The beginning of a new season at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo means several things; new and exciting places to tour to, extraordinarily hot temperatures in the studios, and pain. Lots of it. For most ballet companies, the start of a new season usually means having a little bit of time to slowly get your body back into working, dancing, order by having some time to start slowly, usually by learning new steps in a new ballet that is unfamiliar to most, if not all of the dancers in the company. For us however, we tend to start the season with one of our “rep ballets” of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s that we perform every year, and it known inside out and backwards by everyone in the company, save for the new dancers who are just joining us for the new season. This usually means that the beginning of a new season for us tends to feel like we’re getting “shot out of a cannon”!
Getting your body back in shape is not an easy thing to do after a holiday. The experience is different for each dancer, taking into account what their body can tolerate. For me, there is a fine line between how much time I can safely take off without having the return be too catastrophic, and yet also I know that my body needs several weeks at the end of the season of doing nothing. When I say nothing I mean I won’t even go into a gym and lift weights. I will just rest, relax, and eat. Which unfortunately I know that I will pay for later once I do in fact get back to work, but I just have to keep telling myself that my body will thank me later having let it rest. This period normally lasts about two weeks, and anything beyond that, I start to feel restless, and my brain also starts to say things like “you have a show only ten days after you get back to work, shouldn’t you be doing something” However, I’m also on vacation, and I want to still be free enough to have a vacation. What I will usually do is just stretch for the first few days, and nothing else. Then, I might add some easy exercises at the “barre”, slowly building up by adding one exercise a day. I might throw in some push ups or a few weights to do something for my upper body, so that when I come to lift a woman for the first time after vacation, it doesn’t feel like a totally foreign concept to me again! During the last few days of my vacation before I come back home, if I am somewhere that I can start taking a real ballet class, I do so.
Now, this doesn’t avoid the inevitable shock of returning to a full rehearsal day that lasts until 6:30, but it most certainly helps to lessen the pain, even if only a small amount; every little bit helps! Though I have to admit that most of the time, I am too excited at being back to work, and preparing to get back onstage to think about the sore muscles and joints. Well…perhaps just a little bit!
So here we are, on the evening of August 22nd, waiting for the dawn, and the start of the new 2011/2012 season at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. It was a fantastic vacation, but I feel now that the time has come to try to remember what real life and responsibilities are like again.
During my vacation, I was asked to return to my old ballet school in my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and speak about my experiences both in training, and as a professional dancer. Several people had asked me afterwards if I might be able to put the speech on my blog or publish it in some way. So without further ado, here is the speech that I gave at 6pm on August 11 at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I remember the first day that I walked into the Conservatory…Yes, there were the cracked floor tiles, broken ceilings, odd odours, and a ceiling that would reverberate with the sound of a thousand galloping horses in the main office when people would be jumping in the recital hall above…but I hoped that I had found a new home of sorts. I also hoped hat Barb…or should I say Ms. Dearborn would be able to take my awkward and…marginally flexible 9-year-old self, and turn him into a boy who could dance.
Yes, there were the usual hurdles to overcome being a young man just entering into the world of ballet: Being the only boy in classes, to struggling to lift your legs, to uncomfortable conversations about the necessity of buying a first dance belt! It was an important year for me, when I learned that ballet was not just something that I did to improve my work in theatre (I was a child actor, but that is a story for another afternoon), but something much more. It was a CAREER.
When I was 11, I left Halifax, my home, and my family to attend Canada’s National Ballet School. I was a naturally very, very homesick child, so the choice to go shocked many people, but it was something that I wanted to do. I thought that I wanted to be a ballet dancer.
As it turned out, it was just that. I did only THINK that I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I didn’t yet KNOW it; and it was apparent. I was not re-accepted for the following year, but with the proviso that I would leave for a year or two to find my focus, and if I did indeed wish to return, that they would be happy to see me.
So I returned to the Conservatory and became the very first member of the new “professional program” and back into…Ms. Dearborn’s care. I think that I should take this time to discuss just how much she deserves the title of “Miracle Worker”, because that is exactly what happened with me. Yes, I was a musical child, but the things that I had going for me pretty much ended there. I had no grasp of fundamental technique, and couldn’t even touch my toes. I remember day after day of morning coaching sessions (I was attending King’s View Academy upstairs at the time, so I had the freedom to come down to dance for a couple of hours in the mornings) with Barbara just holding my leg on her shoulder, slowly inching it closer to my head. Goodness did we work that year, so much so that I did two RAD exams in one year…and passed both with flying colours. Having an ego at all is something that most professional ballet dancers find extraordinarily hard, but that year, I freely admit that I had just a little one. I was transforming, and I could see it right before my eyes.
I did indeed return to the National Ballet School the following year, having discovered that ballet was indeed something that I not only KNEW I wanted to do, but something that I KNEW I COULD do.
While at NBS, for two years I had the most typically Russian teacher I think that I have ever met in my entire life. He was extraordinarily tough on me and my technique. Positive reinforcement seemed like a foreign concept to him. I remember one class in particular when we were doing adagio in the centre or something like that. I made an incredible mistake, totally lost where I was in the combination and had to walk off and start again. He only said one word while the music was stopped: “Congratulations.” and then looked at the pianist to get her to start again. Luckily, I did not have him forever. I thought that he was putting far too much value on technique and nothing else, but it was what I needed at the time.
