Behind the scenes: Rehearsing La Bayadère’s Kingdom of the Shades
Ballet Mistress Samantha Raine on learning one of the most enduring sequences of classical ballet.
The Kingdom of the Shades, Act III of Petipa’s La Bayadère, is one of the most celebrated moments in classical ballet. Mesmerizing and dream-like, the sequence involves the entire corps de ballet dancing across the stage in perfect unison. The dance, which reflects Solor’s opium-fuelled hallucination, demands absolute synchronization and is one of the ultimate tests for the dancers. Ballet Mistress Samantha Raine is currently in the middle of rehearsals. We caught up with her to find out more.
Why is The Kingdom of the Shades so well known?
It’s famous for the entrance of the 24 shades, where the girls perform a series of 39 arabesques. This is followed by a difficult adage sequence where they need to breathe and dance as one. It’s beautiful when you see it and looks stunning when all of the girls appear from behind the cloth.
How do you go about preparing the corps de ballet for such a sequence?
We start by teaching each step with the music so that everyone knows exactly how it works musically: when you step, when you lift your leg to the arabesque, which way you look, which way your arm goes – all of the details. Then, the challenge is getting everyone in line.
At the start of the sequence, the dancers enter via a ramp. We can rehearse most things in the studios, but unfortunately there is no ramp to practice on. We will only have about three or four stage calls for La Bayadère, and the dancers will have to get used to balancing on the ramp, and to the lights shining in their eyes.
I think it is one of the hardest dances for the corps de ballet nerve-wise. There are lots of holds and arabesques, and you just have to be really calm. It’s the most nervous you can get with that many people on stage because if one person puts their leg down or wobbles, your eye goes straight to that person. Also, you’re in tutus so there’s no hiding anything!
The girls are already thinking ahead, and lots of them are working hard in pilates classes to get extra strength in their ankles to prevent any wobbling. As a dancer, you know what’s in the rep and it’s up to you to be at your best.
I know from dancing the different roles that it was probably one of the scariest as a corps de ballet. However, it’s very rewarding afterwards when you know everyone has danced as one and in a team.
How do the dancers keep time and achieve these perfectly straight lines and formations?
It’s a case of watching each other to make sure you’re in line. Your eyes have to go both ways – forwards and sideways – to check you are in line in both directions. It’s just practice really. To help achieve the straight lines, there will always be markings on the stage – tape is used to mark a centre line and lines from the centre to the wing, and to achieve unison, it is largely musical. Perhaps most of all, you have to be watching all the time.
Choreographer Natalia Makarova said: ‘In this ballet the corps de ballet is the leading role and each member of it should feel like a ballerina. Yet the corps must always work together as a unified whole, they must dance and breathe as one’. How do you achieve this delicate balance?
Everyone is working together and no one wants to let anyone else down, but you also need to feel special. If you feel you are just one of 24, it doesn’t work because you’ll never get the right atmosphere or the right mood. You always need to work thinking that you are the only person on stage.