Ecos de amor
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Oh, how amazing it feels to open our house to the public! To have an audience in front of us and hear the sound of their applause. Even if the theatre is not as packed as before, this is already a start. Hopefully a sign that things are getting back to normal. Waiting in the wings right before the curtains went up on the 18th of May, I could hear the audience (our fans) cheering us on and felt immense gratitude and excitement to be back. This has been a long wait, but we were received with a very warm and special welcome, a standing ovation!
Opening our programme "21st-century Choreographers" was Within the Golden Hour, a piece by Christopher Wheeldon that many might have seen before. We streamed it a few months back but never got to do the shows due to theatres being shut again. It was a real gift this time to be able to deliver all the promised performances and not disappoint those that had their tickets, but the icing in the cake, for me, was to be dancing Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo alongside a brilliant cast. I could not have asked for a better return to the stage.
Ever since working with Crystal four years ago in Flight Pattern, I have been totally mesmerized by her vision, her artistry, her way of being. I had only heard rumours of a great Canadian choreographer - a woman - being commissioned by international dance companies and creating extraordinary ballets. I found out since that she also runs her own company in Vancouver - Kidd Pivot - where she lives with her husband and son.
At the earliest opportunity I went to see her company perform the acclaimed Betroffenheit at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, where she is Associate Artist, and was completely amazed. Her works have won many awards, and I could see why.
My whole life I have been somewhat skeptical about contemporary dance. I’ve always seen myself as a classical dancer; in fact, I believe it all started when I was very young and had to perform a contemporary piece for a competition in Brazil (one that was way beyond my capabilities), a challenging solo that was created on me by a renowned Brazilian dancer and choreographer, named Ivonice Satie, who I desperately wanted to impress.
The process nearly traumatised me. I wanted to prove myself worthy of her time but felt extremely unprepared for what was to come, throwing myself to the floor quite harshly and not knowing how to move that way. I never knew there was a right approach to it, that it required as much control and body awareness as in classical ballet. It was a hundred times harder than what I anticipated, and I shut myself completely from it.
'It is just not my style,' I used to say.
From that moment on, I decided that my thing was classical ballet. I wanted to dance traditional ballets like Gisele and The Sleeping Beauty, hence why I've always wanted to join The Royal Ballet. But the minute I arrived here, I realised that the company did everything, much more than just the classics. They were versatile dancers, and so I had to be too! I suddenly thought to myself… if these beautiful classical ballerinas can move this way, so can I!
To my surprise, I got chosen by a few guest choreographers coming to create new work, and felt less and less afraid of embracing a new dance style. It's like life gave me another chance. At first, it was quite uncomfortable; I felt like a fish out of water, but then my confidence started to grow and my mentally change. A turning point was working with Hofesh Shechter, an Israeli choreographer, who made his Royal Ballet debut in 2015 with Untouchables.
We all have an innate ability to move, to feel and express ourselves in ways we can't even comprehend. Some things might not come to us naturally because of our background, training, or simply because of our preconceptions and images we create of ourselves, but when put in a safe and comfortable environment, we discover another side of us we never knew existed. Moving beyond our comfort zone, we can really develop artistically and spiritually, I believe. This is how I feel when working with Crystal and her team.
You are dancers, all of you. Life moves you; life dances you. To dance is to investigate and celebrate the experience of being alive. Like life, a dance creates and destroys itself in every moment. Like love, it is beyond reason. - Crystal Pite
The last two months have been of careful preparation, workshops, contemporary classes, rehearsals, Zoom calls, and insight evenings. This came at an ideal time, when we had not yet dived into our crazy busy schedule and the classical repertoire. Just like with Flight Pattern, this rehearsal process was intense, I’d say even more challenging because the two pieces Crystal chose to re-stage, Solo Echo and The Statement, were not created on us. They were both made for dancers of the Nederlands Dans Theater in 2012 and 2016 respectively. Watching them on video, I just kept thinking... how are we going to do this? Their quality of movement was unique, just the right amount of effort, resistance, fluidity (excerpts can be found on the video I posted at the end). We had a long way to go!
