BWW Interviews: Bronwen Carson—Acting for Dancers
It is a common stigma, however, that dancers “can’t act.” We are taught from our very first ballet class to watch our alignment, straighten our posture, and improve our turnout. The only thing we’re really supposed to emote (or at least try to emote) during tendus at the barre is a sense of calm confidence. So maybe acting isn’t a real part of dancing then, right? Wrong! Just take a look at what some notable industry professionals have to say:
“…commitment from the dancer means communication to the audience. This is true for both the actor and the dancer, because dance is acting and acting is dance. The principles of storytelling are the same.” – Tony Testa (Los Angeles; ‘The Cheetah Girls,’ ‘Wizards of Waverly Place,’ ‘Dance on Sunset,’ a music video for Miranda Cosgrove, halftime shows for slamball on ABC, commercials for Skechers and Versace, shows for Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Danity Kane)
“The most important acting skill a dancer can have in my work is the ability to get really honest-to be able to relate to the work personally.” – Jack Ferver (New York; Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace Project, the New Museum, Théâtre de Vanves (Paris), an upcoming piece for Performance Space 12)
“I like dancers who put themselves out there on the line without the fear of embarrassment. Dancers are constantly seeing themselves as they dance. My advice is to get past that voice in your head, the one saying how you “should be.” Instead, like the good actor, find that quiet, open space that lets you be whatever you want to be-or whatever I ask you to be.” – Mark Swanhart (Los Angeles; ‘Viva Elvis’ for Cirque du Soleil (Las Vegas), Celine Dion’s ‘Taking Chances’ tour, ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ a film of ‘La Bohème,’ the 2003 Tony Awards)
“If you don’t think of “acting” per se, but rather use your imagination to infuse your movement with clear intention, strong imagery, discovery, subtext, and self-knowledge, you will be more likely to enter that magical zone of “being in the moment.” – Dance Magazine, “Going Inside the Role”
“Today’s world of musical theater demands dancers to have acting and singing skills. In musical theater there is always a story to tell and a plot to further- no one is ever just dancing steps. Dancers need to be comfortable using their voices and having the confidence to speak on stage. Broadway shows are full of “one liners,” which are typically assigned to the chorus. If a dancer is asked to read sides during an audition, he or she must make a strong choice and read with authority; there is no time to be embarrassed about how you sound or how you “act”. This is why a basic knowledge of acting is essential to dancers hoping to break into musical theater and Broadway. In terms of casting, the more skills you have the more valuable you are. This is why the cliché “triple threat” exists; if you can do it all, you are a threat to those who cannot. For example, directors always need understudies, a job which typically goes to a member of the chorus. A dancer who can potentially understudy a lead role is more likely to book the job over one who cannot. Just as in life, being a well-rounded individual adds dimension to a dancer’s talent and creates more opportunity.” – Kiira Schmidt (New York; “Follies,” “White Christmas,” “Stairway to Paradise,” “Mame;” assistant to Josh Bergasse for NBC’s “SMASH”)
“Agreed!” remarks Bronwen Carson, a Director-Choreographer recently added to the faculty at Broadway Dance Center. Carson teaches “Acting for Dancers” (Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:30am-12pm) as well as a required acting course in BDC’s Professional Semester, a pre-professional training program. She describes, “Dancers inherently have tools at their disposal to become powerful storytellers, but are rarely shown how to translate the precise control they have over their bodies into truthful, nuanced character portrayals. Often a dancer can come across as too graceful, too at ease in their bodies to accurately portray a non-dance trained person. These dancer attributes (i.e. “ease”, “turnout”, “posture, flexibility…etc.) must be addressed when training dancers to act if they wish to play a role in a film or play other than the “dancer” character in the story.”
BWW: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be a performer.
BC: I started out as a classical dancer, but even then my training was unorthodox. My teachers, Paul E. Curtis and Shawn Stuart focused a great deal upon the storytelling aspect to the classical dance movements and upon a profound connection to the music as a script. I joined The Cleveland Ballet at 17, ready for a lifetime in classical dance, then very shortly after sustained an injury that ended my ballet career. I turned to acting to relieve the ensuing existential crisis and heartbreak. It turned out I’d been acting all along, just in a non-verbal realm. I, once again, ended up with astounding teachers (Mark Jacobs, Terry Schreiber) with whom to train. I learned how to translate my gestures as a dancer into vocal and character nuance. It took many years and I had to build the bridge brick by brick. I went on to act in some films (“Dance With Me,” “Center Stage,” “Keeping the Faith,” “The Ballad of Mary Jo,” “The Winter of Her”), some theatre (including The Music Man, Equity Ginny Award for Zaneeta Shinn) but I missed the dance world a great deal. I realized what I really wanted was to direct and choreograph; I was done performing. I was interested in telling stories from a new angle, behind the scenes. At this time I also started developing a class to help other dancers cross the bridge into acting. The first year was some trial and error, but now the classes and my methods as a director and choreographer are becoming clearer. It’s extremely exciting to see a dancer become a powerful actor. The storytelling possibilities are unlimited. My own production company, Sounding Line, is in the midst of creating a new piece of theatre using hybrid dancer-actors to tell stories in a weird, and hopefully wonderful, new way.
BWW: Why do you think it is important for dancers to know how to act?
