Ballet: the secret lives of dancers
By Richard Johnson 3:26PM BST 29 Jun 2009
They were once the toast of society. But modern-day corps de ballet endure punishing working hours, crippling injuries, terrible pay and little job security. Then why do it? Richard Johnson spent a day with the Royal Ballet’s finest to find out .
Pennefather is on the balcony of the Royal Ballet building, looking down onto the piazza of Covent Garden. He’s in for morning class. It’s like they say – miss class for one day, you notice; miss class for two days, your colleagues notice; miss class for three days, your audience notices. That’s all hypothetical since the New York City Ballet announced that, because of the economic climate, they were laying off dancers. These days, nobody misses class. Not any more.
Of course, it wasn’t always like that. And nor was Pennefather. ‘When I first joined the Royal Ballet,’ he says, ‘I was 18. And going out a lot. I would come in for class and wouldn’t be able to remember what I was doing – I wouldn’t even be able to lift the girls.’ As he speaks, he watches the rest of the dancers inside – stretching, intently. ‘But I grew up quickly. I had to, because life in the Royal Ballet is so competitive.’
Without question, the Royal Ballet is one of the top three companies in the world. Pennefather knows that he is lucky to work there. Although the beauty and mystique that surround the art often make it easy to forget, that’s just what ballet dancing is: a job. A tough and often thankless one. Even if you make it to the top, you’ll still be faced with short-term contracts and early redundancy.
Since the death of Rudolf Nureyev, there have been no ‘superstars’ in ballet. He was about so much more than the dance, which is why he went on to become one of the most photographed men of the 20th century. Born to an impoverished family in Russia, he ultimately died on his private island purchased with the millions he made during his dance career. That was in 1993, but he remains an inspiration to this day.
In T-shirt, tights and canvas shoes, Pennefather has the timeless quality of a Nureyev. ‘Funny that,’ he says with a smile. ‘Because our outfits have all changed. Way back, tights were made of heavy woven material and weren’t stretchy at all. You used to end up with terribly baggy knees. And I tried on a pair of ballet shoes from the olden days and they were really thick leather with a lot of material inside. When I pointed my foot, I thought, “My God, how did people dance in these?”‘
In readiness for class, he’s had breakfast. I imagined a cup of green tea. A natural yogurt maybe. But he had actually stopped off at his local café for an ‘R Pennefather’ – two fried eggs, two hash browns, two rashers of bacon and a side of baked beans. ‘I have to be careful because I’ve got a very high metabolism,’ he says. ‘And if I don’t eat, I go really skinny and weak. The girls are at risk if you’re not strong enough. You really can’t go dropping a girl.’
Pennefather didn’t get where he is today by doing that. It’s one of the reasons that he’s risen to principal so quickly – his reliability. ‘Also,’ he says, ‘certain ballerinas have given me the opportunity to work with them.’ Which sounds like a tip – if you want to get on, charm your principals. ‘I don’t really want to say that,’ Pennefather says, with a smile. ‘But some dancers in the company, I would say, have figured that out. That’s all I’m saying…’
Lauren Cuthbertson is one of the principals that Pennefather has charmed. With a BMI of 18.5, she doesn’t take a lot of lifting. ‘My body might be slender,’ she says ‘but it’s not too slender. Not too sinewy. I’m not too too, which seems to be the fashion these days. Everything has gone way beyond what is normal.’ There’s no fat on her. She looks down at her flat chest. ‘But I’ve noticed some girls recently and I’ve gone, “When did they start teaching how to grow those?”‘ The dancers are pretty and thin, or handsome and thin. And they all look so young. Dancers for the corps de ballet are most attractive to company directors in their late teens or early twenties. It’s a life of pressure, as they try to carve out a career before injuries, and age, cut it short. But to look at them all now, you wouldn’t know it. They look wonderfully happy.
Some are studying choreographers’ notations. The notations are a ballet’s steps, written down on a musical stave – a balletic score, in effect. Each line of the notations represents a different part of the body, and abstract symbols show how each part moves during the dance. As any dancer will tell you, in their darker moments, the choreographer is the real star of ballet – the dancers are just the ones who dictate how brightly that star shines.
‘As a dancer,’ Pennefather says, ‘there is only so much you can change. Johann choreographed La Sylphide, for instance, and had worked out, visually, exactly what everyone was doing. It was all thought out in his head. You don’t want to change it. Technically, if you’re on a pirouette, you can carry on turning as long as you’re in time with the music – there’s no set rule – but it doesn’t really happen like that. It’s your performance, but it’s someone else’s production.’
