JILL EATHORNE BAHR
Posted on May 28, 2016
Dancers are often called frivolous.
Ballet deals in the illusion of control and ease of movement. But the leaps and lifts, the hip turnouts and grand pliés, and sheer repetition of steps and stretches places ballet near the top of a list of physically demanding activities. Dancers labor in classes and rehearsals during the day, and then work like madmen again in performances at night. They tend to be as mentally alert as they are physically agile, and they are frequently long-lived. If their attitude strikes some as overly lighthearted, then perhaps we all should learn how to be frivolous.
But on the contrary the company dancer has learned to master time, beautifully. They can mentally rocket above it, just as they soar above the ground in their performances. The nature of their art requires them to be acutely aware of the necessity of using time well. Ideas may occur to choreographers throughout the day. But they can only realize those ideas by creating specific steps for specific people in specific rehearsal periods. Every minute counts. No wonder George Balanchine liked to say that his muse came to him” on union time”. And of course Bob Fosse is quoted to say “I think Balanchine and Robbins talk to God on their day off and when I call — he’s out to lunch.
Because dancers’ lives are divided into such rehearsal periods and units, they learn how to concentrate upon whatever is demanded of them at any given moment. They give their complete attention to the task at hand. Although not all dancers receive a rigorously academic education, their memories are often phenomenal, possibly because anything learned by ones complete mental and physical being is not easily forgotten.
Classes, too, are of fixed duration and, like rehearsals, usually involve groups of people moving together. A few dancers give themselves personal warm-ups. Others receive private coaching. But, in the typical class, many dancers perform the same exercises under a teacher’s watchful eye. Class is a regular, necessary part of a dancer’s day. And when class is in session, dancers must be focused and attentive. Time is filled with meaningful, physically demanding activity. While a company class lasts, it can be a great leveler. Everyone from a troupe’s most famous star to the newest member of the ensemble can be seen lined up at the barre, and even though the teacher may treat the star with deference, the star may still falter, while the newcomer may dazzle. During class, students become aware both of human imperfection and of human aspirations toward excellence. But when class ends, it is truly over – and now it is time for the dancers to devote themselves to what is scheduled to come next in their day.
The company races to the finish line Next week, the rehearsal process moves to the hardest part of a dancer’s work. Bringing out the artistic essences of each work is what makes each presentation unique. It is the art of squeezing out finishing touches. The power of the ballet master or coach is synonymous with a personal trainer for an Olympic athlete, or an executive coach for a CEO. Dancers often need the single of eye of a trained eye to offer important tips to make a performance day an unforgettable moment in a person’s own experiences. The coach must be the third pair of eyes, and the scale that keeps it in balance.
Many dancers have a lot of things they can tell you with their soul, but sometimes they don’t feel their body. They need to free up their upper body, need to breathe and let air in.” A coach emphasizes musical phrasing and reminders or “make good transitions a normal occurrence at this time.
Coaching is a special process that takes the dancer to the next level. It ignites the imagination and burnishes the luster of a performer’s unique qualities. Even in the age of videos and virtual imaging, there is no substitute for the intimate exchange between coach and dancer that passes on the artistry of ballet from one generation to the next.
Regular coaching sessions are as essential as taking class if dancers are to maintain their characterization and grow as artists. The famous ABT ballerina Dvorovenko once was quoted to says, “It is like dust on the furniture. If you don’t clean it, the next day there will be dust a little bit more.”
So step off, football jocks. The ballerina needs the physical therapy table more than you do. So what do you think we do on our day off.? Unlike professional sports teams, many classical ballet companies don’t have the money for on-site doctors and physical therapists. CBT ‘sport medicine trainer Al Hawkins is the on-call guru. And calls often go to Jessica Roan Valentine’s husband, Brandon, an orthopedic doctor. “I think companies are realizing now that if they want to have dancers perform for a long time, they need to be proactive,”. Hawkins, who has worked for the ballet for over 10 years, says his role is with dancers, he says, it’s “maintenance.” Try telling a dancer with a chronic injury that she really needs to rest for three weeks to be pain-free. Not gonna happen.”
“So I’m giving them practical things to do to minimize the condition, if possible, and undo the damage, if possible,” Hawkins says. “I want to get to them before they get to the point where they can’t get out of bed.”