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Let’s see what you’ve got

Posted on November 29, 2017

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Daniel Pratt watches World Ballet Day, and considers the magic of seeing behind the scenes

Thursday, October 5 was the online international celebration of ballet, World Ballet Day. I will admit to you, with no embarrassment, that I set my alarm clock half an hour earlier so I could watch the live feed before I started preparations for my own day of dancing, and lots of my colleagues did the same.

2017 is the programme’s fourth year, presenting twenty two hours of footage of daily class and rehearsals from The Australian Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, The Royal Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada and San Francisco Ballet. World Ballet Day offers dance lovers the chance to see unexposed facets of their favourite companies, as well as undiscovered ballets from unfamiliar troupes. Watching, I felt connected to my industry and part of a wider whole.

This bounty of footage highlights current discussions surrounding the live relay of ballet. Neil Norman, lead dance critic at The Stage, wrote in October’s Dancing Times that his “sense of dissatisfaction, frustration and unfufilment” at watching live relays in the cinema was so great he won’t watch one again. Norman raised some valid points, particularly regarding how a film director presents a ballet to the cinema audience, but his thoughts provoked opposing reactions in Dancing Times’ November Letters page. Commenting on the Royal Ballet’s live relays, Sarah Kirkup, of Gramophone, felt “…added interval footage…hugely [enhances] the overall experience.” These extra films contextualise and deepen our connection to the piece.

Kirkup is sensing something that my ten-year old self knew: this footage, just as with World Ballet Day, is the opening of the wardrobe into Narnia. I distinctly remember the intoxicating feeling that overtook me as a Junior Associate of the Royal Ballet School when I got the opportunity to step off of the London street and through the stage door of the Royal Opera House. It sparked my passion for this career. The world that lies behind a performance is sometimes more seductive than the dancing itself; I can understand why dance lovers find this extra footage scintillating.

The Royal Ballet has actively used live streaming for a few years now. I remember tuning in to Royal Ballet Live back in March 2012 and watching awestruck the quality Marianela Nuñez brought to a solo from Kenneth Macmillan’s The Prince of the Pagodas. Not only was I introduced to a ballet I knew little of, more pertinent was the chance to watch someone of Nuñez’ skill pick apart choreography and find the nuances of a movement in rehearsal. It’s difficult to define what makes a singular dancer spectacular, but here was an occasion to muse on. Long limbed and gamine, Lauren Cuthbertson had a similar effect on me during this year’s Royal Ballet portion of World Ballet Day. Rehearsing Macmillan’s The Judas Tree with Viviana Durante and Irek Mukhamedov, Cuthbertson made me aware of the way dancers can continually reinvent themselves. She was a real woman, one I could envisage encountering on the street in a rough part of town. Yes, the legs reached impossible heights, but it was to reveal the confrontational nature of the drama.

Guillaume Côté from The National Ballet of Canada also demonstrated transformative qualities. Côté, rehearsing a solo from John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, brought a paradoxical quality to the steps that still reverberates in my mind. He was strong and fluid, seeming to dissolve from one phrase to the next. I caught this footage during the last minutes of my lunch break before a rehearsal where I was dancing a lyrical solo choreographed by Will Tuckett. Côté’s impression meant I had one of my best rehearsals for weeks.

Pre-filming footage of their preparations for the company’s first tour to Paris in forty years, a particularly lively part of The National Ballet of Canada’s slot was a rehearsal of Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla. Performing in ensemble numbers gives a dancer a different type of satisfaction, and seeing how different companies operate in these rehearsals is telling. Paz de la Jolla provides dancing that is just as challenging for the men as the women. I’m generalising here, but usually men’s choreography doesn’t ask the dancer to fill out dance phrases as lusciously as Peck’s does here. Poses often luxuriate at the apex of a turn to then punctuate the Martinů’s score incisively in open shapes that sing. Paz de la Jolla was made for New York City Ballet in 2013, a nod to Peck’s upbringing in Southern California: you can feel that west coast energy and capricious aloofness.

San Francisco Ballet’s live feed revealed the minute attention to detail dancers apply to their work.  David Dawson is seen creating a new work with Sofiane Sylve and Maria Kochetkova. The choreographer asks these two superlative bodies to interrogate their movements to hyper-real standards. I was struck by the sensitivity of Lindsay Fischer rehearsing Jerome Robbins’ Opus 19/The Dreamer and the humour of Elyse Bourne staging Balanchine’s Serenade. Fischer stops Sarah Van Patten and states: “We want to hear the note; see the position”. His comment – unintentionally – riffs on one of George Balanchine’s famous aphorisms and demonstrates the sophisticated assimilation of information dancers must do in rehearsal; co-ordinating a body of vital blood and muscle with musical value and space.

Dancers love to compare and contrast each company’s daily class, and it was inspiring to watch some of the beautiful exercises that each company teacher forged. Christopher Stowell of The National Ballet of Canada had some winners in my eyes, along with the energetic and commanding approach of Elizabeth Toohey of The Australian Ballet.

On October 10, The Royal Ballet live streamed The Genius of Kenneth MacMillan, the first in a handful of broadcasts to accompany the MacMillan commemorations occurring in London. I want to highlight here how several dancers on screen mentioned what a positive experience sharing the stage between these UK companies was. There are so many wonderful people in our dance world, surely more cross-company sharing would benefit us all? World Ballet Day and joint initiatives like it embolden our industry. Elizabeth Toohey says towards the end of her class, “let’s see what you’ve got”. World Ballet Day certainly encapsulates that galvanising principal.

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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