When Your Stage Is Not a Stage

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Leta Biasucci dancing in a rainforest. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

To create a multimedia piece that premiered at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in 2014, choreographer Andrew Bartee filmed Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers performing in vastly different surroundings, all within Olympic National Park. While dancing in a rainforest, on a snow-covered mountaintop and along a pebbly beach—all during the making of one project—may seem extreme, dancers don't have to travel far to encounter the challenges of unfamiliar settings.

Whether on pavement, under blinding sunlight, on a chilly outdoor stage or at high elevation, students need your help to meet environmental challenges with confidence. Dancers and choreographers who have performed in atypical settings shared their best tips with Dance Teacher.


Rehearse like you'll perform.

When Bartee taught PNB dancers the steps he envisioned for their dance-for-film installations in Olympic National Park, they didn't have the option of rehearsing on a pebbly beach or a snowy mountaintop. But he had the dancers wear the sneakers they would wear in the forest and on the beach, and the heavy snow boots they'd wear on the mountain. That helped bring a few variables under their control.

A successful performance in a new or challenging environment begins at your home studio—or on the grass or parking lot outside of it. As much as possible, have dancers rehearse the way they will perform. That goes for what they will wear—the weight of their clothing and any protective gear—as well as, if possible, the surface they're dancing on.

Choreograph for the setting.

Amanda Schaeffer, who rehearses groups of hundreds of students in parade choreography for Disney's Dance the World conventions, knows the importance of creating dances suited to the performance venue. "You have to take into consideration that you're moving the entire time," she says. Her parade choreography needs to be constantly moving dancers forward, and not so much any other direction, or they'll run off the road. Schaeffer doesn't use any floor work and uses just enough small jumps and simple turns "to add a little flair to their routine," because students will be landing on concrete instead of sprung floors.

Be prepared, physically.

Especially if students will be performing at altitude, but even if they're just facing a longer than usual day outside, exposed to unpredictable weather, they'll want to be in good physical shape. That means not skimping on cross-training or conditioning classes or coming off an extended time away from class.

Dance Theatre of Harlem member Nicholas Rose says dancing at an elevation of 8,000 feet at the Vail International Dance Festival during his first season with the company kicked his butt before he even got to the stage. "Some people were fine, like 'This is good for my stamina,'" Rose says. But having just come off a six-week layoff, the newcomer was struggling. "Even the first class, by ronde de jambe port de bras forward, I was already light-headed." Rose suffers from asthma, so he was relieved he had brought his inhaler along. Next time, he says he's going to hit the gym for some extra cardio beforehand, too.

Elle Macy and Chelsea Adomaitis perform in a foot of snow on Hurricane Ridge. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Don't compromise your warm-up.

In summertime in Colorado, daytime temperatures can reach the 80s or even 90s, while nights drop into the 40s or lower. Alicia Mae Holloway, another DTH dancer who traveled to Vail with the company, remembers one night when the lights came up and she could see her breath onstage. Before going on, layers (and more layers) were a must. Plus, she had run through her usual 20- to 30-minute warm-up several times in the open-air backstage area, where a space heater provided little comfort.

"Instead of focusing on activating my muscles, I had to focus on keeping them warm," Holloway says. "I did about three times as many crunches as I normally do. I was running in place, doing a lot more TheraBand exercises to keep my feet and my toes warm." She recommends bringing a mat to an outdoor stage, so you have insulation from the cold floor while you get your blood flowing.

As the choreographer, be open to last-minute changes.

Bartee created what he thought was the final choreography during rehearsals, but when he and the PNB dancers returned to Hurricane Ridge, the mountain they'd scoped out six months earlier, they found more than a foot of snow on the ground. "We didn't know how deep it would be, and we didn't really know how cold it would be," he says. So he just had dancers plant their boots and stay. "We couldn't do anything that moved a lot. Our moving dance phrases became stationary and more image-based."

Assistants waited off-camera with parkas for the dancers to huddle in between takes. Bartee also swears by Hot Hands instant hand warmers.

Say it with us: Hydrate!

Although students in Dance the World parades don't need to worry about snow or freezing temperatures, Schaeffer has seen dancers get overheated. Drinking plenty of water and having a good meal before performing under the hot sun is a must. Dancers definitely all need to wear sunscreen, too. If you're dancing or marching in a parade, Schaeffer also recommends keeping Band-Aids on hand in case shoes start to cause blisters.

When he went to Vail, Rose bought an extra-large reusable bottle, just for the trip. He was glad to have it, because he was drinking water like crazy and didn't have time to be constantly refilling. Your body uses fluid faster at high elevations, so you'll need to drink more water than usual. Rose says he'd drain two bottles before he even started his day.

Despite the challenges, performing in nature or outside one's usual venue can be very rewarding. "It's like getting used to stage lights," says Bartee, of dancing in the wilderness. "It's quite shocking the first time that you're doing it, and it really throws you off, but then, after a couple of times your body adjusts very quickly, and it's OK."

Andrea Marks is a Dance Teacher contributing editor.

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