Late July and August can be an arid time for keen dancers in Oxford, as local dance schools take a well earned break from their regular teaching schedules, maintaining a reduced programme to cater mainly for students with impending exams and more advanced dancers keen not to lose momentum and fitness. This year for the first time Lizie Giraudeau and I decided to add something to the summer mix by programming an intensive week of daily daytime classes for adult learners at URC, with two hours of ballet in the morning and two hours of contemporary dance in the afternoon. A range of flexible options were offered to allow for those unable to commit to a whole week full time. For those attending the ballet the two hour intermediate/advanced class enabled some time each day for study of a section of classical repertoire; the contemporary class was designed to accommodate different levels of experience, thus giving newcomers an opportunity for an immersive introductory experience.
The ballet classes took as their focus the opening of the legendary Kingdom of the Shades (Act 3) from Petipa’s La Bayadère, set to the tuneful and danceable music of Ludwig Minkus. This had particular personal resonance for me as it was the first thing that I had danced as a student and then a young member of the Royal Ballet’s corps de ballet at Covent Garden; initially as an extra in the back line for the famous dreamlike entrance and terrifying adage, and then further forward as a full member of the ensemble in Nureyev’s beautiful production of this ultimate classical showpiece with elegant formations and richly contrasted variations by dancers in white against inky blackness. Workshop participants sampled the entrance, adage and initial waltz of the corps de ballet to get a flavour of the range of technical challenge as well as style.
Nureyev originally mounted this for the Royal Ballet in November 1963 not long after his defection from Russia and what was then the Kirov (now once more the Maryinsky Ballet). I drew on my bodily memory to teach this, still very complete despite decades since dancing it, referring briefly to the 1994 video recording of performance of Nureyev’s later complete version of the full length work for the Paris Opera Ballet to clarify some details. It was fascinating to remark the stylistic differences between what I remember from performing this in the mid 1970s, and this later version; the French dancers performing the same steps but in a manner more upright and technically defined, stripped (it seemed to me) of some of the nuances and stylistic shading of gaze and subtle inflection in the upper body that I remember being discussed in rehearsal. In reconstructing the waltz material I was reminded of the seamless transitions between pointework and jumping so characteristic of Petipa’s choreography, and the challenge of accomplishing this with an apparently effortless lilt. Two dancers donned their pointe shoes for part of class and repertoire, and this provided a fascinating focus for discussion about the nature of this pinnacle of extended technique, so sustained in the lengthy quivering bourrées of the Bayadère adage, and how it can be prepared for and emerges from its roots in the fundamentals of class work.
Gratifying to see how the dancers enthusiastically embraced this repertoire study, a shame that we did not manage to complete the whole quite substantial section. I had constructed the classwork to prepare the dancers for some of the particular elements of vocabulary and linkages between them, which made the learning easier; but our time was limited. The waltz in particular also provided those attending with a brief opportunity to experience working as an ensemble in perfect line, raising awareness of the need for detailed precision of placing in addition to individual mastery of the steps.
For those doing all the week’s classes the afternoons provided a very contrasted experience. Lizie’s sessions began from a place of exploring personal awareness, initially internalised attention to bodily presence and sensations, gradually opening out through simple walking to take in the space and others within it. The classwork moved back and forth between improvised explorations and more structured sequences. Playful creative tasks drew on imagined actions to generate particular qualities of movement. Dancers sometimes worked singly but also took turns to work together in shifting groups of initiators, responders or observers, drawing on each others’ idiosyncratic and personal movement choices in response to atmospheric and varied musical tracks. More technically focused tasks included free exploration of sinking to the floor and finding a seamless way back up again, and shifting of the weight, also fluid structured floorwork and travelling combinations, culminating in an expansive set sequence combining lyrical flow with quirky detail set to René Aubry’s irrepressible “Happy Voices”. I felt privileged to observe the final Friday afternoon class, and see dancers working together generously and opening up their dancing both in learned combinations and delightfully inventive improvisations.
This foray into uncharted waters has been a resounding success, with strong attendance and positive feedback. Many seem to have enjoyed the experience of working intensively on a daily basis, thus being able to consolidate new learning in a way that is harder when classes are not so frequent, enabling focus to transfer from “what” to “how”. For those undertaking the full intensive tiredness seemed to strike on Wednesday, but having “hit the wall” dancers came back with renewed vigour to finish the week strongly. The study of repertoire has helped to put ballet classwork in perspective and give it aim and intention; there have been requests for more opportunities to work on repertoire, and it certainly seems that we should finish the Bayadère section started. The intensive experience of contemporary dance likewise provides a launch pad for further opportunities for study and enjoyment. A definite demand for this type of intensive to be repeated; Lizie and I will be putting our heads together soon. Watch this space!
You can find further details about the course and its teachers here