- Jennifer Milner
How to Act Like a Star
You stand in front of a mirror with a hairbrush, practicing your Nobel Peace Prize/Tony/Dance Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. You search out the right way to tilt your head, smile modestly, allow some amusing bon mot to trip effortlessly off the tongue as all the reporters laugh, enchanted. You practice getting that “spontaneous” twinkle in your eye until it’s at your command, at which point you put down the hairbrush, satisfied you’ll be ready when Fame comes knocking.
Crystal-clear super-stardom aura? Ability to be instantly recognizable while looking as if you’d like desperately to stay incognito? Check and check.
You are soooo ready to be a star.
But as important as it is to have that big speech ready, there’s a wee bit more to acting like a star. And Nutcracker season may offer you a great chance to practice your sparkle.
Perhaps you’ve been cast as your school’s Clara. Maybe you’ve been brought into a small company to dance Sugarplum as your first post-graduation gig. Possibly you’re dancing in your thousandth Nutcracker, but in your first big company. And while it’s just another Snow scene, you know you’ll be sprinkling the stage with a lot of PDs or senior students.
The point is, there are lots of different ways to look at stardom - it just depends on your point of view. Regardless of where you’re standing, though, if someone’s in a position underneath you, it’s time to act like a star. And while some details may vary (one icon may demand only purple M&Ms, while another might insist on complete silence from the cast any time she walks past), there are a few character traits all true stars have in common - and it’s never too soon to start shimmering.
Memorize everyone’s name My 12-year-old was recently asked to step in as Fritz in her local production of Nuctracker. Her first act after hearing the news was to grab the cast list and start memorizing the name of every Friend of Fritz. She recognized those little boys would be nervous around her (as a nearly-teenager, on pointe for ONE YEAR dancer, she will surely be very intimidating!) and wanted to do what she could to make them comfortable.
This sounds like a small thing, but every famous person I’ve worked with has known the name of each person in the cast by the second rehearsal. It makes the back-line hoofers feel just as important as the second lead, which is no small task. Imagine how you’d feel if Misty Copeland came to guest at your Nutcracker and turned to you during staging and said, “Hey, Marci (let’s say your name is Marci!) - where’s the closest resin box to the stage?” You would faint, and then get up and tell her where the resin box is, and then tell everyone how Misty Copeland KNEW YOUR NAME.
Now, if you’re traveling to do six different guest artist weekends in six different productions, no one expects you to memorize all 250 names of aaaalll the kids in each production. But learning the names of the Diverts and Snow Queen and maybe, hey, your partner? That’s doable. And if you’re the only bona fide corps member in Snow who can call the PDs by name? You will be remembered as the cool corps member, not the snotty one.
Don’t forget all the non-dancers While we’re memorizing a few names, don’t forget all the non-dancers in the production. Stagehands literally hold your life in their hands - would it kill you to smile and say “thank you” after they’ve mopped the floor for the fourth time that day? I spent a couple years traveling with a big show and one night in a new city, I smiled to stagehand and thanked him for paging my curtain for me. “Oh, I heard about you,” he said.
Apparently, union stagehands talk, and word moves forward faster than your bourrees. As a daughter of a techie, I was relieved to learn that I had a reputation for being nice to the stagehands, and consistently hitting my follow spot marks.
Bring the security guy his favorite coffee. Tell the volunteer stage mom “thank you” for sewing your busted bodice strap in the wings. Stagehands, wardrobe, dressing-room moms, security - treat these people like the valuable assets they are, and they will practically see you shine with your stardom.
Make time for the younger dancers No matter how old you are or where you are on your company’s totem pole, since you’re able to read this thing I’m pretty sure there’s someone younger than you in the cast. Always be patient and have a smile for the little Cherubs or Sugarplum Fairy Attendants or Rats, and if they come to you with a question or shy smile, give them a moment of your time. If you’re Clara, you won’t win any more admirers by keeping to yourself during the party scene and refusing to hang out with the lower levels backstage. Trust me.
Tiler Peck has guested with some companies I work with and the one thing I hear over and over again is how gracious she is with the dancers. She answers questions, jokes with the Flower corps, and poses for endless pictures. If you are brought in as a guest artist, understand that one of the reasons they are bringing you in is to give the students someone to emulate. Access to you - at least a few photos backstage and some chatting time - is understood to be part of the gig. The five minutes you spend commiserating with some 13-year-old over blisters will be replayed in her head for the rest of her year, I promise.
Remember someone is always listening - and watching Standing in the wings waiting to go on? You’ve got five Snowflakes lined up behind you to hear you grouch about the local partner they dug up for you. Party scene rehearsal at a standstill while the choreographer works patiently with the party parents? Half a dozen Friend of Clara are waiting to see how Clara spends her downtime: will you flop on the floor and complain? Start telling jokes? Or stand quietly and wait for your cue to dance?
Set an example backstage. I am begging you. Wait patiently on your mark during tech rehearsal; refrain from joining in the gossip going around the Merliton corps; avoid arguing with the ballet mistress as she tries to show you what their production’s Act II Prologue looks like. I’ve watched several stars go through countless Nutcracker productions, and the ones who get invited back are the ones who are kind to the wardrobe people, don’t throw tantrums when the orchestra is faster than expected, and are liberal with their pleases and thank yous. Divas don’t sparkle - they flame out, sometimes spectacularly.
Take direction well Even Diana Vishneva can’t tell what she looks like from offstage, and chances are you’re not Diana Vishneva (though if you are, hi D!) So if the artistic director tells you the spacing is funny on your solo, don’t get defensive and throw down on him. Take a second and walk through the solo, ask him to show you where it’s wonky, and fix it. If a rehearsal mistress comes to you with a note on Snow and it’s your 10th season as Snow, take the note. Don’t give excuses, just show professionalism to the newbies sitting next to you and take the note.
Don’t be afraid to fail One of the benefits of having a big guest artist come in to a small company is that the company can see that the star is (gasp) human! I love watching Adiarys Almeida dance Sugarplum with a local company every year. She’s a fantastic technician and will whip off quad fouettes and end it with ten (TEN!) pirouettes. She’s fearless onstage and is just as fearless in her rehearsal; the entire cast sits in the wings and watches her attempt - and sometimes fail - amazing moves. If she falls on her butt, she laughs, gets up, and tries it again. You’re never too big to fall - sometimes falling just makes you shine brighter in admiring eyes.
So those are my tips for polishing the tarnish off your twinkle. With a generous serving of humility, a dash of grace -both physical and social - and a dollop of patience, you can act like the star you always knew you’d be. And this season will shine all the brighter because of you.