Background Ballerinas

October 14, 2010

You’ve finally been cast in Coppélia, and you’re thrilled! Before the show, you spend extra time on your hair and make-up. You do a long barre to get warm and slip into your gorgeous costume. The performance starts, you make your first entrance…and then you sit in the same position for the next 15 minutes.

Why? Because you’re not dancing Swanilda, the lead role—you’re the doll! If you’re a corps de ballet member cast in full-length story ballets, chances are that at times, you’ll feel like you’re “living scenery,” the equivalent of a canvas cottage or basket of plastic fruit. While the swans in Swan Lake and the sylphs in Les Sylphides have significant dancing to do, they also have extended sections during which they’re posed and nearly motionless.

For dancers who are dying to be in a company that does the big classic ballets, playing a villager filling out a market scene or an attendant to a princess is a necessary thing. The trick is to make the most of your time onstage and breathe life into even the most static moments. Here are some tips to help keep you from feeling lost in a mob of villagers or smothered in a cluster of sylphs.

Physical Logistics

Standing still is often the hardest part of being a corps dancer. In Swan Lake, for example, dozens of swans line the stage, standing motionless in “B-plus,” throughout most of the second act. But what the audience doesn’t know is that many of these serene swans are cramping in their lower legs and feet. Elizabeth Mertz, a corps member at American Ballet Theatre since 2004, is a veteran swan. She recommends drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated and eating bananas for potassium, both of which prevent cramping. “And when you’re holding a pose on the side,” she says, “it’s very much like yoga, like a meditation. You’re listening to beautiful music, you feel the energy of your fellow dancers around you, and it’s a little bit of mind over matter.”

It’s also important to stay warm over the course of the evening to prevent muscle aches and pains. But most corps dancers can’t do a new barre before every act—they’re too busy backstage getting ready for their next entrance. Texas Ballet Theater’s Victoria Simo, who’s about to begin her eighth season with the company, knows this all too well. “When I’m not onstage,” she says, “I’m running up and down the stairs to change my costume or reapply makeup. Still, I always make time to stretch and do relevés hanging onto the light trees in the wings before I make my next entrance.”

And what if you’re onstage and you have to sneeze, scratch an itch or cough? “An itch isn’t going to kill you,” Mertz says with a laugh. “But it’s funny: When you enter the stage, it’s almost like something magical happens. The adrenaline takes away a lot of those little urges.” That being said, nothing ruins the beauty of a forest scene faster than the sight of a nymph hacking in front of the trees. If you’re truly sick, take the night off!

Staying Engaged

With all that non-dancing time onstage as a parent in The Nutcracker or a villager in Giselle, night after night, it’s easy to let your thoughts drift to dinner or where to take your parents after the show. But there are ways to keep your mind engaged and focused on the production. Silver Barkes, a corps dancer at Ballet West, has found that her fellow corps members help her stay in the zone. “Sometimes, I’ll look at another dancer across the stage and we’ll start our own little eye conversation,” she says. But be careful: “If you get too involved in the side story, you might miss an entrance or not have the right reaction to what’s going on with the ballet at the moment.”

Many dancers enjoy coming up with background stories for their characters, which can keep them involved during otherwise tedious scenes. “When we were doing Manon,” Mertz says, “we were cast as harlots, and it was kind of fun to come up with a little name for ourselves, or a story for how we got there and what we were doing.” As a peasant in Swan Lake, Mertz is shy one night and envious the next. Or, if she’s playing one of the aristocrats, she might be flirtatious or snobby and aloof with the peasants. “You definitely want to mix it up so that it feels fresh and natural,” she says. (Just make sure “mixing it up” doesn’t involve altering the given choreography or stealing the scene. If you choose to be a flirtatious aristocrat in Swan Lake, don’t start flirting with Prince Siegfried at center stage!)

The Benefits of Being a Living Prop

You might be sitting or standing on the side, but you’ve got front row seats to all the action onstage. The principals (who you may be one day!) dance inches away from your toes, giving you the most intimate view in the house. “You can really learn from them even if you’re just standing there,” Barkes says. “One of the best ways to learn in ballet is by watching.” Some dancers also appreciate performing in a large corps

because it’s a low-pressure way to get comfortable with being onstage.

But don’t lose sight of the fact that the corps must still create an atmosphere for the audience to enjoy. A stage full of committed dancers raises the level of a performance and reflects the overall strength of a company. And while principal dancers might perform once or twice a week in a big ballet, the corps is the heart of the ballet company, quick-changing from role to role in nearly every performance. “We can be exhausted,” Mertz says, “but in the end our hard work is rewarding.”

So the next time you’re cast as a nameless villager, perform as if you’re in the spotlight. You’re not just scenery—you’re part of a team!

Did You Know?

Some ballet companies use supernumeraries “supers”)  in their larger productions. Supers are the extras of the ballet world: They’re amateur dance-actors whose whole job is to fill out the scene onstage. (Think extra ball-goers at the Capulet mansion in Romeo and Juliet, or attendants to the Pasha in Le Corsaire.

Julie Diana is a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.