Giselle: a day in the life of Kiwi ballet’s leading lady
Few of us need to ice our feet after a day at work, but that is a daily reality for Lucy Green, who is living her dream as the star of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s season of Giselle. Thérèse Henkin joins her at the rehearsal studios to witness the dedic
WHEN DANCER Lucy Green slips on her pointe shoes and walks into the studio on a crisp winter morning, she’s stepping into the lead role of one of her most beloved ballets.
At the studio in Wellington’s St James Theatre, it’s buzzing with the excitement of 35 dancers ready to begin rehearsals for the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s (RNZB) fifth season of Giselle.
“Giselle is my dream role. I’ve wanted to do it since I was 12 years old,” the 24-year-old says.
The haunting ballet, which has become the RNZB’s signature production, tells the story of Giselle, the innocent beauty who falls in love with a mysterious stranger only to find out he is Count Albrecht, betrothed to another. Giselle, heartbroken, descends into madness and
death. Rising from the grave, she is met in the forest by the Wilis, vengeful ghosts of jilted brides. As Albrecht mourns the death of his beloved, the Wilis exact their revenge, compelling him to dance until he dies from exhaustion. But Giselle shields him from their fury, until the first light of day brings redemption.
Lucy has been with the RNZB for six years, during which time she has performed in Giselle in China, America and most recently in Europe, where she was part of the ‘A’ cast for the first time, giving her the prestige of performing on opening night.
Now back in New Zealand, the Australian-born Victorian College of the Arts graduate is again in the A cast of Giselle, which opens on August 11. The Australian Women’s Weekly joined Lucy on her first day of seven weeks’ training for the leading role.
THE WARM-UP Lucy wakes at 7am, and after her usual breakfast of porridge she heads to the dance studio. While the day officially starts with a 9.30am conditioning class, she routinely arrives at 8.30 to warm up.
The petite brunette lies on a yoga mat with her left leg stretched back towards her head, displaying a level of flexibility most of us can only dream of.
“I do Pilates every morning to help strengthen my muscles and warm up my body to prevent injury. Different injuries have shaped what I do during that time,” she says. “I know the areas of my body I need to work on and I focus on exercises that help them.”
At 9.30 the formal warm-up begins, the dancers starting their repertoire at the barre, then moving into the centre of the studio. “It gets us warm; it gets us on our legs and ready for the day.”
LEAPING INTO THE DAY At 11am Lucy is found prancing around a smaller dance studio in a mesmerising display of dramatic leaps and jumps.
“Giselle is very young, bubbly, and a bit naive. Her first few steps on the stage are full of energy, happiness and excitement,” the talented ballerina explains. Lucy, now entirely transformed into the character of Giselle, circles the stage in a series of small jumps. “I think what I love about the actual steps of Giselle is that there’s so much jumping – that’s my favourite thing – and the light, fast footwork is really fun to do,” she says.
Much of the class is spent perfecting the character’s emotions, with ballet master Roberto coaching Lucy on how to authentically portray someone head over heels in love.
“Even though ballet doesn’t have dialogue, you have to think about what you are trying to say in each moment,” Lucy says, “and what the character is feeling at that time.
“The challenge with Giselle is that so many ballet dancers have played that role before; it’s such an iconic role. You can learn a lot from watching them, which I do, but then you’ve got to make it unique because if you just copy someone, you can often see that it doesn’t sit right on someone else.”
ACT TWO As Lucy and Roberto move on to rehearse the second act, when Giselle has become an evil Wili, she glides across the glossy studio floor in a series of quick, even movements, to the haunting melody drifting from the laptop set up at the front of the studio.
“Being a spirit is very challenging.
It’s the whole concept of not having joints or bones or any jerkiness. You can’t appear human,” Lucy explains.
“It is really challenging to get your body to move like that. Because my arms are quite short, it’s even trickier,” she says, laughing. “It helps to have long limbs because you can articulate them a lot. When you’ve got short arms you’ve got to do more work.”
But Lucy says she admires dancers who have to work harder than others for a place in the company.
