Be­neath ev­ery air­borne bal­le­rina there’s a ded­i­cated man per­form­ing a bal­anc­ing act, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts - Deb­o­rah Jones

DALE Baker is tak­ing pas de deux class for fi­nal- year stu­dents at the Aus­tralian Bal­let School. The men and women are in their late teens and when they grad­u­ate next month they’ll be on the mar­ket and will have to deal with what­ever the pro­fes­sion throws at them.

In an airy stu­dio at the ABS, at­tached to the Aus­tralian Bal­let’s head­quar­ters in cen­tral Melbourne, cou­ples in prac­tice gear go through the ba­sics: prom­e­nades, sup­ported pirou­ettes, lifts. Pas de deux refers to a pas­sage of dance per­formed by two peo­ple — al­most in­vari­ably a man and a wo­man — but it has par­tic­u­lar pi­quancy for the man.

Baker, a for­mer dancer with the AB, gives a jolly laugh. ‘‘ I tell the boys that 10 per cent of bal­let is danc­ing on their own, 10 per cent is mime, and 80 per cent is part­ner­ing. So you’d bet­ter be good at it!’’

For many classical bal­let afi­ciona­dos, the pas de deux is cen­tral to their love for the art: the ra­di­ance of the wo­man, the power of the man, the thrills, the drop- dead ro­mance of it all.

One of the high­est ac­co­lades a male dancer can have is that he’s a su­perb part­ner. If a man and a wo­man click in a long- last­ing stage part­ner­ship, now in­creas­ingly rare, the au­di­ence is in rap­tures.

In pas de deux class, magic and ro­mance are in short sup­ply. The fe­male stu­dents look en­vi­ably calm, if a lit­tle flushed, while be­ing hoisted about less than grace­fully. The lads look anx­ious and re­lieved by turns. It’s all fum­bles, wob­bles and read­just­ments as they sort out how to get their feet in the right place so they sup­port the wo­man and don’t trip them­selves up. How near or how far away? Cen­time­tres can make all the dif­fer­ence.

They have to know ex­actly where to hold and how hard to grip. They need to get the wo­man per­fectly on bal­ance, what’s called get­ting her ‘‘ on her leg’’, so she won’t tilt dan­ger­ously and un­pleas­ingly dur­ing a se­ries of sup­ported pirou­ettes. Men in a pro­fes­sional com­pany’s low­est rank, the corps de bal­let, will spend a lot of time ush­er­ing a young thing in a tutu about the stage.

‘‘ When you’re learn­ing you have tutu ev­ery­where: it’s a crack- up,’’ says AB se­nior artist Marc Cas­sidy. The neo­phytes will have a variety of part­ners, which means cop­ing with women who have dif­fer­ent heights and rhythms. To help them get used to the feel­ing of lift­ing a weight that’s un­evenly dis­trib­uted and shifts about, the men train with sand­bags. So ro­man­tic.

Robert Cur­ran, an AB prin­ci­pal and by com­mon con­sent a peer­less part­ner, agrees with Baker. ‘‘ If you’re a good dancer but not a good part­ner you’re not go­ing to make it.’’

Part­ner­ing is so in­te­gral to classical dance that in­sid­ers strug­gle to de­fine ex­actly how it works or what makes one part­ner­ship bet­ter or more in­ter­est­ing than an­other.

Cur­ran takes the view that his role is to make the wo­man look good, even if that makes him al­most in­vis­i­ble. ‘‘ If it’s too ob­vi­ous, it looks bad. It’s like magic tricks. If you can see how it’s done, there’s no magic.’’ The re­cently re­tired New York City Bal­let star, Jock Soto, said much the same in an in­ter­view with Dance Mag­a­zine . ‘‘ If you see the man be­hind the bal­le­rina too much that’s not good part­ner­ing. You have to take care of your bal­le­rina, show­case her.’’

Ru­dolf Nureyev was less self- ef­fac­ing. He drove the break from the tra­di­tional view of the male as a ‘‘ por­teur’’, some­one who just car­ries things about. But when he started danc­ing with Mar­got Fonteyn, nearly 20 years his se­nior, he added 18 years to her ca­reer.

