Cinderella is coming to the Civic Theatre this week, with choreography, sets and costumes created to wow audiences. Gwyneth Hyndman spent a day with the Royal New Zealand Ballet company in Wellington last week as they prepared to bring the opulent rags-to-riches romance to Southland.
The youth in the hoodie ominously snapping his fingers could be a boxer moving toward his opponent, a rugby player on the sidelines, mapping out the game, or a university student burning off extra energy as he suddenly throws himself into a handstand.
The feet point perfectly to the ceiling for a moment, and then a moment more, lifting, lifting, before he lands with cat-like elegance. Without a pause he rounds his arms in front of him, and does a pirouette en pointe.
He breaks it off with a flourish of the wrists, then goes back to snapping his fingers and makes his way towards the barre at the rear of the class.
He joins a roomful of dancers slowly warming up, breaking a sweat and shedding layers of clothes in a room of city light and mirrors. The joy in expressing an emotion through movement is evident. No audience is needed this morning.
Under the direction of ballet master Greg Horsman, the class is just another day on the second floor of a Wellington office, one with polite hierarchies - there are better positions to be in to see yourself in the mirror, one dancer says, and, like most rookies in any company, you start at the back - but it's an office that will send its workers on to a lavish set, in sequined gowns, makeup and costumes when the curtains rise in six hours.
It's also the space you are going to see dancers in their most honest environment, a principal dancer says in an interview above the rehearsal room.
In his role as the Prince, Qi Huan dances under pressure to continually impress audiences who have watched him conquer stages in New Zealand for eight years since his move from Beijing. At age 30, with two knee operations in the past nine years - one was an ACL reconstruction two years ago - he is constantly reminded of the toll his art has taken on his body since he began dancing at age 9.
But if people wanted to see athletes hurting, they would get tickets to an All Blacks game.
"It's deceiving," he says. "That is a difference between sport and ballet. You don't want the audience to see how hard it is. You work to make sure they don't know how hard it is. You want to show the story - which is hard. When you play rugby, pain shows on the face. On stage, we smile."
A male dancer typically retires when they're about 35. Female dancers, who don't endure the lifting and physical supporting, can go a few more years, he says.
"Shoulders, ankles, legs, back," Huan says, listing the body parts where dancers feel it the most. The question isn't "is there pain?" as much as "can you handle it?", he says.
"It is always hard to feel comfortable."
In the classroom below it isn't just physical pain that shows. Horsman demonstrates a routine; the class follows. It grows in complexity and toughness. Risks are taken and the dancers push themselves. They take flight and land hard. Feet are carefully rebandaged in the corners and the dancers return to the floor, critiquing themselves in the mirror. This is where it is safe to show frustration when a move isn't quite right. But along with the head-shaking and the sighs is the euphoria seen in the eyes when a movement is precise and perfect in its execution. This is what their bodies are made for.
For Lucy Green, 21, who is familiar to some from TV3's Secret Lives of Dancers, being transformed for the role of Cinderella is a fine ending to the first chapter of her career.
Her acceptance into the company was followed closely by television cameras in 2010, which she remembers as being a little nerve-wracking.
"It was really crazy getting recognised, just walking down the street," she says. "Weird, but nice too."
Though she was careful around the cameras, viewers found her appealing.
Green is still shy about the coverage, but admits the attention has been fun. "People seemed to take a liking to me."
Rising through the company to her first principal role has been just as rewarding as she imagined, she says.
Being on stageis a challenge she loves rising to every night.
"One of my favourite moments is when Cinderella enters the ball," she says. "She takes off her cape and her gown is displayed and you can hear the audience gasp."
Hours later, it is exactly as Green describes it.
In the dark St James Theatre, a young audience member exclaims as Cinderella's gown is unveiled. Her gasp is one of many heard simultaneously in the full theatre.
That is the moment every dancer waits for, Green says. "It's been sort of unbelievable for me. Opening night was a night I'll always remember."
Cinderella is on at the Civic Theatre tonight and tomorrow. Tickets can be booked through Ticket Direct.
- The Southland Times