innopac

Use of the eyes

29 posts in this topic

In her biography of Ashton Julie Kavanagh quotes him as saying: "Dancers today don't understand what eyes are for, he would complain. "With your eyes properly used, you can distract everybody from your technique. You draw the public to you through your eyes'"....

Could someone elaborate? I am not quite sure what he wanted the dancers to do. How would you teach someone this?

Share this post


Link to post

The great Margot Fonteyn, I believe, is a perfect example of what Sir Fred was looking for in a dancer,who uses their eyes to draw you in. Her Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella especially come to mind. I don't know if this can be taught. With Margot it seemed very natural,not as though she had been coached to focus her eyes a certain way. This is difficult to explain- I had the good fortune to see her close up, as she guested with us in Washington DC, quite often.

Share this post


Link to post

It can be taught--after all, actors must learn to use their eyes. However, dancers don't often pay much attention to the eyes these days, thinking that if they have their arms and head right, that's all they need to do. When Mary Day coached me for a role in her Nutcracker, she was very specific about what the eyes should be doing. It's amazing how much one can communicate without using words, but the whole body, especially the face, must be involved. I often think people don't give the art of ballet enough credit in this area.

Share this post


Link to post

My contribution probably doesn't belong in a discussion about the use of the eyes artistically in performance, but I just wondered why Svetlana Zakharova looks directly to camera in 'The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky'. I dare say it's of little consequence with regard to the artistic merits of her performance, but I just wondered why she, or any other dancer, would do that.

Share this post


Link to post

Violette Verdy in Emeralds used her eyes to wonderful effect; in the opening of her solo they followed the movements of her arms...hands...fingers, but did so with such expressiveness and immediacy that they didn't so much direct you to the arms etc. but seemed to dance along with them.

Share this post


Link to post

Innopac, one thing I recall in particular was that during the mime in Act II, I had to point to the edge of the stage as if tracing the path of something running across it, then run and jump in imitation of a large, frightening rat. Miss Day wanted me to really "see" the rat running across the stage, using not just my hand to show where it was going, but my eyes as well--in fact, I received the impression that the eyes were really the more important part of it, and the hand gesture was secondary.

That's a rather simplistic example, but it leaps to mind readily and is easy to describe. Little details like that were so important to her, and they really made the ballet come alive. I also remember that we worked on the party scene quite a bit; in fact it felt as if we rehearsed that more than anything else! Even though it involves no technical dancing, all those little interactions between people are what create the atmosphere of the ballet and set the rest of the events in motion, and I still consider her staging of that scene to be the best. It was so lively and warm--like a real Christmas party.

Share this post


Link to post

A fairly obviouse place where use of the eyes becomes important is when Siegfried runs after the swans, following their flight with his hand and eyes. Some dancers are content to let the hand do the work, but others really see the swans, so much that you want to glance behind you to see them yourself!

And in Giselle, of course, the mad scene is where a dancer who uses the eyes stands out. I'll never forget seeing a picture of Ulanova, I'm sure you all know it, where she's crouching fairly near the front of the sateg, busy plucking the imaginary flower. Her hair isn't disarranged, her body isn't spastic and wild, but I knew, from seeing the lost, bewildered eyes that the girl had lost it. Later, when I saw her in Giselle on film for the first time, my impression from the photo was confirmed.

Share this post


Link to post

Thank you so much, Hans. One of the pleasures of BT for me is getting to hear about the ballet experiences of others.

I recently heard that a contemporary dance teacher was telling his students not to freeze their gaze -- perhaps the focus of the eyes helps generate energy.

And after writing the above I found this on your blog!

"The energy in the spine and focus of the eyes keeps the dancer "alive" even when not visibly in motion."