Despite the difficulties that I occasionally found in ballet class itself, coming to the stage was something I always looked forward to with unabashed joy. I was incredibly lucky to be able to perform some of the things that I did when I was in school. Including an adaptation of the Lord of the Flies, George Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, The peasant pas de deux from Act I of Giselle, and a duet called Four Proverbs…a piece that former National Ballet of Canada Artistic Director James Kudelka choreographed on us. It was my very first creation by a known choreographer that I was ever in, and still my most vivid stage memory. My stomach still flips when I picture that blue curtain at the Betty Oliphant Theatre going up in front of me and hear those opening clarinet notes….slowly turning around to face the audience for the first time.
I was about seventeen when I got on a streetcar on a cold and snowy morning in January to head to the Walter Carsen Centre; home of the National Ballet of Canada, to audition for the company. It was my very first professional audition, and I. Was…. Petrified! I was most certainly not a stranger to the competitive world of auditioning, but by that point it had been a very long time since I had to don a number to stand in lines and be judged by several severe looking people sitting behind a table. I have a particularly clear memory of standing at barre doing rond de jambes or some such, and Karen Kain herself was walking around the studio of roughly 90 people, all who were vying for the 8 apprentice positions that the company had that year. She would walk around with her paper and clip board, and standing no more than almost an arm’s length away, and watch you. The temptation to look and lose focus on what I was doing was almost more than I could bear.
Whatever it was that she saw that day, she must have thought would fit well with her company, because about a month later, I was offered one of the places as an apprentice with the National Ballet. Never did the phrase “It is my pleasure to inform you that…” have so much impact on me…or make me jump up and down, screaming with delight.
It was an odd thing for me; to get up, shower and eat food that I had made myself, get on the subway and go to WORK. No uniforms, no school, just dancing. It was fantastic, I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to do the thing that I loved the most, all day, every day. However, the transition from student to professional also had its challenges. The largest being the “fall down the ladder”. When I was in grade 12 at the Ballet School, I was the top of the top, the oldest and most experienced (and besides only a few of my classmates, one who had been at the school the longest). When I joined the company, it was like the very first time I threw on my NBS uniform and walked into class at the age of 11. The absolute lowest of the low. There is a strong hierarchy in most classical ballet companies that cannot be explained or even fixed. It’s just something that has to be accepted.
Luckily, there is a separate ballet class in the mornings for the apprentices most of the time. And for the first few weeks, the only time that we ever saw anyone from the company was in rehearsals, but after a while, mostly due to scheduling conflicts, it was time for us to start taking our morning class with the rest of the company.
I think that watching dancers stream into the studio in the half an hour before class is almost more interesting than watching the class itself. You learn a lot about the dancers just by watching their pre-class ritual. You see who arrives a half hour or more before to warm up, and the people who arrive two minutes before (or in some cases, even during plies!), the ones who carry on lively conversations, and the ones who don’t remove their headphones until they see everyone getting up to stand at the barre, the ones who help to move the freestanding barres to the centre of the room, and the ones who just lay there sleeping. But there is one thing that is never different…. everyone always stands in the same place at the barre; every morning, without fail. Let me just say that coming into class on that first day and not knowing where all 60 members of the National Ballet of Canada stand to do their morning barre…is not a pleasant experience. If you’re lucky, one of the younger dancers might indicate to you that the place you have chosen is in fact occupied by a principal dancer. If you’re not so lucky however…my condolences!
For me, all these practical considerations were not very important. I was there for one reason: to get on stage. Unfortunately, being an apprentice, there are times when even this becomes rather difficult to achieve. Every dancer in the National Ballet of Canada is also required to become a member of the Canadian Actor’s Equity Association, both for our protection and the protection of the company. There is a rule in our contract with the union that states that all roles must first be filled by full company members before the apprentices are allowed to compensate for any lack of dancers. This means that more often than not, you either end up being in the “second cast” (which they try to have on stage an equal number of times as the first cast…but never happens) or an understudy; which means that you have to sit around and pray that someone drops from an illness or injury. Often in this case, you’re given more than one place to learn, which means the workload is far more than a member of the corps de ballet, and more often than not you will never get a chance to dance that role onstage.
Early on in my first season with the National Ballet, I thought that I was the luckiest person in the company. We were doing Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite, and it just so happened that one of the “Jets” whose place I happened to know the best of all of them had badly sprained his ankle…Gosh, I was so excited! And his recovery period would not have him ready to dance again in time for the performances. His place was now mine, and I was in the ballet. I rehearsed that ballet every day for a month, and at that point, I was the only apprentice in the ballet at all. However, there was trouble on the horizon.
Due to some scheduling problem, one of the new members of the corps de ballet that year, was unable to join us in Toronto until late October, which meant that he was not to appear in West Side Story Suite since he had missed most, if not all, of the rehearsals. There was a dancer in the company whose name I will not mention who was also our union representative. He told the ballet masters that it was a violation of union rules to have this apprentice dance in the ballet when there was a “perfectly capable” member of the corps de ballet member who was not involved at all, even if he did have to learn the whole ballet in a few days. I was finally removed from the ballet two days before the premiere, and I cannot remember the last time that I was that angry and upset. Needless to say, my first few months with the National Ballet had gotten off to a rocky start.
