By Maina Gielgud

YOU have just learnt that you will be performing a solo role in an extract or even maybe, in a full length classical ballet – your dream since you were a small child and started going to dance classes.

At last, the reason why you learnt all those steps!

So, how will you go about it? Well, probably you already know the steps, from having been taught in repertoire classes, having seen some performances of them, and having studied countless videotapes or DVDs of famous dancers from diverse companies performing them.

Hopefully, from all this, you will already have an idea of how you want to dance them, and also, more than likely, how you don’t want to dance them!

Well, if for some reason you don’t know the enchainements – the first thing you will do is learn them.

That is the bare skeleton.

Then, because nowadays, our eyes are used to a certain aesthetic of tidy, neat dancing, particularly in the footwork, so that you don’t have to worry about that any more, you may practise in front of a mirror, until you are satisfied that there are the least possible blemishes in the way you execute the steps.

But then you have another duty – and this should be much more pleasant, that of making sure the way the torso, arms, hands, neck and head movements are pleasing to the eye, correct within the classical canon, and coordinated with your footwork. And that my friends, means epaulement – a prerequisite, or there will be no dance quality, or quality of movement in what you do, however “correct” it might be in other respects.

And together with all the above, part of which you will be doing with your teacher, but also a lot by yourself, you will need to be researching the style of the piece, according to what is known of the original intention of the choreographer.

But none of that will make any sort of sense if every movement you perform does not flow from your reaction to the music – oh, even beyond that, your becoming one with the music (if you wait to hear your music, you will not – that is why one of the most important partnerships in dance is that between the dancer and the conductor – far, far beyond “too fast or too slow”).

So now you have the command of your words, not just the letters, but the words, and you can put them together to make a certain sense – oh not yet the sense of the ballet you are going to perform, but two and two will equal four, although for what purpose is not yet clear.

Now – your job in performance is to execute those steps, without thinking about how you are doing them, or what they are looking like – you need to have mastered them enough to leave behind you all thought of them, such as whether you are in fifth position, and are in the right place on stage at the right time. That all needs to be so automatic that you can literally think on your feet – relate to the characters around you, become the character which you have thought so much about since so long, and make the audience care about you as that character.

The most important compliment you can get, is that members of the audience will remember the personality with which you imbued your Giselle, Siegfried (even good old Siegried need not be a cardboard Prince), or Aurora; that they will remember how you as James looked at La Sylphide and what a shock it was for Aurora to prick her finger; that the audience, when they see Aurora with Florimund, or Giselle dance with Albrecht, will recall how it first felt to fall in love. This applies just as much to transforming yourself into a fairy, be it the Canary, or the Woodland Glade, to a Big Swan, or to a Nymph in the corps of SleepingBeauty. In the corps de Ballet, there  will be less freedom of interpretation, but the aim – to look as though you are improvising (each one of you eight, 12 or 16 in the corps de ballet in unison, which of course makes it even harder), is the same.

“Let’s pretend”: just as much or more then straight acting, ballet is the art of make believe – losing oneself in the character of another.

It is not about making your audience remember your beautiful arabesque, your “incredible” extensions, or that you turned 32 double fouettes. They may remember that you dazzled Siegfried with extraordinary feats, seeming to be Rothbart’s puppet, and those feats happened to be fouettes, single double or triple. But wonderfully executed single fouettes, or indeed a manege instead, performed with intention, can be just as dazzling and exciting as triples. Balance should be used for a feeling of suspense, of weightlessness, and of suspension of time – to create an illusion.

So what you did, and even the way you did it, once mastered, should ultimately be irrelevant. (The words you use may be beautiful and well put together in sentences, but it is the content of what you are saying which is what should be remembered).

And if one day, a member of the audience is waiting for you at the stage door, waiting patiently while you take off your make up and become your everyday self again, and they say to you “you made me cry” – then you will know that you can sleep soundly that night, and worry only tomorrow about the pirouette you missed.

This article was first published in the February/March 2007 issue of Dance Australia

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