On-stage the ballet dancers you see have, if everything goes according to plan, perfected the art of concealment. That is, hiding from you, the audience, the effort needed to make ballet look beautiful and, well, effortless. Especially when it comes to wearing pointe shoes.
That effort begins and is perfected in the rehearsal studio. At English National Ballet, the artistic staff of coaches and guest teachers go over the steps & accompanying mannerisms with the dancers, requiring multiple repetitions (répéter means to rehearse or practice*) & sometimes shouting to be heard above the music “no, higher/turn your hand this way/hold her so that she is square on/faster/make sure you connect with her at all times/turn here, but faster” and the ubiquitous, “and smile,” until the air turns soupy with the dancers exertion.
It’s enough to make your teeth hurt.
One of the ways to see this process first hand is to be invited into the studio. Last year I ran a competition in conjunction with English National Ballet, and part of the prize was for the winner to spend an afternoon at ENB HQ in London.
Hannah Joels, a primary school teacher and adult ballet student, was immediately absorbed by the sheer effort of ballet, close-up. As a primary school teacher, Hannah teaches everything on the British National Curriculum, but she also has responsibility within her school for certain subjects, including dance. As part of that, Hannah runs a dance club (incorporating all styles of dance, not exclusively ballet) & will often arrange for external agencies (such as centres for advanced training & other dance professionals) to lead workshops in addition to her own work with the dance club. Not all schools offer this, but at Hannah’s school they have been lucky & have some interested staff who are happy to coordinate these dance activities.
Hannah is currently studying for her IDTA** Intermediate exam (pre-vocational grade) and Pre-Associate 1 with a view to becoming qualified (ultimately-after Pre-Associate 2 & associate exams) to teach ballet to children, especially within a school context as there are many who don’t get the opportunity to try ballet outside school.
Hannah also attends an adult pointe & Intermediate level ballet class, as well as an additional Intermediate class (with 14-16 year olds – very brave !) and Saturday mornings helping out with and observing classes for under 10s (mainly up to Grade 3) at her studios.
But Hannah has never watched the professionals at work, and her reaction was typical of other first-timers when she said afterwards, “it was an enormous privilege to be able to watch what goes into making a ballet work! I loved watching Sarah and Max rehearse their R&J pas de deux and was utterly blown away by their dedication to perfection and sheer grit. It was mesmerising to witness theirs, and all the other members of the company, transform from dancers into their characters.”
Hannah’s afternoon began with a rehearsal for Romeo & Juliet with Principal Sarah Mcllroy and First Artist Max Westwell. They debuted in the title roles on tour in Southampton towards the end of last year, and following The Nutcracker season they are refreshing the steps in their minds before performing again on 11th and 13th January at the London Coliseum. I recently reviewed Romeo & Juliet on opening night, where Westwell danced the role of Benvolio; full of character and great dancing.
I’ve watched Westwell & Mcllroy rehearse these roles prior to their Southampton debuts, and I interviwed Westwell afterwards, where he explained that he had only learnt of his Principal casting when he went to a costume fitting and discovered that he was being fitted for Romeo’s jacket !
Since then, both dancers have grown in confidence and so many of the very difficult lifts are looking effortless. Over an hour and a half they twist and turn and repeat again and again tiny steps, often with their focus on the tiniest of detail.
English National Ballet don’t always have expensive stage rehearsals, which can be tough on the dancers where, in a situation like Romeo & Juliet, there has been a break in the run of performances (to accommodate the Christmas season of The Nutcracker) and they have to adjust to a different production on a different stage without full rehearsals e.g. with costumes and make-up. So First Night can sometimes be a sharp learning curve for everyone, and if you add in the nerves of carrying the show, it’s a lot to contend with. Fortunately, the company dancers are up to the challenge.
Also rehearsing were the dancers taking the roles of Juliet’s friends, and this brought many more dancers into the studio until it was almost full. Several casts will often be rehearsed together, as they were here, and along with the dancer taking the part of Rosaline & her friends, they all went through their steps, checking on the timing and positioning of some of the lifts.
The studio is so full that in addition to the main focus of Juliet’s friends, several break-away groups are practicing different moves - one dancer is practicing his sword-play while on the other side of the room, Yat-Sen Chang and Crystal Costa practice overhead lifts. In the far corner, with their feet tucked underneath the barre, what looks like a row of bats at first glance, turns out to be several dancers resting their legs up against the wall. It’s actually a common sight.
Following on from this were run-throughs for Mercutio, Benvolio, Mercutio’s friends and the acrobats and flags which are a part of this production choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev. As their name implies, the acrobats have a number of challenging sequences, stepping over each other and jumping into a large pyramid of men. The flags dance is set to the music of the Mandolin Dance, and here there is less technicality in the dancing but the dancers have to concentrate and not drop the large flags that whistle and crack through the air at quite a lick. Air-conditioning for the visitors, if you like !
Hannah also had a tour of the building, visiting the pointe shoe room and the wardrobe department. Here she came upon the painted pointe shoes from the old Gerald Scarfe production of The Nutcracker, and commented upon how difficult they would be to paint such that the liquid didn’t impact on the wearability of the shoe for the dancer.
The pointe shoe room is stacked floor to ceiling with cubbyholes for each dancer, each filled with shoes ready for preparation. Some of the dancers, just a handful, wear Gaynor Mindens, and they require almost no breaking in, just attaching ribbons and elastics and the dancers are good to go.
On the other hand, because the shoes are very expensive, the dancers allowance is reduced, so they have to last longer. Interestingly, Hannah spotted one of the dancers wearing them during rehearsals – they do look different close up, but it’s hard to spot them apart on stage so it was very observant of Hannah to pick them out among all the dancers feet.
Finally, in front of the Christmas tree hung with feathered globes and fairy lights, Hannah was presented with a goodie bag containing a signed pair of pointe shoes & a poster, among other treats. Earlier we’d seen one of The Nutcracker posters on the wall, liberally dusted with Swarovski crystals.
Hannah sums up the afternoon, “I’m extremely grateful to you for organising the afternoon and allowing me the kind of insight into life within a ballet company that I could only have imagined under normal circumstances.”
* Répétiteur (Fr.), repetitore (It.), or Korrepetitor / Repetitor (Ger.), originally from the French verb répéter meaning “to repeat, to go over, to learn, to rehearse.”
With thanks to the fabulous staff and dancers of English National Ballet.