It is said that after one of Fred Astaire’s first screen tests the director noted, “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Can dance a little.” Boy, was that wrong.
It is a common stigma, however, that dancers “can’t act.” We are taught from our very first ballet class to watch our alignment, straighten our posture, and improve our turnout. The only thing we’re really supposed to emote (or at least try to emote) during tendus at the barre is a sense of calm confidence. So maybe acting isn’t a real part of dancing then, right? WRONG! Just take a look at what some notable industry professionals have to say:
“…commitment from the dancer means communication to the audience. This is true for both the actor and the dancer, because dance is acting and acting is dance. The principles of storytelling are the same.” – Tony Testa (Los Angeles; ‘The Cheetah Girls,’ ‘Wizards of Waverly Place,’ ‘Dance on Sunset,’ a music video for Miranda Cosgrove, halftime shows for slamball on ABC, commercials for Skechers and Versace, shows for Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Danity Kane)
“The most important acting skill a dancer can have in my work is the ability to get really honest—to be able to relate to the work personally.” – Jack Ferver (New York; Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace Project, the New Museum, Théâtre de Vanves (Paris), an upcoming piece for Performance Space 12)
“I like dancers who put themselves out there on the line without the fear of embarrassment. Dancers are constantly seeing themselves as they dance. My advice is to get past that voice in your head, the one saying how you “should be.” Instead, like the good actor, find that quiet, open space that lets you be whatever you want to be—or whatever I ask you to be.” – Mark Swanhart (Los Angeles; ‘Viva Elvis’ for Cirque du Soleil (Las Vegas), Celine Dion’s ‘Taking Chances’ tour, ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ a film of ‘La Bohème,’ the 2003 Tony Awards)
“If you don’t think of “acting” per se, but rather use your imagination to infuse your movement with clear intention, strong imagery, discovery, subtext, and self-knowledge, you will be more likely to enter that magical zone of “being in the moment.” – Dance Magazine, “Going Inside the Role”
“Today’s world of musical theater demands dancers to have acting and singing skills. In musical theater there is always a story to tell and a plot to further– no one is ever just dancing steps. Every dancer needs to comfortable using their voice and have the confidence to speak on stage. Broadway shows are full of ” one liners”, which are typically assigned to the chorus. If a dancer is asked to read sides during an audition, he or she must make a strong choice and read with authority; there is no time to be embarrassed about how you sound or how you “act”. This is why a basic knowledge of acting is essential to dancers hoping to break into musical theater and Broadway. In terms of casting, the more skills you have the more valuable you are. This is why the cliche “triple threat” exists; if you can do it all, you are a threat to those who cannot. For example, Directors always need understudies, a job which typically goes to a member of the chorus. A dancer who can potentially understudy a lead role is more likely to book the job over one who cannot. Just as in life, being a well-rounded individual adds dimension to a dancer’s talent and creates more opportunity.” – Kiira Schmidt (New York; “Follies,” “White Christmas,” “Stairway to Paradise,” “Mame;” assistant to Josh Bergasse for NBC’s “SMASH”)
“Agreed!” remarks Bronwen Carson, a recent addition to the faculty here at Broadway Dance Center. Ms. Carson, who will be teaching “Acting for Dancers” (Tuesdays at 10:30am-12pm), describes, “Dancers inherently have tools at their disposal to become powerful storytellers, but are rarely shown how to translate the precise control they have over their bodies into truthful, nuanced character portrayals.”
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be a performer.
I started in classical ballet at 7 because I wanted to be the music. It wasn’t so much the movements, that passion came later. It was the music and the story I imagined in my head when I watched dancers. I’d make up the most intricate stories about every person I met. I kept the stories to myself, like favorite books one doesn’t share at first. Now, after being in the performing arts for over thirty years, I’m ready to share those stories.
What brought you to acting?
I was incredibly fortunate to study with two extraordinary artists for the first decade of my training, Paul Curtis and Shawn Stuart. They seamlessly incorporated acting into my basic skill set as a dancer. So, almost from day one I was implementing it. I remember in rehearsals, even as a toy soldier in “The Nutcracker,” I’d be really interested in what the director was trying to convey, and how I could best portray that as a toy soldier. Later on, I received a scholarship to study at the Theater Arts Institute in the Bay Area, under the director of Marc Jacobs, a RADA trained director who put a great deal of importance upon honing the craft and technique of acting. The more I studied it and played with it as a dancer, the more I sought out projects and artists who felt the same.
