Feature

The challenges of performing as a guest artist

Dominic Antonucci reveals the challenges – and rewards – of performing as a guest artist. This article first appeared in the Dancing Times and is reproduced with the kind permission of all involved.

In 1840, the great Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler embarked on a fabled tour of the US that lasted two years. Her performances on that visit are some of the earliest examples of what present day dancers might recognise as being a 'guest artist. 'Guesting' usually refers to a professional dancer being engaged to perform away from their home base or company, often in a leading role. While in the renaissance Italian dance masters travelled to perform at the French court, Elssler’s tour bears more resemblance to the experiences of today’s dancers.

Elssler surely had nerves of steel and a constitution to match. Less than two weeks after her rough steamship voyage she performed before unprecedented hype and attention in New York. Not all of the attention was friendly, as the rivalry between Elssler and Marie Taglioni had reached fever pitch, dividing balletomanes passionately. Despite facing infinite logistical and political challenges, Elssler was a smash hit in North America and her tour passed into legend.

'Imagine Elssler doing her daily ballet class on the rocky ship across the ocean or warming up between train carriages travelling from one city to the next. It must have been impossible for her to have felt on top form.'

Though professional dancers now benefit from modern transportation and conveniences, guesting in present times poses many of the same basic difficulties that Elssler would have encountered and probably provides similar rewards.

Stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov spun the globe during the 1960s and 1970s, making guest appearances with countless companies. The pursuit of artistic growth and freedom, greater exposure and financial reward are certainly motivations they would have shared with today’s guest artists. That pursuit, however, does not come without its challenges.

Imagine Elssler doing her daily ballet class on the rocky ship across the ocean or warming up between train carriages travelling from one city to the next. It must have been impossible for her to have felt on top form. The pressure to perform well on her US tour would have been immense. Though Elssler’s enterprise is well-documented ballet lore, it does highlight some areas of consideration that are very much relevant to guest artists in dance today.

Travelling and guesting go hand in hand. The dancers at Birmingham Royal Ballet, like many other companies, are accustomed to travelling and adjusting to new stages, studios, audiences and digs. Feeling good physically after a journey is always of prime importance. The usual precautions are taken to minimise jet-lag and muscle stiffness and the company’s touring coach is usually filled with ballet-body accessories to help ease the ill effects. Guesting, however, often requires the dancer to travel into new, unknown situations with very little time to recover.

The Seasons: Nao Sakuma in 'Spring'. Credit: Bill Cooper.

Feeling at ease in a new situation can be as important to the success of a performance as feeling good physically. Principal dancer Nao Sakuma has made countless guest appearances during her career at Birmingham Royal Ballet, and for her this is always a concern. 'For a lot of my guestings, I arrived the day before the show. There was so little time to meet everyone and adjust to the stage that sometimes I didn’t feel as good as for my normal company performances. I prefer guesting in productions where I have more time to feel comfortable with the other dancers and environments.'

It can be very unsettling for a guest artist if there are too many things to adjust to in a short amount of time. Top of any worry list is the condition of the dance surfaces. Stage and studio floors can vary greatly from what a dancer may be used to. This caused panic for me on more than one occasion as I found a new floor had far less grip than what I was used to. Lighting for performances can also be a factor, as well as temperature or climate if you are working somewhere much warmer or colder than usual.

For any dancer on the road, finding and maintaining an appropriate diet is a constant challenge. Dancers may not be particularly keen to sample local cuisine with important performances looming, or simply find it difficult to locate something suitable. Some find travelling to perform easier than others or learn through experience how best to deal with any inconveniences.

'I liked a challenge and overcoming that challenge proved a stronger compulsion than fear.'

Cynthia Harvey, former American Ballet Theatre Principal

We can easily recognise some of the practical difficulties that come with performing as a guest such as the new floor, lighting and diet. Less obvious are the mental and emotional challenges that the new situation may present. Guest artists are usually hired by companies to dance leading roles and there is naturally a heightened sense of expectation from both the dancer’s perspective and those receiving the performance. Self-confidence is crucial to success and being in a new situation, judged by new sets of eyes, can either increase this confidence or damage it.

When I was a young corps de ballet member of American Ballet Theatre, I admired and tried to learn from the cool and collected approach Wes Chapman seemed to achieve for every performance. Wes was one of those performers who truly thrived on pressure. The higher the stakes, the better he danced. 'I enjoyed the freedom and excitement of guest appearances,' says Wes. 'I always said that I was only good with an audience, and I needed eyes on me in order to better produce.'

347 Dom original.

In my own career I struggled with nerves at guest appearances. This improved with experience, but unlike Wes I was always far more comfortable dancing in front of my own colleagues and audiences.

Integrating into a new production and group of people can be challenging but, as Wes pointed out, deeply rewarding. 'I developed relationships that are lasting today. I always talk with the dancers I mentor about how important working relationships are in the ballet world.'

For young dancers particularly, guesting can provide an opportunity to develop and dance roles they may not have gotten a chance to otherwise. Cynthia Harvey, former American Ballet Theatre principal ballerina and frequent partner of Wes Chapman, found her early guest appearances intimidating, but of major benefit to her career. Stars like Baryshnikov and Fernando Bujones asked her to perform at engagements while she was still in the corps de ballet. 'My first guesting was with Fernando Bujones. I was very young, and very green. Upon landing in Japan, I was told that all of my idols were also performing. I was completely overwhelmed. On the whole I was a nervous performer, but I liked a challenge and overcoming that challenge proved a stronger compulsion than fear.'

Cynthia’s ability to adapt to new situations and partnerships held her in good stead when she was invited to join The Royal Ballet as a principal in 1986, the first US-born ballerina to do so. Cynthia’s journey in the opposite direction of Elssler is perhaps a modern reflection of Elssler’s experiences and evidence that adaptability and mental toughness are desirable traits as a guest performer. I’m fairly certain Cynthia had no such rivalry as that between Elssler and Taglioni, but she would have felt a similar need to establish and prove herself with each performance.

'How well the performer is able to adjust and adapt in the face of these challenging situations is really the measure of their success.'

Both Cynthia and I had to adapt our dancing styles when we moved from American Ballet Theatre into our respective Royal Ballet companies. Preparation time is normally shorter for guest appearances, so a dancer can’t reasonably attempt to transform their technical style overnight. It is common, however, for guest artists to perform roles they are very familiar with. Ballet Master Michael O’Hare has performed the role of Widow Simone in Fredrick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée with Birmingham Royal Ballet for almost 30 years but recently found himself dancing the role for the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg as a guest artist. It would be fascinating to see exactly how many details he’s adjusted in the role, as the performance style by Russian companies differs greatly in nuance and delivery from that of Birmingham Royal Ballet.

No doubt Michael, and those privileged enough to see him perform, found the experience exciting and thought-provoking, which is really the point of being a guest artist: the performer having a chance to expand their horizons, apply their craft with freedom and connect with the greater ballet world. How well the performer is able to adjust and adapt in the face of these challenging situations is really the measure of their success. A slippery floor, a blinding spotlight, new faces staring expectantly... A nod back to Fanny Elssler and... Bon Voyage.