Out of Your League?

The process of mastering a difficult role can help you grow as a dancer.
Published in the June/July 2009 issue.

When Deanna Doyle was cast in Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs, the Kansas City Ballet dancer couldn’t find her usual confidence. Her part in “Strangers in the Night” called for an elegant and dramatic persona that just wasn’t her. “I always get the silly, comedienne or ingénue roles,” she explains. “I don’t know if I would have chosen me—I certainly don’t look the part!”


Sooner or later, most dancers will face a challenge in a role. With any big (or little) break comes big and little hurdles, which run the gamut from fleshing out a character to finding the physical or technical wherewithal to get through a role. But what’s inspiring is how dancers can take those challenges and use them to become better performers. Whether it’s working harder in the studio, exploring the character or keeping an open mind, most dancers agree that initial discomfort can result in growth. “The great thing about dance,” says BalletMet Columbus dancer Jackson Sarver, “is to be challenged.”


To feel comfortable in the “Strangers” role, Doyle channeled movie star and Fred Astaire partner Ginger Rogers. “I watched her movies as I was in the process of convincing myself,” Doyle says. She took Swing Time and a portable DVD player on the tour bus. “Imagining I’m Ginger Rogers helped me not so much physically but with what was going on in my head. If I can feel how I’m supposed to feel, I dance better.”


At the other end of the spectrum is the role that calls for physical might. Even dancers with all the technique in the world are sometimes asked to perform feats beyond their body’s capabilities. During his first season playing the lead in Dracula, Jackson Sarver felt battered. Wearing a 12-pound cape, he danced in almost every scene of the two-and-a-half-hour marathon. Each performance also required slithering headfirst down a 35-foot castle wall. By the end of the season, Sarver had lost over 12 pounds.


To build stamina, Sarver ran on a treadmill and churned out push-ups and pull-ups four or five times a week. He also learned to pace himself. “It was really important to keep running the ballet,” he says, “to find out where I got tired so I could prepare mentally and physically.” By his second go-round in fall 2008, he knew where to focus his energy. He says, “You have to find ways to make it work and get through it.”


For Richmond Ballet’s Lauren Fagone, it wasn’t a particular role that was challenging—it was shifting gears to dancing the modern and dramatic ballets required in a company with such a diverse repertoire. Now in her sixth season, Fagone arrived with little modern training, “nothing which really prepared me for the modern works I’m performing now,” she says. She’d done summer programs at the School of American Ballet, studied at Indiana University, apprenticed at North Carolina Dance Theater and was an accomplished dancer. But her style was very “Balanchinesque,” says Richmond’s ballet master, Malcolm Burn. Suddenly she was being asked to perform modern movement in flat shoes—or no shoes at all.


Luckily, Burn’s company class includes modern technique, such as contraction and release at the barre and use of the breath. “How many ballet dancers, who are always pulling up, have been told to breathe?” aks Burns. But he credits Fagone’s success to her determination and guts. She got over her challenge simply by pushing herself so hard that Artistic Director Stoner Winslett couldn’t help but notice. “She works on her own,” says Winslett, “she works with other people, she works, works, works!”


Two years after Fagone joined the company, Winslett was so impressed she cast Fagone as the lead in her Echoing Past, performed at The Joyce Theater during the company’s 2005 New York City debut. “I thought there was a great depth to her and that this would be a good challenge,” Winslett recalls. “She’s a good technician, but I thought ‘There’s more expressiveness there.’ ” Winslett’s instincts were correct: “Lauren has morphed into something very exciting. That was a big journey.”


Fagone thinks her transition was all about opening up to learning, although she also mentions the nurturing tips she got from senior dancers on how to be more grounded and less posed and let movements flow. What helped her was relinquishing the idea of dance as “pink shoes and tights,” she explains. “It was about letting go of what I thought a dancer was, that you have to be so controlled all the time, you can’t throw your head around or slide on the floor. You have to let your hair down and try it. The worst that can happen is falling down. So you dust yourself off, and you get up. I’m known for falling now.”

Former dancer Susan Chitwood has an MS in journalism from Columbia University.