What goes on in the minds of ballet dancers

A ballerina rehearses during preparation of the stage for the evening performance of The Nutcracker. Cairo Opera House, main hall, December 2012. (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
A ballerina rehearses during preparation of the stage for the evening performance of The Nutcracker. Cairo Opera House, main hall, December 2012. (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Continuing our exploration into the minds of the performing artists, Ahram Online talks to ballet dancers to understand what goes on in their heads during performances

Published in Ahram Online

A lot of parallels can be drawn between the minds of ballet dancers, and the classical musicians whom we probed in the previous article. Indeed artists of all kind share many common characteristics with nuances derived from the specific art genre and its unique technical and creative tools.

Standing on the stage, in front of dozens, hundreds and at times thousands of audience members, all performers feel the responsibility to deliver the best performance they can. Navigating in between the many challenges, each artist deals with the pressure in a different way.

Erminia Kamel, the artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company tells Ahram Online that “not everyone reacts the same way when facing the audience.”

Kamel continues to explain that emotions and self-criticism are not only linked to the personality, but that they also change as the dancer develops and gains experience.

“When I was dancing, as a very young soloist, I was not afraid to step on the stage. I was prepared and sure of myself. But as you get older and become more aware of the many practicalities and of the audience’s expectations, one develops cautiousness and the initial enthusiasm is slowly replaced with self-criticism. In my case, the experience added to the pressure and augmented the sense of responsibility,” Kamel explains.

As artistic director of the troupe, Kamel no longer dances. She underscores that while her artistic journey was affected by specific triggers, each dancer has their own unique personality and is prone to different kinds of pressures.

Mamdouh Hassan, who joined the Cairo Opera Ballet Company in 2006 and is today its first dancer points to a performer’s first entry on stage as a crucial emotional moment.

“I can feel all the eyes on me, whether they are my colleagues on stage or the audience,” Hassan tells Ahram Online.

He provides example of Nutcracker ballet where in the role of a Prince he appears from under the stage floor.

“This is probably one of the most challenging moments in all ballets. I emerge from the total darkness and it takes a few moments to get adjusted to the lights, music and the performance tempo.  At this moment, I am often very worried. I slowly get adjusted and the rest flows automatically,” he says.

Sahar Helmy, also first dancer, points to similar sentiments.

“When I enter the stage, my concentration is at its peak. I feel everything, I feel the audience, other dancers. I also listen to the music, think about the technical issues, about the movement. At times, with so many thoughts crossing my mind, I experience fear,” Helmy reveals to Ahram Online.

Audience is among the elements on the minds of both first dancers. While Hassan finds in audience a feeling of reward for his hard work, Helmy says that a “full house might be scary at first.”

“It feels different when you know that the audience are regulars, verses them coming once for a national occasion. In special performances, I am also aware of who sits in the audience,” Helmy explains.

But once on stage and under the projectors, the ballet comes to life.

“This is when all takes off, and once the story begins, I no longer think about the peripheral factors, the movement takes me through the whole ballet, it becomes a part of me,” Hassan adds.

In ballet all entries are strictly connected to music. The score is paralleled by a clearly designed movement scenario with no room for chaos or unplanned movements.

Helmy says that during the rehearsals the dancers would stop and fix some mistakes but if someone misses the entry or a movement during the performance, the whole ballet moves on.

She says that “it’s like a big mechanism in which each dancer supports the other, and often covers for the mistakes of one another and the audience usually doesn’t notice. But we also compete against each other; everyone wants to be the best on stage. Healthy competition is a good thing, it boosts the artistic delivery.”

Months of rehearsals lead not only to perfecting of choreography, but also to a strong trust among the dancers. This mutual understanding and cooperation is among the crucial factors that guarantee the success of the individual dancer as well as the troupe as a whole.

In duets, the responsibility is shared and by the time of performance, the pair has already developed one dance language. Helmy sees it as important that her partner understands her balance and strong points and supports her when necessary.

“Each partner is different and some partners fit better in particular ballet duets than others,” Helmy adds that while some dancers perform with same partners throughout the years, others prefer to change.

Hassan explains that while some dancers get used to one another and stick together as a pair, he believes change can be beneficial.

“It is one of the many ways of understanding creative expression. I believe that changing partners adds new experience and artistic development to the dancer,” he adds.

In duets we find a lot of lifting and demanding, almost acrobatic work. Hassan explains that work in duets takes three years of the ballet academy education.

“Thanks to our extensive training, when lifting the partner, we think in parameters of technique, not kilograms.”

He underlines the importance of artistically mastered beginnings and endings to many scenes, whether he dances solo or in groups. As the first dancer he takes solo parts, performs in pas de deux, pas de trois etc., but he also give importance to the corps de ballet.

“When I dance with a big group in the background, I am aware that they can make the soloist shine. Corps de ballet is a great power and a different challenge for the choreographer. It can boost the soloist or damage the whole scene.”

Ballet dancers spend long years studying technique. In last years of the ballet academy they are often taken as stagiaires in the professional companies where they perform in the back rows. This is the first actual practice for the young dancers to perform on stage, in a serious production, in front of a big audience.

“The academy teaches us the dance vocabulary, the balance, shapes our bodies and muscles, but we continue developing throughout the actual performances on stage. We move to corps de ballet, the more talented ones begin to get small solos. The learning process continues. We gain more expertise, learn stage techniques and presentation. A few have body abilities which eventually allow them to become first dancers,” Helmy says, as she wraps up the life journey of the many ballet dancers.

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