The Story of a Step
Walks and runs may seem like the simplest moments you have onstage. But the way a dancer steps reveals so much about their interpretation of a role: what they’re thinking, what their motives are, what their backstory has dictated. It’s often the first impression a performer makes onstage and, many times, the last. Four dancers told Pointe about how these basic movements inform some of their signature roles.
National Ballet of Canada
Role: Albrecht in Giselle
Just walking establishes who Albrecht is: an aristocrat pretending to be a peasant. You need to have a different demeanor from everyone else. If you do that, the audience subconsciously understands a little more about who you are. I imagine myself as Erik Bruhn—he was the ultimate prince onstage. He was perfection because he did so little: He pulled up in the middle, and was very precise with the way his feet touched the floor, always aware of his line and his demeanor.
When I worked with Marcelo Gomes on Albrecht, he told me that you have to indicate that you’re not really going to Giselle. She’s definitely the one coming to you, she’s the one who is more attached and in love. You take your time. You walk and stop, walk and stop. You know what you’re doing to her and you know how to do it. You’ve done it before.
In the second act when Albrecht enters with the lilies, he’s in a daze, this empty zone where the guilt is so intense that he can’t process anything. That first walk is incredibly articulate in the lower body, but the upper body is so heavy; the whole weight of the world is on his shoulders.
Later, when running away from the wilis, the hard part is that you still have to look like a prince. I try to push my feet and especially the insides of my heels forward, so they don’t drag behind me like I’m skating. I also think of pulling my stomach in, so that my abs and my lats are initiating the run—my upper body and my chest and my intention are taking me there. Running like that should be triggered by emotion, but crafted for aesthetics.
American Ballet Theatre
Role: Odette/Odile in Swan Lake
To convey Odette’s sense of terror when the Prince first enters, I make her steps really quick, like a frantic animal scrambling to get away from a predator. One thing that Alexei Ratmansky always stressed when I worked with him on other ballets is changing your pacing any time you have a long run or walk to make it more interesting. So when I’m running away from the Prince, I look back and take two slower steps and then take off really fast.
For Odette’s entrance with the other swans, when the music swells, I run out with a lot of resolve. She’s strong in that moment—trying to protect her flock. It’s about carrying my back and my chest through space, and the bottom half of my body responds to the upper half.
With Odile, there is none of Odette’s hesitancy or shyness. Every step Odile takes is fearless, seductive and confident. I try to make it vulture-y. I imagine that I’m wearing a really hot black dress and heels at a party. Susan Jaffe taught me that Odile is scanning the room, always calculating, so you really use your eyes with every step. And Odile takes her time, no rush; she knows everyone is captivated by her.
In the last act, Odette has a sense of weighty hopelessness. First you run in desperation; then when you see Siegfried, every step conveys heartbreak and despair. It’s not just betrayal, it’s losing all hope of freedom. Everything is ruined.
SARAH VAN PATTEN
San Francisco Ballet
Role: Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
With Juliet, you have to keep in mind that, yes, you need to hold yourself in a very classical balletic line, but you still need a sense of humanness. In Juliet’s first scene with the nurse, the running is playful and quite energetic. I am conscious of pointed feet, but I also move with a real sense of freedom.
In the ballroom scene, I’m trying to act a little more mature, with an elegance and a dignified walk, playing the part that my parents want me to play. When I meet Romeo, there’s a light, playful energy—as opposed to when I meet Paris, where my walk has a more contained tone.
I always have to practice running up and down the stairs for the balcony scene so that I feel comfortable, because when I’m caught up in the moment and my heart’s racing, I don’t want to miss a step and go sliding down! I run halfway down quite quickly, then I take a moment and pause to look up, then continue running down. As much as Juliet is ready to jump off the balcony to dance with Romeo, there is that moment of hesitation. She knows she shouldn’t be doing this, but she still wants to.
As Juliet, there can be a little lift in the shoulders in moments of tension in the body. Or the shoulders are down and back and open when there’s an abandonment to love. Or the chin can be down, and the shoulders a little more forward and down—a kind of angelic, nervous feeling. In the balcony scene, I run chest forward with my heart, with a lot of abandon.
When Friar Laurence marries us, we walk towards the altar, and there is more weight in my step, more thoughtfulness, an acknowledgment of the importance of what is going on. It’s a rash decision, but we are doing it together.
At the end of the ballet, you’re tired emotionally and physically. In that final scene at the crypt, it’s almost like I don’t even pick my feet up, because I don’t even care to. If you do it right, the body language of that moment tells her whole story.
Miami City Ballet
Role: Liberty Bell in Stars and Stripes
The music is very exciting with a military feel, so right away I’m very erect and upright. But at the same time I’m still fun and flirtatious. You can’t help but burst onto the stage. The ballerina’s leading the pack, so she’s confident, but not regal. She struts. She has oomph to her. And if she’s going to run, it’s because she’s heading somewhere to do something important.
In the pas de deux, you’re dancing and dancing, but then in the middle, you take a little walk, which I think is brilliant of Balanchine because it gives you a moment to say who you are. Every ballerina has to work on that moment. I’ve found that if I really close my fists like I’m marching, swaying my elbows with my shoulders as I walk, holding my head up high and staying on my high demi-pointe, it makes it a real moment without throwing away the step.