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January/February 2016

Every working morning in every dance company in the world, dancers gather for class. They turn up bedraggled and sleep-deprived, hauling heavy bags, their limbs covered in layer upon layer of warm, comfortable clothes. They sit on the floor, stretching tired muscles, taping battered toes and bashed knees.

A teacher walks in, and they begin to perform the exercises that most of them have known since childhood, going through the same routine for more than an hour, progressing from gentle stretching to fierce jumps, from balance to turns. “It’s like brushing your teeth,” says the Royal Ballet principal Edward Watson. “It’s something you have to do in order to be able to do your job, to stay strong, to stay flexible to get the most out of what you are being asked to do. It is an everyday MOT. I can’t rehearse or perform if I haven’t done class. I have to.” Such discipline lies at the heart of dance. That rigour is part of a dancer’s relationship with his or her body.

Dancers work through long hours, often in pain. They push themselves to the limit, often training and dancing from ten in the morning until the end of a performance that night. “I always want to be ready to do anything anyone asks me to do,” Watson says. “And that means I have to have every part of my body aware and useful. Our specific type of strength and fitness is different from athletes and sports people because we do it all day long. It is our endurance training.”

In the past, dancers fought on through injury and illness, but dance companies these days provide physical support for their performers. Greg Retter, formerly the manager of an intensive rehabilitation unit for elite Olympic athletes, has for the past three years headed a team of expert physiotherapists, sports scientists and pilates teachers at the Royal Ballet.

He changed tack because he was fascinated by the challenge of caring for dancers. “There has always been the belief that ballet is all about the art form,” he says. “And of course it is. But if you are not strong or flexible or fit enough then all those things will jeopardise the final artistic form. If we can help create a strong base, it frees dancers up to do the most beautiful things on stage.”

Photographer Rick Guest has built his reputation on high-tech, carefully sculpted portraits of sleek motor cars, gorgeous clothes, beautiful people and Olympic athletes. But photographing dancers is not work for him – it is a private passion. He fell in love with dance just a few years ago and became fascinated by the dancers themselves, by their dedication and discipline in pursuit of their art. These photographs, taken from an exhibition and book called “What Lies Beneath”, aim to lift the curtain on a world that thrives on artifice. “I wanted to make a series of portraits of the dancers themselves, as opposed to dancers dancing,” he explains. “I wanted to show the character that underpins their performance, to see the determination and sacrifice that it takes to succeed at such a high level.”

It is the capacity to transcend the limitations of their bodies to create art that makes dancers so fascinating. Their on-stage performances are driven by something more mysterious than physical prowess – a desire to tell a story with their bodies. Through movements that are precise and refined, the abstractions of choreography are filled with expression and emotion. As Tamara Rojo, artistic director and lead principal dancer of English National Ballet puts it: “Ballet is the space between the steps. That’s what separates a ballerina from a talented girl. As you grow you want something less physically and more emotionally shaped.”

To do this, dancers must know themselves as well as their bodies. They must have the confidence and self-belief to put all their athleticism at the service of performance; to disguise hard work as they turn it into art. That is what these pictures show – men and women whose passionate pursuit of their ambition has made them what they are. ~ Sarah Crompton

What Lies Beneath by Rick Guest, with Olivia Pomp; introduction by Sarah Crompton. Hardback, £50 and available to order from rg-books.com. An exhibition of the photographs will be at the Hospital Club Gallery, London, from Jan 22nd to 31st

EDWARD WATSON (Cover and previous image)
PRINCIPAL, ROYAL BALLET

Born Bromley, Surrey. Trained Royal Ballet School

 “I didn’t fall in love with ballet by watching and seeing and being inspired. For me, it was from doing. I started doing ballet class with my twin sister when I was four, and was fascinated by the physical thing – the possibility that your body could do that position or could do that many steps to that music” 

YUHUI CHOE
FIRST SOLOIST, ROYAL BALLET

Born Fukuoka, Japan. Trained with private teachers before joining the Royal Ballet as an apprentice

“I try not to get injured. When I was 15 I had a stress fracture in my metatarsal bones, but I kept dancing and soon it was both feet. I was on crutches for a month. Now I try to find time to rest, to relax, and do acupuncture, pilates and massage” 

 

NEHEMIAH KISH 

PRINCIPAL, ROYAL BALLET

Born Michigan, USA. Trained National Ballet School of Canada

“The more you dance, the more you find your own voice in different roles. I think that’s important”

ZENAIDA YANOWSKY
PRINCIPAL, ROYAL BALLET

Born Lyon. Trained in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, at a dance school run by her parents

“Our steps are our words. Like actors with their work, we too must infinitely control the minutest expressions, so that we can transmit, very specifically, emotion and meaning through movement”

JENNI SCHÄFERHOFF
CORYPHÉE, SEMPEROPER BALLETT 

Born Potsdam, Germany. Trained State Ballet School, Berlin  

“I wanted to be a dancer because I wanted to express music and emotions with my body and
move in the most delicate and perfect way”

STEVEN MCRAE
PRINCIPAL, ROYAL BALLET

Born Sydney, Australia. Trained Royal Ballet School

“Some mornings I wake up and I feel 100 years old. Technique is always improving, so you’re demanding more of yourself. And choreographers and coaches are demanding more. And with every performance, you want to give everything you’ve got because that could be your last. I tore my Achilles when I was 20 and there was a significant chance that I would never dance again”

JULIA WEISS
SOLOIST, SEMPEROPER BALLETT 

Born Mulhouse, France. Trained Paris Opéra Ballet School 

“I first began to dance when I saw a dance magazine at the age of four, and loved the pictures. I decided to be a dancer because I was amazed by the beauty of those figures and their costumes. Now I agree with Martha Graham – ‘dance is the hidden language of the soul’”

MARIANELA NUÑEZ
PRINCIPAL, ROYAL BALLET

Colón Ballet School and Royal Ballet School

“Your mental attitude plays a big part in your performance. Obviously your body does too – you have to be healthy and strong – but the mind is just as important”

 

THIAGO SOARES

PRINCIPAL, ROYAL BALLET

Born Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Trained at circus school, then Rio de Janeiro Centre for Dance 

“I’m not the same in my mind or my body from the first time I danced certain roles, so you add things and let things go that perhaps are not relevant to you any more – just like in life, as you try to find the best version of you that you can be’’

ERIC UNDERWOOD
SOLOIST, ROYAL BALLET

Born Washington, DC.  Trained School of American Ballet, New York

“You need to have a personality and vibrancy to be interesting in order to evoke art. You can’t just be a doll. I think a lot of dancers are afraid of imperfection; I don’t think it’s the way to go”

HIKARU KOBAYASHI
FIRST SOLOIST, ROYAL BALLET

Born Tokyo, Japan. Trained Paris Opera Ballet School

“I have been dancing since I was three so it seems natural for me to do this. I don’t even think about why I do it anymore. Every time you express something on stage, you want it to be special, something that other people can’t do, something that only you can do”

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