The Art of Understudying
Last year one of my dancers understudied a role for the first time. She went through every emotion on the spectrum: elation at being in the piece; depression at not being “good enough” to be anything but an understudy; wistfulness when her friends were through for the day and she had to stay and stand in the back of the studio and learn a piece she would “probably never do”; disbelief and panic when one of the dancers was injured and she was told she’d need to step in a week before the show; guilt that she was getting to perform when the original girl wouldn’t; and then in a wild twist of fate, heartache when the girl was put back into the show two days before the performance and her chance was “snatched away”.
This dancer constantly analyzed and questioned the situation, processing it out loud with me: what did she lack that kept her from being cast? Why should she show up and put in a good effort when she “clearly wasn’t needed”? How should she act with the injured dancer? And finally, when the part was snatched away at the last minute - what had she done wrong? Was she looking so horrible in the piece that they decided to risk putting a recently injured dancer back onstage? Understudying is a part of company life that’s fraught with supposition and assumptions which can lead you down a dark and depressing mental path, causing you to question your value and talent.
There's a definite art to being a good understudy: being talented but unobtrusive; always knowing the choreography but trying not to take up the choreographer's time; and so on. Hoping to offer other dancers some concrete guidelines, I asked three experts in the professional ballet world to share their thoughts on understudying: both what they learned as professional dancers, and what they look for now that they’re on the other side of table.
The first question most dancers ask themselves is Why me? What did I do (or not do) that landed me the understudy gig instead of the role itself? When I asked Michael Bearden, former principal with Ballet West and now director of Oklahoma University's School of Dance, he said, “When casting an understudy I look for someone who I believe could go on and perform at a high level if needed, and for those who I believe are not quite ready but will benefit from the experience. I love to be surprised when a dancer whom I believe is not ready proves me wrong through their hard work and commitment.”
Lisa Kipp, Ballet Master and Rehearsal Director for Oregon Ballet Theatre, thinks dancers should look at it as an opportunity. “If you do really well, know your stuff and shine, you might end up performing a role you weren’t originally considered for.”
Leticia Oliveira, former principal dancer with Texas Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, and Joffrey Ballet and now principal at the Texas Ballet Theatre's Fort Worth school, agrees that it’s a chance for inexperienced dancers to grow, but adds it’s sometimes purely logistics. “An understudy might be the second best person for the part, normally younger, but there are not enough performances to accommodate more casts. A dedicated understudy will become a true asset; teachers and choreographers will start to rely on them for future pieces.”
While being offered an understudy role is usually a sign of a director’s interest and desire to develop you as a dancer, sometimes it’s because you’re not quite living up to your full potential. Mr. Bearden adds that “sometimes it can be a demotion based on the circumstances of a dancer at that point in time; however I believe it is always an opportunity for dancers to grow and potentially prove themselves ready and reliable.” At the same time, Lisa Kipp warns, “never assume it’s a demotion - tackle it with full vigor and you may end up performing the role.”
So how exactly does one go about proving oneself “ready and reliable”? Everyone I spoke with agreed that etiquette in the rehearsal room is key. Here are some basic do’s and don’ts:
DO ask questions sparingly, or better yet, ask after rehearsal or on a 5-minute break. Where should you turn? If you’ve got a tricky foot sequence and you’re on good terms with the person you’re understudying, a quick question on a break is usually fine. And in general, it’s considered okay to ask the first cast partner to work through some sticky spots with you during a break or after rehearsal. But you can never go wrong with addressing your questions to the front of the room - that’s the ballet master or rehearsal director’s job.
DO wear the same shoes that the first cast is wearing. (As in, no flats for you if your first cast is on pointe!)
DON’T sit down - understudies should stand and dance in the back or on the sides, although Ms. Oliveira adds that “during a full run of a ballet, a week or so before performances, it’s normally okay for understudies to sit and watch,” while Ms. Kipp points out that it’s okay to sit “if the cast you’re covering is sitting - while a different section is being worked in rehearsal.” Unsure? Ask your ballet mistress.
