To a Young Dancer
Dancer, choreographer, and writer, AGNES DE MILLE originated the famous ballets for the Rodgers-Hammerstein musicals, danced the lead in her own colorful RODEO,and is the author of two books describing the resurgence of the dance in America, DANCE TO THE PIPERand ANDPROMENADE HOME. In this paper she addresses herself to a young aspirant who is on the point of entering a professional career of dancing.
by AGNES DE MILLE
IN AMERICA it is desirable for the student to have basic training in ballet. It is also helpful to have experience with modern movement. The two styles, once drastically opposed, are now reconciled and complementary. Tap used to be a requisite for a Broadway or Hollywood job. It is not now. But it, too, helps, for it provides unmatched training in rhythm. Ballet practice will strengthen your legs and feet, will give you resilince and elevation, speed, virtuosity, and endurance. It will also provide a long, pure body line and correct all faults of posture. Modern work will teach you dynamics, phrasing, a greater notional use of the arms and torso. It will give importance and weight to all your movements. Ballet students tend to disregard the body from the waist up. When the moderns lift an arm or a head, it is an event.
Try to get under the direction of a first-rate choreographer. If there is a choice, forgo billing and quick commercial advancement, in order to perform in fine works under a master. Under poor direction you can pick up bad habits which will be impossible to shake later. You can ruin your own best instincts.
The ideal position for a serious beginner is in a ballet company that plays repertory. Be sure, hwever, that the staff choreographers and réguseurs are first-rate. There is seldom opportunity in television or musical comedy for the acquiring of more than one style, for quickness of peiception, for memory training, lor the building of taste, reliability, stamina — all those assets that distinguish the veteran. Behind Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova, Maria Tallchief, Anthony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, Gwen Verdon are years of playing every kind of dancing role from walk-ons to leads, and in many different styles — years and years of experiencing and delivering under stress.
The prerequisites for a first job are talent, a handsome or healthy appearance, and training. Experience is not necessary. Agents cannot help you and are not permitted, by union ruling, to function on behalf of chorus applicants. And no one, not even the producer, can guarantee you anything the choreographer or ballet master does not also agree to. Do not listen to promises from anyone else.
Do not write for a job or send photographs. No management will hire you without a personal interview. Once you start looking, it may take months. Give yourself time.
What does a ballet company look for? Talent; a good, clean, strong body, adequately trained; and a flair either for movement or acting. Ballet companies wish to develop their own soloists and therefore they will favor youth. They will insist on classic style and on the promise of virtuosity.
What do Broadway, television, and Hollywood look for? Attractiveness and charm.
What does any management consider attractive? First, a good figure — strong and lithe. Height is not of much consequence, although in a girl anything under five feet or over five feet seven inches presents special problems; in a boy the range must lie between five feet seven inches and six feet. Muscular strength and endurance are more than assets, they are necessities.
Youth counts. The desirable age range is from sixteen (our legal minimum) to twenty-six. Twenty-six seems young until you stand in tights beside a sixteen-year-old competitor. Markova was a leading soloist with the Diaghilev company at fifteen, as was Fonteyn with the Sadler’s Wells. There is no definite age limit to performing once you have reached the top. Ulanova, Markova, Youskevitch are all over forty. But they made their mark young.
You will give the audition in practice tights. Be sure they are clean.
Be on time, and be warmed up beforehand. You will get more attention at the beginning of the session. During a single sitting, the choreographer has to examine many applicants. Toward the end of the session, enthusiasm and discernment flag.
Come alone. Don’t bring mother, father, or teacher with you. If you are old enough to hold down an adult job for pay, you are old enough to get it unaided. (Don’t bring an agent unless you are an established soloist, in which case you need no advice from me.)
Be calm. Remember that the people out front are experts and have all been through the mill themselves. They expect you to be nervous and will discount the symptoms. Nerves will not alter the bony structure of your head; they may disturb your posture, destroy your balance, and make you sick at your stomach. But they will leave untouched the coordination of your arms and the shape of your leg. The choreographer will recognize the difference between nerves and lack of technical training.
