At first glance, ballet could appear as nothing more than sophisticated frolicking. Let me assure you, it’s not. Every movement and revolution is choreographed to tell a story with dancers making choices, not guesses. At a recent performance of the American Ballet Theatre, I was awed by the amazing talent on display and the years of dedication that brought each dancer to this point (pun intended).
What can actors learn from ballet dancers? More than you may realize! Let’s start with these three lessons.
1. Control your instrument. Ballet is about discipline, beauty, and strength. As an actor, mastering your instrument means controlling how your body moves, how your voice sounds, and how you physically interact with others on the stage. Being able to regulate your breath is another component of mastering your instrument and is of particular importance for singers and voiceover artists. What strikes me most about this form of dance is how the most calculated movements can come across as being entirely natural. A technically challenging sequence can appear effortless for a ballerina if she has complete control over her instrument. Watching Hee Seo pirouette for what seemed like 30 seconds across the stage at the Met was amazing. She owned her performance because her technique was flawless.
2. Act with purpose. Watching a show that involved no spoken language was a stretch for me. Even so, I had a good understanding of what was going on because the dancers worked together to convey the plot through movement, expression, and yes, a bit of comedy. From the orchestra pit, the symphony told the story through sound, providing further insight at every wave of the conductor’s baton. Sergei Prokofiev’s musical score set the tone for the drama as it unfolded on stage, just as sound does in commercials, video games, and film. Why did this work so well? Simply put, everyone had a role to play, knew how their characters related to others, and understood why they were on the stage at any given moment. The dancers were able to live authentically in their fabricated world to deliver a solid performance that drove home the director’s intent.
3. Shine together. Being on the stage in glorious costumes and heralded by triumphant fanfare makes it a little easier to stand out. That said, what really made these performers shine was their passion and shared love of what they do. Each curtain call brought yet another curtain call. The cheers were deafening! The chemistry between dancers and seeing how much they trusted each other was delightful. To add to that, there was a camaraderie, gentleness, and deference to one another that you don’t often see. Individuals shone brightly, but so did the entire company.
When you look at an art form as disciplined as ballet, you can’t help but wonder how many countless hours each dancer has spent (and continues to spend) on exercise, training, rehearsals, recitals, and exams to become the highly talented performers that they are. No question about it, the agility, power, and determination it takes to become a ballet dancer are sizable.
That said, the same is required of actors. You really have to love what you do to become the best in any field. Put in the time to train, care for your instrument, and most importantly, keep going. A prima ballerina like Hee Seo can go through as many as three pairs of pointe shoes in one day. Imagine how hard she must work. Actors at the top of their game understand, like the prima ballerina, that their art requires the very best they have to offer.