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The Character Dancer: What Makes Him/her Tick?

26 posts in this topic

In another thread -- discussing Massine's choreography -- beck hen made the following point:

QUOTE:

"I think it's a shame that people who might excel at this type of movement are not very encouraged—since everyone is supposed to be an all-rounder, there is not a special niche for the character dancer, and off the top of my head I can't think of anyone at ABT who is that now, though I have enjoyed Victor Barbee, Keith Roberts, Ethan Brown, Kathleen Moore and Sandra Brown in those types of parts in the past."

This seems like a good dicussion topioc on its own. What qualities make a good character dancer? Which dancers do you think have been, are, or have the potential to be the best character dancers?

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The best I ever saw was Gediminas Taranda.

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Taranda's amazing.

But top of my list is Derek Rencher.

Actually, shared honors with Alexander Grant.

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The best I ever saw was Gediminas Taranda.
Same for me.

I think that the most important thing a character dancer can do is either to bring the audience into that character, regardless of the age, ethnic, racial, gender, or other stereotype of the character -- older cuckolded husband, touched son of the landowner, etc. -- and to make the audience react to that character beyond the stereotype, even for the duration of a cameo, or to make the audience too frightened to want to know. Sometimes I think the latter is harder, because it's too easy to go over-the-top and become laughable.

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I never saw Taranda live but he sure is amazing on those Raymonda tapes. I think the Russian companies have an edge here, because they do seem to still have separate niches for character dancers. Best I've ever seen live was the Bolshoi's Yulianna Malkhasiants as the gypsy in Don Quixote. She took the audience along on a totally over the top emotional roller coaster of a solo and made it believable and compelling throughout.

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When I hear the term "character dancer," I tend to think first of roles like Carabosse, Madge, Rothbart, Drosselmeyer, Juliet's nurse, Cinderella's stepsisters, etc., which are often (though not always) performed by older dancers in an advanced stage of their careers.

Do dancers who excel in these roles -- many have been mentioned on Ballet Talk in recent years -- START OUT as character dancers? Or is this something that develops with age, wisdom, stage experience, and sometimes injury?

The careers of Kronstam, Englund, Helpman, even Ashton, seem to offer no single pattern. What about Nicolas Le Riche? Even Nureyev?

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Do dancers who excel in these roles -- many have been mentioned on Ballet Talk in recent years -- START OUT as character dancers? Or is this something that develops with age, wisdom, stage experience, and sometimes injury?
That's an interesting question. I think in some cases anatomy is destiny, i.e., the dancer is just not physically cast into heroic roles. In some ballet companies, there aren't many character roles in the rep. But in the companies where there is/was longevity and a rich tradition of mime and storytelling, like in the Royal Danish Ballet, dancing character roles or being a character dancer is respected and honorable. It's harder to find the role models for character roles when the rep has no story ballets or even to identify talent.

Last year, PNB produced The Merry Widow. In it there is the role of the Bossy American at the cafe, which is a relatively small character part. Having only seen former Principal Character Dancer Viktoria Pulkinnen (sp?) in roles like Juliet's nurse, where she is padded, I had no idea what she looked like in person, and I assumed that it was she who was playing the Bossy American. It turned out to be a young corps dancers, Kari Brunson, who was fantastic in the role. In a post-performance Q&A after the Valentine program, Peter Boal mentioned that her striking impression in the role made him think that she had a dramatic talent that was underutilized, one of the reasons he thought of casting her in Susan Marshall's Kiss. Without that opportunity to do a character role, this might have gone unnoticed.

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And beyond acting, which is also important of course, there's the difficulty of getting dancers today to dance national dances with any sort of style or panache. It's really hard work getting elegance, relish, GUSTO without going into excesses. "No, no, just because the score says pesante doesn't mean do it like actual peasants. You are trained dancers!"

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I'm not very familiar with the classical repertory, but to go back to a previous thread, I remember the (late) young, delightful Edward Stierle as Alain in FILLE. He had it all -- technique, acting ability, musicality, charm, lack of self-consciousness and understanding. And more. A wonderful memory. A sad loss.

Edited by ViolinConcerto

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Do dancers who excel in these roles -- many have been mentioned on Ballet Talk in recent years -- START OUT as character dancers? Or is this something that develops with age, wisdom, stage experience, and sometimes injury?
Often the latter, but Hagar was one of the first roles Kathleen Moore did -- and she did it brilliantly from the first.

Perhaps we (and artistic directors?) tend to think of Character Dancers as those relegated to that category because they lack the qualifications for Classical Dancers. But when I see a truly great performance of a character role, what strikes me first is the dancer's intelligence.

I would add Elaine Kudo to the list of dancers who excelled in character roles. I still miss her in Czardas in Swan Lake Act III.

