I had a tough time with casting this semester. After 3 auditions, I was cast in only one piece in a student-choreographed production by one of my close friends. I was extremely lucky, after expressing my devotion to my favorite professor, that I was taken on as an understudy to a faculty-choreographed piece.
As eternally grateful as I am to have had any part in the creation of the piece, I struggled with understudying. Dancers by nature are perfectionists: we all are, to some degree. I'm pretty extreme in my perfectionism and my expectations of myself. I learned 5 parts, out of the 10 dancers cast.
Even if you've never been an understudy, think back to any piece you've been in. No two dancers ever do exactly the same thing, even if the choreography never differentiates between dancers. Your pathways on the stage and interaction with other dancers are always unique to your role in the piece. The piece I understudied was exclusively partner work: I had to learn partnering, 90% of the time without a partner, and hardly never with the partner that I would be dancing with if someone got injured.
However, this was not the hardest part of being an understudy. For me, the hardest part was not being in the piece. I was lucky that my choreographer did not ignore us understudies, that the cast was never coldly exclusive, and that my fellow understudies became my loving family. Despite all the positives, there was always the nagging jealousy of those that were cast that coupled with the contrasting fear of someone being injured and being thrown into the piece unexpectedly.
I was incredibly happy and proud of the dancers in the piece, and the sense of awe every time I watched the piece never faded. I was their #2 fan, right behind the choreographer. I knew all of their parts intimately, I videotaped every run, and I closely analyzed the music to the point where I knew it as well as the choreographer did (if not better). I was proud of my work. I'm so thankful that no one was injured and that I never had to replace anyone. At the same time, I desperately wanted at least one chance to feel the way they did, to be a part of the magic that went into creating the piece, an indispensable part of a beautiful, complex puzzle.
Understudying is an experience. Every performer should do it once: it builds your strength and character, as well as working your brain in a totally different manner. Being an understudy is essentially more difficult than actually being a part of the piece or performance. I gained so much insight into dance, emotions, and myself from my time understudying. At the same time, I know in my heart that it's not for me. And that's okay.