DO carry yourself as if you’re the first cast - Michael Bearden says, “Dress for the job you want! If you carry yourself as if you are first cast, you are more likely to be given the opportunity to perform the role or at least be considered for another role because of your work.”
DON’T miss a rehearsal. “I’m just an understudy - they don’t need me” is not actually a real thing.
DON’T wear too many warmups (see: “Dress for the job you want”!)
DO know ALL the choreography, including counts and spacing, and perform full-out during rehearsals. Lisa Kipp urges understudies to “use the rehearsals as though you will be going on. A good understudy ends up being more useful than a good dancer who can’t be counted on.”
DO Pay attention to ALL the corrections. “Apply every correction as if it was given to you and dance full out when possible,” encourages Mr. Bearden.
I asked the experts what they wish they’d known when they started understudying, curious to see what they’d share with their younger selves if they could. Ms. Oliveira said, “I wish someone had explained to me as a young dancer how full out I needed to be dancing in the back of the room all the time. It took me a while to realize how important it is for the choreographers and ballet masters to see that.” As for Michael Bearden, he told me he wished “someone had told me to focus more on the process and to not get caught up in the outcomes or results of my casting.”
In other words? Deal with what you can control, and don’t get stuck in a mental guessing game. Don’t bother trying to figure out why you’re there; simply show the staff how professional, talented, and disciplined you are.
I asked my panel what advice they’d give an understudy who needs to go on suddenly - a situation fraught with possible awkwardness and faux pas. Mr. Bearden said that “in general I recommend the understudy direct questions to other dancers in the work or the ballet master. The injured dancer is likely to be upset so it may be best to give them some space.” Ms. Oliveira agrees, suggesting the dancer “direct questions to the front of the room and have the ballet mistress coordinate to avoid any misunderstandings.” Ms. Kipp also encourages the understudy to “look across at your opposite - there is a lot of information to be gleaned from watching your counterpart.”
Finally, I encouraged my friends to share what they’d learned through their own experiences as an understudy - or working with one. Leticia Oliveira told me, “A few times in my career I was cast as an understudy of a ballet and then when the ballet came around three or four years later I was able to perform it. Even though it can be difficult to keep working on something knowing you will not be performing this time, I realized how much it helped me years later, when I was able to go on stage and perform.”
Michael Bearden answered with an anecdote from his time on the other side of the table. While choreographing at the University of Utah, he cast a freshman as understudy who had potential but wasn’t quite ready. Every day in rehearsal she was ready, and easily stepped in to any of her open spots when needed. Though he was impressed with her work ethic and musicality, he still didn’t feel her ready technically. But when one of the dancers she covered became sick during production week, “I didn’t think twice about putting the understudy in because she had built trust with me over time by being ready to go at any given moment.”
My favorite response, though came from Lisa Kipp, with a valuable lesson learned. “I was always a dancer that could be thrown on without much rehearsal. It’s a blessing and a curse - it’s stressful to have to perform under those conditions. I do think my ability to learn choreography quickly and adapt to last-minute changes helped me in my current job as a ballet master. Be that dancer: the dancer who directors can count on.”
My own dancer has gone on to be cast in other roles, and told by her artistic director that she’s a great addition to any rehearsal room, and someone who can be counted on to know her stuff and be ready. Going through the uncertainty and emotional drama of understudying helped her see what value she brings to a room, as well as showed her technical areas where she could improve. The next time she gets cast as an understudy, she won’t see it as a disappointment, but an opportunity.
The ballet world is full of stress and decisions that are completely out of your control. Maintain your instrument, have a commendable work ethic, and “be that dancer”. These are things in your control; use them. Perfect the art of being an understudy, and you will will reap the benefits for your entire career.
Michael Bearden's photos: Shevaun Williams
Lisa Kipp headshot: Tatiana Wills
Lisa Kipp in rehearsal with Xuan Cheng: Blaine Truitt Covert