That was the lowest point of my first year, and the whole debacle really soured my view of the company…until The Nutcracker came along. Now, when I was a young student at the school, I had been involved in the production for several years dancing as one of the children (who have a very large role in the ballet compared to other versions that I have seen), and I remembered every day on that stage, looking at all those company members who seemed so experienced and so great, and I would have done anything to be like them…and now I was standing on the same stage with those same sets, but this time, I was one of them. Mind you, I did have to do some of the thankless jobs, including what we called “magic” which entailed sitting in a sled forever on stage, and handing toys out through a little “magical” hole while Uncle Nikolaj was passing toys out to the children, and dancing the role of the rear end of the dancing horse…both of which I don’t think I will be including on my CV any time soon. I also got to be one of the four crazy, cartwheeling waiters in the second act, which I have to admit was great fun, even if at the end of my two years I spent in the company, I had done over 40 shows of the same role!
Pretty soon, it came time for Karen Kain to tell us apprentices whether or not she wanted to hire us for the following season as a member of the corps de ballet. When I walked into her office, she told me that she felt that I was not yet ready to join the corps de ballets, but that she could really see me fitting into the company, and that she would like me to do another year as an apprentice. I heard most of the same words that I had heard every year that I was a student at the school: “I think that you are a great expressive dancer, but we really need to talk about some work that you can do in other technical areas. You are quite turned in, especially during jumps, and your grand allegro really needs work. I’d like you to take some extra studio time to work on these things.”
Can I let you in on a little secret? I dislike jumping. I really do. I know that I’m a man and men in ballet jump, but it was always my least favorite thing to do. Double tours, grand jetes, and saut de basques were the bane of my existence as a dancer. So doing extra work on them was not something that I was particularly keen on. But I thought to myself that if I really could buckle down and focus on these things, that the next year I would get into the corps, and maybe even a soloist several years after that. Then, who knew what I would able to do!!
That’s what I thought anyway. And so I went into another year as an apprentice. The director of the apprentice program was a man with whom I really did not see eye to eye. His approach to teaching irritated me, and I think my stubbornness irritated him. It was also in my second year that I discovered that every time we would rehearse a classical “white tights” ballet so to speak, I wanted to be anywhere but in that studio, struggling with my TURNOUT and my GRAND ALLEGRO. I still enjoyed the grace and beauty of ballet, but I wanted to MOVE!
And so it was in November, right before my first show as one of Arkadina’s admirers in John Neumeier’s “The Seagull”, that I walked into Karen Kain’s office and told her that I no longer thought that I was a good fit for the company. With incredible synchronicity, she told me that she thought I was a very talented and expressive dancer, that she would put me in contemporary works in a heartbeat, but every time one of those “classical, white tights” ballets came around, she would not be able to give me anything in it. She could see that I had really tried to improve in my problem areas, but that it was simply not where my body wanted to go. We both sat there for a moment, trying to process what the other had said. I think both of us had prepared ourselves for that meeting ready to fight, almost certain that the other would say the exact opposite, but for the first time, we were in agreement. It was a mutual separation under the best of circumstances.
The performance that I gave that night after the meeting with Karen was the best performance I ever gave in two years. I knew I would not stay there, and for the first time, I wasn’t trying to impress anybody with my dancing. I was just there, having fun, doing what I loved. It was a huge exhalation moment for me.
Of course, then came the question: “What the hell am I going to do next year?” I needed to move to a new company, but I had positively no idea where to begin. From January to April of 2009, I took Europe by storm, doing auditions. The search started off with a judicious selection of companies that I thought my mindset and style of dancing would be a good fit for (at least from what I had seen of them…the internet is a wonderful tool, isn’t it?), but as time wore on, and there were no jobs to be had anywhere, my net widened until I was heading to any company that would respond to my CV. I went to 10 different cities in three months that year and auditioned for 11 different companies. Everywhere from the super classical English National Ballet in London to the ultra modern Danish Dance Theatre in Copenhagen. Everywhere I went, I got the same lines. In the classical companies, it was “You’re classical technique is just not up to snuff for this company”, and in the modern ones, it was “You really look like a great classical dancer, and you have great technique, why are you not in a classical company?”
My patience was wearing thin, and I was getting ready to throw in the towel. I had had enough of the ballet world and its ups and downs. I felt that perhaps the universe was trying to tell me something, to move on and go back to my first love of theatre. There was one particular emotionally wrought phone call home that I remember having while I was staying at a friend’s house in Copenhagen, with a new rejection from the Royal Danish Ballet to add to my ever-growing list. It lasted well over an hour, but at the end, my mother told me to “stop rowing against the current”…and that’s what I decided to do. Stop getting caught up with everything, and let the wind take me where I was supposed to go. I had one audition left, for Jean Christophe Maillot’s Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in the principality of Monaco. A company that I had seen a year prior when they were on tour in Ottawa. I had taken class that weekend in Ottawa with the company in the hopes that they might consider giving me a job. At the time, they had told me that I was too young for the company, since the dancers are mostly over 25, but that there was a quality of mine Jean Christophe liked. They asked me to return in a few years time.
At that point, only a year had passed since I had first shown up in front of him in Ottawa, and I really didn’t think that I had a shot in hell. But, it was my last scheduled stop, and it was Monaco. If nothing else, I would get a few nice days in a warm city. A mini-vacation as it were. I had already pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I was going to stop dancing, and was making preparations to stay in Toronto and pursue acting and theatre instead.
