to get absorbed in the nuance of each moment until you’re comfortable with the material itself. For Known by Heart, the learning process was a bit trickier than usual since the piece has a percussive soundtrack with elusive musical cues and a deliberately quirky, non-classical dance vocabulary. However, I’ve worked with Twyla Tharp before in ballets such as  In the Upper Room and Rabbit and Rogue, so I was familiar with her gutsy sensibility as well as her use of parallel positions, varied levels (such as deep lunges) and flexed feet. We also had the invaluable staging expertise of both Stacy Caddell, an encouraging and inspiring coach on whom the role was created, and Susan Jaffe, an extraordinary ballerina and ABT’s original interpreter of the role. Stacy taught the material very clearly through counts, while giving memorable names such as the “Futomaki Roll” and “Oh Mighty Isis” to certain sequences to help keep us from getting lost in the repetitive score.

After only about eight hours of rehearsal, we had to set the piece aside for over a month to focus on rehearsing Alexei Ratmansky’s new Nutcracker. During that downtime, it was essential that I periodically run through the steps and counts in my mind to stay on top of the intricacies of the timing.

2. Develop Extra Stamina

Even if you are in good shape, each new piece can be uniquely “puffy.” I learned the “Junk Man” pas at the same time as several of my good friends, and we were always laughing with each other about the absurd noodle-like state we ended up in after a few minutes of attempting to run the piece. It’s an 11-minute pas with only short breaks for each dancer, and it was a very real challenge to keep the charged physicality at a high pitch while maintaining technical control underneath Tharp’s aerobic, earthy movement. It’s extremely strenuous, and without proper conditioning it would be next to impossible. The necessary stamina for any new role has to be built through repetition, learning to pace yourself and remembering to breathe fully. Many dancers gain additional stamina by swimming, biking or using the elliptical machine, but my favorite form of cross-training is gyrotonic. It’s gentler than a standard gym workout, but it has helped me to focus on alignment and core strength so that I don’t unnecessarily overwork muscles. I’ve also learned over time that stamina is not only about physical conditioning: It’s about willpower and minimizing the draining forces of nervous energy.

3. Embody The Spirit Of The Choreography

Choreographer Pina Bausch once said, “I’m not interested in how people move, I’m interested in what makes them move.” When I create a role, the “how” is the foundation but the “what” is the point of departure and interest. Once I’m comfortable with the material and my stamina, it’s time to delve deeper into the nuances within the piece and explore the role’s intention. ABT first set the “Junk Man” pas 13 years ago with Susan Jaffe and Ethan Stiefel, and I remember being amazed by their spectacular performances. That memory, coupled with Stacy’s guidance in rehearsals, offered invaluable insight into my character’s feisty spirit, as well as the contentious dynamic established between the couple. Stacy noted that the question of whether my part was essentially playful, spiteful or a combination of both was open to each dancer’s interpretation. In making my movement slightly flirtatious, I interpreted the character as initially enjoying the banter and power struggle with her partner until mounting tension and misunderstanding lead to genuine disdain. An alternative could have been to make her more overbearing and itching to pick a fight. In any character role, it’s vital to develop a personal motivation for each phrase while still trusting your intuitive response to the music.

4. Stay Positive!

Throughout your process, strive to have a positive frame of mind. I was coming back from ankle surgery as I was learning the piece, and my left foot had to get stronger through consistent physical therapy and a few months of healing before I was able to fully accomplish the difficult relevé sections and the slides on pointe in parallel fourth. I also had to walk through several rehearsals due to a strained right adductor. It can be demoralizing not to be able to dance, particularly if you feel as though you’re backsliding on stamina and the sense of momentum inherent in learning a new role. However, there is a lot to learn when injured, and it’s essential not to lose your sense of perspective. Don’t let a setback, a gray winter, or personal anxieties get you down.

Before our premiere on the opening night of ABT’s London tour, my partner Blaine Hoven and I ran the pas a few times, and each run-through was equal parts exhausting and exhilarating. I always have fun dancing with Blaine, and I have complete confidence in his partnering skills. Finally, on the night of our first show, I was able to turn my post-surgery doubts and pre-show nerves into extra adrenaline and excitement for the performance. Whatever your last-minute concerns, remember to relax, have faith in your preparation and be in the present moment. My secret weapons when I dance with ABT, aside from my brilliant partners, are that my costumes are made to fit beautifully by wardrobe mistress Caryn Wells, and that Riva Pizhadze does inspired hair and stage makeup right before each show. These final touches are essential to making me feel completely transported into each role. Blaine and I enjoyed every moment of bringing Twyla Tharp’s vision of abandon, contention and spontaneity to life.