It was towards the end of our pointe class. We stood in center, our teacher smiled and gave us The Talk about repertory and dancing variations. On pointe. The been-there-done-that-crowd did not flinch, but my heart stopped. I knew this was coming, there had been hints, but my teacher had spoken of later next year. Not of the here and now! I half figured that because of our mixed-level class she was talking to the advanced girls who were probably itching to do more than echappés and piqués in center. But no, there was no sorting into groups, no directions for me (or anyone else) to sit in the corner and observe. My teacher pressed play, said something about Sleeping Beauty and took the beginning pose of B-plus, arms crossed delicately in front. My barely recovered heart sank, further down still.
I felt like I had taken an odd turn, missed the sign "Mom of Aurora" and entered the wrong casting. Because no way is this adult dancer a bluebird-wooing, sprightly, pretty, petite, ballet-y princess. You want to scare me away? Flaunt a tutu into my face and I´ll jeté into the opposite direction. Of course, our teacher did not throw the entire variation before us, just the beginning piqués and grand ronde jambes and bourrés. So, really nothing we haven´t done before, except for the piqués followed by the sweeping leg to the side (well, it was new to me anyway). And those arms. I have never felt such a strong urge to call it quits. And quit I did, right there and then.
I could put part of the blame on my big toe, which was crying for release and ice (too much pressure and not enough padding underneath), but that would not even be half of the truth. The ugly truth, Dear Reader, is that I fear repertory. I fear looking like I´ve come without an invite, crashed the party, trespassed from my seat in the audience right onto the stage. When that Bluebird music started to play, I could not get the image of a real ballerina out of my head - and me making mockery of her!
Deep down I know my logic is lacking, as really all of our exercises and enchaînements are bits and pieces of variations or preparations thereof. I have even been on stage before, in our spring shows, dancing to the music of Swan Lake and Coppelia. But back then I was part of the "corps de ballet", with my feet safely ensconed in soft slippers, not precariously footed on pointe. This repertory business however, is new and alien territory to me.
The thing is, and this might seem curious to some, I was not lured into ballet by the sight of the ballerina-in-the-music-box. As a twelve year old I thought Giselle in her floating tulle lovely, but the princess in a tutu held no appeal to me at all. In fact it took me years to appreciate her iconic status and not regard the hopping on pointe with the bopping tutu as silly. What drew me to ballet instead was (and still is) the architectural line of the arabesque, the flight of grand jetés, the music drawn into movement.
I never imagined me dancing any roles or characters and certainly nothing remotely princess-y. I figured that kind of dancing to be the exclusive domain of the "good girls" (as one of my former teachers liked to call them - compared to the adult rest of us). You know, the ballerinas in training, and those who have danced since they have walked. Dancers with ballet-class cred, the "look" and that enviable trait of je-ne-sais-quoi.. Whereby you take one pose and are instantly transformed into something out of this world, out of my world.
|The Sleeping Beauty |
Stephanie Williams of Australian Ballet.
Photo: Liz Ham.
Real life and fairy tales, ballet class and repertory.. I do realise that not all of ballet is princess-y. Just as I understand that portraying a majestic countenance on stage is an essential part of it all. Something to do with Catherine de Medici and that Sunny King of France. Ballet was first the spectacle of royalty, and the unwed virgin Princess among their heroines (funny how Disney held on to that). The tiara- and tutu-clad Princess on Pointe has long since become the iconic look of the female ballet dancer. And here lies my whopper of insecurity: princesses and tutus and me - we are no match made for the stage. There are, admittedly, body- and self-image issues involved.
Grown-ups who dance ballet for the joy, do not have to look the part. Professional dancers do. We may come in all sizes and shapes, but all we need is to focus on our placement and line, on the music and the corrections we get. Yet we are drawn to the image of the ballet-body beautiful - and most of us are not so wise and mature as to never compare ourselves. And yes, in comparison I do find my instrument sadly lacking! When thoses Fairy Godmothers dealt out their favors, they threw some bounce at me and then skipped and hopped away. Ballon, yes. Talent for ballet, no. I´m not talking about musicality or eye for movement, or intellect and perseverance. What I lack is balletic talent; physical suitability such as good turn-out and natural flexibility, and that look of long and lean legs, a small butt and slim hips. One nice left foot does not yet a ballerina make.
So, I´m short and squat, broad-shouldered, curvy and compact. So what? What I and every other sometime insecure adult-not-quite-a-ballerina needs to understand, is that it does not matter. Not as much as we like to think. In ballet you essentially aim to create an illusion - that of infinite lines and flight. You achieve this by work, not talent alone. Every able-bodied can strengthen their core, lengthen the back, stretch those knees, pointe them feet. You breathe, you elongate, you live, you love to dance. The bottom line is that the shape(liness) of your derrière does not stand in the way of the loveliness of your ligne!
The princess is just another illusion. She is created by the lines you draw onto the music, by épaulement, port de bras, a pas here, another enchaînement there. Dancing her should not be mission impossible. Granted, a grown-up ballet dancer would be an odd casting for the part of virgin bride-to-be Aurora. But it does not have to be a choice between the teenage princess and the walk-on part of mothers or queens. Though in real life.. I´d rather be the Empress residing over her court than the talent called to entertain at her daughters pre-nuptials.
As for myself, I´m still finding my voice as a dancer. Anything that goes beyond the purely technical is still fairly new to me. Only in the past year have I thought about "presenting myself" in ballet, whether it´s a forwarded ankle or an attempt at elegance. Princess Florestine? Not quite there yet. Although, after the initial shock faded and I later confided in my teacher - about my fears, insecurities and bad memories - something changed. I looked at that particular variation (and others) with a fresh perspective and new attention to detail. In our next class, our teacher broke the steps down and - lo and behold - I could actually pull it off!
Now, let me just unearth and rediscover my latent inner princess. A modern single gal wooing her Prince. Somewhere between Princess Florestine and Charlotte of Sex and the City. The tutus you do not have to bother with, but darlings - I´ll wear the tiara. Those are real diamonds, right?