A ballet dress rehearsal

by Rob Tiller

As part of our contribution to the Carolina Ballet, we’re sponsoring the pointe shoes of one of the dancers.  Ballet is not ballet without pointe shoes, and professional dancers go through them so quickly that they become a major budget item.  The ballerina we’re sponsoring, Lola Cooper, invited us to a dress rehearsal last Thursday for a program where she had a significant solo.

It turned out that Sally and I were the only non-company people there.  The rehearsal was in Fletcher, a small but elegant hall, where we had the best seats in the house.  It’s rare to see performers in the state of being in between simple practice and performance.  From my high school days at the N.C. School of the Arts, I was familiar with the basic ideas, but it was interesting to see how these artists used the precious time when the show is imminent.  The dancers at times left off steps and did simple blocking, getting a feel for the surface and space of the stage, the lights, and their costumes.  Ricky Weiss shouted a few specific directions during the run throughs, and after each piece went on stage to discuss refinements.

While we waited for Lola’s piece, we talked with our friend Ginny about other dancers struggling to succeed as artists and to get by.  For those just starting out, the wages are tiny, and for the more experienced, they are low.  There’s a huge disconnect between the inherent value of the artistry of these professionals, the amount of physical and emotional effort required for their art, and the economic rewards.  It’s depressing that their brilliant work is priced at a fraction of that of, say, professional baseball or football players (or doctors, accountants, or lawyers).   For those of us who care about ballet, it’s a reminder that we are a struggling minority, while the majority places little value on the art.

At the same time, the disconnect is a reminder that money is far from the only reason for work.  Artists almost by definition are pursuing something outside the realm of the senses, something beyond the everyday.  They explore these other realms and share with the rest of us their discoveries.  These deeper levels of feeling and meaning have no well-developed markets — there’s no effective system of pricing them in dollars.  But humans have engaged in this type of artistic commerce for thousands of years, and they keep on doing it.  This is an admirable characteristic of the species, and a cheering fact.  This does not, however, mean we shouldn’t worry about getting our dancers a living wage.  It’s in our best interest that they be well nourished, well clothed, in safe quarters,with reliable transportation, and with enough left over to have some fun.  Happy, healthy dancers are good for us.

At the rehearsal, Ricky introduced us to his wife and prima ballerina Melissa Podcasy, and  I felt really honored.  I’ve been very moved by so many of her great performances over the years (among others, Juliet, Carmen, the wife in the Kreutzer Sonata, the woman who yearns in Carmina Burana).  We talked a bit about our cats.  At the pauses, she worked with the performers.

Lola’s piece, from Balanchine’s Raymonda, was last.  She came out of the gate very strong.  Her jumps were big, and she had great quickness and speed.  Her solo was long and arduous, and after several minutes the strain was showing.  We talked for a few minutes afterward, when she was still breathing hard, and she was thinking about improvements.  She’ll be great.