So, I journeyed to Monte-Carlo, to the land of the rich and famous, which did fulfil its promise; it was very warm and sunny the whole time I was there! When I stepped into class on my first of two days, I was struck by how much of a difference there was compared to other companies that I had been to. Yes, it was routine morning class, but there was something about the atmosphere. It felt light, the people were all so nice and happy looking. People even started singing along when the pianist played a popular song at barre. It didn’t feel like a ballet company, it felt like a family. I was back in the game. It felt right, and I so wanted to be able to become part of this great family that I had discovered.
After the morning class, I was one of the few dancers auditioning that day (I think there were about 8 or so) who was asked to stay to learn a short piece from the company’s repertoire. The music was uncountable Stravinsky, and the movement style was totally foreign to me. I struggled to learn the steps of a short 45 second excerpt when I had the reputation back in Canada of being a very fast learner. I left feeling quite frustrated and downtrodden. I called home that night to report in about the events of the day. I said how awful I felt in the repertoire, so much so that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go back the next day. “I’ve lost it” I thought. Whatever it was that I had that made me want to be a dancer, I was sure it was gone. Once again, the ever-wise voices of my parents told me to “stop paddling against the current…” so I took a deep breath, slept on it, and went back the next day.
I’m not sure I have the words to fully explain what happened. I walked into the repertoire rehearsal on that last day like a new person. The day before, I could barely remember four steps in a row, and now the steps were just falling out of my body like I had been doing them for years. We were then to have a short half and hour in the studio with Jean-Christophe to show him what we had learned. I was fully prepared to walk into the studio, show him the 45 second bit once, and then be done with it. I did it once, and then he got out of his chair and started talking about it with me, giving corrections. Do this more like this, sharper here, and it would be better if you phrased this differently. He was working WITH me; not just sitting and judging my dancing in a way that I was starting to get used to. He was everything that I had hoped Karen Kain would have been. When I left the building, the woman in charge of auditions asked me rather cryptically if I would have the means to fax them parts of my passport, which I said I did, while desperately trying to hide my grin.
On the morning of April 23rd, 2009. I opened my email in the morning as I do every day. There it was again, that phrase: “It is my pleasure to inform you…” At that moment, I think that whoever lived in the apartments around me must have thought someone was being murdered. I jumped up and down and screamed like there was no tomorrow. Jean-Christophe Maillot, director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo had offered me a job. I couldn’t believe it. Against all odds, and my own brain, I had managed it. Joined the company where I KNEW I would fit. No “white tights and tutus”, but still with ballets that you can call ballets. It was a surreal day for me. I remember that I even had an apprentice school show that afternoon, and for the first time in a long time, I enjoyed it again. My friends were all thrilled. I remember walking up to one of my best friends, who was in the corps de ballets at the National Ballet at the time at the beginning of a Giselle rehearsal, and saying, very quietly: “Now, I don’t want you to scream or make a scene, but I got a job at Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo” Naturally, she didn’t listen, but I think her scream and that moment totally summed up my feelings on the matter: sheer joy!
And so, in July of 2009, I left Toronto, and Canada to move to Beausoleil, France, the city where I now live, just up the hill from Monaco, overlooking the Mediterranean Ocean. I’ve discovered that the company really is like a family. We work together, and live together quite often when we tour, which is extensively. Since joining the company, I have been to many cities in France, Spain, China, Italy, Switzerland, Romania, and Syria. And this coming year alone that list will expand to include Lebanon, the United States, Japan, Germany, and Turkey.
And with my new family, I’ve had the pleasure of dancing many exciting ballets. Everything from contemporary versions of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, and Scheherazade, to George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son and Maurice Bejart’s Rite of Spring. But the memory that I treasure most of all however was dancing Jiri Kylian’s Les Noces. I have admired him since I first discovered his work at the age of 14, and finally getting to dance something of his was a dream come true for me, but not only that. Jiri Kylian himself actually came to rehearse us for several weeks before the premiere. I have never stood in a studio full of dancers who are so quiet and awestruck. He is truly a legend, and I thought that I would have to wait years to finally be able to dance something of his, let alone meet and work with him.
Looking back on all the things I have done and all the experiences I have had, I consider myself very, very lucky for a 22-year-old. The thought of things to come, makes me giddy with excitement. Yes, there were some moments that were not very proud; my focus faltered, or I let the good old dancer’s “inferiority complex” get the best of me, but it takes time to find your niche. We never think we’re good enough. Or legs aren’t high enough, our feet don’t point, we don’t have enough turn out, or we need to work on our acting skills (which are just as important as all the technique in the world!) But the truth of the matter is, THEY WON’T BELIEVE UNLESS YOU BELIEVE. Once you do, you’ll find your spot, whether it be in life, or just standing at the barre at 10:30 in the morning, and it will be sunny and bright, maybe even with a breeze flowing through the open window. And when you find it, you’ll know that it’s a place to stay.
