As I consider the concept of “running towards Fear” in our improv it struck me as more than fitting to pair this philosophy with a short-form game that embodies some of my own anxieties as a player. Ballet utilizes the role of a narrator (which I typically love taking on) and the role of dancers (which I’ll often do everything in my power to avoid), and so I’ll use this entry as an opportunity to exorcise (exercise?) some of my own improv angst.
One team member takes on the role of a BBC-style commentator (or your national potentially pretentious artsy equivalent) with the remaining players serving as the company of ballet dancers. An inspirational title is obtained: I like getting an animal and terrain feature as a nod to Swan Lake. This also leaps you into a non-human world which encourages a different physical vocabulary than just being people doing busy work in an office building. With the heavy assistance of an improvising musician, or perhaps a fast-fingered technician with a strong stock of suitable classical musical excerpts at the ready, the company dances a balletic masterpiece. Throughout, the commentator provides story descriptions and guidance as well as potential laudatory critique and pertinent background information.
Player A: (as the narrator) “…And the music swells as we return to the second act of Duck Road. The dancers have been in rare form tonight, especially Kuznetzov, and I for one am anxiously awaiting the climactic number ahead.”
The lights rise on Player B who assumes the role of the “duck” as the music shifts.
Player A: “And here is our melancholic hero, the duck, once again stuck on the wrong side of the road…”
With small wing flutters, the “duck” assumes a tragic pose, reaching forward only to be pushed back. Other team members join the fray rushing in front of the nervous animal.
Player A: “The smoky traffic whirls around and around, suffocating the duck with its dense and odorous fumes…”
Player C, as one of the vehicles, starts to physically menace and challenge the duck with sharp and angry movements. The duck retreats at first, but then starts to find some courage. The music shifts again.
Player A: “But today the duck will not lie down and take this. As the delivery truck looms once more, the duck stands its ground in a powerful pas de deux, the ‘dance of defiance’…”
As is the case with most formats that are parodies or homages at heart, endeavor to honor the emblematic tropes of ballet – as best you understand them – giving the performance a grander than typical sense of style and passionate exaggeration. Ballet offers rich storytelling opportunities in both verbal and physical mediums so be sure not to throw away the chance to craft a dynamic arc fit for the ages.
Traps and Tips
1.) For the narrator… While there’s no reason that your narrator couldn’t assume a more “of the people” tone and approach, I like leaning into a high status (perhaps even snobby) commentator as this elevates the style of the game even further. This role can easily slide into pimping or a narrative that can feel like it’s at expense of the dancers rather than in awe of them – “…Well, that was a thoroughly mediocre dance…” Consider erring on the side of serving as a super fan, armed with a slew of interesting and random factoids that can contextualize and add value to the action. Do you know other artistic works of the composer or choreographer? Have you been following the careers of the lead dancers with great interest? A device I’ll often use is breaking up the action into various movements or “numbers.” Even if your knowledge of the field is sparse, you can name some key features to help the ensemble: “Now we watch the dance of reconciliation,” or “the dance of anguish,” or “the dance of celebration.” Such titles can quickly and clearly shift the energy and stop the scene from just meandering with generic movement. The narrator can have a tendency to lead much of the scene as they are the only player able to express themselves through language, so also make sure you are following and accepting the bold choices of the dancing improvisers and musician. Embracing longer silences during the larger dance segments helps in this regard: don’t feel the need to narrate absolutely every second of the piece.
2.) For the musician and technician… It is incredibly helpful for the flow of the scene if the musician (or technician) provides a strong variety of accompaniment rather than one continuous unbroken and consistent sound. Character entrances and exits provide a great opportunity to quickly shift the look and feel of the music and lights, especially if this is further enhanced through the narrative and with the announcement of specifically named dances or balletic features. There are so many inherent opportunities to embellish and enrich the action: individual characters can have musical motifs that weave in and out of the greater soundscape; the accompaniment can reference and reinvent familiar classical (and modern) sources; each new entrance can cause a stark shift in musical (and lighting) tone and tempo. Music truly becomes a character in these scenes and provides a vehicle for revealing the characters’ inner thoughts, moods and turmoils. As the dancers can’t speak, the music and technical effects are critical for communicating intent and subtext.
3.) For the ballet dancers… The game Ballet loses a lot of its charm and potential when improvisers sort of dance in an apologetic fashion. Yes, it’s unlikely that many or any of your ensemble have ballet training, but treating the style and scene with a playful earnestness and seriousness of intent goes a long way. The audience is already impressed that you are willing to attempt such a feat, especially if it’s clear that this is not your strong suit, so displaying a level of commitment and conviction generally lands much better than shuffling around the stage commenting or mugging about your plight. Give the audience permission to relish your struggle. It is certainly important to know your limits – as I quickly approach another birthday milestone there are certainly moves I shouldn’t make now that I would have gamely attempted in my twenties – and no audience reaction is worth risking injury for you or a teammate. But endeavor to move to the fullest degree of your ability and do so confidently. Even if you have a limited range of movement or physical vocabulary, keep your choices specific and intentional: Be the duck or the delivery truck. Don’t just repeat the same ineffectual physical choice again and again. These notes almost assume that you can’t dance, but if you have expertise obviously bring it to the stage with gusto. Just be wary to pace yourself so you and the scene have somewhere to go, and not to inadvertently become focused on finesse rather than connection and story. Doing the same three moves extremely well every time you play Ballet might not really be challenging your improv chops any more than a dancer with limited ability always doing their same three moves poorly.
4.) For the story elements… All of the improvisers above should ultimately unite in the service of the greater story. The lack of dialogue promotes epic or paradigmatic characters, qualities and tensions: ballets aren’t generally about small kitchen-sink family issues although that would certainly prove a delightful challenge. Even if you’re performing a relatively abridged scene (this game will easily expand to provide a longer offering if you have the time and stamina) Ballet invites the exploration of a grand journey. Look for powerful and interesting character combinations and get them to dance together. If you’re familiar with the terms, I’ve found that the dances are excellent places to extend the action, with characters exploring and enriching the emotional stakes and energies, while the commentator can advance the story through the narrative, shifting the action from one significant plot point to the next (or acknowledging verbally when a dancer makes the choice to do so). The simple Four Sentence Story model discussed here offers a helpful frame that readily provides structural beats to assist in this endeavor as well.
I’ve partnered this game with a consideration of fear and I fundamentally believe it’s critical for our growth and success as improvisers not to shy away from a challenge when we feel we might not immediately excel. On a personal level, I’ve taken some dance but I’m certainly not the most graceful of movers, yet I should be willing to happily enter the fray as needed. My stumbles may, in turn, elevate the audience’s appreciation for the excellent dancer moving beside me and there is a beautiful gift in enabling a fellow improviser’s ability to shine. Compete, if that’s innately in your nature, for the most improved award, or the most supportive award, or the best background dancer award…
I do also think it’s important to pitch to strength when we are playing in front of a paying audience and if there is an equipped dancer in our midst it just makes good sense to put them front and center in the same way that sometimes the ensemble will be best served by a strong storyteller stepping into the narrator role. As we make these choices in our improv work, however, it pays to be cognizant of what is pushing us in a certain direction and if it is a fear of not being the “best” or looking a little silly perhaps that is worthy of some self reflection and course correction.
Connected Concept: Fear