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Dancing memory lapses in performance

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I have little experience of ballet performances, but have witnessed occasions of either memory lapse or mental block with musicians, one being in the concert hall, and the other one a broadcast recital, in which the great Vlado Perlemuter couldn't get his first piece going - one of the moderately difficult Chopin Mazurkas.

I imagine that this sort of catastrophe must have befallen dancers from time to time, and I am wondering how they might deal with such an event. Laurence Olivier, on forgetting lines of Shakespeare, would launch into a sort of Shakesperean 'word salad', and few in the audience would be any the wiser! I suspect it is not quite so easy for a dancer. Having said that, how do dancers improvise or ad lib their way out of tight spots? I imagine the main problem would be for ones partner. Are young dancers encouraged to extemporise as part of their training?

Maybe members have had their own such horrendous moments, or can tell me of classic instances of this happening.

These are my first questions, and I'm feeling very nervous about posting them!

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Dancers have muscle memory, so their bodies usually know what to do - if well-rehearsed. With atonal music, such as what Balanchine and others have used, there is counting that has to be done, but it's not forgetting the steps that would be the problem. Rather, it would be messing up the count.

Still, there are events which require improvisation, some of them even lapses in memory. Not all dancers learn the same way, nor have the same capacity for memorization of steps while learning. Some, famously - John Clifford comes to mind - only need to see something once, even impossibly long sequences, and they know it from there on out. Others take longer to get the movement into their bodies. By performance time, the dance is second nature, again with exceptions. The New York City Ballet, for example, has, at least in the past (I don't know about now, but I suppose it's the same), put dancers into a role at the last minute and they rely on their fellow dancers to talk them through the choreography onstage.

But I was going to say when I began the preceding paragraph that there are other events which require on the spot adjustments. At the Erik Bruhn Competition a couple of years ago, Tina Pereira's partner injured himself during a pas de deux and had to be helped offstage. Tina kept on dancing, right through the rest of the pas, through her partner's variation, and ended with a long series of turns that she devised when faced with the situation of all eyes on her and the music playing. She won the competition, partly, I'm convinced, for her chutzpah.

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I am writing this as an audience member (I know nothing technical about dance). I once saw the dancer performing Tatiana in Onegin completely lose the plot in the Mirror pdd (ENB at the London Coliseum). I saw the look of panic cross her face as she seemed to realise she did not know what to do next. Her partner (Canadian dancer Paul Chalmers) guided her so skillfully to the end of the pdd that if you had not known the work you would never have realised something was amiss. Well done to him!

At a performance of David Bintley's Seasons (Spring) the male partner was injured and Ambra Vallo did the coda on her own. Again, if you hadn't prior knowledge of the piece you never would have realised something was wrong.

I'm sure most audience members (including me) must see dancers having "memory lapses" without ever realising what has happened unless they are very well acquainted with the work.

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Dancers have muscle memory, so their bodies usually know what to do - if well-rehearsed.

Thank you Marga for your excellent, insightful, and incredibly prompt response. I see exactly what you mean about muscle memory. However, I think I shall probably persist a little longer with my admiration for dancers' astonishing capacity to remember it all! It's fine for me here at home educating my fingers to do the right things on the piano, for example, but up there on the boards, with so much going on around one, like other dancers not getting it right, I marvel at the sheer professionalism I see before me. Dancing is such an incredibly dynamic activity, involving such terrific leaps of faith, and literally so at times. Dancers seem to be tested in performance to a much greater extent than in other artistic disciplines. As a beginner, I'm just enjoying so much marvelling at the obvious risk-taking demands of ballet. I think every dancer has chutzpah!

I don't want to drift off-topic, but you mention of dancing to atonal music intrigues me. It's got me wondering how dancers cope with music they may very well not even like. That must surely make it much harder to 'get it all right', not to mention turning in a convincing performance. Professionalism again, I suppose. I can feel other questions coming on, so I'd better stop while I'm ahead!

Thank you again for your, if I may say so, beautifully composed reply. It's been a great experience to have received such a valuable insight into ballet from one with such obvious authority on the subject.

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The funniest lapse I ever experienced came in a performance of Paul Taylor's Mercuric Tidings with Pittsburgh Ballet. For those of you who don't know the ballet, let's just say it's frenetic--most of the fast sections of the dance include several small groups of dancers doing lots of different things simultaneously, then running around and regrouping, etc. At one point, me and another guy were supposed to rush up to a standing woman, pick her up by a shoulder and an ankle (me on her left, he on her right), lift and turn her upside down and then return her standing (then all rush off to do something else). Well, I got to her and just blanked out and completely froze up, and there was no way the other guy could do the lift by himself. The woman was always a little scared by this lift--to prepare for it she crossed her arms, stiffened up, held her breath, and closed her eyes--so the awkward little tableau that my forgetfulness inadvertently created included her looking kind of like a terrified mummy as she braced herself for the awkward lift that never happened, the other guy grabbing a shoulder and an ankle for no discernible purpose. We all just shrugged it off and moved on!

To be fair, I was an understudy!

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Thank you for your interesting perspective on this, JMcN. I too think it must happen more often than we are aware of, and it's a real tribute to dancers that we're not aware. My interest in this is not at all gratuitous, but simply out of admiration for people who dedicate themselves to such an outrageously difficult art form so courageously. I'm not a dancer, nor ever could have been, so it's only natural to consider how dancers cope with those occasional moments which I can so very well relate to. I know that I could never have acquired that balance of total involvement with the job in hand while at the same time maintaining the correct level of detachment from those things likely to cause lapses of concentration. I was once told, with regard to acting, that if I took a moments actual interest in what the other person was saying, I'd be a goner. I didn't become an actor! No, I think dancers are the "bees knees" because they are so finely balanced in that way. Hats off to them. :off topic:

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Dancers are usually very good at handling the unexpected on stage. I have seen dancers carry on when their music stopped unexpectedly, when their partner was injured, when costume disasters occur and a host of other problems. And dancers do usually have very good memories for the choreography. In adition to muscle memory, he musical cues help a lot (and of course, I like to think that dancers are just smarter than average :off topic: ). Also, most dancers can improvise so beautifully - even with a partner - that you'd never guess if you didn't know the choreography beforehand. Sometimes the moment of shock on the face gives it away, but dancers are so trained not to show stress, pain or shock that they can usually hide it very well.

I can't recall ever seeing a professional dancer loose the choreography completely (students, yes). I have admired how they handled a host of other situations, though. I remember once seeing Alexandrova in a gala in South Africa. As she did her supported pirouettes, a very large pearl flew off her costume and landed in the centre front of the stage, right where the next dancer doing en menage turns was sure to slip on it. When she took her bow, she moved towards the pearl, sunk into a deep curtsey, picked it up and flicked it away to the edge of the stage as she recovered.

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