‘‘ With a new part­ner there is some car­pen­try nec­es­sary to fit . . . dif­fer­ent ver­sions to­gether. What mat­tered to me most was the in­ten­sity of his in­volve­ment in the role ( Al­brecht in Giselle ). There was an ex­tra­or­di­nary har­mony be­tween our in­ter­pre­ta­tions,’’ said Fonteyn.

Artistry, at­ti­tude, rap­port, tem­per­a­ment, nat­u­ral gifts and me­chan­ics all come into play in dif­fer­ent pro­por­tions, de­pend­ing on the peo­ple in­volved and the work they’re do­ing. Says Baker: ‘‘ Cer­tain peo­ple have a feel, an in­stinct. When you work be­hind a girl you need to pick up her rhythm and sense of bal­ance. Some do that eas­ily, some don’t. Co- or­di­na­tion and mu­si­cal­ity are the key fac­tors.

‘‘ You can teach it to a high level but those who have it in­stinc­tively are the best.’’

‘‘ I bet I know what Luci ( AB prin­ci­pal dancer Lucinda Dunn) will say when you ask her what I said was the most im­por­tant thing about part­ner­ing,’’ Cur­ran said con­fi­dently, talk­ing af­ter a re­hearsal for Swan Lake in Tokyo ear­lier this year.

‘‘ I think he would say you have to like your part­ner,’’ said an equally as­sured Dunn.

No, ac­tu­ally, though a good re­la­tion­ship — which th­ese two have — can be enor­mously ben­e­fi­cial. What Cur­ran said was this: ‘‘ Luci will say that I know what she’s go­ing to do be­fore she does it.’’

Dunn ac­knowl­edged this el­e­ment of fore­sight. ‘‘ It’s not pre- empt­ing, but feel­ing what’s com­ing next. Robert will hear me breathe,’’ she said. It’s death to art to make ev­ery show a car­bon copy of the last so Dunn wants to find dif­fer­ent things while not com­pro­mis­ing the per­for­mance. A part­ner’s acu­ity is there­fore an ex­tremely im­por­tant fac­tor.

Per­fect co- or­di­na­tion and tim­ing are made up of frac­tions of a sec­ond, re­cal­i­brated again and

again dur­ing per­for­mance so the joins don’t show in an en­deav­our where so much can go wrong so quickly. The dif­fer­ence be­tween some­thing re­ally work­ing and be­ing a bit off is un­be­liev­ably small,’’ says Baker.

Phys­i­cal strength is less im­por­tant than un­der­stand­ing how to use bal­ance, trans­fer­ence of en­ergy and cen­tre of grav­ity.

AB soloist Leanne Sto­j­menov tells how she thought she was be­ing help­ful by keep­ing quite rigid dur­ing dif­fi­cult lifts when re­hears­ing for her de­but as Kitri in . She needed, how­ever, to re­lax. You’re light­est on your way up,’’ she says. And no male dancer will ar­gue with you on this point: hold­ing a wo­man high above your head while she’s sit­ting on your hand isn’t all that hard.

Fred­er­ick Ash­ton’s shows the sit lift in ac­tion. It’s at the end of the Act II pas de deux for young lovers Lise and Co­las, and is an ex­pres­sion of the cou­ple’s ex­u­ber­ance and Co­las’s depth of feel­ing for Lise. He lit­er­ally puts her on a pedestal. It’s a showoff mo­ment that gets a great re­ac­tion from the au­di­ence but the me­chan­ics are straight­for­ward. As long as the man lines the wo­man up di­rectly over his cen­tre of grav­ity and locks his el­bow

Don Quixote



La Fille mal Gardee there’s not a lot of sweat in­volved. The on­earmed lift in Act I of , in which Kitri is held aloft in arabesque, is a trick­ier propo­si­tion. The wo­man doesn’t have much time to get into a safe and aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing po­si­tion, at which mo­ment the mu­sic oblig­ingly stops to let the man demon­strate just what a stud he is, stand­ing there tri­umphantly with his girl above his head. Or, on a bad day, stag­ger­ing around try­ing to find his bal­ance.

When you’re re­hears­ing some­thing dan­ger­ous like this you re­hearse with a catcher,’’ says Dunn, who has danced the role of Kitri many times. It’s a dif­fi­cult po­si­tion to get into for the girl. You have only a sec­ond to get into it.’’ In other words, don’t try this at home. It helps if a man has big hands, sug­gests AB artis­tic di­rec­tor David McAl­lis­ter prag­mat­i­cally. He agrees with Baker on the im­por­tance of co­or­di­na­tion and mu­si­cal­ity, and adds open­mind­ness and height­ened aware­ness to the list of de­sir­ables. And sen­si­tiv­ity in the hands: that’s more im­por­tant than strength. Big hands are a great ad­van­tage!’’

