Interview Dancers From The National Ballet

Another interview I carried out for the university newspaper. These two ballet dancers were really down to earth and lovely and dispelled myths that myself, and many others, have about the world of ballet.

The Real Black Swan

With the poise and grace of a swan, the ballet dancer is a different breed of human being. Perhaps this is why there is a fascination with the mysterious world of ballet and the myths of pushy mothers, eating disorders and bleeding toenails. A year ago, the film Black Swan was racking up Oscar nominations for its dark portrayal of the life of two ballerinas who are driven to extreme measures in the name of perfection. Natalie Portman won the Oscar for her disturbed and bulimic ballerina and the issue of female dancers and their body weight resurfaced once again. In February this year, the Italian dancer Mariafrancesca Garritano was sacked from Milan’s prestigious ballet school, La Scala, after claims that she and fellow students had been pushed into severe eating disorders and body dysmorphia. The claims were damning, however, they were made over fifteen years ago, so the question remains as to whether in 2012 the pressures on ballet dancers are still the same.

The Emerging Dancer Competition is an annual competition for the English National Ballet to recognise and nurture the phenomenal talent of its up-and-coming dancers. Six of the company’s most exciting young artists are nominated by their colleagues at the English National Ballet to compete for the title. The dancers who perform in this competition are young: eighteen, nineteen, twenty. I was intrigued to find out how daunting a task it is to be involved in the competition.

Speaking to Nancy Osbaldeston and Barry Drummond, two of the six competing for the ‘Emerging Dancer’ title, I noticed how grounded they both are. There is no essence of the paranoia and borderline-craziness we see in Black Swan, the ubiquitous ‘perfect’ dominating the script: “Perfect? I’m not perfect. I’m nothing”; “I just want to be perfect”; “I was perfect…”; “I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect”; “I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right”. As Nina, played by Portman, ‘loses herself’ to get ready for the role of the lead in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake she starts to have visual hallucinations. She sees a black-clad version of herself across the subway platform and again in the maze of hallways at Lincoln Center. Even the pink stuffed animals that adorn the bedroom she shares with her neurotic mother seem to come alive and mock her.

I ask Nancy and Barry if Black Swan was an accurate portrayal of the life of a ballerina. We all remember the daunting scene where director Thomas Leroy walks around the room of ballerinas and taps those he wants to star in ‘Swan Lake’ on the shoulder. Barry assures me that this isn’t the norm: “The casting for a ballet is never done during a company class and there is always more than one person that performs each role. It’s much more official than your director tapping you on the shoulder to indicate which rehearsals you should attend. I feel that Black Swan was an accurate portrayal in a few areas but in order to make it out of the ordinary they obviously had to distort reality a little.” Nancy said “Black Swan isn’t that far from the truth, no. I think it gives quite a good impression of a dancer’s daily life to people who have no idea. I always have that problem when my legs suddenly transform into duck’s legs.” I laugh. A sense of humour? I certainly don’t remember that in Black Swan.

What about the eating disorders and physical toil on the human body that ballet causes? One anonymous commenter on the The Guardian website wrote “In 2012, there is so much awareness of the problem I find it very hard to accept that anorexia and other dangerous behaviours (except, oddly, smoking) are epidemic in ballet.” It is true that Mila Kunis trained seven days a week, five hours, for five, six months total, and was put on a very strict diet of 1,200 calories a day for her role as Portman’s competition in Black Swan. She lost 20 pounds from her normal weight of 117 pounds and said “I would literally look at myself in the mirror and I was like: ‘Oh my God! I had no shape, no boobs, no ass…’ All you saw was the bone. I was like ‘this looks gross’”. Nancy doesn’t sugarcoat the reality: “I encountered eating disorders when I went away to ballet school. It’s inevitable really if you’re telling young impressionable students who dance in front of a mirror all day, everyday, that they could lose a couple of pounds…you’re just asking for it”. However, Judith Mackrell of The Guardian warns, “We should be wary of assuming that dancers are ‘anorexic’ simply because they are very lean. There are amazingly slender performers who are perfectly fit and who, yes, go on to have babies.” Indeed, any profession that involves pushing the human body to its limits requires a certain level of will power to keep the it in its best condition, and that means watching what you eat. As Barry says “eating disorders aren’t unheard of, but aren’t as common as one would think. Living healthily is such an important part of being a dancer. Eating and sleeping well, socialising and generally being a well-rounded part of society, I think, are essential.”

