Rituais do dia-a-dia
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There is such mystery surrounding a ballerina’s life. What lies behind-the-scenes, making the magic happen on stage? How many hours a day do we train? What is our routine like? What do we eat? How do one prepare for shows? It is a profession quite unlike any other, where you don’t have an office or computer in front of you, no customers or patients to attend to… it is enigmatic because a great deal of the work that we do (like in other art forms) is hidden from the public’s eye. What we present is only the final product.
Perhaps that is why World Ballet Day has become so popular, as it offers a sneak peek at the inner workings of some of the most prestigious dance companies, opening a window to the day-to-day life of a dancer. It is still a limited view, nonetheless. We have skipped a few steps of the process and present the final stages of rehearsals. Everyone is always in their best behaviour. In reality there are, indeed, a lot of trials and errors, failings and struggles, even for the best professionals.
If we were watching a painter at work, I believe we would first witness him making drafts and sketches in pencil, lines being drawn onto a blank canvas, the added layers of colours and texture… If we go even deeper, we would ask him what inspires him to paint, how does he/she refine technique, what are the setbacks? The rehearsals being live streamed are like a colourful picture already on the stages of refinement prior to a performance. The biggest effort happens in between the lines, every day, and it starts in ballet class.
The other night, I was at a charming little French restaurant in Marylebone having delicious cheese fondue for two, and began to observe a waiter. I said to my boyfriend: ‘Oh my.. He has to repeat the dessert menu, everything that is in it, to new customers at every table. What a repetitive job!’ to what Kevin replied ‘Well, don't we repeat the same things in class every day? Isn’t what we do a bit repetitive too?’
He was right. We do repeat the same exercises at barre and centre at the start of every single work day. We do slight variations of pliés, tendus, jetés, rond de jambés, fondus, frappés, adages, and grand battement ever since we came to know ballet! In centre, we have again the adage, pirouettes, small jumps that gradually progress into big jumps and, if time permit, a coda of fouettes and manages. The class builds in difficulty, energy, and speed.
One cannot skip barre and go straight into centre because each exercise at the barre is made to warm you up slowly and safely for what lays ahead, from doing simple pas de bourres to split jetes. Most importantly, it is how you place yourself correctly (we say it puts us “on our legs”) for all the turning, jumping, and balancing that dancing requires. Class is not just an exercise of the body; it is a training of the mind as well.
Ballet masters have different styles; they make up different combinations of steps, following that exact progressive order, to suit a certain methodology and emphasise what they feel to be essential. Each has their own approach, and classes can differ in tempo and dynamic. If it is someone we are used to having for class, we can sort of predict what is coming. Proof of that is what happened last week...
We had a little technical issue: one of our television sets wasn’t working. There was sound, but no image. Worth mentioning that, in these pandemic times, we have been separated into groups and sometimes end up in a studio with no teacher, classes being filmed and transmitted from the Ashton studio. Well, our group in the De Valois studio had no visual queues but managed to pick up every exercise (to some extent) and do the entire class being led by the teacher's voice, the music, and our common sense. I couldn't say if we were spot on every time, but I thought this was a great achievement, one I had never experienced before.
If we are doing the same thing every day, does that mean we can go into autopilot or robotic mode? Absolutely not! Dancers need to cultivate a body-mind connection, be very aware of what they are doing so as to create a sort of muscle memory, a way that we can be sure things will work every time. Personally, I don’t trust luck to help me in challenging times. In class, we are essentially practicing steps that we are going to be doing in some shape of form during a performance. We need technique to hold on to, especially when feeling anxious.
Classes are there for us to build muscular strength, coordination, and confidence in our abilities, amongst other things. Most dancers arrive in the studio half an hour or more before class to warm up (a warm-up before our proper warm-up). Some like to cycle or do pilates exercises or stretching, but that alone couldn't prepare us for the physical demands of classical ballet.
I have always believed that class is crucial for a successful and healthy career. Especially in professional life, it might be the only way to keep our technique and bad habits in check. I would love to be able to say that classes are always as energetic and uplifting as one sees in World Ballet Day, but it is impossible to sustain that level of energy throughout a busy season. There is always something positive one can take from it though, even when feeling exhausted.
