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The language of the soul

A linguagem da alma

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For those who don’t know much about ballet, the word ‘ballerina’ perhaps prompts an imagine of someone rising on the tip of their toes, spinning multiple times or doing splits in the air, but for those who truly appreciate dance, it takes a lot more than that to make a true ballerina. There is something no amount of skills or training could give, something which cannot be taught. A little spark that, when nurtured, grows beyond explanation: the soul and sensibility of an artist.

My whole life I looked up to dancers who I believed could teach me not just how to do the steps, but how to BE a ballerina. In my early days, I would watch the way my mom (and teacher) showed an exercise, accompanying her hands with her eyes, and how her facial expression would soften every time she demonstrated an adagio. I watched my flamenco teacher move to the sound of the guitar and how the chords seemed to infiltrate her whole body, filling her with energy and vibrancy. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, even when she performed in an ensemble.

Mom as Aurora in Beauty
Luciana Chaer, ballet/flamenco teacher

My ballet teacher in Canada used to say that we can learn so much from watching other dancers. Not by comparing ourselves to them, but by admiring their qualities and picking the lovely things we wish to some day integrate into our own dancing. I could always relate to dancers of a small stature, like Alessandra Ferri, Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, Roberta Marquez and Alina Cojocaru, perhaps because it was easier to picture myself in their skin. They all had something in common I couldn’t quite put my finger on (besides being petite like me), something in their quality of movement, the way they carried themselves, the intention and emotion they brought to their performance.

Finding myself in a professional environment, I made sure to observe everyone intently and was blown away by the amazing ease and control displayed by my colleagues, especially their ability to act a part, no matter how small, and steal the show. They seemed miles ahead in terms of artistic development and maturity, and I felt eager to match them.

Martha Leebolt and Tobias Batley in The Great Gatsby © Northern Ballet

At The Royal Ballet, there are so many talented young dancers who are just starting their careers, as well as those who have already built themselves a legacy and are famously known in the dance community (and beyond). When I joined the company, it was quite overwhelming to be around all these superstars. I would pass them in the corridors and would be dying to ask them for an autograph or a quick photo. It was like being surrounded by huge celebrities (which they are in the ballet world).

Steven McRae & Sarah Lamb in Beauty © ROH

In my very first full call rehearsal, I sat in a corner of the De Valois studio and noticed the room go silent as we watched, mesmerized, the pas de deux of Giselle with Carlos Acosta and Natalia Osipova, all eyes drawn to the couple and their complete surrender. It felt like I was witnessing something supernatural, a legendary Cuban dancer partnered with a newly joined Russian ballerina who seemed to literally be floating in the air. Their artistry, passion and commitment were just remarkable, and I had never witnessed anything like it before, not this close.

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would someday be working alongside Carlos and taking part in the creative process of his Carmen, let alone be coached by Natasha (as she likes to be called), Nela (Nunez), Laura (Morera) or Sarah (Lamb). It is one thing to watch a dancer and imagine what they are thinking when they are performing, it is quite another to receive direct feedback from them and have a window opened for a little glimpse into their world.

Initially, I held back on taking the optional coaching sessions that now filled up our weekly schedule, thinking perhaps I was too old to be signing up for it amidst new members of the company who had just come out of school, but as soon as I walked into the room with my practice tutu in hands and new pointe shoes, my reservations immediately dissipated. Of course I was ready to learn from the best! This was the opportunity of a lifetime, and something I would treasure for many years to come.

We started with basic pointe work exercises, which then turned into little excerpts of solos and to us eventually learning whole variations from Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, and Don Quixote. We were putting our hard work and technique to use and developing our artistic potential, but more than the pleasure I got from working on the solos was the feedback we were receiving from the exceptional artists at the front of the room, who were generously sharing their love and expertise with us. My ears were tuned, and my brain was like a sponge trying to absorb every word.

The in-between steps

After spending some time in the studio with them, I came to realise that no one was there to teach us how to be perfect; a lot of it had to do with what we can do when things go sightly off, how to make a mistake work in our favour and masquerade the imperfections. We learn that dancing is like a juggling act, it is about compensating here and there and taking care of the in-between steps just as much as the big steps.