The only means for us to be able to achieve that was diving head first into the process, to really spend time workshopping, learning the phrases and doing them over and over again until it became more natural to us. We were shown how to isolate different parts of the body, how to originate a movement from the head, chest, hips; we spoke about different levels of complexity, scale, and trajectories of movements. What is the intention behind it? What is the ‘final destination’?
We learned a warm up routine which started off by us feeling the pressure of our feet on the floor, sliding our legs with resistance in every direction like they weighed 100 kg each, so that we could feel more grounded. We also worked on counterbalancing, running, sliding down into the floor (and not collapsing, like I did as a girl), and most importantly, bringing our attention to what is happening around us, almost anticipating each other's moves.
Collective effort is a recurring theme in Crystal’s works. This was done in Flight Pattern, where thirty-six dancers work together to portray a community of refugees. This collaborative work is also an integral part of Solo Echo, performed in a much smaller scale. There are only seven dancers, each representing the strengths and qualities of a single entity, an everyman character coming to terms with himself.
In the first movement of a Brahms sonata, this character is young and ambitious. There is inner conflict, passion, anger, struggle, power, feelings that are expressed in duets and solos and echoed through the seven of us, like we represent different dimensions of what it means to be human. The second movement becomes more nostalgic and reflective, like the end of a life, and that is really when we become as one.
I've always enjoyed feeling this connection with my colleagues and the choreographer, sensing each other and moving as one body. It resonates with life, it brings us closer together and makes us be on the same level of awareness, working towards the same goal. It is not so different from the big corps de ballet numbers after all, like Swan Lake or La Bayadere, which are all about team effort and being aware of each other. It helps us build skills that any dancer should aspire to have. To achieve something on your own is amazing, but to feel like you have achieved something collectively and to share this emotion feels even better.
Having leaders that inspire you to be a better person, to respect one another and work as a team, making the rehearsal process a collective journey of exploration... that brings a whole new meaning to the job. This is what I am lucky to have experienced here with The Royal Ballet. What an honour to have been a part of this, to be given a chance to develop artistically and connect to those around me, dancers and audience, on a meaningful level. It was an experience of a lifetime, one I am truly grateful for.
Because of the pandemic, Crystal couldn’t be with us in person. While stuck in Vancouver, her assistants Eric and Spencer were here teaching us the choreographies, rehearsing endlessly, and guiding us step by step. They were just as patient, nurturing and inspiring, giving us their time and effort like we meant the world to them.
Towards the final weeks, Crystal watched our last rehearsals in the studio and stage calls via Zoom, giving us feedback and her words of wisdom, never seeming frustrated by the situation and always with a positive and loving attitude, which just summarises how I see her as a person.
She wrote us a lovely note for opening night, and I took the liberty of sharing a few lines here. May it echo through the rest of our seasons.
"My heartfelt wish is that you have a good adventure out there on stage - that you trust yourselves to dance right on your edge. That you feel beautifully and touchingly human in your effort and your vulnerability. That your dancing is a manifestation of love for each other, and for life itself."
You can still catch the live-streamed performance of The Royal Ballet's '21st-Century Choreographers' by following the link, available online until the 27th of June: https://www.roh.org.uk/tickets-and-events
Insight Evening of Solo Echo with Eric Beauchesne, available in full at the Royal Opera House YouTube channel. (dancers: Francesca Hayward, Cesar Corrales, Isabella Gasparini)
Crystal talks about the language of the body, the purpose of her choreography and the creative process for Solo Echo. Excerpts of NDT dancers at 8:20''
Notable quotes from Pite’s talk: “Balance feels still and peaceful.” “Conflict is part of breakthrough creativity.” “Your body is your location. When you dance you are profoundly engaged in being there.” “Do I want the audience to like my work? Yes, but it’s about reaching them. I try to build many pathways to connect.” “I’m not an artist, I’m a craftsperson. I don’t rely on inspiration. I just work and create.”