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.

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