Interviewing a dancer

Eminent is in three or so days, I’m a mix of emotions currently! Need to put them all aside temporarily and tell you all about my interview.

For my interview, I contacted my ballet teacher Laurel Cabrita. Ms. Laurel has taught me ballet for the past eight years and it is because of her that my studio has some of the strongest ballet technique from a non-ballet exclusive studio.

Ms. Laurel danced at the Pacific Ballet Theatre for six years. The company stemmed from the studio where she was taught.  Upon joining the company, there were about 12 dancers. Over her six years there, the company never grew bigger than 20 dancers.

This company was very small in comparison to national ballet companies. To add some perspective, the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) where Misty Copeland dances currently has 16 principal dancers, 7 soloists and 59 corps de ballet members.  Because of its size, the Pacific Ballet Theatre’s selection of dancers may be affected less by shape than a national company.

Many companies, especially national companies, tried to aim for a Balanchine body. A Balanchine body has long legs, long arms, a long neck and a short, thin torso. This was mainly to create a look of unison within the dancers, causing no one to stand out in a good, or bad, way.

After talking to Ms. Laurel, I found out that body shape did affect and limit dancers, but not in the way I was expecting. Many of the root reasons for any body limitations were logistical and not aesthetic. Most common body limitations were height, weight, flexibility and ability.

For height, it affected partnering mainly. Going en pointe adds a lot of height to a dancer. Ms. Laurel, who was 5′ 6″, had to partner with males who were at least 5′ 11″ or else she was too tall for them, both aesthetically (with the partnering looking awkward) and logistically (not being able to spin properly because the male can’t keep her upright).

For weight, the two main reasons it limited was the strength of the males and how it affected health. If a dancer has heavy bones and muscles but doesn’t look heavy, she may not be able to be lifted by a male and therefore not able to do a pas de deux. If a dancer is overweight, and the extra weight affects their stamina and cardio vascular ability, then it is going to affect where they are in the company. When Ms. Laurel was in the company she was asked at least two times to lose weight. The directors never enforced it, but she was asked. There was only one girl in the company over the six years that was outright bulimic and anorexic. Some dancers took depositories, to make them go to the washroom, in attempts to lose weight, but it didn’t often last long. Many dancers smoked, sometimes even instead of eating but smoking was more common at the time. Teachers smoked in their classes. Of course, this was almost 35 years ago. Even over Ms. Laurel’s six years, the influence of weight got much better and has continued to get better after that.

Ability is the most limiting of the three, however some ability limitations could be altered slightly. If you aren’t the best turner, you probably won’t do Gamzatti’s variation from La Bayadere, which has saut de chats, double attitude turns and pique turns. Same goes for jumping. If you can’t jump, a jump section will be very difficult. Of course, you can train yourself to improve your jumps or turns. Some limitations you can’t really control is turn-out, flexibility and ankle strength.  Being someone with very little turn-out, I can say steps like en boîtés are very difficult. Variations with high kicks or ponchés would be difficult for people who have limited flexibility. Pointe work isn’t possible for dancers with weak, inflexible ankles or tight or weak Achilles tendons.

Even though all of this is true, ability comes over look. Maybe in a national company, if two dancers have the same technique and quality and only one has a Balanchine body, look will come into play. But if a dancer is amazing at portraying a character, it won’t matter if they don’t fit the image. Quality and technique can allow body image to become less important. Stage presence can help a dancer to go far.

In the end, what the dancer can do is all that really counts.

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