Why do you think it is important for dancers to know how to act?
Because that’s what we are looking for now. When I say “we” I am speaking from the perspective of a director and choreographer. It’s enthralling and exciting to find a dancer who doesn’t drop out of character when whipping off their turns. I also see it as THE bridge to obtaining feature and leading roles in everything from concert work to film work. If you cannot act, you’ll be kicking those fantastic legs up in the background. If you can act, your chances of being in the foreground, maybe with some lines and a lot more money, exponentially increase. I’m also weary of seeing dancers work their guts out as “dance” or “body doubles” just to be replaced with an actor who receives much of the recognition or acclaim. I think more dancers should be nominated for Tony awards. why not? If it’s about excellence in storytelling and character portrayal, why shouldn’t dance and dancers accomplish that?
How did you get connected with Broadway Dance Center?
I took classes at BDC when I first moved to New York, back when they were located on Broadway and 54th Street! I’ve gotten to know Diane, Bonnie, and Vanessa through the years as a producer for Melanie LePatin and then as a producer for the Astaire Awards.
Tell us about “Acting for Dancers.”
It was born out of necessity really. I began working more as a director and choreographer a few years ago and with each audition I held, I found dancers falling into one of two categories – “fierce dancer” or “really good mover who can act.” But what I needed was fierce dancers with fantastic acting chops. The rarity of that combination concerned me a great deal. Then I realized it was not the dancer’s fault – the skill wasn’t really being taught. So, after I saw the need, I worked out the “what’s” and the “how’s” of training dancers to act. It’s a really different deal with dancers. Their control over the minutia of their bodies often creates blockades to truthful acting. I decided to create a class built for their unique strengths and challenges. I used my experiences as a professional dancer and actor to build specific exercises that bridge the two worlds. Once I felt I had a course that could offer results, I approached a number of schools in the city, including BDC. Bonnie Erickson was the first to respond with real excitement. So, a month later I started teaching during BDC’s Fall 2011 Professional Semester and am now teaching for the Spring Pro-Sem as well as newly available drop-in open classes offered on Tuesday mornings. The open classes go through March 27th.
Why do you think people believe dancers can’t be actors?
I think it’s an antiquated belief based solely upon the lack of training dancers receive in acting technique. Dancers train so ferociously on their lines, their strength, their flexibility, their “tricks”…but for the most part, they don’t learn how to build and perform a nuanced, evocative character with objectives, relationships and a storyline. Give them training and suddenly astounding abilities start to reveal themselves.
You are in the process of directing and choreographing a new work, “49th Street and Other Stories.” Why do you classify this project as a dance play?
I call it a dance play because of the sheer emphasis I’ve placed upon the storyline and character portrayal. I’m demanding a lot of myself and of my dancers, but they love it. They love being asked more of them. It’s been a thrilling and pretty daunting process. I spend a great deal of rehearsal time working out character development, relationship dynamics and tactical changes through their movements.
What prompted you to create this project and what are your hopes for the future of the project?
“49th Street and Other Stories” has been a long time in the making. There’s a huge Mason jar in my office filled with ideas and memories. It’s loosely autobiographical, so the challenge hasn’t been in creating the story, but which parts to include and which to leave out. As with anything I direct or choreograph, my primary desire is to have the audience forget the performers are not speaking because what they are watching…the characters, relationships, individual moments…all start to fill in what literally isnt’ being said so as to unconsciously create dialogue and conversations in their minds. As for the show’s future, all I have is an unrelenting drive to see it produced. I head into a final workshop early this summer for some interested backers, after I’m done choreographing a new musical called “Jack’s Back.” I’m pursuing all sorts of creative financial backing options, from grants to individual backers to corporate sponsors. The piece lends itself to a large scale production to fully experience the whole “mind’s eye of one woman’s New York” quality. I’m batting ideas around with some truly exciting and visionary set and costume designers right now. I want it to be exceptionally appealing both artistically as well as commercially. I want to pay my dancers, pay them well. With what I’m asking of them, they deserve it!
Drop-in classes for “Acting for Dancers” with Bronwen Carson will take place Tuesdays from 10:30-noon.
Read more about why acting is important for dancers:
Dance Teacher Magazine