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From Better to Curse

From Better to Curse
Photo Source: Gene Schiavone
Playwrights and actors do it with words. Choreographers and dancers—at least the good ones—do it without uttering a word. Creating characters, no matter how you do it, comes from intelligent, thoughtful research and analysis; thorough preparation; and a willingness to keep delving.

Nancy Raffa, currently ballet mistress for American Ballet Theatre, is appearing onstage in "The Sleeping Beauty." Despite her tiny—even for a dancer—frame, she's not dancing the title role, also known as Aurora. She is dancing a role that, for the past many decades, has been danced by men. She is the witch, Carabosse, who crashes the christening and curses Aurora with the prediction that when Aurora is a teenager, she will prick her finger and die.

Speaking by phone with Back Stage, Raffa eloquently and in detail describes creating this fascinating character through dance.

"The Sleeping Beauty," presented by American Ballet Theatre, runs July 15-18 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tickets: (800) 982-2787 or

Back Stage: What did you discover while researching Carabosse's story?

Nancy Raffa: I had discovered a version of the story where Carabosse was actually the fairy that was responsible to get the queen pregnant with Aurora, which made a lot of sense for me later on—why she would be so hurt when the christening happened, that she wasn't on the guest list.

Back Stage: Had you been struggling with creating her?

Raffa: No, just trying to find an inspirational point. Where was that evil side born? Where was the root of her wanting so much revenge and so much vengeance on the family and on the child?

Back Stage: What about her age?

Raffa: Fairies are ageless. Apparently after the queen became pregnant, this fairy was locked up because when the child became of age, the fairy was supposed to have possession of the child. The king and queen didn't want that to happen, so they locked her up. Through Carabosse's magic forces, finding out the baby was actually born and she wasn't invited, she escaped and came and intruded in the ceremony and procession and party and brought them the surprise of the actual curse.

Back Stage: How did she escape?

Raffa: Choreographically, she arrives in a big explosion, like she comes from the sky, and she's enmeshed among the minions, which are her aides or helpers, so she's kind of in a spider form, which is kind of metaphorical for her entrapping Aurora in her spell. As she moves forward into the ballroom, she emerges from this cocoon and turns into this half-princess, half-witch figure. But the character is not a witch; the character is a fairy gone bad, a frustrated woman–slash–supernatural creature.

Back Stage: How long had she been plotting to do this?

Raffa: I would imagine it would have been for some time. She's been thinking very deeply, "What would be the best way I could hurt them for hurting me?" When she comes in, in a way she snubs the king and queen. She pretends she doesn't see them, and she takes over and starts commanding the people in the court to bow down to her. There's this really big diagonal where she turns around, sees the king and queen, salutes the king and queen, and slowly walks to them, cynically, as though, "You've forgotten me. Explain this. Why wasn't I invited, after all I've done for you?" And that's where the scene begins. They're terrified because she's really powerful, and they know she has this capacity for evil. She helped the king and queen, but it wasn't without an ulterior motive. She was supposed to take over this child, and they didn't want that.

Back Stage: And she is an outsider.

She was then made an outsider, when indeed she was responsible for the whole creation. This infuriates her and triggers the need to have revenge and to hurt them back out of the hurt she's feeling and all those negative feels that come up when you're excluded from a group and ostracized. She's very, very offended. She was once one of the these fairies, and now she's turned into this evil, wicked character that's unaccepted anywhere, so she's hurt on many different levels. The only thing she can see now is revenge. But in the end, the light, the goodness, of the Lilac Fairy overshadows her. As much as Carabosse tries to fight against it, she can't win. In the end, in the second act when she's being confronted by the prince, [who wants] to kill her, the Lilac Fairy comes in and the light overpowers the darkness, and Carabosse gets devoured into her cobweb again and sucked away by the universe.

Back Stage:
Did you ever decide what happens to her after?

Raffa: She's destroyed. The love and the light and all the good qualities in human beings and in the supernatural, which the Lilac Fairy is representing, win. Evil and negativeness and darkness consume her. In the end, you pay a price.

Back Stage: You earned a degree in psychology. What of those studies did you bring to Carabosse?

Raffa: There's a kind of narcissistic side to her, where she feels her power, yet she's so afraid of losing it that she has to grasp on to it, so there's times where I'll allow her to really indulge in enjoying being in control of the moment, and there's moments where she's really vulnerable, when she's surrounded by the other fairies and they're singing their fairy music, and the vibrations and noise of their goodness around her, she can't bear that, because she thinks she's the ultimate beauty and power. When she's surrounded by the contrary, it threatens her. There's moments where she's vulnerable and moments where she's totally in control. And then there is a side to her that's secretive: She'll try to show one thing, but inside she means another. You don't know what she's going to do. There's moments when she's going to tell the story of the curse, and you think she's talking about the child growing up and being beautiful, but there's a "but," and she gets enjoyment out of the horror she's about to tell. And she laughs. And the laugh is an eternal laugh. I imagine her laugh is echoing everywhere. When the culmination comes, of casting the curse, she feels she is in complete control, and she takes over the stage until the Lilac Fairy comes and threatens her again.

