When Ballet and Comedy Collide

I remember that performance like it was yesterday.

I felt a swell of pride as I executed the show exactly as I had practiced it so many times before. Afterwards, a wave of applause erupted from 1,500 adoring fans. I felt like I had finally made it. 

It was my ballet recital, and I was six.

14 arduous years later, I would become a professional ballerina. Our company would typically learn choreography for a couple weeks and rehearse for another several weeks before presenting to the masses. With all of our painstaking practice, we felt virtually over-prepared to get on stage. During Nutcracker season, we would frequently sell out all 2,779 seats in the gorgeous Ohio Theater.

photo: Matthew Murphy

After retiring from ballet company life, I performed with the Phantom of the Opera Broadway tour for 2 years, which sold out the majority of our 8 shows per week. I’ll never forget the curtain calls at the Fabulous Fox theatre in St. Louis, with the thunderous sound of 4,500 audience members and their 9,000 clapping hands. It was intoxicating to know that all my years of hard work and sacrifice were valued by so many people. 

Fast forward to a year later: October 2019 in Chicago, IL.

I’m performing on stage with an enormously talented group of like-minded artists. We’re singing, we’re dancing, we’re delivering killer dialogue. All for an audience of 6 fidgety people.

A few months before that, I did a standup open mic for 3 expressionless drunks. All because I’m now pursuing a career in comedy. I’m studying, writing, and performing improv and standup. 

I’ll admit it, I’d become spoiled.

I’m used to people paying hundreds of dollars to see me on stage. My shows have been the anniversary gift of countless doting husbands to their wives, and topped the Christmas wish lists of thousands of people across the country. Nowadays, I’ll bribe my own husband with a free beer just to sit through 4 fledgling standup comedians talk about their hangovers so he can finally watch me try and perfect the 3 minute St. Patty’s Day bit I’ve been workshopping since March. 

I think this may be the worst career transition for a ballerina to try and make.

A dancer rarely puts her work in front of an audience until it’s been exhaustively practiced. When she finally performs, it’s usually for a packed house of several hundred to a few thousand admirers. And a dancer knows every single thing she’s going to do on stage before she does it. The placement of her pinky has been predetermined. 

All of this perfectionism and extreme preparation has shaped my entire personality.

My iCalendar is scheduled out to the minute. I don’t just write a grocery list, I write a list in order of the aisles I’ll go down in the store. I regularly wear 3 different layers of clothing so I can be the perfect temperature no matter where the day takes me.

So you can imagine how much of a nightmare improvisational comedy can be for me.

When I go on stage, I have NO CLUE WHAT I’M ABOUT TO SAY OR DO. (Side note: that’s how most of my actual nightmares start.) Here’s a taste of a typical scene in an improv show: 

Me: “I’ll need a suggestion for this next scene. What’s the relationship between me and my scene partner here?”

Tipsy audience member: “ZOOLOGIST AND GIRAFFE!!!”

Me: ::4 milliseconds of sheer panic, followed by a mildly entertaining scene:: 

Audience: ::scattered and confused applause::

Me: ::regretting my life choices::

~FIN~

Did I mention I study/perform musical improv too? That means I get a suggestion from the audience, listen to an 8-count vamp of previously unheard-before piano music, and then perform a full song which is ideally funny AND sung in rhyming couplets. No pressure. 

And then there’s the standup stuff.

In a ballet studio, you work on your moves under the critical gaze of your director. Afterwards, the director painstakingly goes over your work so that you know exactly what to do in order to improve. Go through that process about 100 more times, and you’re ready to perform.

In the standup world, you think of a funny idea, scribble it into a ratty notebook, then awkwardly deliver it at an open mic that same night. You typically perform for a small room of other comedians who’re too busy thinking through their own material to even glance up at you. Your 3 minutes end in a vacuum of silence. Was it bad, or were they just not listening to me? Should I keep working on this bit or throw it out? Does everyone in this room actively hate me? Should I ask my doctor about Lexipro? 

So why am I doing this?

For the same reason I pushed through all the heartache and struggles in ballet: because I love it. Making people laugh brings me more joy than most things in the world. I saw the writing on the wall even at the height of my dance career. I can do a spot-on impression of every Artistic Director I’ve worked for- British, Australian, Chilean, French. In the rare opportunity I got to be funny in a ballet, I was absolutely thrilled. I hammed it up as ‘Helena’ in our company’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The only role I ever asked for in my entire career was that of the Party Scene’s ‘Fat Girl’ in Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker. I got to wear a fat suit, pick my nose, and act like a supreme brat. Hog heaven. 

Similarly to dance, comedy can be a wonderful way to make important observations about society.

I live for performing satire worthy of bringing someone immediate joy while also sneaking in a unique point-of-view they hadn’t previously considered. Luckily, all of those dancing years weren’t for naught. I know who I am as an artist. I’m comfortable expressing myself in front of a crowd of strangers. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for my abilities to catch up to my dreams, just like I had to in my first ballet class at age 4.

Maybe I’m already more of a comedian than I give myself credit for— both art forms have nearly impossible odds of success, and both cause frequent and massive blows to the ego. Maybe we all have to be a little nuts to attempt either one. Either way, I’m willing to fight through this constant anxiety and fear of failure in order to entertain huge audiences again someday. But hopefully this time, they’ll all be laughing at me.

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