IN THE NEWS
How Stage Fright Separates the Professional Ballerinas from the Amateurs
By Erika Jarvis
Among the elites of French ballet, the étoile is the star around whom the entire performance revolves. She or he is named in a very public ceremony, in order to generate as much press and gossip as possible. She has survived yearly exams in which half of her classmates were summarily “fired.” Her movements are deemed the most pristine of all the survivors, above the principals, and far above the lowly ranks of beginner dancers—the quadrille.
Now, Los Angeles photographer Alex Prager pits an étoile against her stage fright, in a short film called La Grande Sortie. It was created in partnership with the Paris Opera, and launched as part of 3e Scène, or “third stage,” a microsite that celebrates the Internet as the third platform for their performers (the first is the Palais Garnier, and the second is the Opéra Bastille, both in Paris).
Prager, 35, has grown a cultish following with her portraits of actresses and models saturated in high Hollywood melodrama. Such are the emotional stakes of her photographs, some of which have been accompanied by short films, of stars including Elizabeth Banks, Jessica Chastain afire in big, sultry red curls, and Rooney Mara as Alex in A Clockwork Orange. In La Grande Sortie, Prager says she was inspired by her own experiences with speaking in public.
Mark Twain gave the dizzying set of symptoms a name, but according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, stage fright meets all the criteria of an anxiety disorder. British cultural theorist Nicholas Ridout suggested that, in the arts at least, stage fright became particularly pronounced when electric lights were introduced into European theaters in 1879. Suddenly, the performer was more exposed than ever, at the mercy of the crowd watching from the safety and anonymity of the dark.
La Grande Sortie opens on an impatient crowd standing in line outside the Opéra Bastille. A middle-aged American couple argues about the lack of free refills in Paris (a conversation Prager says she actually heard in France, which she inserted into the film to signify her American interpretation of a French cultural institution). There is a murmur in the crowd that “it’s her first appearance as étoile, since she came back.”
Cut to the dancer herself, real-life étoile Émilie Cozette, stalking the dimly lit passages backstage. She wears a dusty-blue dress whose color Prager lifted from the sash worn by the ballerina in the 1948 dark ballet classic, The Red Shoes.
On stage, amid a woodsy set typical of romantic fairytales, the étoile begins her slow and meticulous routine. Shots to the crowd show couples chatting, someone walking in an aisle, a loud cough—the usual minor annoyances. All is well, until she makes a minor mistake—she stumbles, just barely. But the étoile’s stage fright takes over. Her anxiety manifests in a frightening series of pas de deux with the previously bored audience members (played by retired dancers or teachers from the Paris Opera) yanking her about onstage in movements both violent and sublime. In an eerie coincidence, Cozette (goose-pimple good in this role), was also performing for the first time in about a year. It’s riveting and dark.
Perfectionist thinking may be generally discouraged for its tendency to breed anxiety, but—to risk falling into ballet clichés—a certain level of anxiousness may be a job requirement for dancers. The pursuit of perfection is the raison d’’être from the time they start as children.
There is no cure for stage fright, only management—one of the things that establishes a professional from a wannabe.
It is probably also the reason for so much theater superstition. When she was designing the set, Prager says she struggled to get the hue of green she wanted. The set designer kept offering her different shades of turquoise or blue. “I was just like, is this a language barrier?” Prager says. “I sent him the exact color green: ‘This is what I want, and I don’t want anything different.’” Then he told her that the color green isn’t used on stage, because it’s considered bad luck. (In earlier times, toxic compounds in the green dye would sometimes make the actors sick and die.)
“Performers will give their souls to each performance,” says Prager. “Then they might look out at the audience and see someone’s falling asleep. To some people it’s just another night and then they’ll go home and carry on with their lives. And for the performer I think it’s much more than that. If they’re really giving a good performance, it can be a moment in between life and death.”
La Grande Sortie will premiere at Alex Prager’s Galerie des Galeries show, opening October 20th and running through January 23rd in Paris. It will also show at Lehman Maupin Gallery in NYC next fall.