The corps of the Paris Opéra Ballet perform the Kingdom of the Shades scene from La Bayadère. Little Shao, Courtesy POB

A Year Into the Pandemic, What Is the Future of the Corps de Ballet? Here's Why It Matters.

Occasionally, in my dreams, I relive the entrance of the Shades from La Bayadère. From the quiet, hypnotic buildup of arabesques snaking down the stage to the prayerlike moment when the entire corps de ballet freezes in a front tendu, arms crossed and eyes turned upwards, it is where my mind goes for rest and contemplation, more so than any extraordinary variation.

A year into the pandemic, large-scale ensembles are also what I've missed the most on the ballet stage. As COVID safety protocols prevented dancers in many countries from gathering in large groups, when companies were able to deliver livestreams or performances with limited audiences, they have favored gala-style excerpts and smaller works—leaving aside a core strength of the classical repertoire.

Taken out of context, however, a lot of gala staples start to feel like technique contests. In longer productions, ensemble scenes offer contrast and scale; between variations and pas de deux, they allow viewers to take a step back and grasp the architecture of the world being built onstage. I've found myself longing to see William Forsythe's Artifact or John Neumeier's Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler again—to take in, once more, the sweep and chess-like complexity of works that make full use of ballet's resources.

Bringing so many people together now seems daunting, leaving corps dancers in limbo. While some principals and soloists have been called upon to deliver miniatures, or have the name recognition to get other projects going, many of their colleagues lower down the ranks have felt bereft without their regular workloads. "Of course I've missed it," says Fanny Gorse, a sujet at the Paris Opéra Ballet. "When rehearsals go well, when you're in the studio and have that group emulation, it's such a special feeling."

Being back in the studio lately to rehearse Angelin Preljocaj's Le Parc, even without public performances, has helped. "You're not necessarily going to go on holiday with your colleagues, but you have your rehearsal friends," she says. "It makes me feel younger. You're working, but you're having fun."

Maintaining a large corps de ballet isn't cheap. Cost-cutting measures already forced a number of companies to downsize in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis; the extent of the permanent layoffs triggered by the pandemic has yet to become clear, but some employers, like The Royal Ballet, have offered voluntary redundancy to dancers. (Out of the five who took it at The Royal, four were corps members.)

In that sense, the situation may yet compound the trend towards shorter works involving fewer dancers. As part of my PhD, I built a database of all the ballets created by four major companies (the Paris Opéra Ballet, New York City Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet and English National Ballet) between 2000 and 2016. Out of 196 works in total, 87 percent were one-act ballets; despite the companies' size, the average number of dancers involved in new works was 18.

Very few creations employed what we might consider a large corps de ballet: 38 percent offered only soloist parts, and just under 20 percent had a corps of over 20 dancers.

There are reasons beyond the budget for choreographers' reluctance to work with large ensembles. First, many choreographers are freelancers who travel from company to company, and working with a small cast is easier when you're not familiar with all the dancers. Facing a big group in the studio and taking a range of bodies into account also requires different skills from a one-on-one rehearsal.

For dancemakers who favor an improvisation-driven process, the mathematical dimension of complex corps work can be a turnoff. According to Nikolai Legat, Marius Petipa worked with chess-like pieces to map out patterns in advance for his large-scale tableaux; similarly, the choreographer and former Paris Opéra Ballet étoile Jean-Guillaume Bart worked out the way his lines of corps dancers would travel and intersect on paper ahead of time when he reinvented La Source in 2011.

And in the studio, managing dozens of people is no walk in the park. As Crystal Pite told me for Pointe in 2016, "there's a whole aspect to the craft of choreography that involves directing and leading a group of people. And it's like dancing: You need to practice, to work on being a leader."

Before the pandemic, Pite led a small revival of ensemble-driven choreography in the ballet world, with successful productions including Flight Pattern (at The Royal Ballet) and The Seasons' Canon (for the Paris Opéra). For the latter, which featured a 54-strong cast, she worked out some of the choreography in advance with students in Vancouver.

Will that revival endure? The appeal of so many bodies coming together and breathing as one may be even stronger when all restrictions are lifted, but ballet companies would do well to work harder at capitalizing on it. Teaching young choreographers the tricks of the trade would be a good start.

Latest Posts

The author, Lucy Van Cleef, dancing Balanchine's Serenade at Los Angeles Ballet. Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy Los Angeles Ballet

My 12-Year Journey to a Bachelor’s Degree While Dancing Professionally

If you'd have told me in 2009 that it would take 12 years to earn my bachelor's degree, I never would have believed you. Back then, I was a dancer in my early 20s and in my second year with Los Angeles Ballet. I was used to the straightforward demands of the professional ballet world. I knew that hard work and willpower were the currency you paid in the studio, and that the thrill of live performance made all that investment worth it. What I didn't know then is how life's twists and turns aren't always so straightforward. In hindsight, I can see how my winding road to higher education has strengthened me—and my relationship with the ballet world—more than I ever could have imagined.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Margaret Severin-Hansen, teaches class at Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. Cindy McEnery, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

7 Tips for Making the Most of Your Summer Intensive

Last summer many intensives were canceled or online-only. And the past school year has been spotty and strange for many, as well. All the more reason to look forward to an in-person summer program this year with excitement—but also, perhaps, some nerves. Take heart, says Simon Ball, men's program coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. "Once you get there the first day, all those fears will be relieved."

Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

New Documentary "When I’m Her" Shows How Madame Olga’s Positive Affirmations Can Transform Ballet

Michael "Mikey" Cusumano was a rising star at American Ballet Theatre in the 1990s, joining the company at 15 years old and dancing principal roles by age 16. But the high pressure of ballet proved detrimental to his emotional and mental well-being. "I couldn't find the joy in ballet anymore," says Cusumano.

After 10 years as a professional ballet dancer, Cusumano transitioned to Broadway, where his alter ego, a sparkly-turban–wearing Russian ballet instructor named Madame Olga, was able to fully emerge. In Madame Olga, Cusumano became the ballet teacher he wished he had growing up. While Olga's classes feature the same technical rigor as any other intermediate-advanced ballet class, they also incorporate her signature humor and positive affirmations. It's common for Madame Olga's students to vocalize those affirmations while dancing (for example, saying "love" out loud while doing an adagio combination).

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks