This article was commissioned and first published by The Australian Ballet in 2009
Image credit: Lisa Tomasetti
Days begin to melt into each other. Eventually repetition can be mind-numbing, dangerous even, for a dancer. One unconsidered step can result in injury. As equally as our days are routine, so are they highly unpredictable. Unlike a violin, which rests in its case overnight untouched, unaffected, a dancer’s body is undergoing constant change. No two days are the same. Four pirouettes one day and two the next. Perhaps this unpredictability is why we feel the need for formulaic days. Towards the end of a particularly long season of performing, I look around the dressing room at my colleagues, each girl with their pre-show rituals down pat, settling into a comfortable, unvaried pattern.
The nightly routine becomes perfected: the sign-on, the shower, make-up, hair, warm-up, tights, shoes, costume and a final spritz of a reassuring perfume before we step out onto the stage and attempt a nightly revival of the opening night magic. But after all those weeks of rehearsals, followed by scores of performances, things can become a little blurry for a tired swan. In fact, whether I’m a ‘whore’ in Manonor a ‘nymph’ in The Sleeping Beauty, after a certain time it all starts to feel eerily similar. So how to invest in your role, be it major or minor, every night? The opportunity to transfer the emotions we feel every day into our nightly performance is probably the most luxurious part of our job. Transforming into a swan, a sylph, a vision gives us the opportunity to escape the daily grind and become the person we wish we could be.
Tamara Rojo describes this moment onstage as “the most beautiful thing” about her profession. When a dancer performs the same steps night-in, night-out, their muscles swallow up the steps. The body assumes each movement of the ballet and the brain can switch off while trying to tap into that elusive and magical feeling of escape. Come the 23rd show, however, it can be a struggle to keep the same steps breathing, alive. Many senior dancers have offered advice as they recall the flourishing days of their youth when the weight of the whole ballet didn’t feel as though it fell on their shoulders. “Pretend you are the only person on the stage” was guidance given to me by a rather exquisite dancer.
Sometimes it is a change in our life that can bring about new, fresh emotions on stage. A new love, a burgeoning romance, an ending or a loss can create valuable ammunition for the nightly performance. For the corps de ballet, there are always unfamiliar nuances to be found in the long seasons of framing the central picture on the stage. At times, being one of the corps can feel a lot like being on a long-haul flight. There are stop-overs, where you’re able to stretch your legs in relief and remember how it feels not to be surrounded by dozens of others. Then, upon reaching your final destination, you really feel as though you’ve arrived somewhere new. You now have the freedom of space and movement, and the long haul was really worth it. Our body is our art, and we change daily, allowing the ebb and flow of our emotions to influence our physical state. No matter how hard a dancer may try, we can’t ignore that the body is not a machine. The beauty of dancing lies in its unpredictability, no matter which step is being danced. In fact, I still feel my heart thumping happily in my throat every time I conquer a new step, and leave behind my two pirouettes for three instead, even if I’m yet to land in my dream destination.