Dancers at the University of Arizona recently performed Jerome Robbins' Antique Epigraphs, an ensemble piece for eight women that requires intricate linear formations and walking in unison. "It was super-challenging for us," says dance professor Melissa Lowe. "Students needed a heightened sense of awareness, or it wasn't going to happen." Lowe asked dancers to use their intuition and aural sensibilities to help determine where they needed to be, when they should be there and how to get to those places—together.
Teaching dancers to work in unison, whether as a large corps de ballet or small ensemble group, is an integral part of their training. It requires teamwork, attention to detail and thoughtful preparation for a successful group effort. Teachers need to provide the right steps and counts to ensure cohesiveness, of course. But how you set the material will also encourage dancers to be in line and in sync—while still allowing them to be individuals.
Don't rely on the mirror
Photo courtesy of Colorado Ballet
Group sections are most successful when dancers watch each other to gauge distance, timing and togetherness. Travaglia allows dancers to use the mirror but discourages them from relying on it as a tool. "If they're in a vertical line and really behind the person in front of them, they shouldn't be able to see themselves in the mirror anyway," she says. "I do have them look at their reflection when they're in Swan Lake and posing for a long time, for example, so they can match the shape of the arms or incline of the head. But we shut the curtain leading up to performances, because it's always a disaster when you first take the mirror away."
Dancers can use their peripheral vision to make adjustments and watch each other without making it obvious. "If they can't turn their head right or left, they can still use their eyes to see if they're shoulder to shoulder with someone, or sticking out of line," says Lowe. Ask students to look across the stage at the dancer opposite them. While the person in front usually sets the line, they should learn to make small adjustments and work through spontaneous mistakes by being in tune with each other.