Ahead of the Royal New Zealand Ballet national tour of Giselle this month, Gwyneth Hyndman takes a class with the dancers in Wellington.
I am living out a nightmare.
Gripping the barre with one hand, the other arm turned out stiffly, I'm under glaring stage lights, trying desperately to figure out what's going on. Lithe, sinewy bodies around me lift, curve, and bend back in synchronised movements as if programmed. It's about 19 seconds into the start of the class and I'm praying for it to all be over quickly. This has been a horrible mistake.
Running to the St James Theatre minutes before the warmup was set to start, I was a little rushed, but relaxed; even eager to do something that was so totally out of my comfort zone. Like a sky dive, I just had to take the plunge. The tragically awkward ballet classes of my youth were far behind me, I reminded myself, repeatedly.
And who wouldn't want to be inside the creation of Giselle, the great Romantic ballet about the betrayal of an innocent village girl by the aristocratic Albrecht, who is later protected by her spirit as he is hunted down by the vengeful spirits of abandoned brides? What a great opportunity to learn all about one of the oldest surviving ballets - first staged in Paris in 1841 - that's still being performed internationally.
I prevailed in this confidence until I was riding the lift to the stage floor with the company's media co-ordinator, who had arranged for me to take part in the class, which, she said as the lift descended, wasn't such a big deal as she understood that I did have a background in ballet.
What? I said. No. No, I don't. How had I conveyed that? The panic begins to set in. Do they think they're going to get someone who knows what they're doing? Suddenly I am scanning her face for signs that this isn't, in fact, a really bad idea. Did I detect fear in her eyes too? The horror sets in. Would I be so awful, such a distraction, that I would single-handedly take down the opening-night performance? I even turned superstitious: what if I am bad luck? What if somebody does actually break a leg?
I'm still in stunned survival mode - sure that I'm bringing the roof of the theatre down on everyone tonight - when Glenn Harris, the guest ballet master, announces the next group of movements.
The dancers, hands on hips, nod in comprehension. My eyes narrow and I nod too, even may as well be in French (half of it is).
I resort to staring hard at the male dancer in front of me and imitating the movements that get faster. I'm about 10 seconds behind everything he does. I spin around and I am face to face with a female dancer who - bless her - smiles gently and just says quietly, "other way". I relax, do as she says, and keep trying.
The music quickens. I'm failing, and I know they have got to be laughing at me - I would be - but something loosens up and I realise suddenly that for a few moments, bending back, trying my hardest to move my hand elegantly, that this was actually quite fun. For a split second I feel ever so slightly beautiful.
The music stops. I stop too. I am jarred back to the reality of how out of place I am here. The barre is pulled back and it is just the stage. I stand in the shadows as the dancers leap and glide across the floor. The theatre doors have opened and members of the public have come to see the dancers before they are transformed. I figure I should stay where I am. I don't want to be an embarrassment to the company.
I stand, tapping the barre, watching them, wishing I could look like that when I moved. Then suddenly I realise I never will. And I'm not going to get this chance again. I go back out on the stage and move as best as I can without hurting anyone. When the class ends, and everyone claps excitedly in anticipation, I clap like a geek alongside them.
Hours later, as the curtain falls on one of the most eerie, gorgeous endings I've ever seen at a ballet (and an original idea from co-choreographers Johan Kobborg and Ethan Stiefel, who is also the artistic director for the Royal New Zealand Ballet), the packed theatre applauds madly and feet stomp as if we're at a rugby game.
From the stunning set - which captures the lightness and happiness of the living world and contrasts it to the Twilight-like morbidity of a dark purgatory - to the detailed costumes by Russian-ballet-dancer-turned-costume-designer Natalia Stewart, to the exceptional dancing from prima ballerina Gillian Murphy as Giselle and Qi Huan as Albrecht, the night was a smashing success.
Even Stiefel, the next day, says he was like a proud father, watching from the dress circle above.
"It made me realise that right now, I was watching a company that deserves to be seen on an international stage." Stiefel has danced in Giselle "dozens and dozens" of times in the past 16 years. "It was how they brought it to life last night - the reaction to that was one of the most special moments for me."
Well then, I think as I leave the theatre, I guess I wasn't such bad luck after all.
I even felt as if I served a purpose - I bet those dancers just needed a little comic relief.
Giselle will be at the Civic Theatre in Invercargill on November 20 and 21.
- The Southland Times