Per­haps so, but as Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre’s di­rec­tor, Kevin McKen­zie, told

in 1995, you must use your hands eco­nom­i­cally and use them not just to make her se­cure but to help shape her body’’.

Dunn talks about fin­ger­tip part­ner­ing’’, when men don’t just grip with the whole hand but use the palm and the fin­ger­tips sen­si­tively.






Don Quixote


The New York

The re­hearsals are very tech­ni­cal and very de­tailed,’’ says Dunn.

Dancers will talk to coaches and to each other ex­ten­sively, of­ten over an ex­tended pe­riod. Dunn will of­ten ver­balise her thoughts in re­hearsal so her part­ner knows what she will be think­ing at a cer­tain point in the bal­let. But

when it comes to per­for­mance you don’t want to be talk­ing about ev­ery cor­rec­tion. You are there to dance.’’

Of course some­times there isn’t much time at all to pre­pare. Ear­lier this year in Syd­ney, Dunn danced in the Christo­pher Wheel­don bal­let,

, with her sched­uled part­ner, Matthew Lawrence, and then with Steven Heath­cote and Robert Cur­ran when their part­ners were in­jured. I just handed my­self over to them. It was re­ally great to do it with all the boys. It was nice to be vul­ner­a­ble.’’

McAl­lis­ter says Dunn is good at in­spir­ing con­fi­dence in part­ner­ships and goes out of her way to be en­cour­ag­ing to the younger men.

The last thing you want to do is make them ner­vous,’’ she says. If the dance part­ners don’t much like one an­other, you have to work out what the chore­og­ra­pher and the work needs and treat it as a busi­ness’’.

When a real- life cou­ple is work­ing to­gether, there can be ben­e­fits. McAl­lis­ter paired Cas­sidy and Sto­j­menov in which was not only Sto­j­menov’s de­but in that work but also as the lead in a full- length bal­let. It’s very hon­est. You can say what you need to say. With your part­ner you say it as it is,’’ says Sto­j­menov.

They could also take their work home with them, re­fin­ing as the run of the bal­let con­tin­ued rather than hav­ing to draw a line un­der their in­ter­pre­ta­tion and meth­ods.

That said, be­ing part­ners in life isn’t a guar­an­tee there will be great art on stage. There seem to be fewer stand- out part­ner­ships th­ese days as dancers are matched with this one and that de­pend­ing on the wide- rang­ing reper­toire most com­pa­nies present.

This gives the dancers variety and a com­pany a greater range of op­tions, but it robs the pub­lic of the fas­ci­na­tion of see­ing supremely well­matched artists con­tin­u­ing to de­velop to­gether and make one and one add up to much more than two.

In her bi­og­ra­phy Fonteyn, Meredith Dane­man quotes bal­le­rina Vi­o­lette Verdy’s per­cep­tive com­ment on why the part­ner­ship be­tween Fonteyn and Nureyev worked: She civilised him. It was not just Beauty and Beast. It was civil­i­sa­tion ver­sus prim­i­tive strength.’’

And some­times peo­ple who aren’t get­ting on all that well can defy the odds and bring the house down.

Mikhail Barysh­nikov and Gelsey Kirk­land were some­time lovers and of­ten frac­tious col­leagues at Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre dur­ing the 1980s. In Kirk­land’s view, ex­pressed in her un­spar­ing mem­oir , Barysh­nikov was a self- cen­tred part­ner who han­dled her roughly and was un­in­ter­ested in mat­ters of in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

He thought she over- com­pli­cated things and tried to over­shadow him, lead­ing to a mem­o­rable piece of ad­vice be­ing con­veyed to her dur­ing Act II of .

Get off the stage, stupid!’’ he hissed.



Af­ter the Rain



Danc­ing on My Grave




Don Q,




Drop- dead ro­mance: Robert Cur­ran and Lucinda Dunn in the AB’s pro­duc­tion of The Nutcracker , main pic­ture; Ru­dolf Nureyev and Mar­got Fonteyn, one of the great dance part­ner­ships, above right

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