Photo: DAVID KELLY

Pas de deux is like marriage: it does not always work, writes Matthew Lawrence.

“Matthew, do you know I’m off my leg?” The question seemed simple enough, and the task – balance her on one pointe-shoed leg – was not complicated. Ah, I see what’s happening, I thought to myself, and quickly manipulated her weight back. “No that’s worse,” came the agitated reply.  And then, as if to accentuate the problem, her hips started oscillating violently, like an unbalanced washing machine – seemingly hopingthis action might mysteriously propel her onto balance.

Pas de deux, from novice student to seasoned professional, is at times frustrating. It can be a test of patience. I did consider offering the off-balanced ballerinathe advice: “Well if you knew where your ‘leg’ was in the first place, maybe I could find it!” But luckily, I never had the gumption to say this out loud; they were only my mumbled thoughts. What I actually said was, “Ohsorry, it’s my fault.” Secretly thinking, I bet she is on her ‘leg’, but I don’t think she likes me. Why? Do I smell?

I am always amazed at how quickly curious faces appear at windows, to bear witness to, and accentuate, these awkward moments. Maybe it is because we have all been there, and view in sympathy. (Or, more likely, we like to see others struggle just as much as us.) Whatever the reason, it highlights the, at times, confrontational nature ofpas de deux, with the accompanying diplomatic and technical challenges.

Flashing back, there was one male dancer who always seemed unruffled, smooth, perfectly and effortlessly in-sync (a sort of ballerinahorse-whisperer), Steven Heathcote. Twenty years as a principal artist with the Australian Ballet, he has been there, seen this, that, and the other, many times over.

So I asked him: did heever struggle to get on with his partners? Hepaused, searching back over his extensive memory bank, yet I sensed he was struggling to recall anything note-worthy. I tried prompting further – even something that did not go quite to plan, say a lift that went slightly askew?

 Heathcote’s eyebrows arched to life in acknowledgement, then furrowed, as he recalled: “It was during the rehearsal of an awkward lift, which required a degree of counter-balance.My grip was on the wrong part of her leg, and she fell face first towards the floor.”

“As a partner you feel just terrible when it happens. You feel like you’ve failed your partner. But here’s the truth. If nothing went wrong, you’d never learn to get things right.”

Ironically, this incident most clearly demonstrates why Heathcote was such a great partner -- he genuinely cared. Yet regardless of how attentive, how careful one is, he says:“There is inherently risk and danger within partnering. If it was too safe, it would probably be a bit boring.”

“It is a huge responsibility for the guy. You’re charged with:= -- making the pas de deux safe for your partner; having exemplary timing; and having the upper body strength, with leg power, to get through.”

I agree with Heathcote, it is tough for the guy --deceptively so. As a young dancer, I recall thinking – in hindsightwith naivety -- that the girl had it relatively easy. After-all, the guyis often sitting in the sentencing box, waiting for the girl’s verdict: “I’m too far offbalance” – “My weight’s back” -  “Your grip’s all wrong” – “No, no, put me down!”

Actually, that reminds me of a particularly uncomfortable experience I had as a young, debuting Romeo (many years past), being paired with – how could I put this politely – an experienced Juliet, who reluctantly used patience with me.It was my first big break and I was very excited, very nervous andwilling to do anything -- even a double-tour landing on my head –in order to make the opportunity count. However, the rehearsals were not going well,in fact they were going terribly.

“Matthew, I won’t tell you again,” she berated, “It’s down 5 and 6, kiss 7, look 8.” At this stage I had totally lost confidence. I was beginning to doubt myself to walk, let alone dance and partner; I had been bullied to paralysis!

Perhaps it was not surprising that my partner felt like we needed to work on our chemistry; however the manner in which she suggested itwas slightly unconventional. It happened that she stopped me in the hallway after rehearsal and said, “Matthew, we need to work on our kiss” . Excuse me? – “We need to make it look more genuine. Kiss me like you would your girlfriend.” Needless to say, I dreaded those particularly uncomfortable rehearsals.

Unexpectedly, the older I got, the more I sympathised with the ballerina.Whatmust it feel like to be partnered bya stinky, selfish, leaden-handed boy, with an attitude problem?  Who would rather skip the pas de deuxandhead straight for the solo. Who displays youin an ugly, compromised line --while he is admiring his own beautiful position in the mirror.

And now imaginerehearsing an intimate, floor-rolling, limb entwined pas de deux with someone you are having trouble getting along with. Jenna Roberts,principal artist with Birmingham Royal Ballet, relives such an uncomfortable moment, reflecting with a laugh,“I couldn’t wait to take a shower after those rehearsals!”

Even though Roberts isa laid-back, easy-to-smile Aussie girl, she recalls reaching her breaking point. It happened halfway to work, before one of ‘those’ rehearsals,when she decided: ”No, no, I can’t deal with him today. He was going to blame me for everything that went wrong, and make me feel awful. I just couldn’t deal with it, so I went back home.” (She is clear to point out, this was the one and only time she skipped work –just in case her employer is reading).

Theclose physical interaction, required within partnering, can certainly amplify any tense relations.  Uncomfortably, at times, the show must go on.I am sure Roberts wished she could have finished her story by telling me that eventually they worked through their differences, and the shows went well. Yet sometimes, it is just too difficult.

“We did the performances and they were terrible,”she says in a matter-of-a-fact fashion.”And yet,for some mysterious reason, we kept on being paired up together. Each time was horrific!”(Paradoxically, the audience probably loved it).

I must point out that these stories are not the norm. Indeed, Roberts attests to experiencingpartnerships thatenhanced her performance, beyond what she could have achieved on her own. I could not agree more. When you find a partner you have chemistry with, the sum of you is better than the individual parts.

Pas de deux,on reflection, is a bit like a marriage. And like marriage, it takes patience, trust, respect, (actually I won’t go on, for risk of my wife quoting this back to me one day!). So I’ll divert and summarise: if Jerry Springer is anything to go by, marriage does not always work. Aside fromthe technical difficulties -- scary lifts, tricky gripsand awkward co-ordinations that are incumbent within partnering --the real challenge of pas de deux, sometimes, is simply to get on.But in the end, it is all worth it. And in the words of Steven Heathcote:

“The greatest joy I had from my career was partnering. There’s something really, really special about creating an atmosphere, an emotion, a sense of occasion with two bodies. For me, it’s always been the magic element of ballet.”

Matthew Lawrence is a former principal dancer with the Queensland Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Australian Ballet. This is from his regular column published in the Oct/Nov 2014 issue.

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