Usually when I tell people that I love ballet, the following conversation happens:
– Oooh! Did you use to dance it then.
-Yes, I did it for many years as a child.
-That’s nice, at what age did you stop?
-Oh why is that?
-Oh you know, dodgy knee, lack of talent.
We chuckle, and people sometimes try to prod, assuming a tragic story, assuming my knee got on the way of my dreams. But I don’t have a tragic ballet story. I don’t share it with you because it is tragic, or grand or self-agrandising. I share it with you because it is mine, and I love reading and hearing about yours. I share it because it makes me smile.
I started when I was 3 years old, just like almost every little girl. I just loved all things girly and pink, and at that age, you cannot get more girly and pink than ballet. My mum says I looked very uncoordinated and sloppy, but very happy. She says I took it very seriously, and loved every minute of class.
I was 7 when I saw my first ballet. It was the VHS version of Balanchine’s Nutcracker. At least I think it was Balanchine’s… You know the one, with Macauley Culkin? Has anyone else seen it? I watched it over, and over, and over again. I rented it so often from the local video store that, apparently, whenever the owners saw me coming, they took it of the shelves and handed it to my dad (apparently I had Gone With the Wind, Cleopatra and The Nutcracker on rotation, of course I couldn’t follow the plot of those movies, but I just LOVED the costumes).
I absolutely LOVED The Nutcracker! That was real ballet, that was why I did all those exercises at the barre, and why we had to dance on our tippy-toes, and why my teacher insisted on perfecting my port de bras and my turnout.
It was around that time that my dad started travelling to Russia, and he would tell me on his return about watching the Kirov ballet. He still tells me about seeing The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. These experiences have stayed with him and with me.
In short, I was in love with ballet, and silently, to myself, I decided I wanted to be a ballerina. So I worked very, very hard in my ballet classes. I also took Jazz and Rhythmic Gymnastics. ( I had lots of extra-curricular activities, including English classes, swimming classes, and I seem to remember once taking a Tennis lesson,failing to hit a single ball, and walking back to the ballet studio).
Alas, life had other plans. My port de bras was awful. Whenever I held my arms in fifth, instead of a graceful circle, I would get something resembling a square. (come to think of it, I looked a lot like one of the nymphs in L’après-midi d’un faune). I distinctly remember being mocked/corrected by my friends as I bourréed across the stage in a golden tutu. I also could never get the perfect ballet hands and fingers (witness the claw), never enough turnout, and very poor coordination. But I didn’t care. I more than made up for it in enthusiasm.
Little me during a ballet recital.
We all looked up to the older girls, who were already dancing on pointe. And we knew that when we hit 11, our teacher would start preparing us for it. I turned 11, the teacher selected the girls that would continue on to pointe. And I wasn’t one of them.
I was distraught. I refused to believe it. My mother, who always knew in her heart I wasn’t a dancer, bought me my first and only pair of pointe shoes. I remember it so well… that special store in Rio de Janeiro that sold the pointe shoes… the feel of the air-conditioned room. I felt so guilty telling her I needed the shoes, because in my heart of hearts, I knew I didn’t…
My ballet teacher was not a monster. In fact, he was fantastic. He had spotted something else though, on top of my lack of talent. He saw that I was having trouble with my right knee. Grand pliés were becoming painful, so was any balance on my right leg. I actually had to move away from the barre on occasion… But I didn’t care.
I started taking private lessons. But even my private teacher chose to keep me away from grand pliés. Which is not a good thing.
I remember once putting on my pointes before my private teacher could see me, not even breaking them in, and crashing around the studio. I was so happy. I only wore my pointe shoes twice. That time, and the day after I bought them, lacing them up alone in my room…
Image Copyright: Jim Kelly
But like I said, life had other plans. I stopped ballet classes, and a few months before I turned 13, my family started the preparations to move from our tiny village in Rio de Janeiro, to Vienna, Austria. I don’t know where my pointe shoes ended up. I think they got lost in the move.
I wasn’t unhappy, I wasn’t pining for ballet. Like I said, this is not a tragedy. I loved Vienna, I loved my new school (once a nerd, always a nerd). The school offered an after-school ballet class, but I had put that behind me even before I left Brazil. I was happy, studying, learning English, snowboarding (my neighbour and good friend Ike fell on me when we were on the T-Bar lift. He fell on my right knee as our snowboards got tangled and we were dragged up the mountain. IT HURT). I loved living in Vienna, and the city still means so much to me.
