Dance Advice

Stage Presence: What is it, and can I improve it?

Gwinnett Ballet Theatre, 'Nutcracker'.

Stage presence is something that draws your eye to a dancer, the x-factor they bring to each and every performance. Stage presence is the essence of a dancer’s being that is projected when they expose themselves, connecting with the audience, making them feel something. It’s also what truly separates artists from technicians.

But… Can stage presence be taught or improved upon?

Laurretta Summerscales, English National Ballet.

Laurretta Summerscales, English National Ballet. Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Photography at @balletandphotos.

Stage presence is a mysterious thing. For some dancers, it comes rather naturally, while others, although they may love to dance and perform, have trouble exuding such a presence when they’re on stage. Many people believe that you’re either born with it, or you’re not – that it’s something you can’t achieve simply by practicing in front of the mirror for hours. Which raises the question: Is it nature or nurture? Can you actually improve stage presence? Or is it really only a certain amount of “stage craft” in a roundabout way that can be taught?

My idea of “presence” is an authentic sense of self, and so projection is the outward manifestation of it. Watch any dancer with superb technique who keeps his/her shoulders hunched or looks at the floor. This dancer pales in comparison to dancers who shine, stand upright and exude confidence, even though their technique may not be anything in comparison.

When we speak about stage presence and potentially improving upon it, I strongly believe that a lot of this comes from your facial expression and overall projection of confidence. When you are performing, the most important part of your face is your eyes. It may seem obvious, but you must make sure that they’re open and active when you’re on stage. Don’t let them wander here and there, unfocused because your mind is on the choreography or on corrections from the previous notes session.

Gwinnett Ballet Theatre

Gwinnett Ballet Theatre, ‘Nutcracker’ Snow Scene. Photography by Richard Calmes.

Once you are at a point where you feel comfortable with your choreography, start using rehearsal as a true performance. Work on developing your confidence in the studio when all other factors, such as corrections and distractions, are also being thrown at you. This element of confidence in both one’s self and one’s skills is so important. I do believe, however, that the aspects of time, maturity and a certain level of comfort, once developed, will make a huge difference to who you are as a dancer and, ultimately, as an artist.

Presence is nothing, though, without being keenly aware of your stage space. It is your job as a dancer to encompass the entire stage with your presence. You need to make the absolute most of every step and transition. Let your performance take up as much of the stage as possible. Broaden your movements, make them visible to even the last person sitting in the back row of the balcony section. Dance for that person, and beyond. The further away you project, the bigger your presence, and the more everyone in the theatre will absorb your performance. You need to connect to the space, be it a studio theatre space or a stage; understand the depth, breadth and perception of the entire space to project your presence beyond the realms of a “studio run”.

If you want a visual clue, I often find it fascinating watching younger performers. They are totally uninhibited and unaware of their faults and can quite easily create their own fantasy and very much enjoy the attention of the audience and their overall surroundings. Sadly, some, once they realise that they may be judged, tend to lose that openness, but it’s this factor that we need to retain, nurture and always encourage. A good way to maintain such skills is to develop a character or story, whether or not you’ve been directed to. Each moment in your performance must be justified with a sense of purpose. Focus your attention with deliberation and reason; this will give your performance a strong sense of conviction.

Dancer Teagan Lowe

Dancer Teagan Lowe. Photo courtesy of Lowe.

As training intensifies, students often focus so heavily on technique that artistry becomes an afterthought. If taught in tandem, not only will they be given equal value, but also they will be integrated in the dancer’s process. The more information – technical, intellectual, cultural – you possess, the more choices you’ll have to interpret your role. All choreography is just steps. It’s what you bring to those steps that makes them something interesting.

To dance in this day and age, with all the gadgets and technical advances, it is easy for your performance to detract from the real and pure, and to concentrate more on the technical. Try to re-shift and focus on the present moment and enjoy the connection with the audience watching you. As artists, we are gifted with the opportunity to share not only the choreographer’s vision but also our singular perspective of it. A captivating dancer will always win over an audience’s heart. Having a positive sense of yourself, your posture, and your carriage, will give you an overall better projection on stage, and, in turn, will allow you to enjoy your performance in ways that you wouldn’t have dreamt possible.

By Teagan Lowe of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Gwinnett Ballet Theatre, ‘Nutcracker’. Photography by Richard Calmes.

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