How It's Done: A Test Of Technique

Stepping up to the challenges of Le Corsaire’s third Odalisque variation.
Published in the August/September 2011 issue.

The Washington Ballet’s Kara Cooper finds sous-sus in the air during the opening series of assemblés battu

Photo by Theo Kossenas

The three Odalisques of Le Corsaire are nameless, their backstories unknown. Yet their pas de trois contains some of the ballet’s best-known variations. Lankendem, a slave trader, shows off his selection of Odalisques (lower-level female slaves who serve as assistants to concubines and wives) to the powerful pasha, hoping that he will buy some for his harem. As he presents the Odalisques, each one performs a variation in an attempt to impress the pasha. The third Odalisque’s solo is often considered the most challenging: Packed with multiple pirouettes, jumps and step-up turns, it requires rock-solid technique and inner resilience.

“You need a lot of mental strength to get through the choreography,” says Monique Meunier, a ballet mistress for The Washington Ballet, who danced the role while a soloist with American Ballet Theatre and recently coached it for TWB’s production of Le Corsaire. She warns that tackling the technical heaviness of this variation requires more than talent. “You have to practice it every single day,” she says, adding that dancers can’t take their technique for granted. “When you work on it daily, it becomes a part of you.”

Start Off Strong
The variation gets down to business from the very beginning with a series of huge glissade assemblés battu. “You don’t get much preparation,” says Meunier. “It’s not like you’re starting from the corner with a failli. You just tendu, plié on your back leg and go.”

Pay attention to the timing of the battu. Meunier often sees dancers try to beat their assemblés before establishing a sous-sus position in the air. “You need to get in the air first and close the legs in fifth as fast as possible,” she says. “Then you can beat back-front on the way down. Once the first leg crosses, the rest is easy.”

Dancers must also remember their épaulement. “A lot of people stay very flat because they’re thinking about the jump,” says Meunier. Instead, angle your body into an effacé position at the height of the assemblé. “Remember, you have to look pretty as you’re doing it.” 

Get In The Zone

After the assemblés, the music swells dramatically to signal the variation’s most nerve-wracking section: a demanding series of arabesques into multiple pirouettes. Attacking each relevé arabesque is crucial for the subsequent pirouette’s success. “That’s where you find your center,” says Meunier. “If you creep into the arabesque, it’s going to make the pirouette impossible. You have to be on your leg in the arabesque, or else you won’t be able to find it in the turn. Really commit.”

Finding an internal rhythm—and sticking to it—is imperative to nailing the
double or triple pirouettes that follow each arabesque. Dancers need to block out any distractions at this point. “Anything that gets into your head might mess with your internal rhythm,” says Meunier. “This is where your mental power comes in: Like a basketball player shooting free-throws, you have to ignore everything and just zone in. It’s almost meditational—try to hear your own heartbeat.”

Tricky Finish
Even if you execute the pirouette section flawlessly, you’re not out of the woods yet. The variation finishes with a final diagonal of step-up turns. Dancers often throw themselves off by overcrossing their piqué leg during the turn. “I used to think of my left toe replacing my right heel,” says Meunier. “It doesn’t literally happen, but just the thought would keep me from overcrossing.”

A stable upper body also helps, with the port de bras originating from the back muscles. “It’s almost as if you have wings,” Meunier says. “If you think of your arms coming from your back, your torso will be very strong, enabling you to move as a whole and not in pieces.”

Make An Impression

None of the Odalisques are well-developed characters, which can make their artistic portrayal a little challenging. Keep in mind that an Odalisque is a slave, and therefore subservient, but not necessarily meek or downtrodden. Her ultimate goal is to raise her social status by becoming a concubine or wife. “Walking on, you should feel like an auditioner for the pasha,” says Meunier. “You are showing off through your technique, hoping to be chosen.”

Wearing a megawatt smile would not be appropriate for a slave under pressure—remember, she probably feels nervous inside. “You’re allowed to look focused,” says Meunier. “The third Odalisque is the most stoic of the three. There’s joy in her face, but it’s not over the top.”