The Culture of Bowing

Curtsies, Bows, and Curtain Calls

By Amanda Wicks
 
It may seem like things quiet down onstage immediately following a performance at New York City Ballet, but there’s one big moment left. Bowing creates a flurry of activity, from the stage manager calling out orders, to the dancers trying to catch their breath. “We’re just trying to give all the pretty that we have left,” says Principal Dancer Megan Fairchild.

As with most cultural institutions, bowing at NYCB starts out as a moment to recognize the dancers who performed that evening. Soloist Sara Adams explains, “The corps goes forward and back, and then [the stage manager] calls run-ons from the side.” But beyond that, the Company’s culture of bowing has a far more distinctive feel than other dance companies.

After each ballet’s collective curtain call, NYCB’s signature golden curtain drops a second time before a small section pulls away, creating a more intimate moment for certain featured dancers — typically soloists and principals — to get closer to the audience. “It all depends on the ballet and the choreographer and the intensity of the dancing,” explains Principal Dancer Tess Reichlen about the decision to step out front.

Each choreographer provides bowing notes. “Usually it’s decided per ballet what the standard is,” says Soloist Brittany Pollack. But it’s stage manager Marquerite Mehler who keeps track of that information, stewarding the dancers post-performance each time a ballet returns for a performance. “She’s the one who will remind you every season what’s protocol,” says Fairchild. Mehler also calls for additional bows depending upon each audience’s applause. “Stage management will judge that and tell us what to do,” says Pollack.

For as much work as goes into learning a ballet, most dancers first curtsy and bow by watching one another. “I was never officially taught how to bow,” says Pollack. “I learned from watching the other dancers, and copying how they did it.” Reichlen agrees. “There was no learning, really,” she says. “I think it was imitation.”
 
But Balanchine did have a preference. “Balanchine wanted demi-pointe in a curtsy,” says Soloist Sara Adams. The practice has become Company culture. “It’s a matter of NYCB pride that we demi-pointe that back foot,” says Fairchild.  

Things work differently for the male dancers. “It’s pretty basic for the guys,” explains Principal Dancer Andrew Veyette. “Your feet are together, sometimes you do a mild bevel. The arms are usually a little bit above the shoulder because below looks too much, I think, like you’re presenting yourself.” And while it’s nice to step into the spotlight, the dancers at NYCB all realize the importance of sharing it. “My priority in the first bow and pretty much throughout the whole thing is, ‘Wasn’t she wonderful?’” he says about bowing with a partner. “To be a little chivalrous about it.”
 
As Veyette pointed out, arms become a way in which dancers add their signature to a curtain call. “The only way I can add my own personality [to bowing] is by adding different arms,” Pollack says. Adams adds, “There’s not much you can do except choice of arms, so you can bring them up to high fifth, or bring one out to the audience and say thank you.”

Balanchine famously didn’t like bows interrupting a program and distracting audiences. Knowing that has affected how Hyltin curtsies. “The funny thing about becoming a principal in this company is learning how to not bow so quickly that I look embarrassed, but still bow within the parameters that I feel Balanchine would’ve approved of,” she says. “And also in a way that’s gracious towards the audience for being there. It’s a very fine line.” 

The dancers know what a special moment it is to connect with the audience. “People are smiling and generally very happy, so it’s this nice return to earth, but it’s also a time to show how grateful you are for them to be watching you,” says Hyltin. The longer a dancer has been at NYCB, the more the audience has likely witnessed their journey. As a result, bowing can also feel like catching up. Fairchild says, “At first, it’s like a getting to know you, and then it’s like, ‘Hello, old friend.’”