It’s very easy to write about ballet using the terminology, French as it is, talking in a very codified way that mostly exists within the rehearsal studio, which can be hard for newcomers to penetrate. It’s much harder to knuckle down and focus on the nuts and bolts that you take for granted that everyone will understand and follow your drift. So I was intrigued when two professional dancers who both blog regularly about their experiences of company life teamed up to write two posts (one on each blog) about the mechanics of – in this instance – a pas de deux. Not only that, but they collaborated cleverly – one is a female corps de ballet dancer with Miami City Ballet and one is a male professional dancer. So you really are getting both sides of the story, from the inside out.
A pas de deux is literally translated as step for two in French. Usually the pas de deux consists of an entree, adagio (slow, controlled movements), two variations (one for each dancer) and a coda (the end, where the steps are usually faster versions of what you’ve already seen in the adagio section).
Two great examples are the Black Swan pas de deux, which comes in Act 111 (or the black act) of Swan Lake and it’s where Odile dances the famous 32 fouettés (fast, whipped turns on one leg, turning on the spot), and the Bluebird pas de deux from Act 111 of The Sleeping Beauty. There are many others – Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, Diana & Acteon & the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – and because a pas de deux can be seen out of context as a stand-alone piece you’ll often see them at gala events.
Rebecca King and Henrik Lamark start by asking what makes a pas de deux successful. Lamark suggests it’s vital to pay attention to your partner and King concurs that if you’re not on the same page as your partner it’s much harder, and says that she can always tell if her partner isn’t paying her attention. Trust is a huge factor too – the girl has to trust that her partner will hold her in a tricky overhead lift because falling could mean a serious, career-ending injury. It’s not as though dancers get to choose their partners – at least, not most of the time – in a company. The Artistic Director makes those decisions and whether or not you are partnered with someone that you wouldn’t necessarily hang out with, it’s up to you both to get along. The audience will notice immediately if there is no connection and the pas de deux will fall flat as a pancake (it is Pancake Day soon !)
Lamark talks about responsibility in partnering – whose fault is it if something goes wrong ? The man ! Always! Even if it’s not, he should take responsibility. If he’s quick thinking, a lift that has gone wrong could turn into a fish dive rather than teeth scattered over the floor. There are ways of rescuing a situation and one of the key points that many of the professional dancers that I interview make is that for much of the time the audience will not realise if the choreoegraphy isn’t performed exactly as intended – unless you allow the mistake to show (usually by your reaction) or unless it’s a major one.
King makes the point that she is careful about her friendships with the male company dancers because she could be dancing with any of them & the thought of being held seven feet in the air by someone who may be nurturing a grudge is scary and best avoided.
In any event, pas de deux rehearsals are all about finding out what works, not apportioning blame. That just wastes time and leaves everyone feeling flat.
King and Lamark end with an explantion of a couple of technical tricks – firstly, the finger turn. Explaining the benefits (easier to turn) and the method (the girl aims to keep her fingers in an ‘o’ shape) gives a depth of insight that is useful to know if you’re learning to dance. And there’s more – by not holding onto the mans finger but keeping the ‘o’ shape with hers, the woman has more freedom and can turn many more times. Lamark has a tip for the guys – gently press your hand into hers because then the girl can ‘feel’ where you are and it helps to correct her posture after many turns, should you need to.
The fish dive, with no hands, is next. King explains that it’s the girls responsibility to hold herself in the position, and Lamark says that its an easy pose – not really a lift at all.
In their second post, this time on Rebecca’s Tendus Under a Palm Tree, the question posed is how do you become a successful partner ? Lamark says it’s all about stability and grip – keeping your own balance and finding the right grip so that the girl is comfortable. King gives a tip for the girls too – when the guy is gripping your waist in an overhead lift, lean back and make a ‘shelf’ with your shoulder blade. That gives him a better grip, resulting in a more secure, and easier, lift.
King advises that you’ve got to dance as though you were on your own, but be aware of your partner. If you are afraid of hitting him accidentally then you’ll get nervous, and that leads to unexpected moves which will unnerve both of you and could well be the undoing of your pas de deux.
Like many male dancers, Lamark says that the most important thing for him is that the girl wants to work with him. No-one wants to push water uphill; ballet is hard enough. King and Lamark say that honesty really is the best policy – if it’s not working then don’t waste time and tell your partner what’s on your mind. If both partners are open-minded and willing to adapt and not take things personally, it’s easier to get to the root of any problems and iron them out before you’re on stage.
The pair finish with another technical feat – the shoulder sit. It’s quite a simple lift but very visually stunning for the audience – if the girl doesn’t end up slipping down the guys front. The key here is for the guy to bend slightly, for the girl to give a big jump and to stick out her hips as though she was sitting on a chair, and the guy tucks under his shoulder and hey presto – she’s sitting on his shoulder with minimal movement once she’s there. Ideally. In practice, it takes great timing and anticipation from the guy – and sometimes this lift is performed from a running position. If the girl is running towards you at some speed, the guy might have to step back once he’s gripped her to adjust his balance and also be ready to take the full velocity of movement.
You can read the first post on Henrik Lamark’s Tights and Tiaras blog.
You can read the entire second post on Rebecca King’s blog, Tendus under a palm tree.
King and Lamark also have a Q&A post on the way, so if you have any questions about partnering and pas de deux, please don’t hesitate to ask a question – I’m sure they will answer.