Living Other Lives
Part Four of the Essential Imagination Series
by Leda Meredith
Photo by Tom Caravaglia, of Leda Meredith and Michael Jahoda in Jennifer Muller’s ‘The Spotted Owl’
This is the article that inspired my quest to bring Leda Meredith to the-vu Jeffrey the Barak, Publisher.
Stepping onto the stage, I am living two lives at once. Three, if you count my life outside the theater which is waiting for me once I step back through the stage door into the night air. For the moment, though, that life is forgotten.
The lights are harsh in my eyes but warm on my skin. Part of me is keeping track of the necessary details of this job: The floor is a bit slippery tonight. I remind myself to drop my center of gravity to help give me more traction. I am counting the music for this next section, which is in counterpart to the other dancers. The lift we worked on this afternoon is coming up in eight counts and I am remembering the changes the choreographer gave my partner and I. Next come the spacing corrections I was told about in the dressing room at half hour. I am vaguely aware that my right shoulder is sore and stiff. The audience feels like a good one, packed house and several friends out there.
That’s one life.
In this dance I am portraying a woman in a classic love triangle, torn between the man she desperately wants who rejects her and the man who is trying to win her affections. The imaginative work has already been done in rehearsal. I know who she is, what motivates her to choose one man over the other, where this is taking place, what pleases her and what makes her despair. I have imagined, vividly, how she came to be at this point in her life where she cannot see her way out of unrequited love. I have tested all of these imaginative choices in rehearsal and adjusted them whenever they did not match the choreographer’s vision. Now there is only one imaginative leap left to make. I must become the character.
This is like the make believe games we all played as children, but with much higher stakes because I need to be believable enough to take the entire audience on this woman’s emotional journey. And for a dancer, there is the added challenge of using a highly athletic, specific physical esthetic as the vehicle for that journey.
When I am teaching, I sometimes explain the experience of performing a character by using a metaphor from the original Star Trek series. It is as if you are both Spock and Captain Kirk. One part of you is very calmly taking care of things such as musical counts, remembering corrections, pre-setting props. That is Spock, the logical mind. But Spock is not the captain of the ship. Romantic, impulsive Kirk is the captain. This is the spontaneous heart of your performance. This is the part of you that is responding to the dramatic situation as if it was happening for the first time (even if you’ve performed the piece a hundred times!). This is the part of you that is, during the performance, making the life choices of another person.
Both are essential. And neither, alone, guarantee success. That is one of the thrills and mysteries of live performance. A personal willingness to give one’s best and take what comes is a useful a cure for performance anxiety. So is recognizing that the butterflies in your stomach mean you have a wonderful reserve of exceptional energy at your command. Why perform if it’s going to feel as flat as waiting in line at the grocery store? Performing is meant to feel anything but ordinary.
What makes possible that final mental and emotional leap of becoming the character you and the choreographer and/or writer have imagined?
There is the preparatory work I mentioned of creating the character vividly in your mind (see Detail and Nuance, and Make Believe). Your imagination will work for you prolifically if you are incorporating elements from your own life. That third life I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my “real life”, is my source material for everything I do onstage. Perhaps I have been in something like the character’s situation at some point, or perhaps it is entirely foreign to me. Even in the latter case, I will have felt some version of the character’s emotions. I will be able to remember situations that called up those emotions in me. In the case of the love triangle I described above, I can remember wanting something out of reach so desperately that I believed I could not be happy without it.
It is also useful to remember that crazy people do not know they are crazy, bad guys think they have a reason for what they are doing, and even ingenues sometimes feel guilty or unworthy. I let the audience decide whether I am portraying a hero or a villain tonight. In order to step into the character’s point of view, I can not afford to be judgmental. I am playing a person, not a stereotype. My job is to flesh out that fictional character and make her real, make her feelings and actions believable. In order to do that, I cannot afford to step outside the action and judge whether she is good or bad.
As I wrote in Essential Imagination, “Many times I have had a performer back off from the specificity and choices I describe above because they would be too real’ or too personal’ or too revealing’. Indeed. That is what we offer as performers. Our willingness to risk ourselves, our personal points of view in full view of an audience is what makes an audience willing to trust us. But when the curtain goes down, we must have the skills to step back out of the world we have been creating during the show.”
Coming offstage, I am drenched in sweat and grinning from ear to ear. My partner swoops by and gives me a hug and two thumbs up. This was a good show. I register a few compliments on the way back to the dressing room and nod my thanks. Make up off. Tell the wardrobe assistant that I heard something tear in my costume during the show and he might want to check it. Into a hot shower. The hot water feels good but someone is shouting that we have to be out of the theater in 10 minutes. When I come out, I see my husband chatting with one of the tech crew. He gives me a big, wonderful hug. “What do you want to do about dinner?”
Cherish your senses as a way to “come home” from living another person’s life onstage. The feel of the hot shower. The sight of a familiar face. The taste of food and drink. The sound of laughter, traffic, voices. Retell your favorite parts of the show, or write them down. Turn the lousy moments into tales to laugh about. Reach down to ruffle the cat who greets you when you step through your front door. When daily life is going through a rough spell, consider it part of your job to be as present offstage as you are onstage. That is what we do. A bridge must have two sides, and artists are the bridge between imagination and daily life.
Leda can also be found at ledameredith.net
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 Carlsons Atelier de Paris. Other dance programs she has taught for include the California State University at Los Angeles, and Brigham Young University in Hawaii.