'It’s about making little adjustments and playing with musicality.'

The music

I have long suspected that music is a driving force behind what we do, it is how dancers seem to forget the technical challenges (and the feeling of being exposed), and surrender to the moment. Hitting certain accents in the music, playing with dynamics, and matching the speed and mood of what’s being played was highly emphasised in these coaching sessions. One thing I most admire in Laura’s dancing, besides her beautiful quality, is her musicality, and it came as no surprise to me that she picked the fairy godmother solo from Cinderella to teach us. All of Frederick Ashton's choreographies are very musical, and if you are not attentive, you fall behind it. I loved every second of working with her and every tip that she gave us.

Laura Morera and Ryoichi Hirano in Winter Dreams © ROH
The story

When demonstrating how they would do a certain step (and at this point, I could have happily sat down and watched them do the whole thing), they would talk about how the simplest arm gesture is saying something, every movement is telling the story. Even as they prepare to take that first pose, they have already impersonated the character they are portraying.

'The quality of a walk can tell us so much.'

This is something I also heard as a student when taking Drama & Expression lessons with Sorella Englund. Our walking can demonstrate strength or vulnerability, malice or innocence. With the right purpose and intention, you can reveal the personality of your character before performing a single step. It is in our facial expressions but also in the quality of our movements that the story is revealed. By use of the imagination, we keep a dialogue going in our minds, as well as a constant motivational and instructional self-talk.

Rehearsing La Sylphide with Sorella
The spark

Mom always told me to imagine a little ray of light coming out of the skies and meeting my own gleam of light. It may sound a little cheesy when said out loud, but I still think of it before going on stage, and she was right about this (amongst many other things). Marianela spoke of emanating light from your chest into the auditorium, Laura mentioned spreading a warm feeling, Osipova spoke of filling the stage with your presence ... they all had distinct ways of saying the same thing: that we are sharing something with the audience and projecting that which comes from deep within. I feel I can resonate with it so much.

Marianela Nunez as Aurora © ROH

There is a lot to remember and assimilate in ballet, and I guess that we easily find our focus shifting towards the technicalities of dance, but at the end of the day, what we truly want is to be able to express ourselves and communicate with the audience in a language that is our own. I believe it takes a lot of trusting in our abilities, but when we can let go of all fear and be genuine and authentic, we can reach our highest potential.

Natalia Osipova as Giselle © ROH

Even though these legendary dancers have become my work colleagues and I see them around the Royal Opera House all the time, I still feel very humbled in their presence. As we finished our last coaching of the week with Osipova, I had the realisation that not in a million years I imagined this would one day come to pass. She had been working for the past hour with me and a friend on every little segment of Dulcinea’s variation (Don Quixote, Act II), with suggestions of what each could do better and what version would suit us best. She kept on telling us to say to ourselves ‘I’m not tired. I’m not tired!’ which I found quite amusing! Maybe that's the secret to her relentless energy.

I felt the luckiest ballerina on the planet for being able to have an intimate moment in the studio with these incredible human beings whose work I have, for so long, admired. Honestly, one of the highlights of my time here at The Royal Ballet. I realised maybe I shouldn’t be so scared to ask for advice when they seem so happy and open to sharing their knowledge. Their dedication and generosity are truly inspiring; they must have so much more to pass on to next generations. They reminded me of everything that I appreciate in their work and what I most want to reflect through my own dancing. They filled my heart with light and joy, and I will keep on watching and learning from them with ever-growing respect and admiration.

Dancing with Vadim Muntagirov in Jeux

'To me, the body says what words cannot. I believe that dance was the first art. A philosopher has said that dance and architecture were the two first arts. I believe that dance was first because it's gesture, it's communication. That doesn't mean that it's telling a story, but it means it's communicating a feeling, a sensation to people. Dance is the hidden language of the soul, of the body.' - Martha Graham

Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta performing Giselle Act II.

Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov performing Don Quixote Act III.


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