The pressures of dancing in an elite world
The Royal Ballet is arguably the greatest ballet company in the world. But what really makes it stand out from its international rivals is its uniquely varied repertoire.
In any one week dancers might be expected to rehearse and perform classical ballets like Swan Lake, through to the work of the two choreographers who helped define the company, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan – as well as helping current star choreographers Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon create new work.
But while this might attract, and help produce, some of the best dancers in the world, it does place extra demands on them – both physically and psychologically.
The company’s new director, former dancer Kevin O’Hare, is all too aware of these demands. ”If you ask a dancer if they want to be in a ballet they’ll say yes,” he said. “They want to be in everything. But we have to be very careful that we prepare them for the roles, so they don’t feel the stress of doing too much.”
O’Hare is taking up his position at a time of big change for British ballet. Christopher Hampson has recently assumed directorship of Scottish Ballet while Tamara Rojo is now artistic director of English National Ballet. All three appointments follow a year of growing awareness of the pressures placed on dancers.
In January, 22-year-old principal Sergei Polunin shocked the dance world when he resigned from the Royal Ballet with immediate effect. The episode ignited a debate around the punishing lifestyle of ballet dancers.
I spoke to Helen Laws, manager of the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science. She told me: “Dancers are often working with multiple choreographers, they’re learning different pieces of work at the same time as performing something else, so their day is class, rehearsal, performance.
“If you think about athletes peaking once a week, once every four years, they are really asking themselves to peak every night for maybe eight performances a week. So that’s the pressure of life as a dancer.”
Lauren Cuthbertson is a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet and one of the company’s brightest stars. She often worked with Sergei Polunin but also has her own experience of the pressures of life as a world-class ballet dancer.
A few years ago she had to take 17 months off work when she contracted glandular fever which developed into post-viral fatigue syndrome. It’s a period she describes as “psychologically overwhelming”.
“Over my years I seem to develop my own personal support team,” she told me. “Maybe because I’m British and I’m here in a British company, that’s helped me because there are people I’ve known for years and I really trust.
“Possibly for international dancers if they don’t have their immediate family and friends around them that might be a bit trickier. So essentially then it might be up to the company to make sure that they’re catered in that direction.
“But we have an excellent support team. I’m not saying that we don’t, but in that psychological area, it might be because it’s such a psychologically strenuous job, not just physically, maybe we do need a bit more help in that area.”
Just a few weeks into his new role, Kevin O’Hare is introducing an improved support structure for dancers. And he says that boosting the pastoral care the company offers its dancers is at the forefront of his plans for the future.
“We have psychologists, we have physiotherapists, masseurs. We now have sports scientists and Pilates, gyrotonics… And they do weight training, not only with the guys but also the ladies as well. It’s a way of making yourself so fit and strong so that when you’re in a performance when your nerves take over, and you can’t actually get that 150 per cent, you go down to 100 per cent and you’re still feeling fit and ready to perform.”
I asked Helen Laws whether she thought major dance companies around the world were doing enough to support their dancers.
“I think even they would say they could do more,” she said. ”Of course, more involves time and money. I know a lot of major companies are looking at how they could do that. Recently what we’re trying to do is apply more scientific approach, so we’re borrowing again from sport and looking into how can we analyse if what we’re doing is the right kind of thing for our dancers and we’re starting to take data on dancers’ health and injury.”
But what about the need to create work of artistic excellence? Surely if dancers were required to attend fewer rehearsals or were excused from daily class, the work would suffer?
“Yes, you’re right to a degree,” Kevin O’Hare told me. “But I think actually when we’re rehearsing a dancer for a leading role, sometimes the dancer really might want to rehearse every single day, and it’s up to us to say no actually. It would be better for you to do it three times a week and really rehearse properly for those three times, and then you’ll be ready for the performance but you won’t be burnt out.
“And I think it’s being clever about those things. And if somebody is tired it’s never pushing somebody with an injury and saying, ‘You’ve got to go on stage’, because that really can’t happen.”
The Royal Ballet will next take to the stage of the Royal Opera House on 8 October, when Swan Lake will open its new season. Sergei Polunin will be returning to dance as a guest artist next year.
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