Spotlight On...Dance

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Compelling characters are one of the most important elements in any kind of artistic presentation that purports to express ideas about human existence. It's through characters that audiences relate to the emotions, viewpoints, and themes of a performance. In theater, playwrights use text and actors employ the nuances of their voices and bodies to create engaging characters. Music relies on the pitches, dynamics, and colors of sounds, as well as lyrics, for characterization. But how is it done in dance? What do choreographers and dancers do with the human body to conjure and convey characters?

Choreographic Elements

The creation of a character through dance movement is an intricate process that necessitates making specific choices about the use of every one of the basic elements of choreography. The most common starting point is posture. By assuming different kinds of postures—erect, rounded over, barrel-chested—a performer can very quickly communicate information about a character's age, health, or personality. Step 2 is usually gesture. Specific hand gestures, mannerisms, or isolated actions of a particular body part will speak volumes about a character's quirks, issues, or feelings. And, of course, there are the performer's facial expressions, which become vital characterization tools when the use of words or vocal sounds is not an option.

But beyond these obvious acting-oriented elements, the powerful formalistic components of choreography can be used to great effect in rendering characters. The most potent is energy, the life force of any movement. How dancers choose to energize or animate choreography—forcefully, fluidly, gently, loosely, excessively—can contribute significantly to characterization. The same dance movement can express many different meanings when imbued with the myriad energy qualities a trained dancer can bring forth.

Weight is another potent formalistic element that can be employed to convey aspects of a character. Heavy steps that look pulled down and burdensome can suggest very different character traits than a light, bouncy gait. And there are also the temporal elements. Whether characters dance with steady, erratic, syncopated, simple, or complex rhythms can imply all kinds of different things about them, as can the way they accent certain beats within a rhythmic phrase. The tempo of a character's dancing also provides personality clues.

The way a body relates to the surrounding space is yet another key component in defining character through dance. What do big, open, free—versus small and tight—movements say about the character performing them? What about a character who dances along predictable geometric pathways, as opposed to broken or meandering lines through space? And what can be discerned about a character whose movements are asymmetrical, off-balance, or oddly shaped? What about characters who spend a lot of time on the ground doing floor work? In the Romantic ballets, the feminine ideal, an unattainable character, is always represented by the ballerina, who moves up on her toes with a weightless, ethereal quality and is lifted high into the air. The "real" characters, on the other hand, enjoy much more contact with the ground, exuding a solid, earthy sensibility.

In order for a character to be convincingly drawn through dance, all of the above elements must be carefully considered. If even one aspect of the choreography, or a dancer's performance of it, communicates something "out of character," the entire characterization can be compromised.

Musical Theater

"I always ask myself, Is that too sophisticated a move for that character to be doing? Is it too educated or otherworldly, or does it really match the character?" says Rob Ashford, director and choreographer of the current Broadway revival of "Promises, Promises." "In musical theater, a very important part of a choreographer's job is to help the performers develop their characters through the movements you give them. And you have to be extremely careful not to give them something inappropriate, even though you may like how it looks or feels with the music."

Ashford points to the works of Jerome Robbins as the finest examples of characterization in musical theater choreography. "His economy of movement—his understanding of how a single step or a pose could define a character completely—was brilliant," says Ashford. Broadway choreographers Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett also made ingenious use of dance in the development of musical theater characters. What would Lola (the seductress from "Damn Yankees") or Charity (the taxi dancer from "Sweet Charity") be without all of those quirky Fosse isolations, idiosyncratic gestures, and stances that so define them? And how much less affecting a character would Cassie (the frustrated soloist from "A Chorus Line") be without the powerful solo that Bennett so astutely created for her? The classic example, of course, is how elaborately Agnes de Mille used dance in her dream ballet in "Oklahoma!" to portray the inner fears and anxieties of Laurey, the lead character.

In addition to the contribution that a performer's own dancing can make to his or her character, the characterization can also be enhanced through choreography performed by others. Ashford cites the "choreographed overture" that opens "Promises, Promises" as an example of ensemble dancing contributing to the development of a show's lead character: "In that dance, the office workers are showing us what it is to do things not by the rules, while the lead character sits in the middle of it all doing things by the rules. The dancing ensemble provides the contrast that sparks his realization that everyone else is on to something that he's not. And that's what really motivates him. Another example from 'Promises' is 'Wanting Things,' a song in which a character is questioning why he always wants more. In that number, I have the women of the company coming on and doing suggestive actions that pinpoint different aspects of why he's never satisfied. So it doesn't always have to be you doing the dancing; it can be those around you. And sometimes, choreographically, that's the better way to do it."

Ashford is currently in Los Angeles, directing and choreographing a new musical based on the 1992 film "Leap of Faith." The show involves a gospel choir passing through a Kansas town where the population is determined to hold on to its faith in the face of a devastating drought. As the choir does quite a bit of singing, Ashford has set himself the task of defining the community of townsfolk largely through choreography. "It's a matter of completion," he says. "You need the physical in order to create the whole picture."