Truth is, when we are behind closed doors, ballet class is a moment of quietness and complete focus in ourselves. It is way more internal than a showcase of tricks and abilities (unless someone you want to impress is watching at the front of the room). It is much more a sort of meditation, a way to focus on your breathing and connect with your emotions, to make sure body and mind feel alright.
It takes a lot of caring and love, but if you approach ballet as a spiritual exercise as well as physical, you won’t focus so much on what it looks like, but on how you feel internally. Moving to the sound of beautiful classical music, that in itself can be all that it takes to bring back some energy and positivity into our days. Dancing needs to be organic, to come from within.
Training is such a vital part of ballet, but there would be no shows without rehearsals. No matter how long you've danced professionally, you need time in the studio to practice your roles. It is a long process of learning the steps, repeating several times, seeing what works and what doesn’t for each individual, coordinating lifts and grips with your partner, learning when to push and when to catch your breath, besides working on interpretation, finding your character.
The only way to build stamina is by executing the number or piece from start to finish. Each ballet feels different and you most likely feel out of breath when you start doing something new, no matter what you have been dancing before it. I never understood that, but it is a fact. It feels as if we have to teach ourselves how to breathe differently for everything that we do. Quite often, dancers complain there is not enough rehearsal time in the studio. We never feel ready.
I often wondered why I dance well when thrown unexpectedly into a role I haven't rehearsed or haven't really prepared for, but I suppose it is because I trust my instincts and let things happen naturally. I don’t know what to expect, therefore I have no fear. The minute I start rehearsing I create expectations, overanalyse steps, and start building monsters in my head. It doesn't make any sense, I know, but it happens a lot and I'm sure I'm not the only victim of my mind.
Some rehearsals can be wonderful, others very frustrating. The body gets tired or just doesn’t feel right, you feel completely “off your leg” (off balance), or not in the right mindset. Part of being a professional dancer is learning to deal with those days when you are just a little vulnerable. I understood with time that it is only natural we have good and bad days, just like in everyday life. I wait for the feeling to pass, not expecting things to be perfect, and realise more and more how our thoughts can play a vital part in how we dance and how satisfied we are.
Things don’t always go as planned and that is what rehearsals are for too: teaching you the art of improvising, not letting the public see that something didn't work quite well or that you feel a little off. That, for me, has become the most striking difference between an inexperienced ballerina and a mature one. Great dancers always seemed so flawless to me, but now I know that even they have difficult days (they are just very good at covering it up). The truth of the matter is: the more you perform a role, the more comfortable it feels and the more you trust yourself to be able to do it. Self-confidence is key.
For me, dancing is a journey of self-discovery. It is as emotional as it is physical and goes beyond what the eyes can see. It is about making choices, following my intuition, and having absolute faith. It certainly gets me out of my comfort zone and teaches me more about myself than anything else. How will I react today? How can I stay positive? With so many years of training and experience, one should be able to master things quite easily, but there is a lot happening inside our minds, blocking us. Rehearsals are opportunities for overcoming our fears and insecurities, training our minds as well as bodies, allowing ourselves to fail in order to learn from our mistakes.
I've always loved finding out what goes into making people excel at what they do, observing what kind of lives they lead. One of my favourite films as a child was Nadia (1984), the true story of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, from the start of her training in her childhood to how she went on to receive seven "perfect 10s" in the Montreal Olympics. What I liked about the film was seeing the hours of intense practice and concentration, how Nadia grabs an opportunity with both hands and makes history, and especially seeing the bond she creates with her coach, Bela Karolyi. It is the sort of relationship I built myself with my former coach, Toshie Kobayashi, and something I truly value.
I strongly believe that behind every success story, there is a wonderful coach and a strong support system.
A glimpse into this reality makes things feel more "real" and tangible. World Ballet Day showcases the manner of which dancers train and rehearse every day. One gets a sense of our physical effort, how each dancer and company is very unique, but ballet is much more than that. As professionals, we each take responsibility for our job, our health, our daily habits. We all work very hard and hope that the it bares fruit. I think we all want to be the best dancers that we can be, do what we feel is within our reach, or even beyond. It is certainly what I strive for every day.
"Until you spread your wings, you'll have no idea how far you can fly" - Napoleon
Nadia Comaneci at the age of 14 (1976), in Montreal.