Showtime: Why dancers need to act

The VCA Music Theatre 2019 graduate year students performing 'On the Town'. Photo: Drew Echberg.
The VCA Music Theatre 2019 graduate year students performing 'On the Town'. Photo: Drew Echberg.

Having acting skills and technique adds an essential dimension of communication and expression to a dancer's art, writes Sally Clark. 

In its most basic form, dance can be described as the movement of the body in a rhythmic way, to express a moment of delight, an idea or emotion, or to release energy. People from all cultures express themselves through this powerful impulse and for all kinds of reasons – to celebrate; to mourn; to heal and to tell stories. Dance as an art form channels that impulse through highly trained and skilful performers to an audience who might have no desire to dance themselves but do desire the emotional connection it can afford.

While specialist training can foster dancers with remarkable technical facility, if their performance is devoid of expression or emotion then the intention of the piece cannot be communicated to the audience and the performance is rendered ineffective. To be sure a dancer can captivate an audience it is essential they learn how to investigate the internal life of their performance as well as the external. The most effective way to do this is by teaching the dancer how to act.

Tyran Parke is the Head of Music Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts. “In theatre, the story is always first,” he says. “Whether a character is choosing to express that story through sung, spoken or danced text, it is always in pursuit of either furthering a narrative or developing character.

 “In my experience, singers’ voices are better when they feel engaged in telling a story and I’m sure the same thing can be true of the dancer’s physical instrument. An audience connects to characters under pressure. Knowing that and engaging in that is the primary job of a performer, no matter the discipline. If you are doing all three (as is the case in musical theatre) then it is even more important that you understand how to continue telling the story across all.”

The 5 Ws

These days most educational schools teach drama and performing arts as a key component of developing a child’s skills of communication, self-expression and language so it’s reasonable to assume that most students know the basic principles around acting. These basic principles are:

 #1: WHO is your character? (his/her personal history)

#2: WHAT happens? (conflict)

#3: WHERE? (place/location)

#4: WHEN does it take place? (time of day, season, historical period)

#5: WHY? (motivation)

 How do we apply the above principles as dancers? Parke break it down like this:

“I would always ask myself, what is this piece about? What would I feel if I was in these circumstances? How would I respond? Then, I would try and see how my body was fighting for what the character wanted. That’s not to say you would do that in real life but what expression of that ‘need’ [best] serves the text? In short, I would try and justify the movement from what the character is fighting for and use the choreography as a physical expression of that.”

Head of Music Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts, Tyran Park.
Photo: Mirielle Stahle
Head of Music Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts, Tyran Park. Photo: Mirielle Stahle

Obviously, the depth of analytic work (application of the 5 Ws) on character development is not as relevant in every situation. Parke believes, however, that the key to an expressive, communicative performance lies in the dancer’s willingness to examine the choreography and its relationship to the music.

“I think each movement should be interrogated not just for the move but the movement quality,” he says. “It is the same as an actor playing a whole speech with the same line reading. We long for the surprising, like in life where people laugh and cry in the same breath. Choosing a range of actions appropriate to the character that inform the choreography, stops it from feeling one note and keeps engagement with both performer and audience.”

Dancers need to be able to find their own reason to connect the steps to the music so the performance they create is enmeshed with the tone and energy of the music and not independent of it.

One of the simplest ways for dancers to teach themselves how to do this is by taking the time to understand the orchestration of the music. When you are aware of every nuance of the music you can compose a performance that physically realizes the ups, downs, highs, lows, small moments, climactic moments and pauses of the entire track – which effectively creates a character for the performance.

#1: Firstly, take the time to listen to the music with your eyes closed -- it’s scientifically proven that you listen better when they are – without thinking about dancing the steps at the same time. Sometimes it’s easier to do this while lying on the floor so you aren’t tempted to move your body or re-enact the choreography. Take the time to really listen to the music and do so as many times as you need to until you’ve given yourself the opportunity to hear moments in the orchestration you might never have noticed before.

#2: Next – think of the choreographic moments in your dance and why they happen at that particular place in the music. At this stage you are still not dancing the steps but investigating them relative to the music. (Eg: the exact same set of steps should be danced differently if performed to a lilting piece of electronic music rather than a pounding symphonic track.) The most important thing to consider at this point is that you are seeking to create a continuity of movement that best fits the tone of the music

#3: Once you have visualized a clear picture of how you would like the steps to be realized musically, get back on your feet and focus on bringing all those new elements you have discovered to life – instead of only dancing the routine from count-to-count or step-to-step. Ideally, now, your dance will be more interesting, captivating and connected to the music.

 

Many might still argue that the acting for a dancer is not the same as for the actor. Says Parke: “Dancing is expressionistic. It is heightened and has an inherent form to it so as a result the expression of the actor may be different, but it is still a form of storytelling and should be approached as such.”

Aside from acting, though, Parke advocates another essential skill they should work on developing.

“Like so much of it, acting is a craft and the only way to master it is to practice it -- dancers know that better than anyone!

“But I would say the chief quality required to be a better performer, in any form, is to get interested in life. All the best performers in history have one thing in common, no matter the discipline -- they have a monstrous hunger to share of themselves, to understand and engage in the world and to reflect their perceptions of it.”

 

A scene from the VCA's production of 'Flora the Red Menace'.
A scene from the VCA's production of 'Flora the Red Menace'.

 This article first appeared in the June/July issue of Dance Australia. Don't miss a single issue! Subscribe here!

 

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