For almost a year, Principal Artist Ty King-Wall has been taking class in his garage, along with his wife and fellow Principal Artist Amber Scott. During the COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne our studios have been closed, and our dancers have been training in their homes, keeping their technique honed and their fitness high for our return to the stage. Here are Ty's tips for stay-at-home ballet.
Want to take class with Ty from the comfort of your own loungeroom? We've rereleased his At Home with Studios masterclass - enjoy!
How do you warm up?
The great thing about class is that it is designed to warm you up as you go. The structure of class means the enchaînements build in speed, height of the leg, and difficulty as you progress. So don’t overdo the warm-up, leave some gas in the tank for the class itself! In saying that, don’t do nothing and come in cold or unprepared: a good warm-up is about knowing your body, and what you need to begin class mentally and physically ready.
The Artistic Health team has all the dancers doing calf rises. Any tips on these?
In company class, we do calf rises between barre and centre, mainly because everyone forgets to do them otherwise! Personally, I prefer doing them during my warm-up before class, after barre makes me feel a little fatigued and shaky coming into those first few centre exercises. The time of day you do calf rises is less important than just making sure you’re doing them daily, to improve that endurance. At the moment, because we aren’t able to do as much in class as we usually would, and because we aren’t rehearsing or performing, I’m aware my fitness is quite down, so I’m trying to incorporate a bit more cross-training into my routine. I’m doing a mixture of cycling, skipping with a jump rope, and a program of running up and down stairs given to me by the Artistic Health team, and I’ve found that works quite well either before class as part of my warm-up, or straight after class.
Photography Daniel Boud
What’s it like doing classes with an infant around?
Ha ha, impossible! It just doesn’t work. Unless you have kids that are happy to sit in the corner and read for hours on end, but ours prefers running in circles, climbing on the barre, climbing up the walls … she does love a dance though! So we alternate, I do class in the morning, and then when I put Bonnie down for her afternoon nap, Amber does her class. Because we usually do it in that order, Bonnie never sees Amber doing class, so I’m pretty sure she thinks only dada does ballet, which is kind of hilarious!
What's the ideal height for a make-shift barre?
Judge it from when you’re standing on demi-pointe: if you’re reaching down to lean on it it’s too low, if you’re reaching up to hang off it that’s too high. A touch above waist height is probably about right. Remembering of course that it’s just there for a little bit of light guidance and support, not to do the exercise for you. If you’re using a chair or a stool, make sure you have something to weight it down with, unless you’re happy taking it for a waltz around your lounge!
How can we modify class to adapt to a small space?
Hopefully you have enough room to do barre relatively unrestricted. If not, angling away from and towards the barre, using effacé and écarté, is a good way to avoid obstacles, as long as you’re being really aware of the alignment of your body. If lifting your legs is difficult in the space you have, absolutely go to town on all your a terre movements: pliés, rises, tendus, rond de jambe, you can never spend too much time on your footwork. Obviously centre work, pirouettes and allegro are going to be compromised taking class from home. I find doing shorter exercises and more of them, that ‘hero’ a particular step, is an effective work-around. And don’t neglect your port de bras: it’s the first thing to tighten up when space is restricted, and just because we can’t travel, doesn’t mean we can’t move.
Has keeping to a regular training schedule helped you during lockdown?
Absolutely, it’s crucial to maintain a sense of normality (relatively speaking!) it’s easy to say if you have a toddler who wakes up at 6am, but I like getting class, body conditioning/Pilates, strength and fitness work all done in the morning. It frees up the rest of the day to be a bit more flexible, and the later in the day you do the class the more lethargic you feel, the harder it is to get going! But you have to be realistic with yourself, and kind as well: we’re only human, this is a difficult and unusual circumstance to be in, you do what you can with the time and resources available to you.
Do small, repeated practices build up?
That’s ballet in a nutshell! Every step we do in the classical vocabulary is built from a plié, a tendu, or a combination of both. Give respect to the fundamentals, take your time getting the basics right and everything flows from there.
To what extent is daily class is about refining your artistry as well as toning your physical body?
The reason we do class every day, spending all this time and effort honing our technique, is so that once we start learning or rehearsing ballets our muscle memory is there, and the steps happen almost automatically. This frees us up to devote as much attention as possible to the story we’re trying to tell. If you think about ballet as a language, the steps are the words: the way you combine them, and the dynamics and emphasis you imbue them with, is how you communicate. Often we talk about professionals getting stuck focusing too much on technique, to the detriment of their artistry. But to be able to let something go, you have to have it in the first place, right? Technique is your reference point. Artistry happens where your life experiences and your imagination intersect. Obviously, without a studio or a stage, you have to use a little more imagination than usual, but that’s a valuable exercise and a great challenge!
What is your favourite step, and which is your most challenging?
I’ve always loved batterie. To me, watching a Bournonville-trained dancer in full flight is one of the most exciting things to see, so just a simple entrechat six or a brisé vole would be a favourite. Most challenging: anything remotely related to adage!
Has the experience of teaching made you a better dancer?
Definitely. It makes you realise very quickly where the gaps in your knowledge are. There are a number of steps, and terms, that you just don’t use on a regular basis as a professional dancer, and you kind of forget about them! Then, as a teacher, all of a sudden you find yourself having to explain them again. So much of learning ballet is kinaesthetic too, it’s intuitive, so how do you explain or describe a feeling? Developing your analogical thinking and use of imagery makes you approach your dancing from a different perspective, and helps broaden and deepen your understanding of the art form.