The choreographer will tell you what to doand do precisely this. Don’t clamor. All allowances are made for desperation, but the management is hiring a human being as well as a talent. Your character is being judged as well as your appearance and skill.
Don’t follow the choreographer home. Don’t lie on his door mat and plead. Don’t waylay him outside the theater. Don’t, if you get hold of his telephone number, make use of it. He has a private life, and when he goes home it is to rest or work. You will not win his sympathy by ruining his evening.
If you are lucky enough to last through to the final tryouts, the management will keep you standing in line for as long as half an hour while they discuss your relative merits. During this ordeal, try not to lose your faith in God, and remember: if a girl you can always marry and have children; if a boy, you can change jobs. You are strong. Truck drivers get three times the pay of dancers.
And if you are not chosen, do not despair. There are many reasons for a choice: in ballet companies the repertory is being cast with specific roles in mind; on Broadway, variety is a necessity. Special types are selected for special needs, and opinions differ as to beauty. In America there are more managements and more chances than in any other country.
Every ballet company and musical has to make replacements throughout its run, so if you fail to get into a cast at the beginning of rehearsals, there is always opportunity later on. Give your name to the régisseur or stage manager. A list of replacements is kept and drawn on when needed.
If you are young in the business, be prepared to go out on the road. Do not insist on staying in New York, where the competition is cutthroat. Road pay is better, and the chances of promotion quicker. What you need is experience. Right now it doesn’t matter where.
At the first rehearsal, be attentive and be patient with yourself and with the choreographer; above all, be responsive. Rehearsals are long and slow. Do not permit yourself to grow bored. The choreographer carries a tremendous and difficult responsibility. Try to remember this. He will be grateful, and the entire work will benefit. A dancer who shows indifference or fatigue in the face of creative effort damages the working relationship of all, particularly his own usefulness to his boss.
Watch others. The composition is not over just because you have stopped rushing around. Try to understand your movement in relation to the whole. Study the working methods of the choreographer. You will learn much. Nearly every successful choreographer learned his métier just this way.
When you go home at night, review what you have learned — think how you can make it better, do not change it, but develop it in your mind. Stars return to rehearsal with a great deal accomplished between sessions. Beginners rarely do this, but it can be of enormous value.
If there is a bit you cannot understand or perform, practice it on the side with someone who can help you, or ask the choreographer to explain, but do not abuse his time. He is a composer and director. He is neither teacher nor coach and cannot be expected to wet-nurse you. Persuade him to clarify what he wants, but solve your own technical problems. Anyone who accepts a solo passage should be capable of practicing alone, with judgment and discipline. The veteran dancers will always help. They are invariably willing and
You have become an expert athlete, but you may not yet be an artist, which is a very different matter. You can presumably turn; you can jump very high and for long stretches of time, and you can look comfortable doing so; you can bend backward to the ground; you can raise your legs and hold them high and steady in difficult positions. You can keep hurrying around for six minutes and never draw audible breath.
But this is not all a choreographer will demand. Can you also walk? Or have you forgotten how? Can you run and skip so that these simple activities become lovely? When you walk across the room, does your passage mean something? Or are you just carrying an apparatus over to anoter spot for further demonstration? Can you, for God’s sake, stand still? You will be required to do this from now on. And this is not simple.
You will have longer passages of dancing than ever before, and endurance will present problems. It is part of your job to regulate your energy so that you do not fail before the end; it will help u you think of the dance as a whole, not just as a succession of traps and tests. The dazzle of the big steps depends on the quiet mastery of the little ones, and during quiet passages you can get your breath and take stock of the physical situation about you. But do not think of these periods as rest and just let go. You are building suspense. You are saying, “Watch what’s coming.”
