Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

How discipline of ballet helped me to raise the barre

Next time the ballet comes to town, go and take a little girl with you. Or, if you can coax him, a little boy.

One of the joys in life is taking a young child to the ballet. I was lucky enough to be taken to see Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev perform together as a schoolgirl, when I was smitten by the magic of ballet.

My fascination with ballet started when I was about 10 and was prompted by a child's book about the fabled Russian dancer Anna Pavlova.

Dancers should start at six or seven, so I was already too late to hope to be a ballerina, and anyway I had no talent. But my brother James, on his modest wages, paid for me to attend ballet lessons.

Everyone else in the family thought it inappropriate to indulge such a childish whim. And yet, I am so grateful I had that experience, because – even if ballet lessons don't make you a ballet dancer – they may introduce you to a lifetime's enchantment.

And, however galumping you are at the barre, ballet lessons impart other lessons which go beyond the poetry of movement that is dance.

For you come to understand that the finished performance of a professional dancer is based on relentless discipline. Watch a prima ballerina perform the famous 32 fouettes in Act II of Swan Lake – pirouetting on one leg so that her body performs 32 consecutive turns, without pausing. It is one of the most awesome and thrilling experiences to behold.

Ballet's metaphor is that nothing worthwhile can be accomplished without constant discipline and eternal application. The great ballet teachers are notorious for their insistence on absolute standards: Dame Ninette de Valois, the Wicklow woman who founded the Royal Ballet, was a ruthless disciplinarian. Beryl Grey, the veteran dancer, told me that even the star dancers were terrified of her.

Ballet is a globalised art and most ballet companies now have an international cast.

In a world that increasingly uses English as the international language, ballet, like cooking, is still rooted in French. Invented at the court of Louis XIV, around 1661, and though it has Italian, Danish and Russian influences, its language remains French. Perhaps in a fast-changing world, the traditionalism and continuity of the classical ballet is reassuring.

Ballet has proved impervious to political upheaval: it could have died at the time of the French revolution; it certainly might have been expected to perish at the time of the Russian revolution.

However wicked Stalin was, he, nevertheless sustained – even championed – the Russian ballets. Even as the old monster was murdering aristocrats and tearing down churches, Stalin still paid tribute to the ballet. A ballet dancer in the USSR was a very privileged person.

To the dancer, the history of the ballet is a living organism: the dancer reveres all who have come before, from Marie Taglioni, the first modern ballerina, in the 1830s, and the great choreographers who have mapped out the steps they will dance today, in works such as Giselle.

The continuity of ballet is maintained through the tradition of teacher and pupil. Tamara Karsavina created the role in The Firebird in 1910; she later coached Margot Fonteyn, who later coached Monica Mason, who later coached Darcey Bussell, who is coaching young dancers now.

The ballet thrilled me in childhood and the pleasure is repeated now when I take my small granddaughters to ballet.

And, thinking about its traditions, its disciplines, its dedication and its beauty, I feel I am still benefiting from ballet lessons.

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