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With a slip of the foot: How rehearsal mishaps and improvisation can leave a lasting legacy in ballet choreography

George Balanchine isn't the only choreographer to be influenced by the environment of the rehearsal studio.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

19 May 2014 at 3.04pm | Comment on this article

For Royal Ballet dancers, rehearsals take up a significant portion of the working day. In a Company that performs up to twenty ballets a Season, an intensive schedule is vital if the dancers are to learn the choreography for the works in their repertory – whether that is the corps de ballet mastering steps in perfect formations, or principals perfecting taxing solo roles. But rehearsals are so much more than cramming sessions. Time spent in the studio is often integral to the development of new works, as choreographers take inspiration from their dancers and the individual qualities of their bodies.

Serenade was the first piece George Balanchine choreographed in America and was created in 1934 as a graduation exercise for the first students of his School of American Ballet. The School was taught in evening sessions that by all accounts could be quite chaotic. And so studio mishaps – such as one girl arriving late and another falling over and bursting into tears – were incorporated into the choreography, breaking up the ballet’s orderly formations and providing some of its most dramatic moments. Balanchine also built the rehearsal environment right into the structure of Serenade by casting it for 17 dancers – all the dancers he had. He later willfully explained:

‘I have seventeen dancers...If I had only sixteen, [an] even amount, there would be two lines. And now people ask me, why do you place them that way? Because I have seventeen.’

Jerome Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun, set in a dream-world rehearsal studio, is at once sardonic and haunting. Robbins was inspired by watching New York City Ballet dancers rehearsing. A man and a woman come together in a pas de deux, each entirely absorbed in their own reflections in an invisible downstage mirror. The opening of the ballet, where the young man dozes languidly on the floor, was an explicit quotation from Robbins's environment, as Bart Cook, a former New York City Ballet dancer who was present when Robbins staged the work, explained: ‘the story goes that [Robbins] walked by one of the studios and saw Eddie Villella [then a new dancer in the company] sleeping in the sun’.

The practice of being influenced by the rehearsal room isn't just confined to the work of these two choreographers, however: Kenneth MacMillan once described his rehearsal process as ‘sort of improvisation’, and said that anything else would be like ‘painting by numbers’. Christopher Wheeldon explained how ‘Once everything’s mapped out on pages – music, story – then we come into the studio and we begin working quite spontaneously on the dance, in the moment, making wonderful little discoveries here and there. Mistakes happen and sometimes those mistakes are great’. And Wayne McGregor often takes his inspiration from the ‘physical signatures’ of his dancers, describing how 'the point for me of making a piece is to find something out that's new for me with those dancers… [in the studio] I'm not rehearsing, I'm really making'.

Today’s ballet audiences are privileged to have frequent access to the rehearsal room through a wealth of online resources and insight events. We can now observe first-hand the kind of experimentation and collaboration that allowed choreographers such as Balanchine and Robbins to produce some of their greatest works, and which continues to inspire dance-makers and contribute to the ever-ongoing evolution of ballet.

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