Mishaps & Misfortunes:
The Not So Graceful Side Of Ballet
Falling in public is for most people an embarrassing event. It is why we are trying to get up as quickly as possible, put on a smile and tell to people that offer their help that 'we are fine, really', before we hurry off to the safety of anonymity.
There is no hiding away when a performer falls or trips on stage. Instead, any mishap is amplified by the theatre's architecture, the lighting, the stage design, etc., all of which are intended to direct the audience's attention to what is unfolding right in front of them.
And whilst, as I mentioned in last month's blog, sports and athletics, often regard 'fails' as an exploration of what is humanly possible, ballet, in contrast, aims to create the illusion of perfection and other-worldliness that any ungraceful and unplanned movement would destroy.
It is rather impressive how fast dancers get back up onto their feet after they dropped to the floor and continue their routine as if nothing had happened. They often realise only after the end of the show that they got hurt.
One of my own most prominent falls was when I danced the double role of Clara/ Sugar Plum in The Nutcracker.
In act I, little Clara and her Nutcracker (danced by ballet students) are magically transformed into a princess and a prince (i.e. me and my partner) who perform, as a way of introducing their first pas de deux, which has a wonderful, dream-like quality.
backstage, as Sugar Plum and Prince,
German State Opera Berlin, 1996
Two minutes into the pas de deux, dancing at the very front of the stage, doing a chassé-relevé to arabesque I slipped and landed on the floor! My princely partner kindly offered me his hand and pulled me back up on pointe. Shocked but not shaken by this disaster, we tried to recreate the magic.
In the interval, I noticed that the muscles around my shin were badly swollen but nothing I could do until later. If anything, I was more determined to excel in act II.
The year before I danced the same role with another, less gallant partner. In the grand pas de deux of the act II, quite early on, I am to turn a double grand tour à la seconde, where my partner catches me at the end and leads me into a penché. However, this one time my prince stepped in too early and pushed me quite unmajestically off pointe.
I knew that everyone thought this would unnerve me but quite the opposite, the incident completely calmed me down. It felt like I had nothing to lose and if something else did go wrong, I would be forgiven. The mind works in strange ways.
Nobody is exempt from unlucky accidents, not even the best.
I had moved on from the company but came to watch the premiere of their hugely anticipated new production of Swan Lake that was broadcasted live in different countries by Arte television.
The male principal dancer was a very highly respected artist of absolute technical command. I have never seen him make a mistake, he seemed infallible. In his first solo on that opening night, doing a simple preparatory step, he too slipped and fell.
Falls, trips and slips can have many different reasons: nervousness, getting entangled in costumes, a slippery floor, etc. The latter becomes apparent when several dancers fall in one evening. I remember a Don Quixote performance where people just kept dropping and after each act, we were counting the numbers.
But these are not the only calamities that can strike. Another example is a having 'blackout'. This is when the mind goes blank and one forgets the next few steps.
My best friend had a beautiful solo in Le Concours by Maurice Bejart. As always I watched him dance from the wings and did not notice anything unusual on this particular day. However, afterwards, he told me he had had a blackout for several counts yet his body continued to do the correct choreography! What a fascinating illustration of nerve and muscle memory.
warming up before Le Concours,
German State Opera Berlin, 1996
The above examples are, even if not welcomed, justifiable and part of the job. Much worse and far more difficult to get away with it when a dancer forgets to take off pieces of his or her clothes.
I remember watching act II of Giselle and one of the demi-soloists wore her black ankle warmer with her white tutu.
A personal, way more shameful memory is me as a 14 or 15 years old student, dancing the pas de trois in The Nutcracker and posing with all the other dancers in the 'tableau-scene' of act II when I heard muffled giggling rising around me. It suddenly dawned on me that I was the cause of everyone's bemusement, having forgotten to take off one of my bright-coloured turquoise foot-to-knee leg warmers.
Oh, how I wished the ground had opened and swallowed me! Time seemed to have stood still and I was dying a slow, humiliating death.
To make matters worse, it was a matinee performance and apart from bearing the scorn of my teacher I also had to endure being teased by the company dancers for the rest of the day.
Infectious laughter is another challenging situation on stage, e.g. when wigs are about to come off during a waltz, or when in a freeze-frame scene giggles of undefined origin turn into laughing fits that can hardly be contained, usually at the end of the season when everyone is overtired.
This may not be the greatest example of the professionalism and serious commitment the majority of dancers bring to their jobs. But it shows that dancers are also just human beings, and moreover very young ones most of the time.
As I read in a Huffington Post article by Risa Gary Kaplowitz: "Ballet is perfect; dancers are not".