Back Stage: Tell us about what you worked on in the physicality.

Raffa: The hands are one thing. For example, instead of using a normal gesture that we have in ballet pantomime and just dance in general, where the line of the hand is curved and classical, I would put tension and distort the line, so there's the trace of the beauty that once was, that's symbolic and metaphoric of what once was, so there's destruction of the beauty in distorting the formation of the hands. And she walks with a cane, and the cane is like an extension of her power, and she uses that to shoo the fairies way; the sound of the cane stomping and her rising above the level of the cane magnifies the size of all the emotions she's feeling. Because I'm a shorter girl than most of the other girls who've done this part, I really need to use these images of lengthening and growing and rising above to make bigger everything I'm trying to express. Facial expressions, the eyes. Tilt of the head is another distortion, the twist of the spine; like, when she's listening to the king it's not straight, and when she looks at him it's sideways, so there's a torque in her posture that indicates a twist in her personality. There's also a lot of groundedness. There's certain gestures toward the floor that's like energetically taking possession. I try to do her walk very connected and very sensual, kind of like a spider, so you get a creepy feeling when she's coming up toward you. She's not walking with short steps. She's kind of sneaking toward you. I try to create that kind of scariness. When something dangerous is near you, it's not straightforward coming toward you; it goes slowly toward you, like a tarantula or a snake.

Back Stage: How did you create and polish these?

Raffa: I worked in front of a mirror with shapes, with the arm gestures. Some of the time I would practice in the house, and I was living with my mom at the time, so I would ask her which looked more evil, this way or that way, and I would walk in a few different ways, or use the cane quick and then slow or slow and then quick, so timing things of how you move. I would be experimenting, and she would say this looks creepier than that.

Back Stage:
Are you still working on the character?

Raffa: Always. Next week, there will be a fresh approach. Now that I've done it so many times, I have the actual physicality of it, the timing musically with what I want to say and where the gestures choreographically are going to go. I try to take off of the other characters I'm working with onstage and have a more spontaneous approach to reactions—according to how they react off of me. And you discover new things all the time. When she comes in, is she going to slightly look over to the king and see if he notices her, or is she going to be totally obnoxious, get there, make her presence known, and then turn her back on him and go directly to [the king's minister] Catalabutte and the guests? You can play it, in the moment, many different ways. It doesn't change the choreography, but it changes the interpretation.

Some other Carabosses come in and they're laughing, "Here I am." I like to try to not reveal everything all at once, so that there are actual key moments that stick out in the dialogue that are more emphasized. In the curse, the accusation to the king, there's a moment where Catalabutte confronts Carabosse; he's responsible for eliminating her name from the list, and she just sees this miserable character in front of her. She actually tears his hair out and laughs at how weak he is and in a way how weak the men are in this kingdom. She really looks down upon the king and Catalabutte and whoever comes in her way. She kind of wants the queen's position; that's how I play it. She is really cynical and sarcastic with the queen. And when she sees the queen bow down to her, it gives her ultimate satisfaction, because ultimately they took away her opportunity to have what the queen had: a child, prestige, a kingdom, real power, beauty. When the queen begs on her knees, [Carabosse] knows she won in that moment, and she pushes the king and queen away and sits on the throne and possesses the throne. That's a very joyous moment for the character.

Back Stage: How long does it take you to get into character before you step onstage?

Raffa: It takes an hour and 15 minutes to do the makeup and hair. The makeup artist does really intricate makeup, where she makes the eyes enormous with this blue and green eye shadow that sparkles that's like lightning bolts that go up into the hair. The hair is intertwined with my own-colored hair with ringlets that are green and blue, and it's very, very complicated. They try to make it higher up so I appear taller than what I am. And then I like to take time to warm up—physically, mentally, emotionally—and then go through the actual dialogue and certain moments in the choreography, physically, in the space on stage before I actually go on stage. And that's about another hour. So it takes me about two and a half hours to get ready to do this. And then right before I have to go on stage I like to stay quiet and just let everything that I programmed internally process, so that when I get out on the stage, I can just be more abandoned and allow what's going to come up to come up. It's like an energetic and mental and emotional preparation, so that when you're in the actual physical moment, you can just let that energy go, and it's like something that flows through you.

Back Stage: You're preparing emotionally, but when you come to a new city, is that the time you take to also check out the stage and your spacing?

