'Bem-vinda ao Royal Ballet!'
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It took me some time to get used to being a dancer with the Royal Ballet. When I first joined the company, what most impressed me was the amount of rehearsals taking place in one day, how everyone managed to keep up with such swift change in repertoire whilst creating new ballets for upcoming seasons. My life seems to have changed its pace. Sometimes I even feel like I'm moving in autopilot. Before I know it, another month has gone by and when I look back, I'm astounded at how much we have managed to do in such short time.
Each company has a unique scheduling, depending on how many performances and productions they do in a year, how many studios, if they have a main theatre or mainly tour, the number of members in the company, etc. Adapting to a new routine and lifestyle is not easy, but one thing is certain: no matter what ballet company you are in the world, your day will always start at the barre.
Ballet class is our daily training. It not only prepares us for the day ahead, but also allows us to connect with our bodies, work on our technique and focus on whatever we feel needs improvement.
I like heading to work early and having plenty of time to warm up in the gym or studio, cycling, stretching and rolling my legs on a foam roller if they feel achy and tired. It really depends on how my body feels and what performance we had the night before. Sometimes the extra sleep is more beneficial than anything. You can also try and catch a physiotherapist at 9:30am, or book in with a Pilates instructor. The amazing facilities at the Healthcare Suite give us the opportunity to find what works best for us in terms of supporting our daily ballet training, be it gyro-tonic or Pilates or a gym session for strengthening and rehabilitation. It is different for each individual dancer.
The week may start with a stage rehearsal at 10:45am, meaning that class would have been at 9:30am. This usually happens a week or so prior to opening that production, having already rehearsed and ran the full ballet in the studio. Leading up to opening night, these morning stage calls may be in costume, make up, and hair. One must arrive pretty early in the theatre, get into full gear and be 'ready to rock n' roll!' (as says our coach Brian). Once the stage call is finished, we are back in the studios rehearsing something else, perhaps two or more things coming up in the repertoire. We have our own individual schedules for rehearsals and appointments, costume fittings, etc... One could be having an easy-peasy day, finishing in the early afternoon (LUXURY!) while another dancer is having back-to-back rehearsals without a proper lunch break.
The performance schedule of the Royal Ballet keeps us very busy. It varies from season to season, but we do around 12 productions a year; a mix of full-length ballets, triple bills, and new creations. It is amazing to be dancing such varied repertoire. We are very lucky to be able to do the big classics, as well as the dramatic MacMillan and light-hearted Ashton ballets, to have our own resident choreographers at work and many guests coming to create on us, sometimes in collaboration with other companies. One never ever gets bored!
I believe there are on average 130 performances a year on the main state, not to mention what goes on at the Linbury Theatre and other events at the Opera House.
Once a ballet is on stage, that doesn’t necessarily mean we'll stop rehearsing it in the studio. There are a few different casts for each part, and so you must keep rehearsing a certain role until near your performance date, and keep rehearsing until the very end so you don't lose the stamina and forget all the details. Ballets can overlap in our schedule. We can be rehearsing three to four different ballets in a single day and performing another in the evening. In our fifteen-minute break in between rehearsals, we go over the steps of a new choreography, have a little snack, use the toilet, decide what pointe shoes to wear, grab our tutus downstairs, and run back and forth between studios, which can be physically and mentally exhausting!
With experience, you learn how to pace yourself throughout the day, especially in periods when the workload is heavy.
Although you might feel like you're letting yourself down (and others) if you don’t give 110% effort in every rehearsal, there are days when you need to 'prioritise', otherwise when it comes to the main event of the day (the performance!), your tank will be empty. It was hard to get over the mentality of trying to prove myself and what I can handle, but I've come to understand that 'taking it a little easier' is not a sign of weakness or laziness, it is a matter of survival! In manic times, I try to make the most of my breaks to rest and unwind. I believe it is important to find a moment for myself. I go outside for some fresh air and enjoy a cup of coffee, treat myself to something sweet, read a book, or do some studying.
At the Royal Ballet, one can still be working in the studio two hours before the start of a performance. Some evenings I barely have time to eat and catch my breath. Before I know it, it’s time to start getting my make-up done. I like getting ready early and warming up slowly. I go up to a free studio and do a barre, then get into costume and go down to the stage aiming to have enough time to practice a few steps, work on spacing, remember corrections, and visualise how I want my performance to go... This 'ritual' calms me down and gets my mind focused. If I am a bit more chilled, I don't need such preparation, but it all depends on the repertoire.
I've been on board this roller-coaster ride that makes up the day-to-day of the Royal Ballet for six years now, and I truly admire those who dedicate their entire lives to this place. This level of mental and physical endurance is something I did not anticipate, but one I have learned to adapt to. Being a professional dancer entails learning to pace yourself so that you can perform at your highest level. It is like dancing a four-act ballet; you find moments to breathe and 'rest' on stage so that you can get through it.
A lot happens before the curtain goes up in the evening, but at the end of the day, it's all about giving your best to the audience.
At times I do catch myself complaining, out of fatigue or mere grumpiness. Don't we love complaining about everything?! But having come a long way to get here, I can appreciate every moment of being in this theatre as something truly special. The response we get from the audience at curtain calls, the flowers received from fans and family, and the shower of praise through social media makes it all worth it. But none of this would matter for me if I didn't feel a sense of happiness and inner peace, like I'm fulfilling my mission. It is definitely not easy but so rewarding, a very high price to pay if one does not enjoy every bit of the process, from setting yourself at the barre in the morning to that final bow.