Inside the Life of Corps Dancer Caroline Bird

Stattsballett Berlin's Caroline Bird. Photo by Alice Williamson, courtesy Bird.

Ever wonder what life is like as a corps de ballet dancer in a major company? While principals and soloists get all of the glory, dancing in the corps has a special beauty all its own—and takes just as much work. Isabel Garcìa, a dancer with the National Dance Company of Mexico, spoke with Caroline Bird, an American corps de ballet member of the Staatsballett Berlin, about the joys and struggles of her rank.

What role do you think a corps de ballet plays in a national company?

Without the corps de ballet, each ballet would be a series of variations and pas de deux—not whole stories, but mere episodes of relationships. We represent a group of characters that, stewed together, form the flavor of the company. The soloists and principals are the icing and firecrackers on the cake, which glimmers atop the structure and foundation of the corps.

Who makes up the women’s corps at Staatsballett Berlin?

We’re 24 women from all different countries, backgrounds and experiences. In rehearsals and performances, we work to incorporate each girl’s strengths to create one illustrious heartbeat. We dance and work together as a family and nurture each other in difficult moments.

What’s your typical day like?

We usually have class from 10:30 to 11:45 every morning. I get there early to have a full hour to warm up. Then we rehearse from 12 to 2:00, which is either a series of small rehearsals or whole acts of ballets. After a midday break, we have more rehearsals from 2:45 to 6:15. On an average day, without a performance, I work about eight hours.

How do you prepare for performances?

I like to get to the theater early so I can get into character with hair and makeup first, give myself barre and practice the key steps. If we’re doing Swan Lake, I head down to watch the entrance of Odette, which always instills the beauty of the story within me. Then it’s time to jump around and get pumped up to go onstage and let the music take me into the story.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a corps dancer?

The most challenging part for me is to not feel invisible. To find my way of standing out without sticking out. It’s difficult not to feel lost at times. Also, we’re greatly responsible for ourselves in so many ways. No one is going to take the time to coach each individual corps member on what isn't looking the best. Plus, your contribution to the group as a whole is crucial—if you are late, out of line or make a mistake, it can have a domino effect. It’s a lot of responsibility.

You often have to pose onstage for long periods of time while the principals are dancing. What do you think about when you're waiting for your turn to dance?

One of the hardest parts of being in the corps de ballet is standing perfectly still. We’re acting as decoration to the soloists while we’re dripping sweat and out of breath. I usually have to sing the music in my head to stop the muscle cramps and discomfort from taking over. In the worst moments, when I think, “I can't hold it any more,” that’s when I have to dig deep inside and fight. But these are the moments of sacrifice that we give for the magical moments of dancing.

Bird in The Nutcracker. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Bird.

What is the most difficult ballet you've danced, and why?


Some ballets are exhausting because you don't stop dancing and have lots of quick changes, like Boris Eifman's Tchaikovsky. Swan Lake is stressful because of all the standing still and technicality and pointework. But La Bayadère is the most challenging for me because it targets my weaknesses.
The Shades scene pushes my flexibility and extensions to the maximum, and any wobbling is instantly obvious. The pressure of coming down a 30-foot ramp and doing 20-something arabesques simultaneously with the girls in front of you is frightening—all my nerves are on edge until the adagio section is over.

What do you enjoy most about dancing in the corps de ballet?

When you watch a corps de ballet performing completely synchronized, it’s absolutely breathtaking. Touching people with how we create magical artwork with our bodies and move as one—this is why I love my job. It’s the reward for all our hard work.

 

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

Latest Posts


Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

2020 Stars of the Corps: 10 Dancers Making Strides In and Out of the Spotlight

The corps de ballet make up the backbone of every company. In our Fall 2020 issue, we highlighted 10 ensemble standouts to keep your eye on. Click on their names to learn more!

Dara Holmes, Joffrey Ballet

A male dancer catches a female dancer in his right arm as she wraps her left arm around his shoulder and executes a high arabesque on pointe. Both wear white costumes and dance in front of a blue backdrop onstage.

Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in Myles Thatcher's Body of Your Dreams

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Wanyue Qiao, American Ballet Theatre

Wearing a powder blue tutu, cropped light yellow top and feather tiara, Wanyue Qiao does a piqu\u00e9 retir\u00e9 on pointe on her left leg and pulls her right arm in towards her.

Wanyue Qiao as an Odalisque in Konstantin Sergeyev's Le Corsaire

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Houston Ballet

Three male dancers in tight-fitting, multicolored costumes stand in positions of ascending height from left to right. All extend their right arms out in front of them.

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson (far right) with Saul Newport and Austen Acevedo in Oliver Halkowich's Following

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Leah McFadden, Colorado Ballet

Wearing a white pixie wig and a short light-pink tunic costume, a female ballet dancer poses in attitude front on pointe with her left arm bent across her ribs and her right hand held below her chin.

Leah McFadden as Amour in Colorado Ballet's production of Don Quixote

Mike Watson, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

Maria Coelho, Tulsa Ballet

Maria Coelho and Sasha Chernjavsky in Andy Blankenbuehler's Remember Our Song

Kate Lubar, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Alexander Reneff-Olson, San Francisco Ballet

A ballerina in a black feathered tutu stands triumphantly in sous-sus, holding the hand of a male dancer in a dark cloak with feathers underneath who raises his left hand in the air.

Alexander Reneff-Olson (right) as Von Rothbart with San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan in Swan Lake

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

India Bradley, New York City Ballet

Wearing a blue dance dress with rhinestone embellishments and a sparkly tiara, India Bradley finishes a move with her arms out to the side and hands slightly flexed.

India Bradley practices backstage before a performance of Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Bella Ureta, Cincinnati Ballet

Wearing a white dress with pink corset, Bella Ureta does a first arabesque on pointe in front of an onstage stone wall.

Bella Ureta performs the Act I Pas de Trois in Kirk Peterson's Swan Lake

Hiromi Platt, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Alejándro Gonzales, Oklahoma City Ballet

Dressed in a green bell-boy costume and hat, Alejandro Gonz\u00e1lez does a saut\u00e9 with his left leg in retir\u00e9 and his arms in a long diagonal from right to left. Other dancers in late 19-century period costumes watch him around the stage.

Alejandro González in Michael Pink's Dracula at Oklahoma City Ballet.

Kate Luber, Courtesy Oklahoma City Ballet

Nina Fernandes, Miami City Ballet

Wearing a long white tutu and crown, Nina Fernandes does a saut de chat in front of a wintery backdrop as snow falls from the top of the stage.

Nina Fernandes in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

#TBT: Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre in "Thaïs Pas De Deux" (2008)

When Sir Frederick Ashton premiered Thaïs Pas de Deux, a duet set to the "Méditation" interlude from Jules Massenet's opera Thaïs, the ballet was immediately acclaimed as one of his masterpieces, despite the fact that it is only a few minutes long. In this clip from 2008, Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre, then principals of the Bavarian State Ballet, give a tender, enchanting performance that is six-and-a-half minutes of pure beauty.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Courtesy Carrie Gaerte, modeled by 2020 Butler University graduate Michela Semenza

Concussions Are More Than a Bump on the Head. Here's What Dancers Need to Know

Your partner accidentally drops you during a lift. You collide head-on with another dancer in rehearsal. Or you're hit in the face while you're spotting a turn. Even if you didn't lose consciousness, you may have a concussion, which can occur from a direct blow to the head or rotary force of the brain moving excessively or striking the skull.

As a dancer, your first instinct may be to keep going, but you shouldn't, says physical therapist and athletic trainer Carrie Gaerte, PT, DPT, ATC, who works with Butler University in Indianapolis and at Ascension St. Vincent Sports Performance. "What's really hard for dancers is admitting that maybe something isn't right," she says. "But the big thing about concussions is that your brain is not like your ankle, shoulder or knee. When your brain has an injury, that needs to take precedence over a role or a job."

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks