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.
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.