The walls of the Vicky Simegiatos Performing Arts Center in Brooklyn, New York, are covered with framed newspaper clippings and photos of Simegiatos’ students (including her two daughters, Despina and Matina, who now help run the school). But though this sort of display is warmly familiar to studio owners everywhere, the dancers in Simegiatos’ photos aren’t the usual smiling teens in tutus.
One is a young girl mourning the loss of her boyfriend after a fatal car crash; there’s a cheeky maid, dreaming of love; others are animals lurking and crawling on the ground. Actually, they’re all members of the senior VSPAC competition team, but their repertoire demands that they inhabit a wide variety of characters. When they perform, their long lines stretch farther because their acting skills fill each movement with meaning.
While technical ability is imperative to a dancer’s success, it is only one part of the artform. Yasuko Tokunaga, director of the dance division at The Boston Conservatory, believes that studying acting can help reveal the qualities that make dancers captivating performers. “Dance is at a very high technical level now,” Tokunaga says. “But there are few dancers who dance with the heart. People are hungry for dancers who are artistic, who dance with the imagination and intention.” Acting can teach dancers how to connect with their own emotions and find the vital energy that draws an audience’s attention. And perhaps most importantly, acting makes dancers more versatile performers. Every choreographer has a vision, and the dancer who is able to transform herself for each piece is the one most likely to work.
Simegiatos’ teaching philosophy integrates acting techniques at every level of instruction (her students range from age 3 to adult). And she isn’t alone in recognizing the importance of acting for dancers. Many college-level dance programs, including those of Juilliard, The Boston Conservatory and Manhattanville College, also require that their students take an acting course.
At the VSPAC, acting lessons are woven into the dance classes. Dancers learn classical pantomime gestures, but they also do more contemporary acting exercises to expand their imaginations. For the youngest students, Simegiatos provides scenarios in which to explore and create. “I give them a setting: You are in a big forest and you see the sky is blue,” she says. Then she puts on music while the dancers move across the floor freely, without choreography. The goal is to get the students to “understand how to create movement to match the feeling.”
But if you’re unfamiliar with acting, another way to bring acting to your students is to take a class yourself. Richard Feldman, who has taught in Juilliard’s drama division for over 20 years and teaches the dance division’s mandatory “Acting for Dancers” course, suggests that instructors seek out a beginning acting class. When teachers engage with the material firsthand, they can select the exercises that they find most beneficial. And after having a sensory experience, Feldman says, an acting book can be a helpful reminder when you bring that experience to your classroom. (See below for suggestions.)
Ridding dancers of their current bad acting habits is also critical. Ara Fitzgerald, associate director of the dance and theater department at Manhattanville College, finds that “indicating,” or simply pretending, can be tempting for students used to competition dancing, where the focus is on displaying technique and the emotive qualities are thus frequently shallow. Fitzgerald and Feldman both cover the mirrors in their classrooms, which Fitzgerald says can help alleviate the tendency to wear an emotion rather than dance through it. Instead, she suggests using one of Viola Spolin’s classic acting exercises in which partners mirror each other’s movement, one leading while the other follows. Fitzgerald says this “develops the essential skills of listening and moving in relationship to another.”
The vocal aspect of acting is perhaps the most daunting for dancers, since they are more comfortable communicating with their bodies. Carol Rosenfeld, who currently works at HB Studio in New York, has taught acting for about 40 years and frequently has dancers in her classes. When working with text, she has her students do a simple reading first. “Talk about impressions, what the play is about, who the characters are. Then direct everyone to go back and read the play again,” Rosenfeld says.
In his Juilliard classes, Feldman takes this exercise a step further. He asks his dance students to choose a person who somehow attracts or intrigues them, and has them build a story about that person. “They explore that life on their feet, creating imaginary circumstances, asking questions with the senses,” Feldman wrote in an article for The Juilliard Journal about the exercise. The students detail the sights, sounds and smells of this imaginary life. Finally, they select a short piece of text, like a poem, and speak it as the character they’ve developed.
Recently dancers at The Juilliard School worked with choreographer (and Juilliard alumnus) Ohad Naharin, who has developed his own dance vocabulary, largely image-based, called “gaga.” Undoubtedly, the dancers’ training with Feldman helped them translate their technical foundation into this new language. “They find that the techniques that they’ve learned are not ‘it,’ but the way to ‘it,’” Feldman says. “In any artform you’re looking for revelation and spontaneity and the feeling that the artist is making it up in the moment, that something is moving them.” DT
Acting Resources for Dancers
l The American Musical and Dramatic Academy, with branches in New York and Los Angeles, offers a new BFA in dance theater. www.amda.edu
l HB Studio, an acting studio in New York City, offers classes for students as young as 9, as well as adults. www.hbstudio.org
l Acting Studio Chicago offers classes for adults of all experience levels and courses for kids and teens. www.actingstudiochicago.com
l For those in non-urban areas, many local YMCAs offer drama and acting classes. www.ymca.net to find locations.
Books, DVDs and CDs
l The Six Questions: Acting Technique for Dance Performance, by Daniel Nagrin (University of Pittsburgh Press)
l The Actor and The Target, by Declan Donnellan (Theatre Communications Group)
l The Viewpoints Book: The Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition, by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau (Theatre Communications Group)
l Improvisation for the Theatre, by Viola Spolin
l Uta Hagen’s Acting Class: The DVDs, Applause Books
l Viola Spolin’s Theater Games for the Classroom: A Multimedia Teacher’s Guide (CD-ROM), Northwestern University Press
Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer based in New York City.
photo by Rosalie O'Connor