Understudy Understood: My Role as a Cover in Dance Downtown

Early this semester, I was cast as an understudy in Doug Verone’s “Of the Earth Far Below.” The piece was to be set on a cast of eight dancers (and four understudies) by the dance program’s current visiting artist, Eddie Taketa. From the beginning, I was thrilled to be cast, understudy or not. Working with Eddie and the rest of the cast has been an experience I will never forget. More than anything else, this rehearsal process has taught me that being an understudy is no joke—it requires even more attention and mental ability than it does to learn a single part as a primary cast member. I am pleased to say that I now have a better understanding of the importance and necessity of understudies.
I must first acknowledge the fact that I have never worked with a rehearsal director who is equally as organized and passionate as Eddie is. Eddie has been a complete joy to work with. I know from my own experience that running a rehearsal can be hellishly frustrating in so many ways, even when all of the dancers are focused and prepared. Some choreographers and rehearsal directors fail to enjoy the process of setting a work because of this inevitable frustration, but Eddie is different. He is consistently understanding and supportive of each of us, no matter understudy or primary cast.
I have been an “understudy” for pieces in the past, but I have never truly played to role of an understudy as it is defined. An understudy should be able to step into a work and perform their role at a capacity that is equal to that of the primarily casted dancer. Many of the choreographers that have cast me as an understudy never assigned me a role and merely used me as a placeholder when a body was absent. I mostly took notes and ran the music in rehearsals, I was never encouraged to learn a specific part, and I was definitely never asked to dance in a run of the piece. I had a completely different experience working with Eddie, who assigned each understudy multiple primary cast members to cover and expected us to be able to step into the roles for full runs at least once a week.
Being a part of the cast for this piece as an understudy has been incredible for a couple of reasons, but mainly for the experience of learning a piece from multiple perspectives, and for the opportunity to work in close contact with two primary cast upperclassmen.
Because I learned two parts in this fifteen-minute work, I studied two perspectives in great depth, allowing me to understand more about the mechanics and the visual cues that abundantly exist in the choreography. I had the opportunity to witness the unfolding of each section because I knew the complete mechanics of two entirely different parts that were taking place on the same stage simultaneously. Now, nine weeks into the rehearsal process, I am aware of almost every interaction between dancers, whether through physical touch or at a distance. I see how one dancer’s rond de jambe in a downstage duet is related to another dancer’s arm opening in a trio somewhere upstage. When I watched the piece for the first time on video, weeks ago, I failed to notice many of the movement relationships within the piece. Now, after many rehearsals, I see full connections and overlaps throughout the entire work and I realize that it is these aspects that make the work so pleasing to watch.
The best part of being an understudy as a freshman has been becoming a part of a community and a family that includes undergraduate and graduate students, a broad range of personalities, and a mindful and passionate director and choreographer from an incredible company. Even though I am not performing, I have developed relationships with each dancer in the cast, and I feel even more welcome and comfortable as a student in this department. The two cast members that I am understudying, Heidi Murr and Julia Ayau, have been wonderful mentors throughout this process. I spent much of the learning stage glued either Julia or Heidi interchangeably, attempting to perfectly match their way of moving through the choreography. They were consistently supportive and always answered my many questions, never getting visually frustrated or annoyed. I am deeply appreciative of them both for this.
Although there is no performance reward at the end of this rehearsal process, I have had the privilege to work with Eddie and his cast for an extended period of time and in great depth. I look forward to sharpening my skills as an understudy throughout the rest of this rehearsal process.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Heidi Murr says:

    Hazel, this is such a lovely read and you were the best understudy I could ever dream of! I am so delighted to hear that you had such a remarkable experience working with this piece. I could not have done it without you! Xo

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