Finding a balance
July 1999 - Daily Telegraph
The music is reaching a crescendo. My four princes are waiting expectantly in the downstage corner. The audience is on the edge of their red velvet seats, two thousand pairs of eyes focused upon me, and I have cramp. I am about to embark on ballet's most famous balancing act, and I can't feel my right foot.
I'm dancing the Rose Adagio from the first act of The Sleeping Beauty. Choreographed in 1890 by Marius Petipa, it is perhaps the most arduous test of balance in the entire canon of classical ballet. Twice within its duration, I take the outstretched hand of the first prince and strike an attitude centre stage, poised on the very tips of my toes. Securely balanced, I release his grip and stand alone, unsupported, while the next prince moves in to take his place. Between each encounter, there is a moment of pure terror, a paralysis of indecision as I try to coerce myself into relinquishing the safety of the first partner's grasp. An internal dialogue starts up in my head, the sort of conversation you might have with yourself 2000 metres above the earth's surface, at the open door of a small plane. 'Go on, jump. You'll be fine. Those parachutes are guaranteed to open 99% of the time. Safe as houses'. The decision to take the plunge and let go is mine alone: only the clash of cymbals in Tchaikovsky's score indicates the precise moment and, like many ballerinas, I choose to ignore it. Gripping the first prince as if my life depends on it, I overstay the music to the point where the following three have to be dispatched at breakneck speed in order that the choreography and the music are eventually reconciled. When the sequence is repeated, at the Adagio's triumphant climax it is embellished with a series of promenades in which the ballerina is rotated on pointe before serenely offering her hand to the next prince in line. Tonight there is nothing serene about my performance. My mouth is parched with fear and I surreptitiously run a moist tongue around dry, curled lips as I walk upstage to face this Beechers Brook of the ballet world.
It isn't always like this. I have rehearsed this particular sequence hundreds of times. In the studio, I can stand on one leg as comfortably as a stork. I've even been known to carry on long and convoluted conversations while balancing on the pointe of my right foot. Tonight, on the stage, I doubt I could blurt out 'Jack Robinson' before I keel over. Balance, that easy virtue so essential to the ballerina's art, has deserted me.
Balance is fundamental to classical ballet technique. It is instilled in the dancer from the very beginning: every Saturday, in local dancing schools up and down the country, scores of six- and seven-year-olds struggle to stay upright as they celebrate good toes and chastise naughty ones. As the years go by and sharply pointed toes become par for the course, the tricks grow increasingly difficult: turns and jumps are introduced and then combined in complicated sequences. Legs are thrown higher and higher and enchaînements pushed ever faster. Throughout it all, the dancer remains on balance: even when a leap has travelled the width of the studio or turned twice in the air, the landing, like a gymnast dismounting from the pummel horse, must be rock solid. A ballerina never, ever loses control. She may occasionally pose on one knee to finish her variation, but this is about as close to the ground as she will ever get.
To the audience, dancers must appear to be blessed with super-human skills, and a major part of ballet's appeal is that it reveals to the non-dancing public just what extraordinary things the human body can do. On a good night, the Rose Adagio is interrupted by frequent bursts of applause as the ballerina releases her partner's grasp and stands, unsupported and triumphant, at the centre of the stage. Our above-average ability to stand on one leg is, without doubt, one hell of a party trick.
But if ballet dancing were nothing more than a circus act its appeal would not have been quite so enduring. Audiences would tire of ballerinas poised on pointe as quickly as they tire of balls teetering on the noses of seals. There is a more subtle balance inherent within classical ballet and, unlike the finite fascination of freak shows, it is infinitely absorbing. Like classical architecture, with its pedestals, columns and capitals extending symmetrically from a central point, classical ballet is, in essence, an essay in harmony and order. A ballerina is like a Stradivarius violin, or the finest veneer adorning a top-of-the-range car: split in half, one side exactly mirrors the other. As she dances, she makes minute and barely perceptible adjustments so that the body is always in a state of perfect equilibrium: a leg is raised and an arm is automatically lowered so that an imaginary axis through the body remains unbroken. She strikes an arabesque and parallel lines of upper and lower limbs stretch into infinity; an attitude creates circles which spiral around each other yet never converge. This is the balance which makes ballet unique. Whilst it may be very impressive that we dancers can seemingly defy the laws of nature by concentrating eight stone of flesh and bones into the pointe of one size five foot, the balance which underpins and defines classical ballet is what really takes your breath away.