I've been talking to a few dancers recently about how we all prepare for performances. I know what kind of insulated world I operate in during the days leading up to a run, the mindset I get into on the day of a show, and what my own little semi-superstitious habits and rituals are, but I've often wondered how my fellow dancers' lives shift during these times. We get to know each other's habits to some extent (who shows up early for class, who dashes in at the last minute, who warms up in self-imposed isolation, who likes to chat, who wraps themself in multiple layers of warmups, who likes to feel unencumbered by clothing), but for all the exposure of being on stage, it's actually a very private experience for a dancer and we each develop strategies for preparing ourselves to handle that exposure.
I asked Matthew Pippin, who is just finishing up his first season with us at OBT, about his mindset and rituals before performances:
"I would have to say that my mind switches into a mode of being focused before performances because it takes my mind off of my nerves. I am typically not nervous about a performance until about an hour before the show, when I start warming up, putting my makeup on, and reviewing what I have to do over the next two hours. The days before the performance can be very exciting and tiring, especially when our schedule changes and we move from the studio to the theater. In the studio rehearsals we spend hours nit-picking the finest details but as we get to the theater we have to concentrate on our spacing and the logistics of the entire production. It can be difficult if you are in different casts of different parts and often times different ballets because you have the luxury of time in the studio rehearsals to perfect all the various parts that you contribute to the show. But in the theater, time is of the essence, so you have to rely on watching another cast in the same role spacing something first and working out all the kinks and be prepared for your chance on stage before the show. It is a lot of last minute attention to detail but it is always worth finally getting to show an audience what you have been working so hard on in the studio."
Matthew brought up a point I'd thought about, too, which is the stark and almost shocking transition from the "nit-picking" studio rehearsals, when we analyze every step and repeat things over and over in a nice, comfortable, familiar environment, to the one or two stage rehearsals which are focused on spacing and production elements that we have no control over. (That's when all the lighting and spacial challenges that I talked about a while back come into play).
I also asked Matthew about how he approaches an actual performance day to set himself up physically and mentally to get onstage that evening:
"I tend to keep my pre-performance rituals very calm. From the minute I wake up on the day of a performance I try and keep my nerves to a minimum and just approach my day as I would any regular day at work. Waking up and approaching your day with a positive attitude is essential in maintaining a high energy level. We usually get to sleep in a bit on performance days, which is great for me because I am a night person, but before you know it you are taking class on stage. Christopher and Lisa usually schedule rehearsals for things that need to be done and give the dancers the opportunity to request rehearsals if they feel they need a little more time before they present their work. After rehearsals I try and have a nice lunch to give me the energy for the next couple of hours and I always have to go and have a cup of coffee before I return to the theater from my break. I like to warm up a little before the show and at our “half-hour” call I begin putting on my makeup. This usually leaves me about fifteen minutes to go on stage and mentally review what I am about to perform. The America program has changed my routine a little because there are a lot of little details to remember in “Through Eden’s Gates” and I find myself getting ready a little bit earlier as to have more review time before the show. “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” has been a little bit calmer for me because I feel relaxed having already danced one ballet and the nature of “Slaughter” seems to put me at ease."
I think Matthew's routine echoes what a lot of us try to do-- replicate a "normal" day as much as possible to create a calm sense of spirit and prevent over-anxiety. At the same time, there's a little part of your mind that all day long is reminding you of what you are going to do that evening, keeping you somewhat in a heightened state of alert, so to speak. We all try to play it cool, hang loose, joke around with each other, be casual, because we know we're all in the same boat--- AND because it really helps to laugh if you do happen to be anxious about a particular performance. I remember being very young and experiencing stage performing for the first few times with distinct butterflies in my stomach, but then that faded away and for years I never felt the slightest anxiety about performing. Nowadays, it depends on what particular ballet I'm about to do, but there's always a tiny sense of something, a little edge of adrenalin or endorphins or whatever those things are. And of course, from time to time there are the full-fledged butterflies. The neat thing about it all, though, is that the very moment I actually get out of the wings and on stage, that unsettled-ness disappears. There's just too much else to think about!
How'd the first few performances go, Matthew?
"The first shows of the America program were so incredibly fun and rewarding. The audience seems to receive this production very well and I totally have fed off their energy each show. I am so proud of how well everything has gone because we have all been working very hard and this is the most gratifying time of the season for us. I am looking forward to the final performances because they are just such fun ballets where you can let your own personality shine through and find something new each time you dance them. It will certainly be a hard last weekend but well worth all the hard work."
Merde for tonight and the rest of the shows, everyone!