Annie Carroll, once a dancer with The Australian Ballet and now a writer, looks back on her experiences in the corps of Swan Lake.
When I was growing up, my mother had a videotape of the 1966 Nureyev/Vienna State Opera Ballet production of Swan Lake. Every weekend, from the age of nine, I would press the VHS cassette into the machine and wait in anticipation as the cogs gently coerced the tired tape into playing. It was the only ballet tape we owned from which I cared to learn the steps of the corps de ballet as well as the principal role. I’d learnt to dance the Rose Adagio using a chair instead of a prince, and rehearsed the mad scene from Giselle imagining an auditorium instead of walls. But Swan Lake, with its flock of 24 girls so perfectly in unison, mesmerised me in a way no other corps de ballet work ever did.
I am still not sure why this is. I had never spent my years at ballet school dreaming of being one of many. I had only ever wanted to be one of one. When I first found myself dancing the role of a swan in Anthony Dowell’s production for The Royal Ballet, I was a headstrong student with a thirst for the immense Covent Garden stage. It wasn’t until I had senior corps de ballet members barking directions in my ear that I began to understand the magnitude of the opportunity at my feet. I was now a part of the flock, and it did not feel the way it looked on that videotape. On stage, without the distinguishable features of practice gear, every girl looked exactly the same. The patterns and orders rehearsed so easily in the studio were suddenly lost on me in that dark, murky lighting. All I could see were flurries of tulle, and 23 other perfectly hair-sprayed chignons. We were one big, whitewashed sea, so removed from the order and symmetry that the audience could see. It was exciting and humbling, the shared sense of responsibility. There is an intense sense of camaraderie within a corps de ballet. We were all dancing the same steps, feeling the burn in our supporting leg as we stood, necks stiff, waiting for the next phrase of music to signal the relief of a leg change.
After my initiation into the mayhem of the flock, I began to understand why Swan Lake demanded such respect from me. Even before I performed it, the ballet was embedded in my psyche as a classical dancer. Perhaps it is in all classical dancers. There was never another full-length ballet I performed that demanded such symmetry and communication from across the stage. Every swan was as important as the next. And even though I never stopped wondering if I might ever have the chance to put my years of living-room Odette rehearsals to use, each time I stepped out as a swan, it felt like the fruition of a life spent with one hand on the barre.