Share this post


Link to post

I haven't read this in a long time, and someone more familiar with the story may have more (and/or more correct details), but in Suzanne Farrell's memoir "Holding on to the Air", she describes being taken, maybe by Balanchine, to a burlesque or cabaret performance. She watched one performer who looked down -- her description might have been that she looked "bored" -- until she raised her eyes. Farrell said that she stored that one to use sometime for herself. I think it was in "Union Jack" that she did: in the first section, she used to lead her regiment eyes down, until she got downstage and lifted them, to great effect.

Share this post


Link to post
A fairly obviouse place where use of the eyes becomes important is when Siegfried runs after the swans, following their flight with his hand and eyes. Some dancers are content to let the hand do the work, but others really see the swans, so much that you want to glance behind you to see them yourself!

Anthony Dowell made this moment one of the highlights of his Siegfried -- precisely through the wonder and longing in his gaze as he looked across the sky. One totally 'felt' he was seeing--and fully experiencing the sight of--the swans.

In a review of Dowell in Sleeping Beauty, Arlene Croce wrote something to the effect that in the Vision scene he was one of the few dancers who created the illusion that he really was having a vision of Aurora appearing and disappearing rather than just playing hide and seek with the corps de ballet. I imagine his eyes must have been fully integrated into his gestures there as well.

Share this post


Link to post

In Sleeping Beauty, during the dream sequence when the Lilac Fairy "shows" Aurora to the Prince and he "dances" with her, her eyes help make the illusion work. Because Aurora is not really there, she cannot look at the Prince or take her gaze anywhere, for that matter. Her eyes should be somewhat glazed, of fixed, as her movements in the pas de deux should be surreal. Because he is physically there, Prince Desiré can show desire and/or love in his face and eyes. Aurora cannot respond in kind.

Share this post


Link to post

Drew, you took the words right out of my mouth. Anthony Dowell used his eyes jsut a s you say. He showed you what he was THINKING.

In the little Youtube clip of him teaching (with Antoinette Sibley) the mime scene from Sean Lake, Act 2, he explicitly instructs the new Siegfried to "think" -- she's just told you, this whole lake is ... her mother's TEARS(?)" you approach it, then look back at her...And you really believe in him - -this is a stretch, even for a character in a fairy tale.... and somehow (at least for me) that sealed it, he had my faith, I believed in him, as he believed in her.....

Share this post


Link to post

The expression in a persons eyes comes from within, some people have it but others do not. Even in everyday life this happens, just look at two people who are in love, they seem to have a "certain" look in their eyes when they gaze at each other. It is connected with thoughts and expression. To train someone to "use their eyes" is not as simple as it may seem It is a lot deeper than just making the actions, it must be fixed in their thoughts as well, which takes concentration and is another element of performing. :wub:

Share this post


Link to post

The choreographer Antony Tudor tells a story about creating the lead role of Shadowplay on Anthony Dowell. (One caveat: I read this some years ago...)

He instructed Dowell to turn upstage and look up towards a tree (not literally there of course in the studio!)--he then asked Dowell what kind of tree it was. Dowell, understandably, had no idea and was evidently waiting for Tudor to tell him. But Tudor stopped the rehearsal because, as he remarked, if Dowell didn't know what kind of tree it was, there was no point in continuing ... The next day on the way into the studio Tudor saw a gorgeous mango in a market and bought it. When the same moment in rehearsal came and he told Dowell to turn around and look up at the tree, then had Dowell put his hands behind his back and handed him the mango. Dowell then looked at the fruit quite amazed and delighted and asked Tudor what it was--Tudor told him (a mango) and then when they did the 'tree' moment and Tudor asked him about the tree, Dowell volunteered "it's a mango tree"-- Tudor felt that in this way, at last the tree was "real" to Dowell...

Tudor's process seems a pretty elaborate way (method-like) way of getting Dowell to really "live" that moment authentically; but I infer he wanted Dowell's imaginative investment in the gesture of looking at a tree and felt that if he simply told him "you are looking up at a beautiful mango tree: the fruits are luscious and glowing" he would just have gotten a generic ballet-look-of-wonder moment. I can't testify if all this was really necessary; I can say I loved Dowell in Shadowplay. (I have often wished ABT would revive the ballet for Stiefel -- and they certainly have plenty of other fine men to alternate in the lead role. Hallberg might also do it now.)

