Part Two of The Essential Imagination Series

Detail and Nuance
by Leda Meredith

photo: Tom Caravaglia

Make believe

No, not fantasy, but truly how to make someone believe.

How to make an audience suspend disbelief in what they are witnessing long enough to be moved by what they have seen and to think about it for years afterward.

What do you remember from the performances you have seen in the past? Think not just of dance, but also of theater, music, movies and other arts that depend on live performers for their origin.

Among my personal memories I find the way Gelsey Kirkland’s Giselle stroked Albrecht’s arm before she faded into the wings, Janis Joplin’s laugh at the end of Mercedes Benz, Keith Jarrett’s voice chiming in over his melancholy piano during the Koln Concert, Angie Wolfe’s sky-turned face and arched chest as she was set down by a trusted partner, Cynthia Gregory learning how to strut with a feather boa in Francis Patrelle’s Red Ellington, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones saying, “Why did it have to be snakes,” Makarova’s supple feet as she ran across the stage…

Look at the reviews in today’s paper – if they are well written they will mention specific moments that lodged in the reviewer’s memory.

We remember these moments – why? What did the performer, choreographer, director, writer, composer do to make them memorable?

Honesty and Imagination

Every human being possesses the potential for every conceivable emotion.

If you think this through, it can be a scary concept. It implies that given the right situation, anyone could feel an overwhelming passion, a murderous rage, a religious ecstasy, a suicidal despair.

How else to be able to portray something believably onstage? I have never died, nor killed, nor been a heroine, and yet I have portrayed each of these. If I could not imagine how someone could arrive at those circumstances, I could not dance them believably.

But every human being does not possess the character for every conceivable action.

So what might lead Lady MacBeth to encourage her husband to murder might only lead me to be frustrated by an inability to change circumstance. As a performer, I have to be able to imagine what it would be like to be someone else, making different choices. And there is no right or wrong in these choices, there is only what someone did because that is who they were and how they felt when this event (given by the script or choreography) happened. “There are no devils, only fallen angels” is a useful thing for performers to remember.

If I cannot imagine it as a performer or choreographer, how is the audience supposed to?

Internal Dialogue and Images

These are two invaluable tools for creators and performers.

To experience their effectiveness, try this simple exercise:

Raise an arm to shoulder height with the index finger pointed while saying out loud, “Get the hell out of here!”

Now perform the same gesture while saying, “You’re the one I’ve chosen.”.

Now do the same gesture imagining that you are raising your arm through the waters of a warm, Mediterranean sea.

Now that you are raising it in an ice cold, bitter wind.

Same gesture, entirely different messages. Onstage, dancers need to remember to keep specific, detailed thoughts going while they are moving. The alternative is the vague “eyebrow acting” that leaves no one moved (see my article Essential Imagination for more about this disease).

The Magic of Intent

When your imagination is fully engaged as a performer or creator, you understand the character’s intent and the details occur to you as you do them creating a completely believable spontaneity. If you are a teacher or director, you can guide your dancers in this process by asking them to consider:

Who the character is.

When they are living.

Where they are living (a city street leads to different body language than an open hillside, for example).

What they care about and what is at stake.

For a clear example of how specific intent changes visible action, try the same shape or movement done with different motivations. An arabesque can be done to show off its height and technical proficiency. Or to reach for a lover across the stage. Or to express melancholy. Or to aim an arrow-like accusation. Or many, many other things which do not change what is being done but drastically change how.

Keep It Personal

The details which will emerge from a performer’s or creator’s imagination will be highly personal. Each of our unique takes on what we are embodying will be ours and no one else’s. To be effective we must be willing to reveal these pieces of our soul.

Don’t censor your imagination while you are working, but do guide it with the parameters set by the director and the material.

Censorship is death to creative work, even if it is just a thought such as, “But I’m not the kind of person who…” If you are a performer, you can portray any kind of person and that is no reflection on who you are in the rest of your life. If a choreographer asks for it, you can deliver.

Leda can also be found at

About the writer:
Leda Meredith’s biography deserves to be reprinted in full. the-vu proudly welcomes her exceptional talent to our pages.
As a performer, Leda Meredith’s career spans contemporary dance, classical ballet, and theatre. Her performances have taken her to twenty-five countries on four continents. She has been a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre II, Edward Villella, Manhattan Ballet, Dances Patrelle, and others. She was a company member of Jennifer Muller/The Works for over seven years, and originated numerous roles in the repertory. She returned as Artistic Associate Director for the company’s 25th anniversary season in 1999-2000.
Her piece Lullabye Lane, premiered as part of Jennifer Muller/The Works’ 25th anniversary season at the Joyce Theater in New York. With original music by composer James Sasser, Lullabye Lane marked their seventh collaboration. They recently completed the full evening work Small Talk At The Volcano. In Spring 2000 she co-created a cabaret style piece entitled All About Angels and Eggs, with Michael Jahoda and Maria Naidu at Dansatelier in Rotterdam. Other choreographic credits include works for Malaparte Theatre Company, the Gene Frankel Theatre in New York, Dixon Place, Peridance International, the Hatch Saturday Series, First Fridays at Five, and the Arts on the Hudson Festival.
She is a returning guest instructor for the Henny Jurriens Stichting in Amsterdam, Western Washington University; and Dance Loft in Rorschach, Switzerland. Leda is currently on faculty with Ballet Academy East. She has taught as part of the 1996 Iles de Danse in France, and for the Artist’s Trusts International Course in England. In December, 1999 she was guest instructor for Carolyn Carlson’s Atelier de Paris. Other dance programs she has taught for include the California State University at Los Angeles, and Brigham Young University in Hawaii.

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