Modern Dance

When it comes to characterization on the concert-dance stage, the greatest exemplar is probably Martha Graham. "She manipulated classic characters to bring a very contemporary, American point of view to audiences," says the artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Janet Eilber, a former principal dancer with the company who subsequently enjoyed a career as a stage, film, and television actor. Long before feminists began talking about switching women from the object of the gaze to the subject, Graham choreographed dances that retold ancient stories through the eyes of strong and powerful women characters. "In 'Night Journey,' which she choreographed in 1947, she tells the Oedipus story through Jocasta's eyes and makes it about a woman's self-examination," explains Eilber. "In 'Embattled Garden,' she presents Adam and Eve, Lilith, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It was choreographed in 1958 as a sort of high-comedy 'Peyton Place,' with Adam and Eve working on their relationship."

To create her exceptional characterizations, Graham drew very heavily from her dancers. The preacher in "Appalachian Spring" was created on Merce Cunningham (a member of Graham's company from 1939 to 1945) and, according to Eilber, the role "is imbued with his physicality. The same is true of the roles Graham created on May O'Donnell. They are all imbued with her statuesque, lyrical qualities."

Even as the Graham roles have gone on to be performed by dancers other than their creators, "with Martha it is always 50-50," Eilber says. "What you are given to do choreographically is only 50 percent. The dancer is expected to come up with the other 50 percent—the interpretation, the personal and emotional contributions that turn the physical map into flesh and blood, into a character that really speaks to the audience." A well-trained Graham dancer finds that characterization comes naturally, as the physical movements of the Graham technique "do not exist without emotional content," Eilber explains. "Your contribution to the execution of Graham's movement, even if you're just doing a technique-class exercise, is the emotional image that drives it." Nonetheless, there's a lot of characterization homework a Graham dancer is expected to do, such as reading about the character in history and literature and studying representations of the character in music, painting, or other art forms.

"I like to say that everything I know about Martha Graham I learned from Bob Fosse," says Eilber, "because it was when I started to switch to other choreographers' realms and to acting roles that I got a vocabulary for everything Martha had taught me. Though she never used the word 'subtext,' that's exactly what Martha always created for her characters. When she was teaching me the role of Jocasta, she would say, 'You have to talk to yourself the whole time. When you run over here, you remember this is where he took you as a lover, and you immediately leave. Then you arrive at this spot and you remember this is where you weaned him, and you can't stay there. You're not going anywhere in this dance; you're always leaving.' "

Earlier this summer, the Graham company collaborated with SITI Company, a New York–based theater troupe, which took a blueprint of a 1938 Graham dance and used it as the basis for a new performance piece for six actors and 10 dancers. "We started each rehearsal with the Suzuki/Viewpoints warm-up that the SITI actors train in, followed by a Graham warm-up. It was a real cross-pollination," says Eilber, "yet all the performers raved about how much there was in common—the idea of character and emotional journey delivered through physical gesture."


Because of its prescribed movement vocabulary, ballet may be the most difficult dance genre in which to develop individual characterizations. Although there is a stylized mime tradition in classical ballet—in which symbolic gestures, familiar to regular balletgoers, are used to represent specific words or phrases—for the most part, characterization in ballet involves manipulations of the classical lexicon by a choreographer, combined with the various performance qualities or acting techniques brought to the role by its dancer.

A member of American Ballet Theatre since 2002, soloist Craig Salstein has embodied a diverse repertory of characters on the ballet stage, including Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet," Puck in "The Dream," the first of the three sailors in "Fancy Free," the devil in "Three Virgins and a Devil," and Gamache in "Don Quixote." "Characterization does not come first in ballet; it comes near the end of the process," he says. "Before you even think about building a character, you have to make sure you really have the steps." Because ballet characterization is so tightly embedded in the technical steps of the choreography, Salstein tries to identify the primary movement element that characterizes a role—such as speediness for Puck, the intricate fast footwork of Mercutio, or the devil's facial expressions—and then magnifies that in his performance. He found that his characterization of the fakir in "La Bayadère" improved considerably when he followed Natalia Makarova's advice to focus more specifically on the character's religious motivations. "My interpretation of the role had gotten a little out of control," he says, "and that one comment really helped me clean it up."

Because ballet dancers may commonly perform a role only a few times a season (unlike the eight shows a week a Broadway dancer might do), it can take them literally years to complete their character work. "Patience is essential," Salstein says. "Characterization is something that grows over time. And while it can be frustrating to wait so long in between performances, it's time that really allows you to get to know someone. Mercutio and I have known each other a long time. We've had our battles, but I'm fortunate that I get to revisit him year after year."