Intense training is a fact of life for top ballerinas
Ballet fans will be stepping out this week as ‘Swan Lake’ comes to The First Group Theatre, courtesy of the Bulgarian Sofia Ballet company.
The famous tale of a princess turned into a swan by an evil curse, will be enacted by 27 dancers. While the performance will be graceful, the training schedule for the dancers of the Sofia company - formed by soloists of the Sofia National ballet - will not.
Ballet is one of the most testing forms of dance there is. Not only do you have to be supple, female dancers have to be able to support their entire body weight on your toes, while male dancers must be strong enough to lift a grown woman over their heads.
Aaron Watkin, choreographer with Semperoper Ballet, Dresden - one of Europe’s most renowned dance companies - says dancers usually start training between the ages of eight and 10, when the body is still very flexible.
They are put through the process of learning pirouettes, static jumps and stretching. This routine continues for eight years, advises Watkin, who recently brought his troupe to Abu Dhabi to perform the Indian-inspired ‘La Bayadere’ at Emirates Palace.
By maturity, he says, dancers are doing three classes a day, with 90 minutes of warm-up training in the morning.
However, he says, the key is to not force the development of the dancer’s body. “Muscle development really depends on the body type,” Watkin says. “Some people are just very strong but in most western schools there is additional training, such as pilates and pulling ropes to add extra strength.”
When he worked as a dancer, Watkin went to the gym every day. “The hardest part was building up stamina, so you need the gym for that,” he advises.
“The gym helped target specific areas where you need strength - knees, hips or angles.” He adds: “Having a good physio with the dance company is invaluable so you can be coached back from injury.
“In our company, we have a new physio and have added a second, so they work on preventative treatment, which is extremely important. There are fewer injuries now, people are much more aware. I went to a health conference in Berlin to talk about this. I am amazed that some dance companies don’t even have a full-time physio. It’s essential for intense training. The dancer will last longer and the company will get much better use of the dancer, so it pays for itself.”
There is a perception that ballerinas are obsessed with their weight and starve themselves. Is that true?
“Girls tend to be very conscious of their weight and sometimes that leads to eating disorders,” Watkin admits. “It is not a big problem with us but it has been in other companies. A soloist may have a more personal routine so it might be more difficult to monitor but we have been lucky in encouraging girls not to get obsessed.”
Do they smoke to stay slim?
“When you come into ballet full-time there can be a lot of sitting around - that’s where the problem lies,” he says.
“One dancer is a smoker and they offer a cigarette and it becomes a social thing. They have to go outside to smoke, so they talk and it becomes a daily practice and they are not thinking about the consequences.
“I would say that maybe half of our company is smoking.”