Anyway, the story certainly confirms Nanarina's point about the use of the eyes being something that also comes "from within."

Share this post


Link to post

This is a fascinating topic, and one that is rarely addressed in ballet literature. For some reason, what I have tended to think of as "deadness of upper face" is one of the things that bothers me most in dancers, especially when accompanied by a big smile.

Alistair Macaulay's review of American Ballet theater's performance of "Birthday Offering" gives a wonderful example. (NY Times, 1/28/10). He is referring to Gillian Murphy on the Margot Fonteyn role:

The prima role is one of many in which Ms. Murphy shows the glory of her potential but bars us from cherishing it, by dancing with her eyelids lowered; the use of the eyes is never more essential than in Fonteyn roles. If only Ms. Murphy could greet her audience, the sparkling expansiveness of her dancing would be consistently thrilling.
Focusing on Macaulay's general point about the power of EYES (and not necessarily about whether everyone agrees with his assessment of Murphy in particular) I have a couple of questions:

Can use of eyes be taught?

Or is this something that is deeply embedded in personality -- or physiognomy -- and therefore resistant to change?

Share this post


Link to post
:) Hi Bart, "can the use of the eyes be taught? Yes in the course of instruction , for emaple, look left, or right up or down, look at something, in the physical sense. Look hurt or happy, be angry.To express mood. But true feelings come from within, or come from the persons soul. They are the reflection in the eyes of what is being felt. It is a natural phenomin and I do not think that can be taught. Some people show this in their facial expression, imagine eating something tasting aweful,the persons distaste comes out in the face they altermatically pull.Again this can vary from person to person. It is not taught but just happens.

Share this post


Link to post

It can be taught, but it requires much more in-depth instruction than "look this way," which is about all you'll hear from a ballet master/mistress. I wish I knew enough about it to talk about some of the techniques used--an acting teacher would have a lot more information.

By the way, this might be a good time to address something that comes up when dancers talk about acting. They frequently speak as if acting is putting on some sort of fake emotion, being somehow disingenuous to the audience, or merely "expressing a mood" as Nanarina puts it. In one of PNB's videos on Youtube about Romeo & Juliet, Carla Korbes mentions that when she dances Juliet, it "doesn't feel like acting," and that is what GOOD acting is. One of my favourite quotes is "Acting is not lying. It is telling the greatest truth." I think more dancers and artistic directors need to understand that. It is not a coincidence that Gelsey Kirkland gave gorgeous, moving performances and worked with an acting coach--more dancers ought to do the same.

Share this post


Link to post
:thumbsup: How can you teach a look in someones eyes? Unless of course it takes the coach or choreographer to traet the person in the manner they wish to achieve in performance, so there thoughts return to that experience. Even to simply draw out the emotion it seems very unkind or unacceptable to treat someone like this for artistic reward. What I mean is to hurt them, to make them look hurt. Though it probably does happen.

Share this post


Link to post

No, that is not how it is done. I have a number of friends who are actors; I will ask them for specifics.

Share this post


Link to post

I have asked a few actor friends what they think, and here are their replies:

Stage presence is a tricky thing--sometimes it's hard to stay focused and "connected," but it's wrong to say that some just do not have it. Sometimes charisma, acting, and using your eyes comes very naturally to people, but when it doesn't, there are techniques and exercises that can teach someone how to interact and tell a story more effectively onstage...otherwise why would we have actor training courses at all?
They have to empathize what the character would feel like in a given situation...
There's a difference between indicating and acting. If you were a real person, describing a scenario or interacting with another human being, you would be mentally/emotionally engaged with both the memory you are describing and the person you are describing it too. Part of how we communicate with others is through our eyes. Even lecturers are told to make eye contact with the audience to engage them. Not that dancers should look at the audience, but having thought/emotion at play, especially when interacting with other dancers (their fellow actors) is so key. Sometimes I talk about hating watching actors act "at" rather than "with" one another, and this is part of it too. You have to engage both with the story and others onstage, as well as with what you are doing physically.