For those of you who know me, and know me well, it comes as no surprise to you to know that I was a child actor. Oh yes indeed. Appearing as the cute little boy with the bicycle asking the man at the car dealership if he had “one of those 94 Grand-Am SE Sedans with air” (not to mention a big bit about the fact that the car had a REAL CASSETTE PLAYER!), or as the younger brother in a sitcom pilot who kept saying “I don’t wanna wear no pants!” (referring to the snow pants his sister was supposed to make him put on…of course!), or the personal favourite moment: the moment that actually cemented both in my three-year old mind and into the minds of my parents that I was meant to be a performer…
It was the Nova Scotia Drama League’s annual “All-Star-Fantasy-Frolic” (say that five times fast); the show was Annie, and I was playing a little apple seller boy on the street during the scene when all the homeless people sing “We’d Like to Thank You”. My father was a member of the band, playing the drums, and I believe that is how I got involved in the first place. So, it was the end of the show, the whole cast had done their curtain calls, and were exiting as the band was doing the “play off”. The lights were going down, and there I was standing all alone at the front of the stage, totally oblivious to the fact that my fellow thespians were no longer there with me. In my memory of that moment, which is actually one of my most vivid early memories, I was actually scanning the large audience to see if I could spot my nanny/babysitter, who my mom had told me was coming that night. There were so many people, and I remember looking over all the faces and seeing all the strangers that had just watched me do something on a big stage. The only time I had ever gotten people to watch me before was when I conducted shows for my parents in the living room, as I’m sure many performers had done when they were young children. It was an unforgettable experience, and I still think about it every time I stand on stage during a “call” and look out into the applauding audience.
Believe it or not, I am not just delving into the past, but rather thinking about it and how it relates to my present. This coming week, we at Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo will be presenting Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Le Songe”…also known to English speakers as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. If you will bear with me and take a wander back to your high school English course, most of you may remember the different groups of characters in the play:
There are the Lovers: Lysander, Hermia, Helena, and Demetrius. As well as the other Athenians; the queen Hippolyta, the king Theseus, and Hermia’s father Egeus
There are the Fairies: Titania, Oberon, Puck, the page boy (or in our version: Puckette), and the other fairies
And finally, there are the Artisans (the ones who want to put on a play for the royalty): the carpenter Quince, the joiner Snug, the weaver Bottom (he’s the one who gets turned into a Donkey and Titania falls in love with him), the bellows mender Flute, the tinker Snout, and finally the tailor Starveling, played by yours truly! (In the second cast at least)
For all intents and purposes, this is a typical ballet; dancing to music. However the music is different for the different characters. For instance, the Lovers dance to the classical music by Mendelssohn, most of which was selected from the incidental music to his opera version of the play. The Fairies dance to odd electronic music, to give them a magical, otherworldly feel. The Artisans…well that’s just it…. We don’t really have music per se. I mean, there is the occasional “soundscape ” that we may have in the background, but for the most part there is none because we have dialogue. That’s right, you did hear me correctly. Dialogue
But speaking in a ballet you say??? That’s preposterous! Well, under normal circumstances, you would be correct, however these are not normal circumstances. Of course there are no long soliloquies or epic monologues worthy of Shakespeare himself, but our voices and other acting skills do get a fair bit of a workout. There is a slight bit of dancing that we do, both during our “performance” for the royals and when we are hypnotized by Puck. Apart of that however, it’s us and our expression, with no steps to hide behind.
I have to say, it’s been a very different process, but a very rewarding and fun one. There is a certain amount of freedom that we have as to the type of character we create (within the confines of what we have to do in a given scene, of course!), and I’ve found it to be so much fun to concoct a ballet persona that actually gets to speak from time to time. He’s a little shy, and nervously fidgets with his hands all the time, his voice sometimes cracks, and he also likes to sneak up on people and awkwardly stand there with no regard for personal space. When he has to audition for the part of the lion in the play against Snug…he screams. Like a little girl. And to answer your obvious question; yes, we are supposed to be funny!
So here I go, entering this last week before summer holiday, really looking forward to our (the second cast’s) chance to have our premiere in “Le Songe”. Wish us luck, because I know we’ll already be having fun!
So recently I was discussing how the use of video and the advent of the digital age has been changing the dance world in terms of how we learn ballets as dancers, and also how they are maintained over the years; staging after staging after staging. However, there is also another major way that the use of video specifically has changed the lives of dancers in companies all over the world: after the conclusion of a given program or performance, you can take the video and watch yourself, and examine the work that you have just done.
Now, sometimes the desire (or lack thereof, but I will get to that in a minute) to watch yourself dancing on video simply stems from curiosity: “how did I do?”, but it is also an invaluable tool for learning and making your dancing better. For instance, you can have a ballet master give you the same correction over and over again, and even though you understand what they mean, you may not be able to “fix” it in a way that is satisfactory to the people sitting at the front of the room. After having the chance to watch yourself, even just once, that same correction can be fixed in an instant: there is this “aha!” moment that occasionally happens if you’re lucky, and everything that anyone has ever told you about a specific step immediately becomes clear, like wiping the mirror after a hot shower.
Personally, I find that I learn an immense amount simply by watching myself dance. I actually like to watch a video of a premiere the next day, before the following show. I repeat this process several times during the run of a new ballet, and every day I try to pick out a couple new things to think about that night onstage in order to make my performance even the tiniest bit better. This is what we are always striving for, isn’t it? Perfection?
