Between sharp technique and passion, pain and sweetness, rehearsals and performance… Ballet dance is indeed one of the most paradoxical and fascinating discipline. In appearances, during a ballet at the opera, we only see beautiful dancers in bright tutu (the dance costume for girls), turning and flying on stage as light as feathers. Grace personified…as if everything was easy and obvious.
But what is hidden behind these leaps, sidesteps, spins and arabesque?
Pascale Schmitt was a French professional ballet dancer in the 70’s/80’s. Now, she has her own dance school in Paray-le-Monial, a French town in Burgundy, where she transmits her knowledge. She describes classical dance as an art: an intense physical work to express a lot of things like feelings, messages, aesthetics… For her, ballet dance is the only technique that allows you to work in other disciplines such as contemporary dance, because the contrary is not possible. Even during auditions, national companies with a contemporary repertory start by sorting out candidates through a classical dance class.
Pascale started dancing at the age of 6 and she already knew that she wanted to devote her life to it. But the Opera accept kids from 8 because they can mentally analyze what is asked. She started with an atypical path: from 6 to 10 years old she had one lesson a week in Paray-le-Monial, from 10 to 16, 11 hours of lessons a week (Paray, Moulins, Paris), and then from 16 to 18, lessons and personal training several hours a day. Classical dance is famous to be very difficult and quite dangerous for one’s health, like everything that is done in the extreme. Pascale explains that the skeleton is pushed to its limits. Classical dance is anti-natural, the intense work outside, which is at the basis of this discipline, is a stress for the articulation of the hip. Moreover, some qualities are necessary to become a ballet dancer: a body line in general, leg line, and a kick, a great natural flexibility, plus a great resistance to pain. After all this, what makes a big difference and that cannot be learned is the artistic sense. Despite this, she succeeded in an atypical way, without joining the prestigious schools, thanks to her extreme passion.
The competition is really rough in this discipline. Indeed, you can only be a professional dancer until the age of forty to forty-five years old (maximum). Pascale says that it’s always better to dance than to see your friend dancing, so you always have to be the best and to know that nothing is never acquired even if you integrate a national company. For example, if a dance student learns about an audition, she won’t tell her friend: that’s a competition!
To be considered as a professional dancer, there is no diploma. When a dancer has a high technical level, when she can express something by the movement, and when she finished her training in school she has to go to auditions to join companies. That’s what Pascale did. In Paris, there were 120 girls for 3 places. Some were eliminated after each exercise… at the end of the day, 10 girls, include Pascale, were selected to come back the next day and learn parts of the company’s repertory. After this, she was waiting for news and she received a letter: the company offered her a contract.
The life of a dancer in a professional company is quite special! It’s comparable to a street performer life: daily classes, rehearsals, shows, tours… the resting days are totally variable according to the period and it is difficult to make room for private life. Pascale traveled a lot thanks to her passion. She danced in South America, Asia, US, Canada, Poland and Europe in general! At the time, art was very financially supported, companies were rich, more than nowadays even if there are still tours.
As a professional dancer, Pascale keeps a lot of vivid memories in mind and she shared some of them. The greatest chance of her career was to meet a great choreographer with whom she really worked in an intense and creative way. She also remembers the sensation, her beating heart reading the show posters in the street. Then, she recalls how one of her experience in New York was memorable: “Backstage in New York I had a big bronchitis and I was the only girl dancing. The choreographer wanted anyone else and it was impossible for me not to dance. Everybody was doing everything to keep me up!”. After that, she remembers the falls on stage taking a lot of technical risks but also the applause of the public when the curtain closes. “We remove make-up and we go home or at the hotel, it’s like the surface of a lake, flat without wave, we have a memory of sensations that still inhabit the body. Even if we meet friends after the show there is this transition moment before entering the delirium of a party.” Pascale continues “I also remember the people who came to see me, saying that they saw all my shows, that they would like to be me. They idealized me, it can be both scary and flattering, it’s special.” She finishes telling how she had fun moments with friends during tours, even if there is rivalry…
Now, through Pascale’s experience, you can understand better the behind the scenes of the world of Ballet dance. Think about all this next time you go in Opera to see a ballet…