With its spectacular turns, balances, extensions and signature tambourine the female variation from La Esmeralda’s Act II pas de deux is a competition staple—despite the ballet’s virtual disappearance from today’s repertoires. Based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris (or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), La Esmeralda tells the tragic story of a beautiful French gypsy betrayed by her first love, Captain Phoebus, and protected by the disfigured Quasimodo.
The tambourine variation was added to Jules Perrot’s original choreography when Petipa revived the ballet for the Imperial Maryinsky Theatre in 1866. Because the ballet is a hodge-podge of additions by various composers and choreographers, there are conflicting accounts of where the tambourine variation actually falls in the ballet, and its context within the story is unclear. Nonetheless, dancers who do it well know to make it more than just a showcase for exciting tricks.
Get into Character
In part because the full-length La Esmeralda is so rarely performed, most young dancers aren’t as familiar with the role as they are with Aurora or Kitri. Esmeralda’s character is a complex combination of youthful inexperience and a gypsy bloodline. “You have to show her passion and still her innocence,” says Valentina Kozlova, founder of the Boston International Ballet Competition, who has coached several dancers at her school in New York in the variation. “This character is not so different from first act Giselle: It’s the same first love. Yes, Esmeralda is a hot-blooded gypsy, but she is still innocent in this love.”
It is partly because of this complexity that Kozlova won’t coach the variation to dancers younger than 15 or 16. “There are some things that young people are simply not emotionally ready for,” she warns. Dancers need to possess a certain level of maturity and experience in order to capture Esmeralda’s duality of character. “Esmeralda is seductive, but you want to be beautiful and appealing without being vulgar. It’s a thin line.” Kozlova advises focusing the gypsy flair in your épaulement rather than your hips to avoid looking tawdry.
Smooth out the Turns
The first great technical hurdle in the variation is a piqué turn en dedans that lands in fourth position and goes directly into a pirouette. In order to be properly prepared for the pirouette, your landing out of the piqué has to be smooth—and it should look effortless. “Finish the piqué by coming off pointe through demi-pointe. That allows you to slow down and focus on preparing for your next turn,” say Kozlova.
She coaches her dancers to keep their hips square with a straight line from the shoulders to the toe of the supporting leg in fourth position. Resist the temptation to get comfortable during the transition and then wind up into a cyclone the pirouettes. “The moment you put your heel down you have to take off again,” she says. “And yes, it is hard, but that is the ultimate success of it.”
Tackle The Tambourine
Perhaps one of the most daunting challenges of this variation is the jingling prop that you have to tote onstage with you. As a gypsy, Esmeralda’s tambourine is a vital aspect of her performance and, therefore, her livelihood. “It’s in her blood to pick up her tambourine and perform for people,” says Kozlova. You must be completely comfortable with the instrument—it should look like a natural part of your dancing. At the same time, make sure to place it carefully and deliberately, with the white side of the tambourine always facing the audience. “It doesn’t matter if you’re doing three pirouettes or how high you’re kicking your leg,” Kozlova says, “you have to be aware of how you present the tambourine to the audience.”
A poorly handled tambourine is one of the more frustrating mistakes Kozlova sees. “Dancers smack it as hard as they can to get the loudest sound,” she complains. “You have to know when to shake the tambourine and when to hit it, without being loud or aggressive like you are going to break down a door.” Remember that, in addition to dancing, you’re actually part of the music.
The Big Finish
Perhaps the best known set of steps in this variation is the final diagonal where Esmeralda playfully kicks the tambourine in her outstretched hand. We’ve all seen the videos and heard stories of girls effortlessly tapping the tambourine above their head. It’s an impressive feat, but Kozlova has seen it backfire. “Dancers want so much to get their leg up high, but their standing knee is parallel,” she says. Only lift your leg as high as you can without raising your working hip. Focus on bringing the heel of your standing leg forward each time you plié. It is also essential that the working leg be turned out when you’re in plié. As Kozlova says, “It’s the ABCs of ballet; you have to be turned out. If you’re not, it’s not called ballet.”