Dancing, no matter what the style or technique, is presence and must be so considered. Even stillness is a positive factor; it is to motion what silence is to sound. Music does not cease every time there is a rest; rather, it suspends and projects, using the meets as a vital part of the pattern. Similarly, the dancer, for as long as he is in view, is active, even if motionless. . . . .
Each gesture makes a path in time and a path in space — on the ground, in the air — on three planes. Actually the gesture is expressed within the sphere and orbit of the body’s reach, but the physical implications stretch far beyond; an outstretched hand establishes an atmosphere. The arm passes through the air and reveals surfaces, depths, distances, lightness, heaviness, the movement setting up visual overtones like those set up audibly when a gong is struck; think of your body and arms and legs not just as things to lift and put down and move about but as the percussive part of an instrument whose sounding board is the air and all space. You move ringed with echoes and extensions. Your body is in fact the heart of extending and overlapping cycles of movement. It will be your skill to develop a sense of touch on this great instrument as a pianist learns touch on the keyboard. Watch any fine orchestral conductor and you will see how his hands define the shape and dynamics of what he wants to establish audibly. His hands are visible music. Your whole body should be just this.
Pay attention therefore to the phrasing of every step, even the exercises you practice daily. Each has a beginning, a development, climax, and decrescendo; the release and ending are as important as the start or the highest point of effort. Finish through. Don’t just let go when the hard part has been achieved. This is very important, and most young dancers never give it a thought. When later they come to phrasing long passages or enchaînements or whole solo dances, they are at a loss as to how to sustain strength or interest. The preparation, the ending, and the joining move ments are as important as the big muscular tricks, and the great artist is known by his handling of transitions.
Be simple. The least effort, the least motion for a given effect is what is wanted. All training is an attempt to strip extraneous tension, nervousness, and fidgeting away from the pure line. A great dancer seems to move more slowly through any given exercise because there is no waste motion whatsoever, and therefore in fact there is more time for the movement.
Margot Fonteyn is notable for this quality. She is like the stillness in the heart of the hurricane and appears to be moving languidly, until one shuts one’s eyes and listens to the music, which may be pumping out a presto. It puts one in mind of Jules Janin’s remarks in the 1830s concerning Fanny Elssler: “Her steps are so finished, her dancing so correct, her feet so agile, that one wonders whether she really dances or is standing still.”
The wrist is a joint and should not become the seat of emotions. The hand, the head, and the torso tell the story. Every fancy wiggle or ripple that steals attention from what is important — that is, from yourself, your body, your vital organs_— can only be confusing and unwanted. The extra flourishings of wrist, elbows, knees, and fingers are only trimming; they can be used prettily or wittily, but they should never be thought of as part of the basic gesture. Your hand is your voice; don’t babble.
The practice mirror is to be used for the correction of faults, not for a love affair, and the figure you watch should not become your dearest friend. It would be wise to practice exercises twice a week with your back to the glass. Matters of balance, speed, and body angling, particularly the use of the head, can become permanently warped by staring always into one spot. If you watch the results while simultaneously trying to generate emotion, you reach an impasse. All instinct shuts off under this self-scrutiny. The choreographer or régisseur will furnish correction. On the stage, believe me, the audience is no mirror, but the eye of God.
When someone else is dancing, support him by your attention — focus toward him. This gives him a real strength to play against and concentrates the audience’s attention as an added spotlight does. Look your fellow performers in the eye. Beware the dancer who will not face you squarely; he considers you a prop. He does not wish you to get into the power beam. But you are there whether he likes it or not, and his evasiveness will only succeed in short-circuiting both of you.
Be courteous. If you are a man, be chivalrous. Do not crowd and push to the front all the time, or bump into your neighbors, or hit them as you pass. Controlling your body in space while working close to other people is part of your job. You are going to have to live with your companions both on and off stage.
