This is a guest post by my friend Alex Lammon. Alex is a blogger who just finished the trainee program at the Richmond Ballet. Since Alex’s previous two posts on her blog have been about a theme and issue that matter to me and relate to our friendship, and since my most recent post was about the last show that Alex danced in Richmond, I approached her about doing a cross-blog collaboration. I’ve published a piece over at SlamminLammon in her “No One’s Youer Than You” series and she wrote this about her experience dancing in the Trainee New Works show.
For many ballet dancers, we spend a majority of our rehearsal time learning different works that have been around for years, most often, passed down by former dancers who danced the pieces in their prime. One of the ultimate experiences for a dancer is to have new works created on them. That is why it is incredibly exciting for dancers when a choreographer sets a work on their company or them personally. As a dancer in a new work, it is a thrilling experience to be part of the creative process. The piece is created on you, which means that sometimes the choreography will be tweaked to your strengths. There is also the possibility that the choreographer will ask you for ideas and opinions, putting even more of your influence in the piece. Stepping on stage to perform your new piece is an incredible experience, you know that you’re the first to enter this territory. It can sometimes feel like an explorer venturing out to new frontiers, charting new territory.
When it was announced that we Trainees would be participating in a “New Works” show with pieces choreographed by company members of the Richmond Ballet, I was overjoyed that I would get to be part of the creative process of choreographers whose dancing I admired greatly. Unfortunately, when the time came for the choreographers to watch the dancers and decide who they wanted in their pieces, I was on a leave of absence, spending a month in NYC training with a contemporary company. Luckily, I was placed in the corps of my fellow Trainee, Zane Ellis’s piece. I felt very fortunate to still be able to take place in the “New Works” show, especially since I was in a piece by the only Trainee choreographer in the show.
However, during the first few weeks of rehearsals, my friend, who was cast in Fernando Sabino’s work, broke her foot and had to bow out of the piece. I offered myself up as a replacement since I had plenty of free time, only being in one other piece, and Fernando invited me to attend the rehearsals. At first, I was just going to be a replacement for my friend until she was able to come back fully, but her full recovery wouldn’t come in time for the show, and I was put in.
I can definitely tell you that for the first week or so, I was filled with guilt. She had been chosen by the choreographer and he had seen something in her that he wanted to use for his work, perhaps I would be letting him down if my dancing wasn’t up to what he imagined. I also felt guilty that I was taking my friend’s place. Even though she physically couldn’t be in the piece, I still had the slight feeling that I had taken what was hers. She even assured me that she was okay that I was dancing in her place, but it still took awhile for me to feel completely at ease.
Our rehearsals for all our works kicked in to full swing… sorta. Because company members are the choreographers and Trainees are the dancers, rehearsals had to be squeezed in between company and Trainee rehearsals. The company was in going strong with several studio series performances, Minds In Motion work, and a tour to New York City. Sometimes we would have several rehearsals a week. Sometimes we would have one 30 minute rehearsal, and then nothing for several weeks. Of course, I would not be in all the rehearsals that were called for a piece. For Zane’s piece, he would spend some of the shorter rehearsals in the beginning working with the principal, soloists and demi-soloists individually. Sometimes I would go several rehearsals without running my corps work which meant that I really had to keep up remembering choreography and corrections on my own. Finding a time in between rehearsals to go over the piece was absolutely necessary.
In the case of Fernando’s piece, my fellow dancers and I would try to run the whole piece as much as possible (especially the closer it got to the show) because we had to keep our stamina up. If we didn’t, you could almost ensure that the level of dancing would go down, and someone would probably have to scrape our fatigued bodies off the studio floor after we melted into a pool of exhaustion, sweat and tears. One does not just get up and run a marathon. One also does not get up and run Fernando’s piece out of nowhere.
You. WILL. die.
Despite how grueling the pieces could be, I thoroughly enjoyed the rehearsal process. Both Zane and Fernando were a delight to work with. They both pushed us hard, looking for the best dancing we could give and how far we could push our bodies. The most admirable thing they did was milking us for all we were worth, yet being so considerate and respectful of how we felt. If I couldn’t do a certain step, I was never made to feel like I was incompetent or a lesser dancer because of it. They would work with anyone struggling and try to get them to execute the step they had created, but it was always in a positive way.
Sometimes choreographers can approach teaching a step in a negative way or refuse to accept that they may have created a step too hard for a dancer to do. Because of the positive rehearsal environment that Zane and Fernando had created, I was willing to do anything they proposed. No matter how crazy the step was, I was willing to put all my effort in to it with zero hesitation. Of course, as a dancer, no matter what the choreographer was like, I would work my hardest to give them what they wanted, but I feel like with the positive environment, the pieces reached their best potential. I was also filled with such immense pride that the choreographers were so great and from the company I danced for.
During Fernando’s rehearsals, I learned so much about how my body worked and how to move in an efficient way. He would work with us for a long time showing us exactly how to execute a step, not only to make it look its best, but in a way that didn’t require more energy than necessary. He himself would get down on the floor, rolling, twisting and flipping to show us what he wanted and how doing it his way was the best. He made everything look so easy, but my fellow dancers and I sustained many bruises and bumps in our efforts to match his flawless movements. With his expert coaching, we were all able to get our movements closer to what he wanted. Fernando had great advice and we learned about everything from how to execute floor work to how to walk in high heels. He is a quite knowledgeable person!
The rehearsal process continued and we got closer and closer to the show, costumes were chosen, stage rehearsals took place, but the stress levels rose. I began having stress dreams the week before the show.
Since Zane is a good friend of mine, I felt an extra pressure to do well in his piece. I had a firsthand view of how our performance of his piece affected him and I didn’t want to let him down. Because I care about him and what he thinks, the stress dreams I was having were about his piece. I dreamt that it was a dress rehearsal the day of the show and I didn’t know that he had added in a combination at the beginning of the piece that we did in the middle of the rows in the audience. I was completely lost during that section and didn’t know what I was doing when I got down to the stage. From there, I kept messing up the choreography and making huge mistakes. At the end of the dress rehearsal, he came down in tears and was so disappointed that his piece had looked so bad. He was humiliated that the artistic staff had seen such a horrible rehearsal and sternly told us that we had to do better for the show.
It was one of those real-life dreams that when I woke up, I spent several minutes feeling like what I dreamt was real and feeling awful about it. I vowed to not let that be a reality.
By the day of the show, we were all riding on a cloud of nervous and excited energy. There was only going to be one performance for the “New Works” show which meant only one chance to nail everything. Not only was this a one shot show, but it was the last show I would ever perform in on the Richmond Ballet stage. If there was ever a show to put your all in to, this was it for me.
Before I was to go on, I was watching the piece before me and fighting back tears. I was surrounded by people I cared for dearly and had just spent months working for choreographers I admired. I was about to share this special moment with them and so many people in the audience who meant so much to me. Watching my fellow dancers lighting the stage up made me so happy, but also tearful because this was most likely my last time dancing with many of them.
My time performing went by in a blur. I didn’t really have time to take it in and reflect on what was happening until we were standing in line for our final bow. The feeling of gratitude is the best way to describe how I was feeling at the end of the night. Grateful to have been able to dance world premieres and be a part of the creative process in creating those works of art. Grateful to have worked with enjoyable, talented and hardworking dancers and choreographers and that my body had been able to push itself and perform these beautiful works. Performing in “New Works” was a priceless experience that I will never forget and to me, the very epitome of what it means to be a dancer.