“There’s this stigma around ballet that dancers are born and not made, but I don’t think that’s true,” she says. “To some extent there are certain attributes you need, but there are also dancers that don’t have those and they have to work hard to make it. You can see in their performance an extra spark, because they’ve had to fight to stand out.”
Lucy says it can be nerve-wracking playing the lead role because the
There’s this stigma that dancers are born and not made, but I don’t think that’s true.
success of the ballet relies so heavily on her performance.
“The pressure can be huge and in the seconds leading up to stepping on stage your heart’s racing,” she says.
“But then you step out there and forget about all that. Because I’m not Lucy on stage, I’m Giselle. And Giselle isn’t scared about going on stage. She’s in a different world, portraying something else – you can use that to distract you from those nerves.”
It’s only when Lucy stops moving that you realise how tired she is. After an hour of leaping across the room, her breathing is heavier, her cheeks bright pink.
“It’s an art form to make it look effortless and like we’re not tired, but we always are,” she admits as she catches her breath. “When you watch someone perform, they look so serene and graceful, but often they will come off stage and collapse in a heap.”
Lucy’s physical exhaustion, however, doesn’t hinder her performance as she eagerly follows Roberto’s instructions to start Act One again “from the top”. FEEDING THE TROUPES At 1pm Lucy bounces off to join her fellow dancers in the green room, a quaint and cosy lounge area where they can take time out from rehearsals.
Meat and vegetables on rice are on the menu today for the bubbly dancer, who eats a lot throughout the day to keep her energy levels up.
“I remember my flatmate said to me when I first moved in, ‘You’re so tiny and I was just expecting you to eat nothing. But I was shocked, you eat twice as much as I do for dinner,’” she says with a laugh.
“It’s funny – that’s a huge stereotype about ballet dancers because we are quite thin and fit, but we are constantly on our feet exercising and you need to fuel your body for that. People are often quite surprised at how much we do eat.”
While Lucy acknowledges eating disorders do exist in the dancing world, she says most dancers are realistic about the energy levels they need.
The room is filled with the hum of chatter and laughter as the dancers catch up after a week of rest following the end of their Wizard of Oz tour.
“As far as ballet companies go we are quite a tight-knit group. We don’t get a huge amount of time to hang out, but the time that we do get we all really like – it’s lovely,” Lucy says.
Their demanding schedule makes maintaining relationships outside the ballet company a real challenge. “At the moment there are loads of couples within the company and I think it often happens that way. We spend so much time together and things can be very…” Lucy pauses and laughs, “… intimate. People who date outside the company can find it very challenging because we are only in Wellington about 50 per cent of the year.”
Lunch is usually followed by two more intense rehearsals, but on day one they are eased into the hectic seven-week training with a meeting instead, to discuss the upcoming season. WRAPPING UP That night at six o’clock, when the dancer’s working day officially ends, no one rushes out the door. Instead the dancers spread out on the chairs and floor with ice buckets and towels in a variety of stretching positions.
“This is a job you can’t do if you don’t love it, because it’s too hard. It’s too much effort. People see what goes on stage and they think it’s pretty and it’s graceful and it’s effortless, but so much goes into it,” Lucy says. “I sit at home at night sewing pointe shoes, darning my pointe shoes, breaking my pointe shoes in, painting my pointe shoes, icing my feet, stretching, massaging and rolling out.”
After Lucy has iced her feet and stretched for at least 45 minutes, she heads home and sits down to do exactly that. She grabs a pair of worn, tattered pointe shoes and starts sewing.
The dedicated dancer goes through two pairs of pointe shoes a week, which she admits is a little more than she should, seeing as each dancer only gets seven pairs a month. “When I dance in the lead role of Giselle, I wear a new pair of shoes and by the end of the show they are dead,” she says.
While Lucy finds the time to chill out on the couch with her flatmates some evenings, she says being a professional ballet dancer is not the type of job where you leave your work at the office. But she says the sacrifices are worth it to realise her dancing dreams.
“We train for so long to get here. From my graduating class there are only three dancers who are in ballet companies. It’s very competitive and we are so lucky to be doing what we love to do,” she says.
“Once you are out on stage you forget about all the pain and the hard work and really enjoy it.”
This is a job you can’t do if you don’t love it, because it’s too hard. It’s too much effort.