Learn a Role in 20 Minutes?

November 28, 2001

Sugar Plum was hugging the toilet. It was already battle scene, and the only other National Ballet of Canada dancer in the theater who knew the role was first soloist Rebekah Rimsay. The problem? She knew a different version.

“I’d guested as Sugar Plum for years, but I always did Celia Franca’s choreography,” says Rimsay. NBC now performs James Kudelka’s The Nutcracker.

“Everyone was panicking,” says Rimsay, who was cast to dance the Waltz of the Flowers that night. “We decided I’d do the Franca solo (since there’s no interaction), and if we cut the opening pas de deux, I might have time to learn the Kudelka version of everything else.”

Unforeseen calamities are inevitable in ballet. “It’s live theater—everything is subject to change!” says American Ballet Theatre Artistic Associate Victor Barbee. Most companies make sure they always have a plan B (or even plan C and D) for when a performer gets sick or injured. But emergencies happen, nonetheless. It can end up being a breakthrough opportunity for the dancers who step in only hours or minutes before curtain—one they might not otherwise get.

Once onstage, Rimsay relaxed and focused on giving a great performance—until halfway through the variation when Kudelka’s choreography called for student dancers to cluster around her. “They didn’t know why I was dancing different steps,” Rimsay says. “I tried telling them to move, while still smiling and not moving my lips.” Once offstage, she had 20 minutes to learn the second pas de deux. “It had to be exact because I was dancing with the Cavalier,” says Rimsay. “If I didn’t do a specific number of turns, he couldn’t catch me.”

This wasn’t the first time Rimsay had swooped in at the last moment. During her 19 years at NBC, she’s developed a reputation for being able to pull off performances in a pinch. “I become very task-oriented in situations like this, zeroing in on just the information I need,” she says. It’s no accident which dancers get chosen to fill in for last-minute vacancies. “We look not only at who is right for the particular role, but who is ready for the opportunity,” says Barbee. Artistic staffs also consider which dancers have the focused work ethic and gutsy temperament to take on the challenge. “Personally,” says Rimsay, “I’ve always gotten a high off these moments.”

Not every dancer loves the pressure. Last year, Didier Bramaz, then a soloist at Miami City Ballet, had a breakdown during the five hours he had to learn “Strangers in the Night” from Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs. “I freaked out,” Bramaz says. “Every step in the choreography is different, and I kept forgetting what came next. I started thinking there was no way I’d be able to perform it that night.” Luckily, his partner was his then-girlfriend (now fiancée) Callie Manning, who took him aside and encouraged him to keep trying. “I had to prove they could count on me,” says Bramaz, “both to the staff and to myself.”

Although Bramaz admits it wasn’t his finest moment onstage, he was relieved not to mess anything up. “It was the most stressful thing I’ve done, but it sure felt good to save the show,” he reflects. Bramaz advises dancers faced with similar situations to take the challenge in a positive way: “It’s a chance to change the way everyone thinks of you.”

Barbee recommends that dancers create their own formula for remembering choreography: “Focus on whatever works for you for that piece, whether it’s figuring out who to follow when, or thinking about it phrase by phrase so it’s not overwhelming.” Corps work can be hardest, because you have to be exactly in time and in line. “Know the overall pattern so you know which way everyone is going and will be able to fit in even if you make a mistake,” suggests Rimsay. “But if you’re doing a solo, focus mostly on the character and giving a performance—that’s what the audience came to see.”

North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Sarah James needed to learn both a soloist and a corps role when she was thrown into Alvin Ailey’s Night Creatures and Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs overnight. “I had to teach myself both parts from a DVD in just a few hours,” says James. She was in the second company at the time, which had a matinee that afternoon. “I still had makeup from the matinee streaming down my face during the emergency half-hour run-through onstage,” says James. “It was such a whirlwind. But I felt lucky because I wouldn’t otherwise have  gotten to do those parts.”

Despite the stress, these situations can lead to real rewards. The qualities dancers need to pull off a last-minute save are the same qualities most companies look for in the dancers they feature—reliability, focus, quick thinking and a sense of daring. Rimsay is now regularly cast as Sugar Plum, Bramaz was promoted to principal at the end of the season and James was asked to join NCDT’s main company. “An opportunity like this hopefully makes you a more seasoned performer,” says Barbee. “When dancers rise to the challenge, it can prove they’re ready to take the next step.”