IN SAFE HANDS
Beneath every airborne ballerina there’s a dedicated man performing a balancing act, writes
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
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.
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.
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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