How to Help Your Dancers Fully Embody Character Onstage—Even the Ones They Struggle to Relate to
April 5, 2022

Telling a cohesive story in a ballet is no easy task. After all, ballets don’t typically come with a script for an audience to follow, so it’s entirely up to the dancers to make sure the viewer understands what’s going on via dance. Plus, some of ballet’s most beloved characters—swans, fairies, sylphs—are often the hardest for dancers to relate to in the first place. While some students might naturally possess the qualities associated with such characters—the regality of The Sleeping Beauty’s Lilac Fairy, for instance, or the attack of Don Quixote’s Kitri—tackling a role that’s outside a dancer’s wheelhouse can be tricky. In order to help your students hone their acting skills and truly embody a character onstage, it’s best to help them think of any role as three-dimensional, with real physical, psychological and relational depth.

Tell the Truth

“There is a deal being made between the ticket buyer and the performing artist,” says Byam Stevens, American Ballet Theatre’s go-to acting coach. “That deal is, ‘I give you the money, and you report back to me, the audience member, on the mysteries of human life, told in the form of metaphors.’” Despite many ballets being populated by out-of-the-ordinary creatures, there are still universal truths about humanity to convey, Stevens believes. Taking the time to brainstorm with your students about what they relate to in a nonhuman character’s arc, story or motivations will help them uncover that creature’s inherent humanity. “With Swan Lake, people seem to forget that we see Odette as a swan for about 10 to 12 seconds at the end of Act II,” he says. “The rest of the time, she’s a woman. This isn’t a ballet about a man who has a thing for birds—it’s about a man who can’t face up to his responsibilities to be king.”

Play an Action, Not an Attitude

Rather than approaching character from a qualitative place, Stevens suggests defining a character’s objective, or action. “It’s very different to play ‘I’m going to get her to kiss me’ than it is to play ‘I’m being in love,’” he says. “Playing being in love is so general as to have no meaning—you can’t do it.” 

This requires dancers to do some backwards planning. “So instead of telling your Kitri to be feisty, figure out what her problem is,” he says. “What is her problem? The men in her life are all boys. How can she get Basilio, this eternal boy-child, to act not only like a man but a knight? Now she’s got something to play. It’s not about her playing feistiness. We get the fact that she’s feisty because she keeps fighting for what she wants.”

A big part of revealing action (versus attitude) is developing relationships between characters. “If you’re mounting a ballet,” says Laurie Kanyok, founder of the New York City–based Kanyok Arts Initiative, “it’s important to discuss the relationship between the players onstage. With younger performers especially, if they’re part of an ensemble, they tend to think their parts have no meaning, when, in fact, the ensemble tends to be the most informative—those are the people who create the community onstage.” Make sure your students understand their roles, no matter how (seemingly) small, by speaking to them about how they fit into the larger context of a piece and help shape a ballet’s time period, setting and overall sense of authenticity. 

Remember That Dance Is a Language

“Use the choreography as language,” says Stevens. “Think: ‘What does this [movement] phrase mean? What am I saying? Who am I saying it to? Are they getting it? Do I have to say it again, but louder? Do I have to slow it down?’” It’s not about getting caught up in the height of your arabesque or the depth of your plié, he says. Let your technique live in the background of your mind and instead focus on what you’re trying to communicate. “Just say what you’re trying to say, without worrying ‘Gee, did I do that right?’” he says. 

Kanyok asks her students for a similar letting-go in order to access character, giving them permission to briefly focus less on technique or even a dance’s sequence and more on moving from impulse. “Encourage your students to be as open as they can be in the moment,” she says. “I always say, ‘Forget about everything else—I want you to just stand there and pay close attention to what’s happening around you, and allow yourself to respond authentically.’ That can be a very useful tool to pull something out of a dancer.”

Asking a dancer to let go requires that you first establish a classroom dynamic where the emphasis is on exploration and the joy of playing through it, points out Julia Crockett, who works as a movement coach for actors in New York City and Los Angeles; she also teaches at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio in New York City. “When I’m teaching, there’s a lot of laughing and joking around and freedom, so that people feel they can go bigger and deeper—and that we can celebrate that.”

Julia CrockettDan McMahon

Don’t Confuse Story With Plot

“Plot is an enchaînement of events,” points out Stevens. “Story is what those plot points mean.” With her students, Kanyok will begin from a place of clarifying plot points, but then she’ll dig deeper into character. “Discuss with them what the character is about—what they might think,” she says. “I’ll ask my students, ‘What do you think this character would say right now? What might this mean in your world?’” With adolescents, she’ll start with more basic character-building blocks, asking them how a character might walk, talk or demonstrate that they’re happy.

Build Well-Rounded Characters

When coaching actors on how to develop a three-dimensional character, Crockett utilizes a three-pronged approach and relies on improvisation to generate ideas. “First, what’s the character’s essence?” she asks. “What’s the noun of who this character is?” That might be identified in what drives the character—at what tempo the character moves, for example, or what textures they move within. Second, what’s the character’s structure? “That’s where we think about carriage and gait,” she says. “If you were to just show a silhouette of this character, what would be their actual shape?” The third category is a character’s idiosyncrasies—what Crockett describes as their mannerisms or decorations, like perhaps a flick of a hand. “If we can attach at least one thing in each of those categories,” she says, “a well-rounded character emerges.”

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