But ballet was not really behind me. Whenever it somehow reappeared in my life, I reacted strongly against it. Once, a Brazilian friend of my mothers announced that her niece was moving in with her for a few years. She was my age and had gotten an apprenticeship with the Wien Staatsoper ballet. I felt all these ugly feelings and emotions rise. I met her only once, and she looked gorgeous…. She looked like a ballerina. Even standing around she had perfect posture, perfect turnout, when she moved her arms to get a glass of water, it was a perfect fluid movement. I smiled and said hello, but deliberately avoided her. I am still quite ashamed at how silly I was. She must have been so lonely, not speaking a word of German… But I avoided her… I got home that night and cried.
Image Copyright: S.M. Tunli
The Wien Staatsoper is my favourite place in Vienna. I always felt such a strong pull to it, and would walk around it (IT IS MASSIVE) and sit on the fountain next to it for hours. I once went on a guided tour and got to stand on the stage. I never associated those feelinsg with ballet. Maybe they are related to it, maybe not. But I love and miss that building so much. I never saw a ballet there. I actually only went once, to see Wagner’s Parcifal with my English teacher. (I still have NO idea what it is about btw!)
I moved to England for my undergraduate, and while I lived in Bournemouth, I started researching ballet classes, but never went through with it. I took ballroom dancing lessons instead. I moved to London, and never gave a thought to the Royal Ballet, until one day in December, 6 months after having moved to London.
For some reason, I have no idea why, I went on youtube and googled The Nutcracker. I don’t remember if I wanted to find clips of the old movie, or if I wanted to listen to some of the music. But I found clips from the Royal Ballet’s production, with Alina Cojocaru as Clara. I watched the entire show on youtube. And I can’t describe what I felt. I cried, I laughed, I was hypnotised. I watched it a second time that night in bed. I scoured youtube for more ballet clips, and I watched everything hungrily. It feels as if I didn’t even blink.
The next day, I ordered Romeo and Juliet from Amazon. First class delivery. Then I bought La Fille mal Gardee. Then came Giselle and something clicked in me a. I asked only for ballet DVDs for Christmas (Rob asked if I had developed a fetish). And I allowed myself to truly love ballet again. Or for the first time.
A year passed, and whilst I watched ballet DVDs and youtube all the time, I still did not go the The Royal Opera House. I bought lots of ballet books, read lots and lots of ballet reviews online, ballet blogs (a massive thank you to the Bag Ladies at The Ballet Bag. You played a huge role in me finding ballet again. You ROCK). But I didn’t go see to the ballet.
My friend Sameen and I bonded over our shared love of ballet (and mutual loathing of game theory), and she encouraged me to come see the Royal Ballet with her. I always got out of it, until she just went ahead and bought tickets for the two of us, so I had to go. It was La Fille mal Gardee. I was a bit nervous before it started, but I shouldn’t have worried. Ballet only made me sad when I was being a silly teenager. In reality, it was – and is – something that fills me with joy.
Yes, sometimes I get those silly ugly feelings, but I know that it is not my life. I am also making up for lost time. I go to the ROH whenever I can and I am trying to get back to classes, but it seems so difficult to find classes near me at a reasonable price… But I still do some DIY ballet.
Rob has walked in on me many times rehearsing a few variations. Just yesterday I was demonstrating a balance, when I attempted a pirouette and knocked something off the table. He calls me his clumsy ballerina. (Best reaction was when I was trying to reenact some moves from Macmillan’s Rite of spring. He walked in on me and asked: ARE YOU OK???).
I am really not a dancer. I am a ballerina only in my head, and occasionally, my kitchen. And I am more myself today than I have ever been.
My ballet mess.
I occasionally dream I am a ballerina… These dreams are very real. I can feel the floor under my toes, I am on pointes and every muscle in my body feels the movement, I can feel the roughness of the shoe against my feet, the satin ribbons around my ankles, and I dance… These dreams always feel like gifts, and they are enough for me.
So this is my ballet story. As I said, it is no drama, or nothing really special. But it does make me smile. What is yours?