The dancers are very huggy and kissy. And in such an intimate job, it’s inevitable that relationships happen. Most, though, look elsewhere – even if it’s not very far. Mara Galeazzi married a Royal Ballet stage technician. ‘He always says to me, “You have so many beautiful men around you all day, with perfect, toned bodies. Why do you choose me?” He is very big, and strong, but I say to him, “That’s the beauty of it – I see so much perfection every day.'”
As the ballerinas file into class, it’s clear that a lot of perfection is down to genetics. You’re either born with a small head, a long neck, a shortened torso – or you’re not. Galeazzi, who has been one of the principals since 2003, was one of the lucky ones. ‘Actually,’ she says, ‘I was never really elastic enough. You get to a certain level, and you just can’t go any further. So you find your own way.’
Finding out the limits of what is possible can be painful. The ideal ballerina has toes that point outwards. The ‘turnout’ is the cornerstone of classical ballet. It begins at the hip and moves down to the knee, the tibia, the ankle and the foot. But if the leg isn’t turned out naturally, it can be done by stretching, which can take its toll. From the number of straps and supports, it’s clear that every dancer nurses some sort of injury.
Pennefather, for instance, is wearing a belt to help his back. And Galeazzi still has a toe fracture that she first sustained as a young dancer. It’s difficult not to feel those injuries in class (every day of the week except Sunday) however much glucosamine and calcium you take. ‘Your knees are stretched beyond their limit, your legs are over your head and your back is always bent,’ Galeazzi says. ‘I don’t think it’s a very natural way to train.’
Cuthbertson has trouble with her left foot – a sprain next to her second metatarsal. ‘Every time I go on pointe, it opens up the sprain. It just never gets any better,’ she says. ‘There’s not much blood supply there to let it heal. I’ve found that acupuncture has helped, because it’s meant to stimulate the blood flow. But, to be honest, rest is the only thing.’
The physiotherapist is in today. One former Royal Ballet physio, who came from the world of rugby and rowing, said that the dancers were ‘as hard as nails’. The chiropodist is due at 2pm. For the male dancers, the jumping and lifting puts strain on their feet, so they get bad ankles. For the female dancers, it’s all corns and bunions – the inevitable result of going on pointe. When dancing on pointe, a dancer’s entire body weight ends up on the very ends of the toes, potentially causing clawed feet, broken bones and bleeding during a performance. It’s worst when the company is doing Swan Lake. With its endless pas de bourrées – running tiptoe on the spot – it always brings the chiropodist a lot of new business.
The dancers spend the class studying every aspect and angle of themselves in the mirrors. ‘It’s a visual art,’ Pennefather says, ‘so we’re always aware of how we look. It’s not vanity. Although there are some people who are vain. Who build up, not for strength, but for appearance. I’ve never done that. You should only do what’s necessary. But you do want to look right in the part.’
The dancer Gelsey Kirkland actually felt compelled to go one stage further and had plastic surgery to improve her onstage ‘line’. She had her earlobes trimmed and her nose reduced, and silicone implants in her lips and breasts. In her tell-all autobiography, Dancing on My Grave, Kirkland details her struggles with cocaine, eating disorders, and a choreographer who made her pop amphetamines while issuing dictates like ‘must see the bones’. The dancer Heidi Guenther – who died in 1997 as a direct result of an eating disorder – was an exceptional case, yet to talk to young dancers working today, anorexia and bulimia are as much of a problem as they ever were.
It’s all about creating ‘perfection’ at every level. It was even suggested that Cuthbertson change her name because it wasn’t perfectly glamorous. She refused. ‘They said, “Try using your brother’s middle name.” My brother is Aaron Matthew Cuthbertson and Lauren Matthews sounded like a magician’s assistant. So they said, “Use your mum’s maiden name.” She’s Lewis. My middle name is Louise so I would have been Lauren Louise Lewis. Too showbiz if I’m honest.’
The 75-minute class is followed by six hours of rehearsal – often without a break. And the dancers can be rehearsing four different works in a day. ‘Maybe one involves a tutu,’ Cuthbertson says, ‘one involves a sylphlike big skirt, one is all hot pants kicking your booty around, and one is with a fan – they’re all completely different. That’s one of the things about the Royal Ballet – the mass of repertoire we have now is growing. And we have to do all of it. But that’s what I love most.’