Though, this is a double-edged sword, because one can easily become bogged down and obsessed with the little details of your dancing, losing sight of the larger picture of the piece. This makes for a terrible onstage experience when you next dance the same ballet because all you can think about are the little details:
Be sure not to travel too much stage right
Watch the angle of your head in the back bend
Make absolutely sure to stretch your knees and feet in this next jump
And while this may improve how you look onstage, the spirit and joy is inevitably lost. It’s no longer fun to perform, and it starts to fee like WORK! Therefore a certain amount of detachment and realism about what you’re seeing stare back at you on the screen is imperative.
Many dancers also cannot stand to watch themselves at all. Some will just never be satisfied, and are constantly upset whenever they have to watch something that they have danced. There is often a disproportionate relationship between how a dancer feels during a performance, and what the end product looks like. You can have what felt like an amazing show, and the ballet master may say it was not your best work, or you may see the video and cringe in horror. The reverse is also true (and not to mention is a huge stress reliever when you can finally bring yourself to watch the video). I have developed a certain method that keeps my head sane during a run of performances: I always watch the worst one, the one where I was so tired I felt I could barely lift my leg, or I was in a bad mood and just wasn’t feeling it. I never look at this particular video critically however, I always just watch, as if I were a member of the audience. Afterwards I ask myself “how did I feel about my performance, without thinking about how it felt on the day?” more often than not, the answer is a resounding: FINE. Not great, just alright, which on an awful day is a blessing. Then I say this: “well, at least I know it will never look worse than that” Then I shower and go home, feeling slightly reassured about the whole thing.
Now let us all hope that I can continue to be able to feel that way for many years to come!
We live in a fantastic digital age don’t we? There is always information right at your fingertips, now more than ever, with the advent of the smartphone. There is always something new to watch or to listen to, or news happening somewhere in the world.
This age is both a blessing and a curse to the ballet world. On one hand, the process of learning a ballet is a much simpler one with video being so easily captured and stored. It is no longer necessary for someone staging a ballet to be intimately familiar with notation; Benesh Notation being the most common form. This is a way of writing down dance in an internationally recognized form, which is laid out almost like written music when you see it. Now, my knowledge of notation does not extend much farther than that, and it looks just as foreign to me as reading Mandarin…but I digress. We can now watch a video of any ballet that we have been asked to learn, which allows for the rehearsal director to save much-needed time when there is a time crunch if the dancers already have a loose idea of the steps they will be asked to do when they come into the studio. However, this is also a hotly debated topic both by balletomanes (people who love ballet) and the dancers and ballet masters themselves. For instance, a dancer will always have in his or her mind the way that they saw a certain step executed on the video, and will inevitably try to emulate it, whether consciously or not. In a way, there will always be some hint of the dancer who inhabited that role before (however this is most certainly not always a bad thing!). From a more practical stand-point, there is the issue of “how was this step meant to be?” I can’t tell you how many times I have stood in the studio, watching some performance over and over again, only to reproduce what was actually a mistake that the dancer on the video made. Perhaps he had a mental blank for a moment, or perhaps his turn was not quite going the way that he wanted it to, and did something that was not in the original choreography to try to save it from really going sour. Either way, whenever a new ballet master sees you dance the role, or has a different memory of the way it was, it more often than not leads to no small amount of confusion.
I remember when I was in school, one of my teacher told me a story about one specific ballet that he had danced. Throughout the ballet (it was very abstract), those who were not supposed to be dancing at a particular moment were allowed to wander around in the back on the stage, and watch those who were dancing. It gave the ballet a great feeling of competition between the dancers; A sort of “look what I can do!” and “oh really? I can do better!”. However, there was one solo in the middle section of the ballet for the lead woman, and there were specific instructions that no one else was to be onstage during the solo, any other time, but not then. Perhaps it was the rebel inside him, but on one performance, he felt a little different, and decided to stand in the upstage right corner with his arms folded or hands on his hips; watching her. He then told me that a recent video that he had seen of another company performing that same ballet had one person in the upstage right corner during the lead woman’s solo, arms folded. He inadvertently had changed the history of that ballet simply through that one choice he made that night!
So you see, video is both a blessing and a curse for us. I just hope that when the time comes for someone to learn off a video that I danced in, that I will have done the ballet justice!
Several months ago, at the end of April, when Spring was just starting to really assert itself (well, I have to admit that we were a little further along over here in Monaco!) Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo had just finished a run of five shows of a mixed program of three completely new ballets. These ballets had been created on us, and it was the very first time that anyone in the world had seen them. It’s quite a remarkable thing when you think about it, to be part of something new and exciting, not knowing at all what you will be wearing, or even what music you will be dancing to or what kind of steps you’ll be doing at the moment when you see your name on that rehearsal schedule to work with someone you probably have never had the chance to work with before. However for the moment, that’s all that I will say on the subject of dancing something totally new, because my thoughts are concentrated on one image that I associated with our last day at the Grimaldi Forum (our theatre here in Monaco) in April.
This is an image that does not necessarily have anything to do with that particular program, but it is something that happens frequently in the life of a performer of any kind. After the last show, after all was said and done, pictures taken, thank yous made, and make up put away, I was walking out of our dressing room (four levels below the ocean actually!) I noticed the garbage can in the corner. It was filled to the point of almost overflowing; with ballet shoes. Simple flesh coloured pieces of canvas, but that represent so much. They are perhaps the most important tools of our craft, they cover our feet, allowing us to jump and turn without the friction of bare skin on the floor, while still giving the illusion from the audience that our feet are as plain as the day we were born.