BC: Because dancers are storytellers. Whether the story is abstract or logical and linear. Dance, if it is the language being used to tell the story, is there to share a truth about humanity, to pose a question, to show common ground, or to expose a conflict. It’s there to tell the story. With each new class I tell them “Being an artist …whether a dance-maker, actor, painter, musician, singer or writer…is to, with courage and humility, take up the mantle of story-teller in the tribe. Our sole task is to bring the tribe to the fire, and remind them none of us is alone, to give them permission to feel something, experience something in this safe-house/ If we do our job right they get to go back out into the world and lead lives of renewed courage, inspiration, humor, and, perhaps, new insight. Treat this role as story-teller with grace, humor, integrity and respect.”
I also see it as a wonderful bridge into work that can still be obtained and enjoyed long after the body has given out. The extreme flexibility and demand for tricks nowadays can often brutalize a dancer’s body, effectively shortening their career. If you can act, you have another outlet, another way of storytelling and it can help ease an emotionally painful time for a dancer when their body just won’t do what is asked of the 19 year-olds lining up in droves to dance professionally.
BWW: Tell us about your class, “Acting for Dancers.”
BC: It was born out of necessity really. I began working more as a director and choreographer a few years ago and with each audition I held, I found dancers falling into one of two categories – “fierce dancer” or “really good mover who can act.” But what I needed was fierce dancers with fantastic acting chops. The rarity of that combination concerned me a great deal. Then I realized it was not the dancer’s fault – the skill wasn’t really being taught, and if it was, it wasn’t taught with the consistency needed to have those abilities take root. So, after I saw the need, I worked out the “what’s” and the “how’s” of training dancers to act. It’s a really different deal with dancers. Their control over the minutia of their bodies often creates blockades to truthful acting. I decided to create a class built for their unique strengths and challenges. I used my experiences as a professional dancer and actor to build specific exercises that bridge the two worlds. Once I felt I had a course that could offer results, I approached a number of schools in the city, including BDC. Bonnie Erickson (Educational Programs Director at Broadway Dance Center) was the first to respond with real excitement. So, a month later I started teaching during BDC’s Fall 2011 Professional Semester and am now in my 4th semester with them as well as the drop-in open classes offered on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I also teach closed, semi-private acting groups of 3-4 dancers per group, specifically for dancers serious about acquiring acting skills.
BWW: Why do you think people believe dancers can’t be actors?
BC: I think it’s an antiquated belief based primarily upon the lack of training dancers receive in acting technique. Dancers train so ferociously on their lines, their strength, their flexibility, their “tricks”…but for the most part, they don’t learn how to build and perform a nuanced, evocative character with objectives, relationships and a storyline. Give them training and suddenly astounding abilities start to reveal themselves. The very first thing I say in each new class is divorce yourself from the mirror. Dancers have a relationship, in my opinion, an unhealthy one, with the mirror. As an actor, you cannot, must not “check” to see how you look as you work!
BWW: You are in the process of directing and choreographing a new work, “49th Street Stories.” Why do you classify this project as a dance play?
BC: I call it a dance play due to the emphasis I’ve placed upon storyline and character portrayal through movement as the primary language. Without the construct of a highly fleshed out script, truthful behavior, and gesture is paramount. I spend a great deal of rehearsal time working out character development, relationship dynamics and tactical changes through their movements to make sure the arc of the story is there, that the truth of each moment is there. I’ve learned I don’t really care about a leg extended to the ceiling if there’s a lack if character or story arc justification for it to be there.
BWW: What prompted you to create this project and what are your hopes for the future of the project?
BC: “49th Street Stories” has been a long time in the making. There’s a huge Mason jar in my office filled with ideas and memories. It’s loosely autobiographical, so the challenge hasn’t been in creating the story, but which parts to include and which to leave out. Protecting the innocent so to speak…and, also…the not so innocent. A great deal happened in my first 10 years of living in NYC … lots of weird, awkward, touching stuff. So I thought, “why not share some of those awkward, weird, ‘epiphany’ moments?” With “49th Street Stories,” it’s just one person’s New York. As with anything I direct or choreograph, my primary desire is to have the audience forget the performers are not speaking because what they are watching…the characters, relationships, individual moments…all start to fill in and unconsciously create dialogue. As for the show’s future, I have an unrelenting drive to see it produced so I’m pursuing all sorts of creative financial backing options, from grants to individual backers to corporate sponsors. The piece lends itself to a large-scale production to fully experience the whole “mind’s eye of one woman’s New York” quality. I’m batting ideas around with some truly exciting and visionary set and costume designers right now. I want it to be exceptionally appealing both artistically as well as commercially. I want to pay my dancers, pay them well. With what I’m asking of them, they deserve it!
In March 2012, Bronwen choreographed a world-premiere musical, “Jack’s Back”, at The Gloria Maddox Theatre in NYC for which she received a New York Innovative Theatre nomination for Choreography. Tommy Tune’s stated after seeing a performance that “this work, this choreography is entirely new. I’ve never seen this before and it’s the future of musical theatre.”
Over the next few years, Bronwen has seven additional new works lined up including choreography for “The Dragon Play” with Articulate Theatre Company, the continued development of “49th Street Stories”, and a collaboration with TE’A Project. She’s also in the midst of writing a book detailing her methods for training dancers in the craft of acting. www.bronwencarson.com