13 March 2017 at 3.35pm | 7 Comments
The ballet mistress sounds like a rather old-fashioned job title. But the role is vital in any ballet company.
Every dancer in The Royal Ballet must know the repertory inside and out – and it’s the ballet mistress’s job to make sure the corps de ballet is schooled to perfection. The traditional image of a ballet mistress is of a harsh, stick-wielding disciplinarian, but the reality is somewhat different - with an emphasis on welfare and a coaching (rather than authoritarian) approach.
It’s no surprise that the ballet mistress is usually a former dancer; understanding the minute precision required to dance in pointe shoes is an important part of passing choreography onto the next generation.
Presently tasked with this feat is Samantha Raine, who became Ballet Mistress for The Royal Ballet at the young age of 32. She wasn’t quite done with dancing – but when the opportunity arose five Seasons ago she applied and, to her surprise, was appointed.
What does a typical day entail for a ballet mistress?
I’ll be in studio for six hours a day – usually until 6pm or 5.30pm if there’s a performance. I’ll then check-in with the dancers 30 minutes before curtain up before taking my seat in the auditorium to watch the performance. The dancers like to be told corrections and ways they can improve their performance, so I’ll give a few notes after each show to ensure that their dancing stays at a high standard.
How do you teach choreography?
Choreography is written down using Benesh Notation but I prefer to use my own notes and drawings to help me teach it.
A new dancer will have to learn a lot of ballet in their first few years. I usually start new dancers off with a big corps de ballet number. Often students of The Royal Ballet Upper School will join, so they can slowly pick up the patterns and counts in the choreography.
In rehearsals with the rest of the Company, I focus on the fine details like eye-line and arm height. Keeping straight lines and order is an essential part of a strong corps de ballet. I then have to push the dancers to increase their stamina so they can handle the run of performances on stage.
How long does it take a dancer to learn new choreography?
Four to eight weeks, depending on how many ballets they might be working on at the same time. I’ll probably be teaching four different ballets at once.
What are you working on at the moment?
In The Sleeping Beauty, I'm working with the corps de ballet on the lilac attendants, friends and nymphs. I'm also rehearsing the fairy solos and am working with dancers in the role of Prince Florimund. The Sleeping Beauty is a challenge for everyone whatever rank you are because the choreography is purely classical and this can reveal the tiniest of flaws. To achieve this classical purity, I have to get the dancers to go back to basics and ‘dig back’ to classroom technique.
What’s the biggest challenge of your role?
Making sure that everyone is happy. Dancers' careers are full of highs and lows and most will always want to do more. I need to make sure dancers don’t burn themselves out.
And the most rewarding thing?
Seeing the dancers' professionalism and to watch their improvement from rehearsal to the first performance can be very rewarding. The whole Company wants to strive for perfection and we constantly push until we get there.