Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Jewels Masterclass

Tonight’s Royal Ballet Masterclass was, as always, an absolute treat. It never ceases to amaze me how generous the dancers are with their time – something picked up tonight by Rozzie Metherell, the Insight Programme Manager, who thanked both the dancers for their time and for the indefatigable way in which they always step up to the challenge. No mean feat when you consider that Ricardo had already been through four rehearsals today and Yuhui five, plus an hour and a quarter in daily class - something that is essentially a warm-up for the dancers, but a class that would floor an averagely fit person. How many prima donna footballers would work so hard every day - and then compare their pay & sponsorship deals ?

Dancing tonight were Yuhui Choe and Ricardo Cervera, both First Soloists with the Company. Both will be dancing in Jewels in a couple of week’s time, marking a debut for Yuhui, in the middle section – Rubies (Emeralds and Diamonds are the other parts of the sandwich). Both these roles are Principal roles. Rehearsing them tonight was Christopher Saunders, Principal Character Artist and Ballet Master. Anyone who has seen a ballet class taken by Chris will know how mindful of, as well as generous & patient with the audience he is, and tonight was no exception.

Yuhui and Ricardo are very well advanced with their rehearsals, much more so than would be usual for a Company as busy as the Royal Ballet. This was due to the fact that the dance notator, who is always present in the rehearsal studio, is heavily pregnant and just couldn’t be there latterly for the long stretches the dancers rehearse for, so they started a fortnight early. Chris explained that this was beneficial to the dancers, particularly Yuhui, who had more time to digest the steps before the next rehearsal.

As a consequence, Chris didn’t need to give many corrections. What always impresses me is the warmth between Chris and the dancers he’s working with; the fact that he will correct but is quick to praise first. An iron fist in a velvet glove perhaps. It works too - both dancers were really keen as mustard, with Chris commenting on what a joy it is to work with such dancers. He's canny too - he knows the dancers so well that he anticipated that Ricardo would have gone over and over in his head the sections they were due to rehearse, so Chris started from an earlier section to keep them on their toes ! One of the lifts involves Yuhui almost swinging around Ricardo, and Chris was so amazed at the height she achieved that he asked how they'd done it - admitting in the process that he can't know everything. The dancers were (and always are) incredibly generous with each other, and it turned out that Yuhui was doing it herself. Chris wanted to tell Alexandra (Ansanelli) who is also cast in the role, how it was made to look so high.

He also said how hard it can be to get dancers to this level in a rehearsal at, say, 11am on a Monday morning, and how much work ususally goes on before they are ready to hit the high notes. Again, I’m always impressed by how quickly even a tiny correction is made – one minute a leg is slightly pointing in the wrong direction, the next it’s been perfected, no matter how tricky the combination of moves. They also have to contend with a smaller stage and many a time I've seen a dancer at full pelt go hurtling towards either the wings or the piano which is on stage with them. It's dangerous stuff at such high velocity and to see it close up makes all the difference - and all for £14.

Chris was asked about who is in charge when it comes to the pace of the music, since Rubies gets faster and faster – almost to a point where you feel the dancers can’t fit in any more steps. His diplomatic answer was that it should be, and usually is (but not always) a collaboration between the conductor and the choreographer, so that subtle adjustments can be made in areas where, say, a particular dancer can’t dance as fast, or where the conductor wants to increase the pace in certain places. Chris made the point that as the audience, we are not coming to attend a concert recital, so it has to be a collaboration between the two so that the performance works on stage.

The pianist, Robert Clark, was asked about the score and whether he had made any changes. He explained that there are certain notes on his copy but that he has to play it as directed, and went on to tell a tale of the time when Pat Neary (The Balanchine Trust and incredible former dancer who still takes class in pointe shoes into her second childhood), arrived and noticed a difference in the number of counts in the music - she counted 9 when they were only playing 8. Rob knew better than to correct her but eventually she realised he was right and apologised in front of everyone. Pat is very knowledgeable; she came over when the ballet was first staged and has incredible energy and joire de vive. As I say, doing ballet class, and in pointe shoes, once past the age of most retired dancers. That's really something.

There was quite a bit of discussion about how the music is heard by the dancers and the difference between musical counting and dance counting. Neither Chris nor Yuhui count, but Ricardo does. His counting is different from the musician’s; so that where there may be 6 beats he will only count 5. Chris had to learn to count when he became Ballet Master, which didn't come naturally to him, so that he could pass on that information to those dancers who do count.

The dancers were asked whether they both hear the music the same, and if not then does it matter. Chris answered for them, by giving a great demonstration of a pique arabesque and how it could be danced in three ways, all musically fine, but in dance terms either before the beat, on the beat or behind the beat. Chris explained that it’s his job to make sure that where the dancers hear the music differently, he makes sure they are together as they should be. In Rubies they are not together all the time and so there is less of an issue. And there are no pique arabesques.

Ricardo was asked whether he found the role technically difficult and he said that he didn’t – there are no big jumps or turns and so it’s a question of having fun with the steps.

Both were asked whether they felt pressure working flat out all the time. Ricardo said that he felt no pressure as he had danced all of the roles currently in his rep before, which I found quite sad, especially when he later added that he thought that he was where he was & that he would be staying at that level. I’ve heard other dancers say the same and then get promoted; on the other hand some leave to get the opportunities at higher levels elsewhere. I can’t know how promotion decisions are reached but I have always been puzzled as to why Ricardo has been over-looked – he’s been a First Soloist for 8 years now. Surely all the dancers need new roles to keep them motivated and more importantly, in the Company ? Yuhui said that at first she would feel some pressure and panic a bit but settled down once she had the steps in her body and could relax into new roles.

Chris told us, in presponse to a question, that Yuhui had not been cast in this role originally, but with Sarah Lamb still not recovered from her broken foot at the beginning of the season, and so many other injuries this year, changes have been made since the casting was announced. It was ever so.

It’s such a rewarding experience to see firsthand the rehearsal process, and with tickets rarer than hens teeth at the moment and the ticket allocation currently up in the air ahead of next season, and potentially removed from the public for good, it will be a real loss if fewer people get the chance to see it for themselves. Seeing rehearsals also goes some way to explaining the cost of your ticket in terms of the rehearsal hours needed for a role - and that can't be a bad thing for everyone !

No pictures I'm afraid - they are banned in the Linbury Studio Theatre. It would be nice to relax the rules to allow photographs once the rehearsal is over and the participants are answering questions. I think a knowledgeable audience understands the dangers of flash photography when the dancers are working, but I can't see the harm in allowing it once they have stopped.


  1. Fascinating! I am with you on the picture thing though - would love to see some.Never mind, you describe it beautifully.Thank you! S oh, by the way - thank you for putting me on your blog roll.x

  2. Thank you very much for this blog, I am a first time visitor, such a delightful discovery!!!!

    Now that I have left UK for work; internet is one very reliable source to keep in touch with what goes on in Royal Ballet!

  3. Thank you Sarah and Anon for your comments.

    Hope you enjoy my posts.


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