It felt strange to enter the theatre on a Saturday morning, with all the stage lights on and the dancers already warming up beside freestanding barres. In a way, it felt like sneaking up on Santa’s elves in their summer workshop. But the dancers knew we were there — and thanks to their generosity, a large audience (with lots of little ballerinas and their moms in tow) got to watch the hard work they put in every morning before the curtain goes up.
Here’s what I observed from the 2nd row:
1. Just like any other class, some people come in early to stretch: frog, butterfly, straddle splits, pied à la main. Others take their time, sharing a joke or two, casually putting their hair into a bun. Some are so internally focused, athletes getting into intense game mode. Others smile while doing thereband exercises. A few rush in a minute before class starts. It’s all good.
2. Anything goes, as far as dancewear is concerned. I saw: lovely patterned Elevé and Yumiko leotards, a plain black camisole with straps that had probably snapped once and been reknotted, a gorgeous aquamarine leo with black lace bodice and 3/4 sleeves (really wanted to ask the dancer where she got this!). A faded grey Metallica T-shirt. Thigh-high leg warmers. Knit jumpsuits. Hoodies. Pink tights over leo, black tights under shorts, nude-coloured super-short shorts and bare legs on a guy. Thick cotton socks, down-filled booties, canvas split-soles, even “jewelled” pointe shoes (principal dancers Sonia Rodriguez and Jillian Vanstone appeared to be breaking in their crystal-studded pairs for Cinderella). Lululemon Studio pants, ripstop garbage bag crops, and lots of track pants — we could hear the swish, swish, swish as they did tendus en croix.
3. Unlike most classes (where barre exercises are done on the right side first, no matter where you are in the room), everyone in the company faces the same way. Former principal dancer Rex Harrington, who was teaching the class and providing commentary, quipped that the National invented this method. Probably not, but it seemed like such a symbolic gesture of solidarity, of the company moving together in the same direction.
4. Principal dancers seem to blend in when taking class. They may get to shine more in plum roles on stage, but in class they work just as hard as the corps members and seem to have their own physical issues to deal with. But then they do something — hold a pose with more suspension and flourish, or really use the full reach of their port de bras — that takes your breath away and makes you realize, oh right, THAT’S why they’re principals.
5. Everyone works differently. Some fill out the music and turn class into a mini performance. Others seem like they’re doing drills and exercises, cranking the machinery, fiddling with the gears to see what works better. Different approaches, beautiful results. One thing everyone did, though: plié REALLY DEEPLY in 2nd position.
6. They have different strengths. Seeing them do the same steps together really highlighted this. Some (like soloists Jonathan Renna and Robert Stephen) have bouncier leaps, gliding effortlessly with a lot more hang time. Others are better at developpéing their leg up to 6 o’clock and holding it there. The exceptional turners have this amazing ability to not just do multiple turns but also to self-correct — I saw someone start a turn a bit off-axis, then by the 2nd rotation he was perfectly aligned again.
7. They may aim for perfection, but they can also make mistakes. They could shoot for a triple piqué turn and end up with 2 1/3. They could do the final tombé-pas de bourrée-glissade-grand jeté in completely the opposite direction. It’s humbling to see these talented professionals at the top of their game pushing themselves and moving on past the error to try again.
8. There are steps even the pros dislike! I loved the dancers’ collective groan when Rex Harrington threw in a double pirouette à la seconde ending in arabesque fondu (apparently one of the harder turns to control, as you’re turning with your leg to the side at 90 degrees). They groaned loudly but they still did it!
9. There were 2 dancers my eyes kept getting drawn to. Second soloist Dylan Tedaldi, with a bandanna wrapped around his head, had such a solid core and impressive technique. At the barre, it looked like he could balance forever — at one point, he balanced in attitude derriere with arms in 5th, then switched his arms to 3rd, before calmly extending in a high V, without a single wobble. In the centre, he whipped out quadruple pirouettes every time, ending in a little balance before a smooth landing. His leaps matched the height reached by taller dancers. I remember seeing him dance the role of the mentally disturbed older brother in John Neumeier’s Nijinsky last year and being impressed. Seeing him work in class has made me a bigger fan.
The other dancer was corps de ballet member Sarah Elena Wolff. She had this elegant, unhurried quality of expression at the barre and a way of moving with and through the music that made it seem like a flowing, breathing meditation. She barely looked at the audience, but somehow it still felt like her movements included and welcomed us. Such a stunning artist to watch — I’d love to see her featured in bigger roles one day.
I’m so inspired and can’t wait to watch them again next Saturday for Cinderella!