Making a Role Your Own

A new cast faces special challenges.
Published in the Dec 2009/Jan 2010 issue.

When Christopher Wheeldon made Carousel (A Dance) for New York City Ballet seven years ago, Seth Orza was in the corps dancing a merry-go-round horse. Later, he graduated to a demi-soloist role and became a man. This year, now a soloist at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Orza performed the lead, Billy.

Short on patience and luck, Billy wins the heart of Julie, an innocent and adventurous young woman in this 15-minute ballet based on the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Wheeldon created Billy on Damian Woetzel, then a principal and celebrated virtuoso. “It’s a pressure and an honor,” Orza says of assuming a role he witnessed being made. “The dance is full of Damianisms. He always makes it look easy.” But how­ever trying it may be to take on the part of someone you have long admired, “That,” says Orza, “is what ballet is all about.”

Actually, it’s what ballet was all about. For decades, you could watch a dance being born, take its place in the repertoire, then spawn new versions through new casts—all within a single company. Dances didn’t usually change location: When they moved, it was down the generations. “Tribal” is how Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal characterizes the process. “One dancer standing next to another just the way people would gather and tell stories. One leg had to show another leg how it’s done.” 

But in the 21st century, “viral” is more like it. New works aren’t passed down so much as they are passed sideways—from city to city and continent to continent. Increasingly, choreographers are free agents, and after a short period in the company of origin, their dances show up everywhere. Carousel entered the repertoire of three companies in spring 2009.

Ballet globalization makes less common the challenges Orza felt taking on a role created on Woetzel. Orza knows a “Damianism” when he sees one because he watched the older dancer in class and rehearsal for years. But Thomas Nicholas and Victoria Jaiani, the leads in the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Carousel this spring, were uncertain which NYCB dancers were on the video they studied when they learned the roles. (A quick check revealed they were the original cast, Woetzel and Alexandra Ansanelli.)

Even when a new ballet is passed down within a company, there’s no guarantee of leg-to-leg learning. NYCB principals Wendy Whelan and Janie Taylor are close friends. “I really love her,” Taylor says of Whelan and Whelan of Taylor, separately and unprompted. Taylor was Whelan’s alternate in Concerto DSCH, the much-hailed 2008 ballet by Alexei Ratmansky, onetime Bolshoi head and current American Ballet Theatre artist in residence. But when it came time for Taylor’s DSCH debut this spring, she rehearsed the role as if it were Jerome Robbins’ 1951 The Cage or any other piece of the canon, working in the studio with ballet master and video.

Whelan had hesitated to offer her approach to Taylor, remembering her own experience preparing for the massive Balanchine Festival in 1993 when the original dancers bom­barded her with criticism and advice. “It was like being in prison,” she recalls. She didn’t want to do that to Taylor. “Out of respect,” she says, she stayed out of her friend’s way. “I knew if she needed me, she’d call, and I also knew that on a moment’s notice Janie can come up with the most intricate interpretation.” Eventually Taylor did call—to get help with her hair.

Dancers today are eager for autonomy. They want to make their own way. They understand independence as the path to artistry, one reason they like having dances made on them. “It’s their body that will create the imprint and their intelligence and musicality that will affect the outcome,” Boal says. Most second cast dancers say they eventually worry less about not measuring up than about not being sufficiently different from the original. “The first time I did it,” Orza says of Billy, “I was trying to copy Damian. But Damian is Damian.”

Taking the leap from understudy to live performer, Taylor explains, requires that you distinguish the original dancer from the dance so you can make room for yourself. “Usually the person a piece is made on will do it for years before someone else does,” she says. “So you’re watching and learning and enjoying what’s been created, not necessarily thinking about what you’re going to do. But once you’re performing it, it’s not going to work until you do it like you.” 

The choreographer can help. Taylor attended enough of the formative rehearsals for Concerto DSCH to be able to imagine Ratmansky showing certain steps. “It was a comfort picturing what something was supposed to look like,” she says. The choreographer is more able to preserve the dance’s spirit through all its iterations than the original dancers—or even the stagers. These “servants to the choreographer’s vision,” as NYCB ballet master Jean-Pierre Frohlich eloquently puts it, attend every one of the budding dance’s rehearsals and record the choreographer’s every move and directive. Yet no matter how good the stager, the choreographer is always better.

“That’s what we prefer—to get it straight from the choreographer,” Boal says. “We’ve had some remarkable stagers, who have done the most thorough job we could have asked, but there’s nothing like the day the choreographer walks into the studio. It’s hard as a stager, with your different personality”— Boal has served in this capacity many times—“to get that energy and freshness from the dancers. It’s stunning to have the original mind and body behind the movement. A guy like Wheeldon can accomplish so much in a week, it blows your mind.”

Shortly before opening nights all over the world, Wheeldon makes a point of showing up to rehearse new casts. “He’s got a detailed memory of what he’s created and can show every part,” Boal says. “He brings real inspiration to the dancers.”

Wheeldon thinks of the dancers the way they think of themselves—as individuals. And he can tell you individually what they’re like. “Victoria,” he says of the Joffrey’s Jaiani, “brought a wonderful, willowy abandon to the Carousel pas de deux, which made it very breathless. It had great sweep.

“Fragile and unbalanced are not words I’d associate with Carla Körbes, Orza’s partner. Trying to get that trepidation, that younger side of the character, to come across was a challenge because Carla’s a very confident dancer, very present, very pure. She could dance the “Diamonds” pas de deux in her sleep.”

Nicholas, who dances Billy at the Joffrey, “is on the verge of great things,” says Wheeldon. “But he found it a challenge to be weighty in his movements. He’s a very nice guy, and I wanted him to be dangerous.”

The dancers cherished Wheeldon’s input, committing his advice to memory. Jaiani remembers him telling her, “Find the simple farm girl in you, Victoria. Think apple pie and ice cream.” To Nicholas, he said, “She’s running away, and in the distance you can see her mother’s house. She keeps trying to escape to that place of innocence, and you keep pulling her back.”

For the dancers, the best part was the opportunity to show the choreographer what they could bring to the role. “He recognized that dancers in New York and San Francisco were going to do it differently,” says Nicholas. “There’s this moment in the pas de deux when the two characters really connect. The man touches the woman’s chin, makes their eyes meet and caresses her head. I was trying to do it exactly how I saw it on the video and Chris said, ‘Just make sure you’re looking at her the way you’d look at a person you were in love with.’ It was freeing to take her head in my hand without thinking of the last time it was done.” 
 

Apollinaire Scherr reviews dance for The Financial Times and has a blog on ArtsJournal.com.