The Making of Swan Lake, Part 2

On Thursday, Swan Lake Week was in full swing, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s performances were fast approaching. I found myself once again consumed by ballet.


From the age of 5 until I was 21, my life primarily revolved around ballet. I danced every day. I pushed through blood, sweat, and tears (literally). I took Master Classes whenever they were offered and attended intensive summer programs. I majored in ballet at college. I had world-renowned dancers for my teachers. Ballet was my focus, my priority; I adored it. Long story short, I was a total bunhead. I seemed to spend more time in pointe shoes than out of them.

And then, my life changed. A bad injury prevented me from pursuing a professional ballet career. I found a different career path, but I have also been able to teach ballet part-time.

On Thursday, however. I got to be a student again.

* * *

The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Department of Learning hosted another Master Class that afternoon. This time the class was held in the TRDance studios, for the students of the Governor’s School for the Arts. Pearl Chesterman and Jenny Murphy (of BRB), as well as Deborah Thorpe (Chair of the Governor’s School Dance Faculty) graciously allowed me to participate. Students from both the Governor’s School’s Ballet and Modern majors were in the class (several of whom are students I work with, so of course it was wonderful to see them). There were also a few other dancers from outside of Governor’s School (like me). In all there were about 65 students.

As with the Master Class from Tuesday, Jenny led the class. We had the same agenda as Tuesday: a quick barre, a few combinations in the center, and then the Spanish Dance from Swan Lake Act III. We moved through the barre exercises like lighting; I think we finished barre in 15 minutes (a typical barre takes 30-45). We took a little break, and then danced three combinations in the center (adagio, tendu/pirouette, and small jumps).

And then it was time for the Spanish Dance! After seeing it on Tuesday, I was definitely looking forward to the chance to do it. We broke out into groups of four, completely filling the studio. We learned the piece in sections, running through them with the music. Of course, we tried not to run in to each other with our sweeping arms or our lunges, but we weren’t always successful. There were bursts of giggles around the room, as a few minor collisions occurred. It was a lively, boisterous group; energy was bouncing through the air. After we all knew the steps, we performed the piece three times, about five groups at a time so we had more space. Holy moly, was I having a ball! I have always loved the Spanish style, so this was definitely a thrill for me.

I was a little rusty (and not exactly the dancer I once was), but I was able to do everything full out, and I made it through the class without hurting myself.

When the class finished, the room erupted in applause and cheers. All the students went up individually to thank Jenny, and I was no exception.

* * *

Thursday afternoon was also the BRB General Rehearsal. This was the last rehearsal before the first performance, and the dancers were in full costume, hair and makeup. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra joined them for the rehearsal, to confirm tempos and time the dancers’ entrances. The final lighting was also in place. This dress rehearsal is treated like a performance, but if there are any issues, they can still be addressed and corrected. There were very few adjustments made Thursday afternoon (part of the set, the tempo of one section of music).

I watched Acts I, II, and III. Now, I don’t want to give too much away at this point. But I will say, this show is breathtakingly beautiful: The dancers are extraordinary. The set is stunning, and majestic. (It came over by ship, actually, in order to be used for these performances.) The costumes are equally gorgeous, with amazing detail and richness. And the Swan Lake tale itself is an emotional love story. I watched, mesmerized, leaning forward in my seat with my chin resting on my hands.

However, I intentionally did not watch Act IV, so that I could save the end for when I saw the performance. (I know how the story ends, but I wanted to have its full impact hit me at the show).

* * *

So, Part One was about introductions. This essay is about establishing connections–it’s more personal. The BRB dancers and staff had strengthened their connection with the area, with the stage, with the show. All of the elements of the show had unified; everything was becoming more familiar, more solid.

And I had an unexpected connection of my own, thanks to the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

As an ex-ballerina turned ballet teacher, I’m definitely very involved with the ballet world, but I live on the outskirts. I’m outside looking in, I suppose, helping the next generation of dancers live in it.

But as I was walking down the street Thursday afternoon, on my way from the Master Class to watch General Rehearsal, I had a “Moment.”  You know, a wave of feeling that makes you pause and take a deep breath.  Well, I was sipping on my smoothie, with the sun shining on my face…my hair was up, and I still had my ballet gear on (with a shirt and skirt over it, of course). I was beaming from the amazing ballet class, and I was excited about seeing rehearsal. Anyway, as I was walking, I grabbed the strap of my dance bag, and hitched it up higher on my shoulder. And then I stopped in my tracks. I stood there on the sidewalk and blinked a few times. For that moment, just for an instant, I felt a flash of my 16-year-old, bunhead self, walking down the street from ballet, beaming from class, hitching up my dance bag like I always did. I had stepped back into my ballet world; and though it only lasted for a second, it was marvelous.

Read Part 1.

This article was originally published on AltDaily in May of 2010.

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