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I woke up Saturday morning feeling very optimistic. With purse, mask, and alcohol gel in hands, I dashed into Covent Garden for one last ballet class. It was finally the weekend, but I still needed to move, even if just a light barre to get my muscles awake. I don't like having two full days off prior to a stage rehearsal on Monday. It would be the start of an important week after all.
The Royal Ballet was in fact meant to be performing that Saturday. I was to do my first of three shows as Clara in The Nutcracker reworked, but we only managed a total of four performances before covid rules and regulations changed in London. Sadly, theatres had been shut down again and most dancers only got to perform one of their rehearsed roles, while some did not go onstage at all. I did the four shows as Columbine doll in Act I and Mirlitons. For the first time in my career, I wasn’t a snowflake (and have to say that I missed it). Being a soloist means you are not involved in big group numbers as much as the corps de ballet. I suppose if we had been doing the original version, with twenty something snowflakes, I probably would have been called for it.
We were a little shaken up by yet another disappointing announcement and the cancellation of so many performances, feeling sad for those who had worked so hard and for the people who bought tickets and looked forward to experiencing something new, or had attended The Nutcracker religiously year after year. It is so disappointing to have to break tradition, but it seems that we are having to get used to drastic changes and embrace new habits. In such unforeseen circumstances, all you can do is go with the flow, even if the rules don’t make much sense at all. Through this period of frustration and disheartening news, I held on to the certainty that we had yet ONE performance to give, and was committed to making it count for all the others we had missed. Even though our auditorium would now be empty, I knew that many people would be watching The Nutcracker live stream from their homes and looked forward to it as much as I did.
Tip toeing around Covent Garden for some last-minute Christmas shopping, I could not fathom why the Opera House, which offered a socially distanced event, was shut down while people were bumping into each other at shops and in the streets. I would have sat down and enjoyed a nice cup of flat white as a reward for having persevered through Sasha’s incredibly difficult exercises that day, but London had moved under Tier 3 where restaurants and cafes were only for take-away. Kevin and I got a coffee to-go from Monmouth Coffee, our favourite spot, and headed to Neals Yard Dairy, where we bought some tasty cheese, quince, and crackers for our much awaited Christmas Eve.
When I arrived home, I did a yoga class, a recording from one of our lockdown days (when we used to exercise in our living rooms). Wow, we've come a long way! I thought. Since our first five-month lockdown, I got in the habit of doing yoga more regularly. It helps me feel grounded, centred, elongated, and seemed like the perfect thing to finish off a long week. I already looked forward to the afternoon stage call on Monday, where we would do a paced run-through of the ballet before the big event on Tuesday. Because performances had been cancelled, most of the dancers in that streaming cast had not yet done their roles onstage. It was a different cast altogether than the one that had performed in opening night and the three subsequent shows. Besides, not doing a ballet for a whole week can feel a little weird. We needed to experience the stage and make ourselves at home again. I had performed Clara in the General Rehearsal, which was a great way to feel the stage, practice a quick costume change (which nearly didn't happen in time), and get used to the bright stage lights. The camera crew was also present, practising for the filming.
After yoga, I went into the kitchen to do some studying while waiting for Kevin to come home. My phone kept vibrating, but I ignored all the group messages, as I was determined to finalise a short story that was due soon. The dancers' group chat was being very persistent, so I turned round from my computer screen for a second to check what was causing such turmoil, and it was then that I realised something quite bad must have happened.
‘Guys, what is going on??’ said a friend in a private message. ‘Does it mean we can't fly home for mid-season? And what about the live stream?!’
My heart stopped. London had just gone into Tier 4, another set of strict rules were to be put in place from midnight, stopping families from visiting each other at Christmas, all due to, they said, a new strand of the virus that was spreading fast. We were basically going into another lockdown, with every shop and restaurant being shut, travel plans being cancelled… total madness! With everything that was going on, all I could think about was our Nutcracker show and what could happen in the next two days.
Kevin got home to a stressed, upset girlfriend, pacing back and forth in the kitchen. Despite the scary government announcements, he genuinely believed that these new rules wouldn’t affect the performance. We waited anxiously for news from our company manager, as has been the case many times in the past ten months, where circumstances significantly change. The dancers have patiently waited for answers, as it is not up to us to decide what to do next. The executive and artistic staff of the Royal Opera House get together to set a new protocol, taking into consideration what is best for our health and safety.
Well, what we feared most did happen. Shortly after I had finally calmed down, we got an update from the company. I was on the phone with my mom, and Kevin just looked at me with a sad face, wording ‘I’m sorry’. I knew then that it was bad news, the filming had been cancelled. I can’t say how disappointed I was, how much I had waited for it. I broke down in tears and hugged Kevin as tight as I could. We stayed like this for a long time. I knew it was best to let it all out. I read so many books and write so much about letting things be and understanding it all happens for a reason, but in moments like this, I feel my heart about to explode, and all I want to do is cry and shout at the Universe… WHY???????