Raffa: Usually the company has scheduled a spacing rehearsal or a tech rehearsal, and most of the time it's whoever is dancing that night will get a chance to do the spacing and the tech, but not all the time are you able to get onto the stage and in the space you're going to work with, so you need to find a moment yourself to do that. If I don't get a rehearsal onstage, I'll make sure I get onstage [before the show] because I want the space I'm going to be acting in to be second nature. I want to feel what it feels like before I actually go there and do what I have to do. I'm not one of those people that walks out of their dressing room and can get onstage and go cold. I like to own the feeling of where I'm going to be before I actually go there.

Back Stage: And you go over certain gestures you want sharp?

Yes, just to be sure the timing and physicality are in my body. It's a role where you have such a small amount of time to convey so much, you have to be really ready and accurate and on top of where you are. Once the scene starts, you can't get into the scene. You have to be there already, before. I like to put it physically there, and sometimes emotionally. Sometimes I get onstage right before the curtain goes up and just walk in her character. And mentally I say the dialogue that I say when I'm dancing. I have actual words I say in my head as I do the gestures. Mentally, I think what I would be saying if I were an actor working with speech. I mentally write it. The part of what I want to say, the actual monologue, is thought through before. It's not improvised.

And personally I do that throughout the whole scene. I'm not quite sure whether other people do, but I talk through, in my mind, the whole scene. When you're expressing something, you're trying to say something with your body, so there has to be that mental process there. It makes it easier for me to access the emotions if mentally it's being said internally. That thought process triggers the emotional process, and the emotional process manifests through the physical.

Back Stage:
What character dancers did you look up to when you were coming up the ranks?

Raffa: I had incredible examples of fantastic artists throughout my career that I was able to study and watch a lot. I was just a kid when I got into the company, and Erik Bruhn came and set "La Sylphide," and I was really impressed by how much he changed when he got into the character from who he was in the studio, working with us. He was this very sweet, gentle, kind person. And then as this witch [Madge in "La Sylphide,"] he grew bigger than life, and every single detail of his movement and his eye gestures and his hand movements—everything seemed to speak to you. I just remember that; it made a big impression on me. The same with Marcia Haydée. When she guested with us and did "Taming of the Shrew," she totally transformed into that character. I learnt at a very early age that if you want to transform yourself, there has to be a total submission and an energetic change that can physically create a change. And that's something I learnt on my own when I was given the challenges to do character roles. I did Kate and I did Bianca, which are total opposites. I did Ben Stevenson's "Peer Gynt," the crazy woman. That was a really big breaking point for me with learning for myself how I wanted to approach building a character. It was difficult to try to be somebody that had a psychotic break yet was able to show the emotion of love. I used a lot of images of my father, who was sick with Parkinson's and had very bad side effects from the drugs. I was very familiar with the connection with him when the medication was affecting him and when it wasn't, and how physically he changed, and energetically. I would take moments of when he would go into severe contractions and then when it would relax and how he would soften and become more human and more emotional and more sensitive. I learnt to take from many life experiences and use my imagination to apply them to how I would imagine this character to be.

Back Stage: Did you ever formally study acting?

Raffa: I did a little bit with Mme. [Gabriela] Darvash, my [ballet] teacher when I was younger, but not to a great extent. Somehow expressing myself was somewhat natural. When I was a kid I'd lock myself up in my room and put music on and do the mad scene from "Giselle." I had this need to escape reality because my family life was difficult—having a sick father, and we were five children, we were very poor. In a way, I escaped through being creative through dance. I would make up that I was these different people. I would be Juliet one day, or I would be Giselle one day. I would have fun and entertain myself; at the same time, it was a way of kind of escaping a very difficult situation to grow up in. So maybe a lot of my home situation helped this imaginative side develop.

Back Stage: Are you passing all of this on to the next generations of dancers?

Raffa: I try to help dancers in the studio when I'm coaching them. Now that I'm established here as a ballet mistress, more and more I'm having the opportunity to work one-on-one with the dancers that have specific roles to do. It's been wonderful to be able to try to get them to work in an internal way. It's really a really sensitive thing to work with another dancer because you have to gain trust to get them to open up their inside world and be vulnerable enough to let that out and have another person criticize what's coming out of them. It takes time and nurturing and a rapport with the dancer and a trust, and it takes time to build that. But it's been wonderful, because little by little I've been able to do that with the dancers, and I hope in the future I'll be able to do that a lot more. It's something definitely that [ABT artistic director] Kevin [McKenzie] works a lot with when he's coaching the principals, and he was a very expressive dancer. I know it's something he wants to stay a tradition at Ballet Theatre. I feel very fortunate and honored to be in a position where I can be a little part of that. I can give a piece of myself in trying to pass that on to other people.

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