The English National Ballet's stage door is hard to find. Just
like the ballet world itself has long been hidden to the wider
audience, it is tucked away at the end of a London car park. As I
step inside, the rough exterior is swapped for an atmosphere that
seems to tremble with blood, sweat and delicate elegance.
Walking through the Green Room, which is not green but grey with
brick walls full of signatures from former dancers, I have no idea
what I am in for. I have been told I will experience the "real"
Black Swan life and am feeling everything but comfortable with the
idea of broken toes, manipulative choreographers and mentally
unstable dancers smashing each other into mirrors.
I am shown past the kitchen where stars from BBC's mini series
"Agony and Ecstasy" sit around eating and chatting in a jungle of
different languages. This is what young ballet dancers from all
over the world dream of and come here for; sitting in this tiny
kitchen between rehearsals, joining in the banter with ballet
superstars and getting their picture printed in the little booklet
naming all of the company's artists, soloists and principals. That
and being on stage, of course.
The ballet world is ruled by rank, a class spectrum determined
by experience and talent. Still, the feeling I get when I walk past
this kitchen, the very heart of the company, is cheerful.
The working hours of a ballerina, or "artist" as they call
themselves, may sound relaxed with class from 10.30 until noon
followed by rehearsals until 6.30, but what I am about to find out
is just how hard they work in those hours.
We tip-toe into a classic ballet studio where rehearsals are
about to begin. It's not big, about the size of the one in Black
Swan film where the director seduces Nina, and a grey-haired man is
playing a piano in the corner. On the floor next to me a woman has
been taping together her very sore-looking toes and is now
stretching her body in ways I never knew were possible. At the same
time others leave the room, walking like ducks with their feet
locked in pointed shoes. I stare in admiration at the many thin and
muscular bodies covered in skin-tight materials and I'm hit by a
strange sensation of having landed in an alien world (or a film
set, or a fairytale). But no one bats an eyelid.
Begonia Cao, a British principal dancer, and James Forbat, a
British soloist, are about to start rehearsing An American in Paris
with guest teacher Maina Gielgud. James has never danced the role
before and hurt his neck after a performance the night before but
when asked whether he thinks he can dance the part he nods.
The two immerse themselves in a mesmerising dance, only stopping
to laugh when Begonia trips over or to consult a recorded
performance of the show when uncertain of a particular move.
Begonia stops the pianist over and over again.
"No Chris, take it from…" She starts humming and it is clear she
knows the music by heart, just like she does the many complicated
We hear a loud bang and I am informed that upstairs the
world-famous choreographer Derek Deane is rehearsing the finale of
Strictly Gerschwin. We decide to have a sneaky look, despite fears
of his rumoured tantrums.
As the doors swing open, we walk into a swarm of people dressed
in tricot. There are about 10 couples dancing in the middle of the
room, along the sides stand others warming up and at the back,
slumped around the piano, dancers are sitting around waiting to be
called. One is learning for the driver's test, another is
embroidering a white cloth but everyone is aware of what is going
Deane has the whole room under control. He shouts demands, then
joins in the ever ongoing dance before calling new people onto the
floor and telling others to leave. It is like watching a restless
moving ocean of bodies and despite the constant concentration
everyone is smiling.
By now I am so overwhelmed by all the beautiful bodies moving in
such perfect coordination that I could do with a sit down and a cup
of tea, but no. Now it is my turn, my skills from kindergarten
ballet are about to be tested at the English National Ballet and
there will be cameras capturing it all. No pressure.
Ballet dancers Ruth Brill, 22, and Jennie Harrington, 28, start
me and my fellow journalist friends off easy with a simple first
position but we only get to fourth before I am having trouble,
surely no normal person is expected to do that with their feet? As
we move on to plies I realise I really shouldn't have worn a skirt
Whilst the others seem to be doing fine, I feel like the
elephant in the room and remember just why I quit ballet after
approximately two lessons; I was never that graceful. And now we're
going for "the swan arms", the signature move from Swan Lake.
I get the tip to look into the mirror and to make my arms look
more "natural" (piece of cake) but after circa three minutes of
turning my elbows back and down and forwards and up and back again,
my untrained arms are aching. Ruth and Jennie giggle in a friendly
manner but take the hint and don't attempt to teach us poor
ballerina wannabes any more moves. Phew.
Before leaving I get a chat with the two, who despite their
young age have already been with the company for many years, and
they tell me all about the life of a ballerina, including what it
might be like to come out as gay in the strict environment.
Scroll down for a video of that!
Now, I don't want to ruin the surprise but I will tell you that
the only thing Ruth recognised in the Black Swan film was the
hurting feet and the breaking in of the shoes.
As she said that, I felt myself finally relax. So no jealous
ballerina (my moves were after all pretty bad ass) would grab my
bloody body by the ankles and lock it in a backstage toilet? Seeing
as the stage door was hard to find, there was a risk I might be
stuck there for a while.
Black Swan is out on DVD today, Monday 16 May.
The National Ballet will be performing Strictly Gershwin at
the Royal Albert Hall 9-19 June and the show will tour throughout
the UK in the autumn. Check out www.ballet.org.uk for full