I wish things had been different, but should have learned by now that these are unusual times, things can change from one day to the next (and they really do). We, as a ballet company, had done everything right. We had taken tests, kept ourselves socially distanced, reworked a ballet to make it “covid-safe” and worked very hard on it, yet it wasn’t enough. We would have done anything for the show to go on.
Dancers are very passionate beings, sometimes to the extent of being blind to what is right or reasonable. We put ourselves at risk all the time, at times of getting badly injured, ignoring sings of great physical discomfort that may appear leading up to a performance just so we can achieve our goal. But many a time in a dancer’s career, one is forced to surrender. A scan shows a fractured bone or ruptured ligament; a sudden back or neck spasm makes one immobile. Only when the pain is unbearable dancers take real measures; otherwise, we just tell ourselves to keep going no matter what. We see casts being amended and hearts breaking for a missed opportunity, it happens all the time in theatre, and we learn to accept it. We must often remind each other that:
'It is not about the final product, what matters is the process.'
A few days later, I was able to look at the bigger picture and recognise how much I have learned and grown in "the process". When the rage and upset subside, I often stop thinking about what could have been and accept what is. Dancing Clara in the live stream would have been a dream, the opportunity of a lifetime, but that is not to say that it wouldn't come back or that there wouldn’t be something else, something as exciting. The fact that the company had come this far, survived and adapted to a new world, was already a huge achievement.
After five months of being locked at home, the longest I had ever been without a gym, a studio, swimming-pool or tennis court, we managed to get back in shape. Perhaps I felt stronger and more physically ready than ever before, even without the intensity of our normal working hours, which only showed that we could perform better with more recovery time. This also proved to me (the one who always believed that three days off ballet would make me stiff and out of shape) that our bodies are way more adaptable than we think.
Besides being introduced to a new dancing partner in the last few weeks, I also got to work with a new coach, Edward Watson. Ed is a former principal dancer with The Royal Ballet and our newest répétiteur. He’s had a brilliant career, working with numerous choreographers and portraying the most dramatic roles in ballet. When I first joined the company, I felt a bit intimidated by him, perhaps because of his position. I watched him give life to Leontes in The Winter's Tale, in complete awe of his physique and artistry. His work ethic is what I most admired, but now I got to see another side of him and recognise his talent for coaching, which is not necessarily true to every person with a distinguished career as a dancer or performer.
The three of us – me, my partner Luca, and Ed - had never worked so closely before. We got up to a fresh start, revisiting the pas de deux from a new angle. Ed has invaluable guidance and knowledge to pass on, from basic performance craft to what works for us individually. He allows you to be yourself without expecting you to fit into a mould, which gives you reassurance that you are looking your best. Every day, Ed would remind us of turning out feet, dropping shoulders, brightening our faces, and painting a whole picture. I’ve always felt very awkward running on pointe, and find it to be one of the most difficult things for a ballerina to execute graciously, but with his tips I finally got closer to feeling less uncoordinated. Clara has miles to cover in this ballet!
Thanks to the experience I've acquired from doing this role multiple times and the freedom I gained from feeling technically stronger, I never felt so confident in my abilities to tell this story. I don't take all the credit for it, it was a combination of fortunate things given along the course of these past few weeks: a trusting director, a reliable partner, a great coach, and the help of a secret weapon.
Once or twice a month, I have set my computer down in the corner of the room or sneaked into an empty studio to have a one to one session on Zoom with Ursula Hageli, our former rehab coach and ballet mistress. She sets the combinations from her living room, accompanied by her three poodles – Brig, Rachel, and Wolfie – who like to bark at squirrels passing by in the garden. Ursula retired from her position last August, but I am very grateful to have continued to work with her, even if from afar (it is how most things are these days anyways). She likes having me on a big screen and picking on every detail, I don't really know how she does it. We have worked on coordinating legs and port de bras, which has helped me enormously. We don’t usually spend time on the basics of classical technique in professional training, so I look forward to every lesson with her. It is quite a serene moment of the morning, despite the occasional barking, when I’m really aware of what every part of my body is doing, from fingertips to toes.
We must focus on the journey, not the destination. It will always help us grow and appreciate things more.
There is something special about working closely with someone you trust, it gives you a boost of strength and confidence. I treasure every moment with Ursula, it brings back so many memories of when I was a young girl, whose only wish was to be a ballerina, doing private coaching with my mentor Toshie Kobayashi. Though the work was hard and "intense" (I was shy and scared), I wasn't yet totally conscious of what my body was doing, I just wanted to show maximum effort so that Toshie would approve.
The fact that I was looking forward to being Clara in the live-stream, something that would have terrified me before, makes me think that I'm giving in to trusting that I have something unique to give, and I want to share it with the world.
A few days before this all happened and the filming got cancelled, a dear friend of mine sent me his favourite poem, written by Cavafy, a great twentieth century Greek poet. It was called Ithaka.
by C. P. Cavafy
Translated by Edmund Keeley
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Now, at last, I understood the true meaning of it and why it had come to me in this precious moment.