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elena sherstneva (if i've spelled that even remotely correctly) was incredible.

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Carbro, I have to agree with you. Your comment made me think of "neoclassical" dancers who're not thought as character dancers who've been fabulous in character roles--Patricia McBride in Coppellia, where she amped UP the character aspects of the role. She certainly brought out the character elements in Tarantella, also -- but then Suzanne Farrell made BIG hay out of the Hungarian stuff in her section of Brahms Schoenberg, and was quite a gypsy in Tzigane -- all of it with intelligence.

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You can add Suzanne Farrell bringing a strong Polish accent to Diamonds, too, which was terrific fun!

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You can add Suzanne Farrell bringing a strong Polish accent to Diamonds...

Having loved Suzanne above all others in Diamonds (but you could replace Diamonds by the name of anything else she ever did and the statement would remain true...), I wonder if you could explain exactly what the Polish accent was.

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I wonder if you could explain exactly what the Polish accent was.
It came through mostly in the last movement, emphasis on downward movements of the legs, on folding the arms akimbo. There are suggestions of ethnic dancing in the choreography; the ballerina can take either a classical or character approach, and I haven't seen anyone stress them the way Farrell sometimes did.

Then there were the other times, when she took the classical approach.

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Another designation, and probably much more appropriate than "character dancer", is Principal actor-mime-dancer. I'm thinking of dancers like the Saddler's Wells and Royal Ballet's Franklin White who was well-known in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s for roles such as Dr. Coppelius and "Kostchei" in Fokine's Firebird among many other appearances in mime roles in Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, etc.

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Character Dance or the term Character Dancers, as they perform, in the West, cannot be compared to those Dancers from the Bolshoi or Kirov companies who specialise in these roles within classical Ballets and other modern productionds that include this element of dance.

unlike in our repertoire when the dancers perform dual roles, classical and character, in Eastern culture, the dancers are two totally sister, different groups, each trained completely separately, one style never crossing over to the other. The classical ballet dancer wears pointe or flat shoes, but her character associate only will wear boots or shoes, never dancing on pointe.In the former companies each have equal status, and are considered to be as good as each other

The training is as thorough as a classical ballet course. with Tutors and Coaches being former renouned Character Dancers themselves.. who pass their wisdom and experience on to their pupils. :clapping:

However, there does seem to have originated a confusion in the difference between character dance, and National dance.To differentiate I will try and suggest some comparisons, a person playing a character such as Von Rothbart in Swan Lake, or Bottom in Midsummers Night Dream, the Pasha in Le Corsair, Severyan the Bailiff in The Stone Flower, the Miller and his Wife in Le Tricorne, these are Character Roles, Czardaz, Marzurka, Neopolitan Dance, Spanish Dance from Act 3 Swan Lake, Jobo from Le Cid, are in fact National Dances, but to confuse the situation even more, the Wonderful Gypsy Dances in the Stone Flower, the Pirates dance in Le Corsair are Character Dances. People =character, places = National

This brings up the subject of retaining the original choreography in revised productions of the tradional classical ballets, sadly a lot of the formerl steps have been changed to its detterement. A lotof Nureyev's work has failed here, in the most recent DVD released by POB of his Swan Lake,

you can see the degree to which the original Nationale dances have suffered. I am not a a supporter of Nureyev as a choreoghrapher, most of his productions are messy full of too many steps, without clean lines or breathing space for the Dancers every note is filled with a step, apparently some of the POB dancers are not keen on his work, When it comes to Act 3 and the National Dances, they leave a lot to be desired, in fact they are not in character at all. The steps are performed in a balletic way, much to high in the air, and some elements of the choreogaphy represent a ballet solo or group, with the men jumping about, as if in a virtuoiso movemnet instead of in a controlled down to earth, stylish manner.

Sadly there is no defination between ballet and national style.

Considering Nureyev's first experience in dance, was in a local club, where he learnt Russian folk dance, I am very disapoint ed by his reproduction of these great traditions. I am not against moderning and bringing Ballets up to date, such as John NeumanuerSylvia, and

Sasha Waltz's Romeo & Juliette, but please let the originals retain their history .

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Of course, this thread cannot stand without an extremely favorable notice of Shaun O'Brien, who enlivened many a NYCB performance. I was under the impression that he was strictly an actor/mime until I saw him in Jacques d'Amboise's "The Chase", where, as the Duke, he danced classically for several phrases. Later, his elderly suitor in "Harlequinade" nearly made my cousin strangle with laughter as O'Brien serenaded Columbine. "This is ridiculous!" "Of course! It's supposed to be!" Dying is easy, comedy, now that's hard!

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However, there does seem to have originated a confusion in the difference between character dance, and National dance.