It’s tempting to think that ballet hasn’t changed since it was formalised in the courts of 16th- and 17th-century France. But it is evolving – slowly. Galeazzi is rehearsing The Firebird, written by Stravinsky in 1910. ‘Back then, the dancers had less elasticity,’ she says. ‘Less curved feet. And less turnout in the legs. But they were amazing artists. Now I reckon dancers think more about technique.’
These days, there is certainly more science. The dancers do Gyrotonic, an exercise system that uses specially designed wooden machines with rotational discs and weighted pulleys to strengthen their muscles with flowing, circular movements. Gyrotonic looks like pilates but is more like yoga in its origin and breathing techniques. And their bodies are monitored throughout, by computer.
‘Sports scientists are getting interested in how we train,’ says Cuthbertson, ‘and how we fire certain muscles. In the olden days, if someone was injured they would just go away and, when they felt better, come back. Now, because of the science, we know what we’re going to achieve by rehabbing properly after an injury. But when we’re on stage, we don’t care if we’re firing some muscle or not. We just want to move people.’
Which is where the acting comes in. When everything else is about technique, it’s easy to forget about the acting. ‘You spend years and years at school,’ Cuthbertson says, ‘trying to make your best frappe, or your développé to the left a bit higher, or your arabesque a bit more extensive. Suddenly you join the company and the first thing is you’re acting. You’re not being this ballerina you trained for. You are pretending to be a peasant, a whore or a gipsy.’
Cuthbertson came up through the Royal Ballet system, and started boarding at White Lodge – the Royal Ballet school in Richmond Park – at the age of 11. She had no idea how hard the training would be. ‘Every class – pushing your body,’ she says. ‘I had never hurt in ballet before. But you learn. Your stamina gets better. And you become a better machine.’
She didn’t feel robbed of a childhood. ‘I was happy as Larry. I still messed around like a kid. I was always up after lights out. I had so much fun because I was quite rebellious. Whereas other girls missed out because they were always nervous about doing something wrong. I just did something wrong, and got it out of my system. At the age of 13 I was told that, if I just cruised, I wouldn’t make it. That stuck. And I realised then that ballet was what I wanted to do.’
Pennefather danced because his sister danced. And he loved it. But when he went to a mixed school in Maidenhead, things turned nasty. ‘Boys at that age don’t really understand about ballet,’ he says. ‘They think it’s feminine. They call you names. And it’s not great. I know one boy who had his shins completely kicked in because he did ballet. It can be terrible. I did nearly give up at one point – everyone got to me – but my parents helped me through it.’ And he’s so glad they did.
But all too soon it’s over. Galeazzi, at the age of 34, is considering her future. Ironic really because, she says, ‘right now I feel I’ve got real control of the stage’. She still wants to have a family, although returning to ballet after a family isn’t out of the question. Darcey Bussell did it. And when she came back they said she was better than ever. She had realised there was life outside ballet. But that’s what happens to dancers – as their emotional maturity increases, their physical ability decreases.
Even though Pennefather and Cuthbertson are young and very successful, the thought of retirement hangs over them all the time. ‘I’m 24 and I’ve only got another 12 years to 15 years max. And then it will all be over. And I bet I’ll feel then like I feel now.’ A lot of older dancers go into teaching. But Pennefather thinks he’ll fancy a change by then. A film-directing course maybe. Cuthbertson wants to be a fashion buyer for a store, or a milliner. Galeazzi wants to go back to composing music. Whatever they decide, it’s unlikely they will have much of a pension to fall back on.
Some principals at the Royal Ballet negotiate salaries for themselves – some appoint an agent. ‘When I started out,’ Pennefather says, ‘I was on £1,100 a month. Now they start on something like £1,500 a month.’ As dancers move from first artist to soloist to first soloist to principal, they get a rise. But the biggest rise is from principal to highly paid media darling.
Nureyev was the wealthiest man in ballet, with an estate, estimated in Vanity Fair, at $80 million. Other estimates were noticeably less, at between $15 million and $25 million. But there are reports as late as 1977, the heyday of the ‘dance boom’, when the Kirov émigrés were making up to $10,000 a performance, that Nureyev still demanded cash payments on occasion and still got them. Sylvie Guillem made thousands for every show she did in Japan. But there’s only one Sylvie Guillem.
And, these days, it seems society only has room for one Sylvie Guillem. During the golden age, of course, the great ballerinas were the toast of all society. ‘I do sometimes wish I was in on the Ballet Russes,’ Cuthbertson says. ‘On that train with Diaghilev. When ballet was fashionable and pioneering and something that people looked up to. Nowadays, to a lot of people, it’s something that belongs in a museum.’