Learn the proper way to mark steps. You will find it advantageous in long rehearsals to indicate big jumps and lifts in order to prevent collapse. But never mark or indicate tempo, expression, or style. Even when marking, you must think each step through and feel its rhythm, its shape and meaning. Only by doing so will you keep the rehearsal fruitful.
Performing is a spiritual experience and is the responsibility of the artist alone. It is a point of view. It is the sum total of his personality. He spends his life in preparation for this — the whole of his life, not just the time he gives to class exercises.
When you enter the stage in the presence of a live audience, everything you have ever learned is suddenly different. You lose your breath where you never did before; you have strength you never guessed; you are more aware of your body and less aware. Headaches and stomachaches disappear, but just keeping your mouth shut has become an achievement. You can see both in front and behind you at once. You see the whole stage and the rip under your sleeve. You hear everything, each cough, each musical instrument, the grip dropping a gelatin off stage, your partner’s whispered warning, the creak of your shoes; you hear nothing — a fire engine could drive down the aisle and you would still know how many turns there were left to do; that bit of just standing around feels wonderful, but the long lifts are boring, they were fun to work out but they are boring to watch. How do you know they are boring to watch? You have not seen them. You know. Suddenly you know.
You finish walled safe by light. And there are the faces and the noise, and it was over so fast, this thing you prepared ten years for. It was completely changed from the way it had been that very afternoon. You are changed. You have not been yourself for some minutes. It was like a rebirth.
And now you want to perform it really! Now you are ready! Now! Now! But it’s done. It’s over.
And a whole new set of problems and considerations takes over your life.
For the first time you face the problem of projection. This cannot be learned, or even gauged in the rehearsal hall. This is the test of whether or not you are a performer. When the very great enter a stage, a thrill goes over the nerves of all watchers. This tremendous communication has nothing to do with hairdressing or false eyelashes or high kicking. These are not what get the tribute of silence or the triumphal salute of laughter. The chosen few who have the magic are freighted with power and hope. They know what they are meeting, and they join forces with the waiting audience in high anticipation. The greatest stars have not always been beautiful, but all have had the royal prerogative of commanding with every tiny gesture total, rapt, heart-hungry attention, as have had comedians. Indeed, there are fewer great comedians than ballerinas or danseurs nobles. Some beginners are blessed this way; the mark is on their foreheads from childhood. These are stars, experienced or not.
As nearly as we can define it, projection, mesmerism, is really a matter of concentration combined with absolute confidence. Every faculty, every nerve is bent on communicating a definite idea. Not one iota of energy is wasted in fear.
It is the self-conscious performer who fails. If he is going to give a performance of a performer in action, he stops giving a performance of the dance, and he becomes his own worst rival. The audience will sense the fraud, the divided intent, and lose interest. A show-off pushing to the front of the stage can become almost invisible, while the expert at the back makes himself known through rows of thrashing bodies. A show-off is troubling the waters in order to hide, and what he is hiding is self-doubt. He cannot hide this. It will be perfectly apparent to all. The stage is like an X ray and reveals what you are, not what you hope you are or wish to be.
Therefore, do not fool. You may think the audience cannot see your face, but they can tell from the lines of your back and the carriage of your head when the tension of projecting and communicating has stopped. Some stars do joke and talk, but they know how and when. Until you can make an audience laugh or cry at will, do not permit yourself this laxity.
No matter how confident you are in your ability, you will from time to time be nervous. That’s all right. Nerves are part of the actor’s equipment. There are two kinds of nerves. The one that sharpens the edge of perception to cutting point, that ensures the gathering of forces and the expenditure of total energy — this is to performing what light is to color. The other kind is an unraveling of concentration into a tangle of self-pity, at the horrid core of which appears the ugly sore, a fear of performing — in fact, a desire not to perform. This cancer can coexist with talent.
