Royal Ballet set to make history
Tomorrow the Royal Ballet will make history – when it becomes the first ballet company in the world to allow cameras to livestream on YouTube a full working day in the life of its dancers.
The day begins with morning class, followed by rehearsals and Q and A sessions with dancers and key staff such as resident choreographer Wayne McGregor.
One of the things that’s bound to emerge from the initiative is an appreciation of just how hard dancers work. Like athletes, their lifestyle needs to be ruled by discipline and self-control. But unlike athletes, who train in phases for specific competitions, dancers have to be in peak physical condition all the time – often performing week after week.
And right now there’s increased interest in the working life of a ballet dancer. Of course this was ignited by the release of hit film Black Swan at the beginning of last year.
Then Italian soloist Mariafrancesca Garritano was sacked from La Scala after claiming that dancers suffer from “widespread anorexia and infertility”.
And in January of this year, 22-year-old principal Sergei Polunin shocked the dance world when he resigned from the Royal Ballet with immediate effect. Many insiders cited the pressure he was under as a major factor behind his decision.
As dance critic Graham Watts told me this week, “I think there’s a generic criticism across the board that you could apply to all dance companies, that they don’t do enough in terms of pastoral care…I do feel where there are dancers who are injured who are suffering problems in relation to their eating or in relation to performing – we’ve had incidences of stage fright over the last few years – I don’t think generally speaking they get enough care and attention.”
Pressure or passion?
I met Monica Mason, Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet, and asked if the company puts too much pressure on its dancers. “I think from time to time dancers feel under pressure,” she replied, “’And that’s inevitable because every now and again you will have one or two or perhaps half a dozen dancers who are in everything so they feel they are exhausted. I remember feeling like that…I don’t think we set out to intentionally put people under pressure but dancers have to be tough and very resilient and also they have to start from a very early age. At 18-years-old they have to understand that they’re going out on that stage and every time they go out they’ve got to be excellent. People pay a lot of money to come and see the performances here and they have to understand the responsibilities they carry by being in this company.”
Monica Mason was keen to point out that the company offers its dancers medical assistance, physiotherapy and nutritional advice whenever it’s needed. And that they’re given time off in the case of serious problems.
But perhaps the greatest source of pressure on dancers is the Royal Ballet’s famously wide repertoire – often held up as its greatest strength. This ranges from the classics like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake to very different new work by Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon – with dancers often rehearsing, creating and performing several ballets during the course of a working week. Something which might come as the biggest surprise to viewers of tomorrow’s webcast.
But what I expect will surprise many – particularly those whose experience of the ballet world is limited to the film Black Swan – is the passion that so many dancers at the Royal Ballet clearly feel for their art form.
The lack of any representation of this was my biggest criticism of the film on its release last year. Because ultimately, it’s this passion for ballet which helps dancers cope with the inevitable pressures they face in the pursuit of artistic excellence. And which allows the Royal Ballet to be one of the world’s greatest dance companies.
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