Tiny Stages, Big Performances
November 29, 2001

In ballet classes, I’ve often heard teachers say, “The people in the last row of the balcony have to see your every move.” Or, my favorite variation of the same theme: “People in the ‘nose bleed’ seats paid to see you, too!” So at an early age, we (as students) learn to make our movements big and bold and over-the-top, and we exaggerate our facial expressions. We are trained for the proscenium stage—black box theater performances are not the norm. But in February, Juilliard opera students proved that moving large-scale art forms into small-scale spaces can make performances more honest, personal and in their case, chilling.
Juilliard students performed Transformations: An Opera in Two Acts in their new 100-seat Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater in Manhattan. Based on the book Transformations, by Anne Sexton, composer Conrad Susa uses Sexton’s text to transport the audience through nightmarish versions of ten familiar fairytales. The opera’s uncomfortable themes were propelled by the students’ insightful and candid character portrayals. The students’ proximity to the house allowed them to intimately direct their voices and gestures to the on-lookers. “We knew that we could make the smallest or most natural movement, and someone in the audience would catch it,” says Timothy McDevitt, a Juilliard graduate student. “We learned we could really layer our performances.” Instead of inflating false actions, the students embodied their characters’ idiosyncrasies and motions, and truthfully connected to the audience. And as a result, the show became eerily real.
It is maturity of an artist that allows him or her to make performance choices, depending on the size of the house or the audience’s viewpoint. As teachers, we can encourage our younger students to think about these choices—just to get the ball rolling. How would my students dance the waltzing combination if they imagined the audience was 300 feet away as opposed to 5 feet away? Would they change parts of the choreography? Giving our students the tools necessary to become intelligent performers will help them dance with more confidence and certainty, so when the time comes, they really can “dance for the people in the back.”

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