If actors and dancers don't believe the story they are telling, how can they expect their audiences to believe it too? Dancers are storytellers, even when they're not performing in a story ballet. Dance can tell stories of many kinds, but a story falls flat if it's not told in a heartfelt and generous way.

That last paragraph brings to mind Balanchine's famous line: "How much story you want?"

I will go ahead and say that I think the attitude that some people just "have it" and some people don't when it comes to using the eyes or acting may be part of why dancers are so inexpressive today. After all, if a ballet master thinks acting ability is something one either has or doesn't have, why bother to try to teach it or draw it out? But really good acting (not just indicating or mugging, which is what most dancers do) is just as much a technique as ballet, with many exercises to develop and focus one's ability. One wouldn't just bring in someone from the street and say "Dance!" and then, when that person failed to do multiple pirouettes, &c, say, "Well, s/he just doesn't 'have it'." But that is what is routinely done to dancers. They've never acted before, just worked on doing their steps correctly and perhaps learned some variations in which they were told "put your head here; make sure your arm is there; really push down into the plié" and then they get into a company, and suddenly they are expected to know how to create a character, an atmosphere, show what is happening and what they're thinking/feeling nonverbally, "see" things that aren't there, &c. And then if they don't magically "just do it" after perhaps a few rehearsals that barely scratch the surface of what goes into good acting, they're labeled as "doesn't have it" and so they never learn.

Even a dancer to whom acting does come naturally probably won't have the opportunity to use his/her abilities fully because of the simple, flat way in which ballet characters are frequently staged. Peter Martins didn't like performing Siegfried because he didn't get to dance until Act III. When an artistic director thinks that way, what chance does a dancer have?

Share this post


Link to post

Are there any recommendations for a useful book for dancers on this topic?

Share this post


Link to post
Even to simply draw out the emotion it seems very unkind or unacceptable to treat someone like this for artistic reward. What I mean is to hurt them, to make them look hurt. Though it probably does happen.

Maybe a decade ago I saw a fluff piece on soap opera actors, and the interviewer asked a bunch of them something to the effect of "What do you think about to get the reaction to the news that your late husband is now alive, or your baby has been switched?"

And they said that they think, "Did I leave the oven on?"

The end of the segment was a bunch of reaction shots with a dramatic voice-over asking, "Did I leave the oven on?"

Share this post


Link to post
Even a dancer to whom acting does come naturally probably won't have the opportunity to use his/her abilities fully because of the simple, flat way in which ballet characters are frequently staged. Peter Martins didn't like performing Siegfried because he didn't get to dance until Act III. When an artistic director thinks that way, what chance does a dancer have?

I wonder if he's changed his attitude now that he's choreographed three story ballets and kept them in the repertory. In any case, Maria Kowroski says in the latest danceview that she has been taking acting lessons

for the past year or so [. . .] I love dramatic roles and I thought it would stretch me as a dancer to study it formally, and also who knows where it might lead in my career.

Share this post


Link to post
Even a dancer to whom acting does come naturally probably won't have the opportunity to use his/her abilities fully because of the simple, flat way in which ballet characters are frequently staged. Peter Martins didn't like performing Siegfried because he didn't get to dance until Act III. When an artistic director thinks that way, what chance does a dancer have?

I wonder if he's changed his attitude now that he's choreographed three story ballets and kept them in the repertory. In any case, Maria Kowroski says in the latest danceview that she has been taking acting lessons

for the past year or so [. . .] I love dramatic roles and I thought it would stretch me as a dancer to study it formally, and also who knows where it might lead in my career.

Where did it lead kfw, or is it too early to say?

Share this post


Link to post