As for bleeding toenails, if you type ‘ballet bleeding feet’ into Google there is no denying the abundance of results. Sarah Wildor, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, says wistfully: “My feet might have been quite nice if I hadn’t been a dancer.” She describes the corns that grow between her toes, due to the pressure placed on the bones. She trims the corns to keep them under control, but she has “a really horrible soft one, between the fourth and fifth toes” whose only effective treatment would be an operation to shave the bone. Although it makes us feel uncomfortable, the foot still has the power to bewitch and to shock. It is not only the defining image of different styles of dance – it is also the focus of ballet’s mystique and what would ballet be without the ubiquitous pointe shoe? Darcey Bussell once said she “numbs [her] mind to the pain” and it seems that dancers who are serious about their profession sacrifice pretty feet in the name of art. Nancy and Barry don’t even mention their sore toes, Barry simply explains how he tries to keep the aches and pains at bay: “I learned the hard way that body maintenance is a vital skill. Making sure aches and pains don’t have the potential to worsen, and result in having to take a lot of time off by listening to my body. I make the time to see the physiotherapist, get sports massages and use a lot of ice.”

One thing definitely isn’t a myth in the ballet world: pushy parents. “Pushy mothers are most definitely a part of the ballet world and in vocational ballet schools there are lots of overly involved parents,” says Barry. Dame Margot Fonteyn’s (widely regarded as one of the greatest classical ballet dancers of all time) mother, Hilda, signed her up for ballet classes aged four. She studied ballet in Shanghai when her industrialist father moved to China and was brought back to London at the age of 14 by her mother, specifically to pursue a ballet career which saw her feted internationally and remembered as one of the greatest classical dancers ever. One woman’s pushiness is another’s awareness of the potential of her child, and the distinction between the two seems remarkably small. But like all exaggerated stereotypes, the pushy parent isn’t quite what it seems when you are actually a part of the industry, as Nancy explains: “When I was younger there were pushy mothers galore at the competitions I used to do, but if the child is to get anywhere professionally the passion has to come from them.”

It sounds like a potentially stressful environment to say the least. “It is a competitive environment because you’re always competing with the dancers around you for the same roles but at the same time in a company where we are constantly all putting on shows together, you become almost like a family working together for the same thing, which is to be better. When I was younger I would get jealous of other dancers very easily but now I’ve learnt that even if someone is much better than you, everyone is unique so they will never have what you have – which is being you,” explains Nancy. What about the feeling that perhaps they have missed out on the university experience? Are they growing up too fast? I receive an ever-wise response from both Nancy and Barry, their outlook on the world completely grounded: “I don’t regret not going to university because moving to London at 16 to do ballet was, for me, exactly what I wanted to do. I lived in a flat with three other girls and we had a ball! I’m sure living in halls at uni is a great laugh too, but at the same time I’m not sure it would be worth it if I were studying something I didn’t have a passion for. I have just finished a degree from Middlesex University in Dance Performance that I have been doing in my spare time. I did find it tough coming home after working all day in the studios, to opening my laptop and writing about dance again. It was a bit full on but having completed it I feel chuffed.”

There is certainly a sense of ‘seize the day’ with ballet. Much like football, and other sports, there’s no place for an ‘old’ – constituted by a mere thirty years in this physically demanding world – ballerina. If it’s what you want, you have to go for it now. Barry whole-heartedly believes this: “I often think about what my life would be like had I gone to university and I don’t regret taking the opportunity to be a dancer. Your career is short which leaves so much time once you’ve retired from dancing to go back and challenge yourself with the things you had to bypass in your youth. You can go to university as a ‘mature student’ but there’s no such thing as a ‘mature ballet dancer’. If you don’t do it while you’re young, you never will.”

Despite the lows of the ballet world – the strained muscles, the sometimes-pushy parents, the sore toes – what I’ve learnt from Nancy and Barry is that none of that matters when you feel the rush of adrenaline from performing in front of thousands. As Nancy says, “being on stage makes it all seem worth it”. They are utterly thrilled to be nominated for something as prestigious as the Emerging Dancer Contest and answer my questions with the humblest of remarks “I’m sure I’ll benefit from the entire experience regardless of the outcome” says Barry. Yes their days are looking chock-a-block at the moment, Barry says that “we normally have a relatively full day of ballet class and rehearsals from 10:30-6:30 so our Emerging Dancer rehearsals usually take place in breaks in between rehearsals, during the day or after hours”. Full-on perhaps, but their beaming excitement shows that their extra work doesn’t seem to bother them.

After talking to Nancy and Barry, the myth of the ballet dancer seems to have lifted somewhat. Films such as The Red Shoes and Black Swan are great entertainment but they “set the public’s perception of ballet back 50 years” as Deborah Bull, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet stated. And it’s true. Today, in 2012, Nancy and Barry are two normal, dedicated dancers who know that success doesn’t come without hard work, will power and dedication and that involves pushing their body to its limits. They aren’t bitter or resentful because this is what they absolutely love to do and they appreciate every day that they have to spend in the profession. As Barry poignantly puts it, “If I won this contest I would be over the moon. To have all your hard work justified like that is so rewarding, but we gain so much from all our preparations anyway that it’s not the end of the world if I don’t win.”

Photos courtesy of Blaine Brothers

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