The pseudo or neurotic performer will always fall ill at the time of testing or destroy himself with stage fright. The true pro tries not to go on unless good and ready, but can anyway, if he must. Most ballet dancers learn to meet crisis as gallantly as soldiers, sometimes with little or no preparation. A girl turns an ankle, another soloist is on in twenty minutes with only a verbal briefing in the wings. When the replacements involve stars, the hazards are enormous. Just think of the colossal nerve it takes to walk to the center of a stage before the knowledgeable eyes of three thousand people and calmly start lengthy and repeated spins on the big toe of the left foot. Particularly if at dinnertime one hadn’t expected to do anything of the sort.
This steadiness is not learned quickly, although it can be applied in emergency. It is acquired humbly by drudgery over many years. It is built into daily living. It is built into the fibers of character. Few trades require such discipline. It is equal to that of the research chemist or the practicing surgeon.
Training in physical techniques is spiritually good from every point of view. No amount of personality will help you spin or jump. It is very salutary to come to terms regularly with the laws of nature, where the charming giggle has almost no effect, and fight it out on a basis as universal and enduring as gravity. This testing cleanses and clarifies. There is no class of people more severely disciplined than dancers, more regularized as to life habits (excepting always the cloistered religious), or more sensible in practical affairs. This has been largely acquired in the daily exercises.
You have been told by all your friends that this is a tough and difficult business, and if you have any gumption, you have disregarded all such warnings. But when I tell you it’s tough, I mean precisely the following: that you may not earn your living for three years; that you may not get beyond a bare earning for six or seven; that the opportunities for frustration and exhaustion are constant, while the chances for quiet and security are small; that in America a career means a direct choice between work and children until such time as you are sufficiently well established to dictate your own terms; and that in the end there is no guarantee that all of your sacrifices will not, from a material point of view, have been in vain.
We are not as careful or cherishing of our artists as Europeans; nevertheless, what with television, movies, and shows, it is possible for outstanding dancers to make a living, while choreographers, directors, and dancing actors can make fortunes. The rest pursue, albeit precariously, a career they respect under stimulating and adventurous conditions. They have to decide whether they prefer to enjoy life this way or in collecting automobiles and refrigerators.
You can accept these statements intellectually perhaps, but let me tell you what it means in terms of daily living. You feel good. You may often feel tired, but you feel good, alive, strong, young, able. You may be in your mid-forties, but that is how you feel when you wake up and when you go to sleep. When you walk down the street, there is a strength in your step. When you sit, you sit straight. You can always sleep — anywhere, under any conditions. You can eat anything. When you practice each morning, you put yourself through a re-examination and testing, a rededication like reciting a rosary. This applies to all of you, body and mind. Tensions are released, tempers forgotten, hates appeased. Trouble works itself out through the muscles. Each time you exercise, you strengthen and test your entire self.
And when you rehearse, you alone of all executants share the creative process. You are there when it happens. You work with the best composers, the best designers and painters, the ranking conductors. No dancer is really bored, or even lonely. You travel the world, and wherever you go, you enter the community as a working member, not as a tourist — you have an international family.
And when you perform — ah, then! — even if you are not a star, even if you have not risen above the ranks, what does your daily stint mean, the equivalent of the officeworker’s eight hours?
It means this: to step out on the great stages of the world, before thousands of rapt and hoping people, into pristine space, trained and able comrades on either hand, a symphony orchestra at your feet, a carpet of music spread under you each night, to flash and soar — you, the ordinary one, to ride violins and trumpets, to go through the tremendous patterns set for you and to feel the magic work, to accomplish yourself through your breath and your sinews, your enduring heart muscle, and your devotion, and, in the bewitched emptiness haunted by excitements and risks, to sense the blocked mass of attention as tangible as fire, to blow on it, to stir it, to bend and play with it, to feel the stillness, the shudder of excitement, the recognition and acceptance at the reach of your finger tips.
You are out of yourself — larger and more potent, more beautiful. You are for minutes heroic.
This is power. This is glory on earth. And it is yours nightly.