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