BWW Blog: Andrea D'Annunzio - The Core of Corps Work
Every year at Princeton Ballet School's Summer Intensive, the five-week program culminates with a performance. One of the pieces performed is always a section from a full-length Classical ballet set by renowned teacher and former Maria Youskevitch. For the past two summers, Ms. Youskevitch has set sections from Act Two of Swan Lake on the Intensive students, and I have had the privilege of assisting her as she sets the choreography and rehearses the dancers. I am surprised and disappointed however, to say that over these two summers, there have been more students who are disappointed to find themselves in the corps of Swan Lake, than those who are excited. The general feeling is that you don't get to dance when you're in the corps de ballet, and that you just stand there and blend in, so it's boring and tedious. I'm not saying that it isn't tedious, but the skills a dancer learns by experiencing corps de ballet work are vital to their future as an aspiring professional ballet dancer.
The overall beauty of the corps de ballet is when all of the dancers move in a perfectly synchronized and symmetrical way. It creates a magical quality, a dream-like state for the audience when executed to perfection. In order to accomplish this, each individual dancer in the corps must blend together and move as a unit. You learn how to dance around the stage while staying in formations, most likely straight lines. This is extremely difficult since tall dancers in the back of the lines have to match the strides of shorter dancers in the front. Learning how to fully execute each step while traveling very little is a serious challenge, but if a dancer masters this in the corps they will have no problem performing soloist roles on any abnormally small stage space as a professional dancer.
Besides staying in lines, the corps de ballet achieves synchronization by everyone having the exact same body and head angles, as well as the same arm and leg height. This is only possible if the execution of each step is technically correct. It forces everyone to place their arms in a "true" first arabesque, for example, and reinforces correct ballet positions and technique. Also, the musical timing of each movement must be precise so that the lines of corps ladies on either side of the stage move at the same time, especially when they can not see each other. I personally realized the importance of musicality when I first performed in the Swan Corps at the age thirteen. Everyone must leave the floor and land at the same time in any jump and they must lift their legs at the same time and at the same rate of speed and then lower them in the same manner as well. Fitting these puzzle pieces together will create a single unit on stage.
Any dancer will tell you that the most brutal part of being in the corps is when you have to stand on one leg in a line for a seemingly infinite amount of time before you dart out and dance furiously, only to return to the line again and turn back into a living statue standing on one leg. It teaches you strength: abdominal strength, leg strength, arm strength, back strength, but more than all of these, mental strength. After standing still for even thirty seconds you legs start to fall asleep, your arms and torso get heavy and start to sink and droop. Forcing yourself to stand there over and over again in rehearsals and not move is one of the biggest mental hurdles to get over, but it takes discipline.
Discipline is truly the one skill that it all comes down to. Corps de ballet work teaches you this, and all of the specific skills I've spoken of so far are only achieved through discipline. You must make yourself stand still and never move, even if your entire body is numb, and sooner than later, it will get easier. Discipline is what makes every dancer's arms and legs move together with the music at the same height, and what makes each formation move symmetrically and with synchronization. Each dancer has to be disciplined enough to achieve these things on their own. Only then will the group be able to achieve the cohesion necessary to reach that magical state on stage.
This may seem like a daunting task for students to accomplish during three or four weeks of rehearsals, and some of it may be. But if they can learn discipline and therefore achieve as many of these tasks as possible in the time that's allotted, then they have accomplished much. It is a dancer's job to grow and learn in every situation they find themselves. A dancer cannot waste any experience, especially if it's a piece they aren't thrilled with, or a teacher they don't care for. There is always something positive and worthwhile about an experience, you just have to have to discipline to discover it.