Yet there they were, discarded into the bin and left behind, as were our thoughts of the ballets we had just performed. They were new, and not actually part of the current repertoire, so who knows; maybe one of them will return again, and maybe not. It is quite possible that all the work that we did from January to April has faded into the past, it was well used and had served it’s purpose to allow us to reach the point of standing on that stage and presenting something new and exciting to the world. We have moved on to other ballets, both new and familiar, and all we take with us are the memories, or the things we learned about our dancing and ourselves, or maybe even an injury or two.
This process happens rather frequently for not just dancers, but for performers in general. We work and work and work towards a particular project, and in the end get a very disproportionate amount of time to share it with the world compared with the amount of rehearsal and effort that was put in, both inside and outside of the studio. Yet that’s why we do what we do, for that magic moment when the house lights are dim, and the audience is hushed, watching the curtain rise. That short moment of silence before the music begins holds nothing but potential and expectation, both from the audience: What are we about to see?, and from the dancers: I wonder how this is all going to go…. And with any luck, the end result is something that all involved can be content with. We live in this fashion, from magic moment to magic moment; leaving one ballet behind and moving onto the next. Though with any luck, we will take with us that which we have learned and use it the next time we grace that stage. Who knows, we may just surprise ourselves.
As I sit at my computer on this summer evening, and watch my hands flutter across the keyboard, one thing is one my mind: I’m not really “watching”! I sit, and think, and type a few letters, perhaps with the addition of an unwelcome x in the middle of an otherwise mundane word. It has turned into a very slow process…
It never used to be like that. I used to write all the time, whether it was a detailed essay examining setting in Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi”, or a short story about the day our family dog was run over by a car (he survived the accident, don’t worry!). However, now writing to me seems like a bicycle sitting up in the shed; one that I haven’t gotten a chance to ride in a very long time. Yes, I know, one could argue that I’m writing at this very moment, and that I have already done so if I simply just scroll down the page of this blog.
Just humour me for a moment, and scroll down, will you? Look at how the language has changed, even the simple paragraph structure has changed! I used to write long, and detailed paragraphs, now I feel like I jump from one idea to another, without much connective tissue to tie all the ideas together. If you don’t believe me from reading this blog, then all you have to do is listen to me speak lately. Stupid grammar mistakes and mispronunciations are becoming a much more regular occurrence, and I feel as if I’m starting to sound a little more like the friends I have who come from other countries where English is not the first language.
Four years ago (and I just had to stop myself from using the digit “4″ instead of the word!) I was writing up a storm, not to mention the fact that my brain was still “wired” for it. It feels like I’m deathly close to a short-circuit at any moment.
Well, to sum up the last four meandering paragraphs: I’ve been feeling stupid lately.
There it is. That awful stereotype that we’re supposed to do everything in our power to avoid people having these thoughts: that dancers are stupid. True, a dancing career is unlike any other in that most are employed in a ballet company full-time directly out of high school, there is no such post secondary grace period for dancers. After all, if we only can work until around the age of forty, and even less than that should a career ending injury befall us, we don’t have much time to lose.
So yes, we are lacking the formative years of post secondary education that a great deal of the population has…and that fact used to not bother me at all. Until I spoke a sentence that was so utterly incorrect and devoid of any grasp of English grammar, one of my Canadian friends in the company just looked at me in disbelief: “you speak so properly that we sometimes make fun of you, and you just said that??”
I knew it was time to do something about it.
Here I am, considering something that a year ago I never thought would even cross my mind; a university degree.
No, I am not planning on giving up my dream of dancing, but rather seeking something to complement the intensive work that I do with my body on a daily basis, since the upstairs half doesn’t get that much of a workout nowadays. Since we live in the wonderful age of technology, it can all be done online, one course at a time, while I keep up my fabulous life of doing what I love, and getting paid for it.
Maybe I should put in a call to the electrician, and see if he can repair a few of my “burnt-out” brain circuits first!
This past weekend was a special weekend for me (and I bet for some audience members as well, given the ballets we performed!), it was the first time Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo had ever been to Syria, and the first time that I had ever been to a middle eastern country. It was an “experience” from start to finish!
Now, given what has been going on in various countries in that area of the world, we were all slightly apprehensive about taking the trip to Syria. Especially since there is a huge protest against the government scheduled in Damascus on March 15th. After returning home to France, I can safely say that our worries were completely unfounded. I don’t think that I can remember a time that I have been to a place so different, and filled with so many multitudes of history and culture. And why should I have expected any less from the oldest most continuously populated city on earth, and has sometimes been called “the cradle of civilization”!
Embarking into the city our first day, we had to drive a fair distance since our hotel was situated closer to the airport than the city center, I was immediately struck by the incredible differences between rich and poor. Before you reach the center of Damascus, you have to pass homes that barely have walls, people making campfires in the middle of fields outside their homes, and huge, red, plastic water containers on their roofs. My first thought was “and we’re doing ballet here?”. It made me feel very lucky to be where I am and doing what I love day in, and day out.
Having said that, the reason that the company was invited to dance in the first place, was to benefit BASMA, an organization that helps children in Syria who are dealing with cancer, so in a very small way, I felt like I was doing my little part to help in some way! Judging by how full the audience was, I’d say we did pretty well…
Now, everyone doing their part for humanity aside, I have to say that I cannot remember the last time that I have been to a country when the food was so overwhelmingly fantastic every place we went (barring my checkered relationship with Arabic coffee…) although I think the company went through many upon many boxes of gum and mints in a four-day period, in an attempt to hide the amounts of onion and garlic that we had ingested. At least we were all slightly…shall we say “perfumed” in it, so perhaps it all evened out.
