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Quest for the Perfect Ballet

Question: What is a typical day in a dancer’s life?

Wheeldon: Well, a dancer’s life is most definitely demanding and challenging. I mean, you give up a lot of your, what would be considered sort of normal life, in order to achieve the kind of physical perfection. It’s pretty tough on you mentally. It’s a very competitive art form. There are a lot of wonderful dancers out there, not so many jobs in the big, great companies. You begin, usually dancers sort of begin around I guess seven, eight years old, sometimes a lot younger. Sometimes the ballerinas start when they’re three or four, their mothers enlist them in ballet schools. And you go through, I guess, your formative years, you’re going through a period when you’re constantly being scrutinized by other people. You learn to be very self-scrutinizing really early on, about, you know, the way that you move, the way that you look. So it can be pretty challenging as an 11 year old. I mean, I went to a pretty strict school. I went to the Royal Ballet School in London, and things have changed I think now, but in those days, you know, we were told, “Okay, your legs are getting fat. You can’t eat potatoes. Don’t give that kid potatoes.” You know, things like that. Crazy things that when you’re little, that’s a lot to deal with. I don’t think it’s like that anymore. I think times have changed, and the more informed and the smarter young people, young dancers are, the more the life, the more the environment around the training of a dancer has to kind of give and take a little bit.

Question: How do you achieve the physicality ballet demands?

Wheeldon: Every dancer takes a class every day, a morning class.  It’s based on a technique that’s been around for hundreds of years.  It’s a series of exercises that begin at the barre.  Everyone, you know, even non-dancers have heard of, you know, dancers being at the bar.  That doesn’t mean that they’re ordering a vodka tonic, although that usually happens at the end of the day.  But so you start at the barre, and you do a series of exercises, and then you step away from the barre, and the barre work is there to kind of stabilize the body, so you then move into the center of the room, and you do similar exercises, but without the support of the barre in order to kind of gain your strength.  Then you know, the class builds in intensity, and you end up with a lot of pirouettes, a lot of turns, a lot of jumps, to really get the body moving.  And that usually happens right at the beginning of the day, and then a professional dancer will go with a 15 minute break, will usually move into what usually adds up to a five or six hour rehearsal day, where they will rehearse intensely with the choreographer or a ballet master, either creating new work on their bodies, or learning existing work that’s being taught for an upcoming performance.  And then around six o’clock, you’ll have a little break, you’ll grab some food quickly, then you’ll start to put your makeup on, put your costume on, and, you know, 7:30, 8 o’clock it’s curtain up, and you’re out on stage until 10:30, 11 o’clock.  The curtain comes down, you’re completely knackered, everything hurts, you’re joints are, you know, screwed up, you’ve pulled a muscle usually.  You go home, take a hot bath, go to sleep, and get up the next day and do it all over again.  So your life kind of is put on hold for, you know, those periods of time when you’re in performance, rehearsal, and performance.

Recorded on: 5/22/08

Christopher Wheeldon recounts a day in the life of a ballerina.

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