Video Clinic: In Search of the “Perfect 10”

The concept of the “perfect ten” is associated, at least for me, with Olympic gymnastics. A score of 10 was the highest possible score an Olympic gymnast could receive (at least it was until the rules were changed few years ago), and the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci made history in 1976 when she became the first female gymnast to score a “perfect ten” in Olympic competition.

The notion of the “perfect 10” showed up a few years after Comaneci’s win in the title of a 1979 sex comedy called “10,” featuring Bo Derek as the epitome of female attractiveness. That movie also made Ravel’s Bolero famous as a perfectly hilarious soundtrack for her tryst with the hapless Dudley Moore.

But I digress.

I’ve encouraged my students to think about what constitutes a “perfect ten” performance in singing acting, and I often begin the semester asking them to submit videos that document performances representing their ideal notion of performance. Bo Derek may have been divinely endowed with her “perfect ten” attributes, but for singing actors as for Olympic gymnasts, the “perfect ten” performance is the result of years of hard work and preparation, with painstaking attention paid to every detail. Any blemish or flaw that occurs at any point during the performance gives the judges a reason to deduct points from that perfect score, which means the challenge is not simply to be “the best,” but to execute a challenging sequence of specific events and do each and every one optimally, with perfect form and expressiveness.

Today I’m showcasing one student’s submission for the “perfect ten,” a performance by the singer and actress Heather Headley that was filmed during a live performance on Rosie O’Donnell’s television variety show. Headley, a singer and songwriter born in Trinidad, originated the role of Nala in the Broadway musical The Lion King before going on to star in the title role of the musical Aida, a performance that won her both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards. Since Aida, Headley has focused her efforts more on her music career, but she returned to the musical stage a year ago in London to play the title role in The Bodyguard, a musical adaptation of Whitney Houston’s 1992 movie.

Here’s the video:

One aspect of Headley’s performance that absolutely floors me (and did when I saw her play this role live onstage) is the quality of her diction. Heather has – well, let’s not beat around the bush, she has a large mouth, with an extremely flexible and well-conditioned facial musculature, giving her the ability to enunciate every word in a way that drives its meaning home.

Another thing I admire about this video is the way that she uses subtle but distinct behavior choices to support specific moments in the drama. Look, for instance, at the focus shift she makes between the first and second phrases (0:37), as she raises her gaze from the floor with a perfect eyes-first focus shift. Or the little tilt of the head she uses in between the repetitions of the phrase “It’s easy, it’s easy,” (1:05), which, combined with her tight smile, conveys the bitter irony hiding behind those words.

It’s a smashing performance, captivating and compelling, but not quite a perfect ten for me. For instance, I think there’s a small flaw at the beginning of the stanza at 2:29 on the tape, where she sings “But then I see the faces…” The word “but” for me indicates a strong shift in thought process from the preceding, but Headley’s behavior choice doesn’t do anything to differentiate this new beat from the previous. She appears to be caught up in the emotional drama, and her intensity is accompanied by a physical tension that mutes any impulse that she might have had to make an adjustment at the onset of this new thought.

I firmly believe there’s much to be learned from studying others’ performances, whether the singer is acclaimed or unknown. By thoughtfully analyzing the interplay of music, voice and behavior, it’s possible to discover a great deal about the art of expressive communication while singing. Watch some of the video (or indeed, any video) with the sound OFF, and you’ll learn even more.

What do you think? Is this clip a “perfect ten” for you? Am I being too picky? Are there other performances you’d nominate for that honor? Leave your link as a comment, and I’ll post more of these in the weeks ahead!

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    1. Maria, thanks so much for your comment! I share your enthusiasm for Kristin, and think she has a remarkably expressive singing-acting technique. I’ll have to be honest, though, this particular clip doesn’t really send me. Her sound is flawless, and her delivery is heartfelt and earnest, but I find her phrasing and her communication of the drama a bit general. You’ve probably read that a key component of my approach to singing-acting is the ability to work “phrase by phrase,” and I find that KC’s phrasing in this particular performance doesn’t show sufficient awareness of the particular content and the unique opportunities each individual phrase presents. Instead, she seems swept away by a sort of earnest rapture. I think her performance of “Glitter and Be Gay” on the Candide DVD with the NY Phil is a perfect 10, but I wouldn’t bestow that honor on this particular clip. Still, I’m thrilled that you shared it, and hope you’re enjoying the site!

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