Thank you, Nanarina, for reviving this thread. An important distinction.

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And I can't let any extremely favorable reference to Shaun O'Brien pass without seconding it. Mel's post reminded me that in the days when the NYCB Guild trip to Saratoga Springs sometimes included a visit to Shaun's home, he told my wife and me of a party he'd recently given for the company, at which Peter Martins had seen an old photo of Shaun and remarked, "I didn't know you were a classical dancer." Recalling the incident, Shaun simply shook his head. He apparently had taken great pride in his classical technique.

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Balanchine himself was great in character parts -- as Drosselmeyer he was wonderful, and as Don QUixote he was incredibly great.

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Shaun O'Brien's Drosselmeyer was wonderful, too.

By the way, there's a photo of Balanchine asDrosselmeyer, sitting on the grandfather's clock, in Repertory in Review, p. 154. (There's also a photo of the original NYCB Drossselmeyer, Michael Arshansky, looking remarkably like George Arlliss's Benjamin Disraeli in the old film.)

When it comes to Act 3 and the National Dances, they leave a lot to be desired, in fact they are not in character at all. The steps are performed in a balletic way, much to high in the air, and some elements of the choreogaphy represent a ballet solo or group, with the men jumping about, as if in a virtuoiso movemnet instead of in a controlled down to earth, stylish manner.

Sadly there is no defination between ballet and national style.

Thank you, nanarina, for that insight about the Nureyev Swan Lake, Act III. It's very helpful indeed, and I will be getting out my dvd of this and some Russian versions to compare. And ... welcome to Ballet Talk!

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Shaun O'Brien's Drosselmeyer was wonderful, too.

By the way, there's a photo of Balanchine asDrosselmeyer, sitting on the grandfather's clock, in Repertory in Review, p. 154. (There's also a photo of the original NYCB Drossselmeyer, Michael Arshansky, looking remarkably like George Arlliss's Benjamin Disraeli in the old film.)

When it comes to Act 3 and the National Dances, they leave a lot to be desired, in fact they are not in character at all. The steps are performed in a balletic way, much to high in the air, and some elements of the choreogaphy represent a ballet solo or group, with the men jumping about, as if in a virtuoiso movemnet instead of in a controlled down to earth, stylish manner.

Sadly there is no defination between ballet and national style.

Thank you, nanarina, for that insight about the Nureyev Swan Lake, Act III. It's very helpful indeed, and I will be getting out my dvd of this and some Russian versions to compare. And ... welcome to Ballet Talk!

Hello. When you compare the DVD, the one of POB I mention is the Letescu/Martinez, if you look at the National Dances, The Spanish is knid of reasonable and Jeremmy Belingard in the Neopolitan, but the others are full of high jumps, and danced en le air. I was disapointed and it made me cross !!! (silly woman) perhaps I am too critical, and take it too seriously, but truthfully it really matters to me. In Act 1 - well, the Sujet is not even there, only the same music. To compare look at the Kirov DVD Julia Makhalina & Igor Zaelensky, Good Luck. Nanarina :thumbsup:

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Balanchine himself was great in character parts -- as Drosselmeyer he was wonderful, and as Don QUixote he was incredibly great.

Hi Paul: :thumbsup:

George Balanchine, what a wonderful talented artistic man, I love his work, all the charming Ballet's he created for New York City Ballet, and previously his association with Ballet Russe, have you seen the recent DVD, about their history, it is most interesting, and he is mentioned in it.

I am not surprised he excelled in character roles.

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Shaun O'Brien's Drosselmeyer was wonderful, too.

By the way, there's a photo of Balanchine asDrosselmeyer, sitting on the grandfather's clock, in Repertory in Review, p. 154. (There's also a photo of the original NYCB Drossselmeyer, Michael Arshansky, looking remarkably like George Arlliss's Benjamin Disraeli in the old film.)

When it comes to Act 3 and the National Dances, they leave a lot to be desired, in fact they are not in character at all. The steps are performed in a balletic way, much to high in the air, and some elements of the choreogaphy represent a ballet solo or group, with the men jumping about, as if in a virtuoiso movemnet instead of in a controlled down to earth, stylish manner.

Sadly there is no defination between ballet and national style.

Thank you, nanarina, for that insight about the Nureyev Swan Lake, Act III. It's very helpful indeed, and I will be getting out my dvd of this and some Russian versions to compare. And ... welcome to Ballet Talk!

bart :thumbsup:

I do not know Shaun O'brien, unless he was the dancer who played Kitri's suitor, in ABT Don Q,(Cynthia Harvery/Barish.) that guy was very good, excellent technique as well as being very amusing. If it was not Shaun O'B. do you know who it was please? Nanarina

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