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What does a ballet mistress do?

The traditional image of a ballet mistress is of a harsh disciplinarian, but the reality is somewhat different.

By Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer)

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.

Read more about life after dancing

This article has 7 comments

  1. Jon W. responded on 14 March 2017 at 10:41am Reply

    I saw the performance of the Nutcracker last December, unbelievable!! You have no idea how talented and passionate these dancers are.

  2. Rita Bandirali responded on 14 March 2017 at 6:04pm Reply

    Very interesting description. Thank you so much for sharing!
    I usually come to the ROH once or twice a year from Italy to see ballet shows; last time it was not planned and I happened to see a Sleeping Beauty performance starring Osipova. In my opinion she was , disappointingly far from what is required as Aurora , in terms of style. If these cases happen, can you discuss with the dancers about their performance ? It must be a difficult job !!

  3. Elena Lazareva responded on 16 March 2017 at 4:59pm Reply

    Dear Rita.
    I saw the Sleeping Beauty five times in this season, three of these performances - with Natasha.
    Can not agree with you: Natasha was wonderful, adorable, perfect. My opinion shared the most people from audience.
    I wish you can come to London more often to see a difference.
    I would only agree with you about the LilacFairy's performing: I can give her 3 stars only.
    All the best.

    • Rita Bandirali responded on 21 March 2017 at 4:31pm

      Dear Elena,
      thank you for sharing your opinion with me.
      I a way I agree with you: Osipova is a wonderful dancer; the only problem , in my opinion , is that she dances everything as herself - there are no differences if she is supposed to be Aurora, or Kitri, or Giselle, or whatever. I have seen her in different roles in Italy ( Teatro alla Scala): she is brilliant but I would like to see more from her -and sometime less excess.
      But we all search for different things in a dancer , I suppose.
      I think you are too good in your evaluation of the Lilac Fairy performance that evening- she simply could not stand.... a really bad evening for her !!
      I only wish I could be more often in London - that would be fantastic... To see Osipova and all the very good dancers of the RB. Lucky you , that can go and see them often !! Kind regards, Rita

  4. Natasha Tobin responded on 18 March 2017 at 2:08pm Reply

    Ballet mistresses are highly motivating for dancers and amazingly talented people - it's good to see the practice evolving, especially with the complexity of new works. The Royal Ballet dance beautifully - I've seen breathtaking work with you recently! I will always be grateful to the ROH's Romayne Grigorova and the warmth of her teaching and her ability to pass on the interpretation of each movement. It's something I still go back to today. x

    • David Edwards responded on 23 June 2017 at 9:24pm

      How wonderful to see Romayne's exceptional long-service to the RB and also as ballet mistress for the RO rewarded at last with an MBE in the Birthday Honours! A great tribute to a remarkable and much loved lady.

  5. It's so great to see that the emphasis is now on a more nurturing style of coaching! Young ballet dancers, and women in particular, get unrelenting pressure already and it is vital to keep them mentally as well as physically at peak performance. Girls are still trained by our culture to think they are not truly worthy as whole human beings, and that their main value lies in their looks. We have to break that thinking pattern by nurturing our young girls so that they not only succeed at ballet, but they're truly happy and fulfilled while doing it. :-)

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