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Backstage: Character revealed by movement

Suzanne Seiber is the choreographer for Brava! Opera Theater’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Seiber holds a Master of Arts degree in dance from the University of Oregon with a focus on movement training for actors. She teaches dance and choreographs in numerous settings including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Oregon Cabaret Theatre and Southern Oregon University. We chatted one morning at The Growler Guys in Ashland.

EH: How do you choreograph plays?

SS: A lot of it is character movement. As a theater choreographer you work with, “Who is this?” “What kind of movement is going to show who they are?” “What’s the mood of that particular moment?” and, “What’s going to make it pop?” It’s also about getting into patterns, to give a sense of the time, the place, the character, and then embody the music.

The study of acting styles examines all the different movement styles, on stage, from Greek, Renaissance, Baroque, through the ages, because movement reflects culture.

In Renaissance dance, the nobles thought their actions influenced the stars, just as the stars influenced them. The Elizabethans thought that if you went opposite to the “movement of the spheres,” you were working against the universe, and you were throwing chaos into the world.

In the 1950s, the Lee Strasberg method of acting was finding one’s own personal moments, getting actors to really be in that moment, and reflect it in the character. His method makes total sense for film acting: You’re seeing the character’s thoughts in close-up on the actor’s face.

In the more classical (British) style of acting, the actor can reflect something physically that will give the feeling, not only to the audience, but also to help the actor find the truth of the moment. When you’re lifting your head, and saying “Hello” to the world, in an open kind of way, you’re going to have a different feeling than you do when you’re pulling your shoulders together and slouching over.

How you move affects your thought and vice versa.

Releasing tension is part of becoming a really good actor, dancer, or singer. It allows a freedom of expression into realms that you don’t have if you’re stuck with your old patterns of “This is who I am, and this is how my body is.” I love dance because a lot of dance is getting people to say, “I can.” Your emotional flexibility and your physical flexibility go hand in hand.

You can learn some things through movement that you can’t learn in another way. When you see dance on stage, you’re experiencing that world somatically. You feel that movement in your own body, even if you’re not doing it. It takes the audience into that world in a whole different way than the words do. We’re watching the action of the actors, and then when we see the dance, it’s an opening in our brain to come into that world. It can bring poignancy to the dramatic action, a heightened sense of reality.

EH: What has a life in dance brought to you?

SS: It has brought me my very best friends, wonderful moments on stage, and a kind of imaginative life that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. When I’m choreographing something, I have to leave my own troubles at the door. It brings a release from everyday life that you just don’t have otherwise. You hear the music, you move. It’s a wonderful way of finding your inner self.

For information about Suzanne Seiber’s dance classes, visit www.suzanneseiber.com.

“Hansel and Gretel” performances start at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 22, and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at the Mountain Avenue Theater, 201 South Mountain Ave., Ashland. For tickets and more information, visit bravaopera.com.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director based in Ashland. To read more interviews with remarkable people, visit her blog at ashlandtheater.wordpress.com. Email her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com.

Suzanne Seiber