Character roles abound in the great narrative ballets, such as Giselle, allowing corps members to step forward and play an individual instead of dancing the same steps as the other Gypsies or peasants. Dancing a character part isn't like tearing through the fouett_s or _ la seconde turns of the Black Swan pas de deux: which many corps members are quite capable of performing: but these roles can be absolutely essential to the plot.
American Ballet Theatre's dedication to dance as dramatic spectacle keeps its ballet masters and mistresses busy coaching everyone from corps to principals and often enacting such roles themselves. Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee, a former Principal who joined ABT in 1975, acquired a solid foundation in acting as well as dancing at North Carolina School of the Arts. His roles range from the jolly, pixilated Pasha of Le Corsaire to the imposing Head Brahmin in La Bayadre, who dominates the stage like a thundercloud and whose jealousy leads to the heroine Nikiya's death. And what would La Bayadre be without the mesmerizing spectacle of the Kingdom of the Shades, in Act II?
Barbee can also dominate a scene by seeming to do little. In Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow, when Baron Zeta learns he's been cuckolded by his wife, Barbee's sudden slump and uncertain gesture register first shock, then pain and finally acceptance within seconds, before the ballet's champagne-fueled jollity can go flat. "Gesture has to arise from a reason," he says. "Then you fit it in." Corps member Roman Zhurbin recalls preparing the Pasha under Barbee: "I'd bundled into my fat suit and applied my whiskers and had the pratfalls and walk down, but then Victor said, 'Roman, I can still see your mouth.' My mouth, not the Pasha's: so I went back to work."
Ballet Mistress Susan Jones, who joined the corps in 1971, is a familiar figure onstage as Juliet's Nurse and Giselle's Mother. While she coaches dancers in a variety of roles, she pays particular attention to characterization in Antony Tudor's choreography. His style is a distinctive variation of classical steps that embody psychological motivations. (Barbee likened Tudor's intense, probing discussions in rehearsal to group therapy sessions.) Characterization can also involve something as simple as posture. "Study photos of Mr. Tudor and you'll see how straight he always stood," says Jones.
Acting is reacting, and: unlike choreography: can vary. Jones treasured performing The Nurse in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet opposite Alessandra Ferri, a dancing actress always totally immersed in her roles. During the confrontation scene when Juliet refuses to marry Paris, Jones says she never knew whether Ferri would turn to her in despair or turn on her in fury: "I always had at least two reactions ready to go." When corps member Isaac Stappas plays Hilarion in Giselle, he conscientiously dances every step after being captured by the Wilis in Act II. And the mime when he confronts Albrecht in Act I? "I take my cues from my Albrecht," Stappas says. "If he really pulls rank, I back off quicker, like I know my place."
Giselle's Mother is the latest character role for Ballet Mistress and former ABT corps member Nancy Raffa. During two decades of performing and teaching, she earned a bachelor's degree in psychology before rejoining ABT in 2007. Her Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, a tiny laughing fiend of sulfurous evil, was powerful out of all proportion to her size. Researching the fairy tale, she learned Carabosse had another reason for vengeance. "One version had her casting the spell that allowed the barren Queen to conceive Princess Aurora, and the child was then supposed to belong to her. Gelsey": that's co-choreographer Gelsey Kirkland: "couldn't have been more helpful coaching me, but learning about this betrayal helped my Carabosse. Preparing for Giselle's Mother, I am forcing myself to revisit the emotions and physical sensations I felt after deep personal losses."
Giselle was rehearsed under what must be considered optimal conditions. The Act I Mad Scene with Soloist Maria Riccetto (Giselle) and David Hallberg (Albrecht) was being fine-tuned by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, with Jones and Ballet Mistress Irina Kolpakova (a former asoluta of the Kirov) in attendance. McKenzie urged Riccetto to make every move a specifically dramatic move: "Your gesture here": after Giselle realizes Albrecht is betrothed to Bathilde: "has got to show you're fighting off reality, like 'I don't even want to know where this is going.' "
McKenzie believes character must be framed by action: "Dancers learn how to move beautifully in class, but character dancers must find the link between classic technique and their role's persona before they can move accordingly. Character performances must be defined by energy: by how the dancer moves."
Comic relief in ballet is generally provided after rather grim effort. Corps dancer Julio Bragado-Young was not wearing special shoes when he danced en pointe as Bottom in Frederick Ashton's The Dream. "I learned to do that by taking class with the girls," he said. A character dancer is permitted to add business to a comic role: within reason. As Lorenzo, Kitri's restaurant-owning father in Don Quixote, corps member Roddy Doble had made a great show of serving up a feast: "I remember elegantly picking up an offending fish, holding it between my thumb and forefinger, and making a great show of discarding it. I later discarded much of that business. Less is more."
Character dancers in comedy may look like they are having fun but comedy is actually harder work than tragedy, because sharper timing is required to make the outrageous appear natural. Marcelo Gomes is that rarity, a handsome dancer who gets laughs while remaining a matinee idol. (Think Cary Grant.) His debut as the drunken Count Danilo in The Merry Widow featured a rubber-legged entrance in Act I and an appearance at the garden party in Act II in a grotesque Pontevedrian costume of a furry busby and some feathery/hairy cloak. He doffed the gear at the earliest opportunity, hurled it into the wings, and followed that with a series of hastily drained champagne glasses.
Hilarity peaked in Act III at: where else?: Maxim's, when the grisettes arrived, escorted by a trio of bandy-legged old rou_s in top hats lurching about on canes (actually corps guys a third their age). "Those roles were the first I danced at ABT," Gomes recalls. When he realized the randy ancients seated at Stage Right were those masters of improv, Doble, Zhurbin, and Stappas, he was content to leave the laughs to them. Doble doddered to his feet to offer a palsied hand in greeting. Gomes shook it so lustily Doble toppled back against Stappas and Zhurbin, and all three slid to the floor in a welter of flailing arms and legs. They regained their chairs after great and laborious effort. Choreographer Hynd was amused but told the guys to take their seats quickly next time and to stay there.
They did so the second night, but high jinks continued at a lower level. "I pretended to fall asleep," says Stappas. "I picked his pocket," says Zhurbin. "I realized we might be overdoing the fun when I looked out at the audience and found everyone looking back at me."
At the third Widow, they were immediately banished to Stage Left, out of sight to all. That audience never knew what it missed: the hilarious spectacle of three young artists working very hard at making character dancing look easy.
Harris Green writes for Macfadden Performing Arts Media and danceinsider.com.