It was not all sight-seeing and eating, however. We actually did dance! Scheherazade and Daphnis and Chloe to be precise. I wasn’t sure how the ballets would be received, especially since Scheherazade has a slightly more “provocative” ending to the story, but when we finished the ballet and all was said I done, I was floored by the cheers and bravos coming from the audience. Perhaps a change is not as far off as I might think, and fingers crossed that they will have us back in a few years. And next time, I’ll be the first on the plane!
So, several months later, we get a little sneak peek at the work we did for the film version of Scheherazade. The full ballet airs this summer on French TV!
So here I am, sitting at home in good old Beausoleil once more. After spending three whole weeks in Torino, Italy, and gracing the stage twelve out of fifteen times while there. Not to mention rehearsals and orchestra runs, costume fittings and bus rides. Oh, and let us not forget Christmas and New Years, with three more shows at home in Monaco thrown in for good measure. But that all happened before January 3rd… and it is most definitely not January 3rd today. Nope, it’s the 16th in fact, and I here I am, finally ready and organized to head back to work: with one half of my second season with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo already behind me.
For the past twelve days, I have been spending my (I think) well deserved vacation time in the UK, in the place that is in my mind, far and away my favourite place on earth. London. Now, I could go on and on about the shows I saw (I spent a lot of time in my other favourite place on earth: the theatre!), and the places that I visited, but you could read about London just about anywhere. No, my trip to London got be thinking about something else, something that struck me very hard after I saw my first of six shows I saw while in London. It was Les Miserables. Possibly the longest show I have ever seen in my life, but it was still great. What struck me wasn’t the actual show so much as what occurs after it; the bows, or “curtain call” if you will.
Now, I have had some experience in musical theatre and in opera before, but most of my experience is in the dance world, and I have to say, that we dancers really like to milk this “curtain call” event for all it’s worth. However, at the end of Les Mis, I really wanted to show my appreciation for what was one of the most spectacular and moving shows that I have seen in recent years, but they all bowed once…and that was it. I was expecting bow after bow after bow based on the audience’s response to the show. It never came, they waved goodbye to the audience and shut the curtain while the orchestra played on, but it did not raise again.
On my walk home, I started thinking about curtain calls in different theatrical disciplines, and more importantly: recognition of the artists involved in any given production.
It all begins when you first arrive at the theatre. You have to pay for a program. Now, that’s all fine and well if you want a big, glossy book with pictures from the show that you can take home as something to remember it by…and maybe this is just because I am a performing artist as well, but I don’t really care about the pictures, but I will buy a program anyway, because it’s the only way to know who is performing what roles, and to get a background on the artists you’re about to see on stage. But I look around and see that a lot of people do not spring the 7 to 10 pounds to know about the people and background of what they’re about to see. With me, by the time intermission is over, I know everything about these people: where they trained, what other shows they have done…just a little bit about their professional life and their accomplishments as artists. I feel like I appreciate the show more because of this; I feel like I know them, even just a little.
And after the show, the performers bow. This is actually not as many people think, the artists taking in the admiration of the public. In actual fact, we bow to thank the audience for coming to watch us; giving us several hours of their time so that we can make them laugh or cry, or just show them something that will make them go home and think that it was money well spent. It’s a thank you for letting us do what we love in front of you.
Which brings us to the fine, fine line of a curtain call: How much is too much?
There are people in most shows who seem like they can clap forever, and depending on the audience, sometimes these people will, which means that the stage manager (the one in charge of everything backstage, and also gets to gauge the audience’s reaction to tell whether or not the company should take another bow) will keep sending the curtain up, letting the bows go on and on. I have been on both sides of the curtain for these never-ending calls…on one hand, if you’re in the audience and you absolutely loved the show, and you’re giving it a standing ovation, you love being able to communicate that to those on stage and to see their smiles as they hear and see how much you enjoyed their performance. However, if it was alright, or not the greatest thing you have ever seen, you feel badly to watch the performers keep bowing and to not clap for them.
As a performer, it’s great to hear that an audience enjoyed themselves…but very often it’s late at night, you’re tired, you’re wearing tons of make-up, and you’re hot. You want to have a shower, take off your make-up, and go home.
The worst feeling is to be on stage and to see people in the audience leaving the theatre (which happens if it goes on for long enough), and it’s almost embarrassing to be up there, still bowing while you feel that half the audience doesn’t care. This happened often in Italy, where I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or maybe they really didn’t like the show, but some people left when we were doing the very first full company “call”. There is a line between being sensible and disrespectful though. Take one moment to appreciate what the performers have just put themselves through for you, is all I’m saying.
Now, I know that my two points of view don’t really agree, but these were the things that I was wondering on my way home from Les Mis. For those who care to comment, let me know how you feel about the issue.
Having said all that, I won’t be taking another curtain call for about a month…but it’s back into the studio tomorrow, to begin rehearsals once again (some of it for totally new material, which I’m very excited about!). My muscles have sat around for long enough, it’s time to whip them back into shape for the second half of the season ahead!