Acting Professionally in a Rehearsal Studio

The Royal Ballet in rehearsal (Photo: Unknown)
Rehearsal etiquette is one of the many unspoken areas of our silent art form. There is no particular way that each and every rehearsal studio is run. But at the same time, there are general no-no's (and yes-yes') that are taught within the culture of a company as they create, fine-tune, and prepare a work for the stage.

Back a handful of years ago I was working with a pickup company that employed enough dancers to fill a small rehearsal room. In other words, our athletic group of 8 had to get along considering our company's size. A few of us were more seasoned than the others. But one dancer was enjoying the raw, empowering, and often shocking experience of their first job as a professional. Previously, I talked about my experience at my first full-time job with Houston Ballet and how I stepped on dancer's toes without even realizing it. After watching this type of situation from the other side, as a senior dancer, I was taught a lesson in kindness, patience, and humility.

Dancing for a big company is very different than dancing for a small ensemble. In a bigger company, dancers often feel more comfortable being up front (if not, sometimes, mean) when trying to streamline a young dancer into their place in the unique culture of a professional company. If any interaction becomes tense, dancers can retreat into their clique for comfort or hide behind other dancers who are more willing to stand their ground. But in a small company, there is nowhere to hide, very little hierarchy, and everybody has to interact frequently with one another in the studio.

Smuin Ballet in rehearsal (Photo: Chris Hardy)
Back to the occasion of watching this new dancer enter a rehearsal studio without the assimilation that the rest of us dancers had. It was a generally difficult situation to endure. The leadership wasn't very good at running a rehearsal studio and they let the dancers have a bit too much control over what happened. This new dancer became a stressor for other dancers as they were acting in ways that went way beyond the etiquette of most professional environments. Things like actively telling other dancers how to fix their dancing, counting over the choreographer, and regularly interrupting the process to crack jokes became the norm. And while the other dancers with more experience didn't approve of this behavior, the director and ballet mistress chose to allow it to continue.

Now, it is perfectly healthy to run a studio where dancers feel that they are a valuable part of the process, where the environment is light and friendly, and where a dancer feels that they can speak up when they feel that something isn't working properly. But this dancer started to become a distraction and affected the ability of others to work to the best of their abilities. Due to the size of the company, where another more experienced dancer may have talked to their freshly minted colleague, this dancer was left continually breaking "rehearsal-code" for the extent of the gig. This was most likely due to the fact that, in such a small group, everybody knew that a small amount of tension between two dancers would be felt by all.

In this company, many of the dancers looked up to me and respected my work. And for that reason, it was suggested by some that I speak to this dancer to give them an idea of professional rehearsal etiquette. But, as I stated before, I felt it would cause too much tension and that it was actually the responsibility of those in the front of the studio to hone this character in. Looking back, I'm glad I maintained this position. But this is the advice that I would offer that dancer today if I were the person at the front of the studio.

First things first, the way you act in a rehearsal studio as a student is completely different than when you are a professional. Most students who become professionals have reached the top of the hierarchy of a school. Essentially, if the school had a ranking, these dancers are the Principals of the school. In a professional company, a top-level student most often enters at the lowest rank and seniority. In most professional rehearsal setting, Principals have more leeway and freedom in their choices, actions, and vocal interaction than others. Not to say that a new professional can't have a voice or input. But it is the job of an apprentice or first year dancer to sit back and absorb what is happening around them. They don't have equal cultural standing to those higher ranked or more senior dancers. Just like in medieval times, the apprentice to the blacksmith didn't walk in on day one and start working with the iron. It may have taken a long time before the mentor allowed the apprentice to even touch any equipment, let alone lead the creation of a work of art.

My next bit of advice is to keep an open mind about your idea of what a rehearsal should look like. School rehearsals are often much slower paced with more time to retain choreography, fine-tune, and engage in conversation. Many professional environments are much faster-paced and don't open up the room to ask questions or discuss particular material until all of the material is already out. This is to help streamline the process and may even be an effective money-saver. In school, most of the students are paying to dance. In a professional environment, time is money. The longer dancers are in rehearsal, the more they get paid and the more time spent paying for rehearsal space (esp. in freelance or project based gigs that don't have a home studio). There are reasons for professional rehearsal culture that go beyond personalities and people getting along.

Joffrey Ballet in rehearsal (Photo: Lenny Gilmore)
The final idea I'd like to share about rehearsal etiquette is a grey area that is fluid from company to company, but generally recognized in some way or another. I'd like to bring up seniority and respect for dancers with more experience. One of the big issues with this fresh, new dancer was that they felt their presence in the studio was absolutely equal in contribution to the more experienced dancers around them. I'd love to say that this is the perfect ideal, but it was actually one of the most challenging aspects of working with this person. The difficulty laid in looking at them as a person versus their job and position as a dancer. As a person, we all enjoyed this dancer very much and wanted to give them a chance to find their place. But as a dancer, many of us felt disrespected by this person's actions. For instance, a young dancer should never think it is acceptable to offer unwarranted corrections to a more senior dancer. Additionally, taking over a rehearsal space and telling dancers how to count or how your exploration of the process is more correct can be horribly disrespectful and doesn't acknowledge a dancer's wisdom gained from time put in. Whether a young dancer is more naturally talented than a senior dancer doesn't play into the fact that dancers with seniority have spent years fine-tuning their technique, movement, and rehearsal practice. The value in hiring more senior dancers is that they have existed in a professional dance studio much longer than younger dancers. They are brought back to dance for an organization because they have a very keen sense of how to work effectively and professionally in a variety of work environments. Even a dancer with immense talent can not innately understand this. And for this reason, it is extremely important that they take a step back and absorb the culture that experienced dancers project. Because in the end, these senior dancers are not projecting their own idea of the culture. They are projecting the culture that came before them and taught them that culture and so on. You are essentially being taught the cultural history of the company by learning from those who came before you, absorbing it, and then will hopefully pass it on when you aren't the young or new one any more.

As you can see, I shied away from sharing too many specific items about how to act in a studio. This is mostly because each and every studio functions differently and most effectively per the needs of an organization. I don't want any dancer to ever feel completely stifled by trying to fit in to the culture of a dance company's rehearsal process. But if you approach a professional rehearsal studio with respect for those around you and respect for what came before, it will be much easier to acclimate to dancing for a company. And, if you are lucky enough, perhaps, you will have the staying power to become one of those dancers that helps the next generation learn a company's culture from your fine example.

No comments:

Post a Comment