My life as a stomper

26 August 2015 | By Behind Ballet

Coryphée Nicola Curry came to The Australian Ballet after a career at American Ballet Theatre, where she first danced Twyla Tharp’s electrifying ballet In the Upper Room, part of our 20:21 season and 2015 China tour. She tells us about the joys of dancing in pointe shoes and the pain of pushing through.

Tharp says of In the Upper Room “the dancers must push through the difficult steps, intricate timing and aerobic demands of the choreography”– Can you talk us through this and what it’s like dancing a ballet like this?
Twyla found inspiration from countless things – there are various movements throughout the ballet that reflect her interests in boxing, tap, yoga etc … often they are just a quick reflection in the movement and have been fused together with other steps so they appear as a hint or an idea of, say yoga or boxing.

The timing is very intricate. The ballet was not set to this particular piece of Philip Glass music, and it didn’t even have counts to begin with. They were just phrases of movement. The phrases were originally in eights, then she would ask her dancers to cut out counts of various phrases, so in the second movement of the ballet, for example, the dancers start with seven, eight of one phrase, continue with two normal eights, one four, two eights, and then for two girls, the whole sequence is reversed, so they have to count all of that backwards. The main phrase in the second movement is danced as it was choreographed, then reversed, was done facing the back, done to the left, it was cut in half … so it is a bit of a mind game figuring out which part of the phrase comes next.

The ballet does require lots of mental and physical strength to get through it. The aerobic aspect does get easier with repetition, but it’s still a ballet that leaves you completely exhausted at the end. You have to give it everything you’ve got to get through it.

Nicola Curry. Photography Kate Longley

How are you preparing your body for the physical demands of In the Upper Room, in particular after having returned from injury?
I had a great rehab process after my surgery, and my foot is completely back to normal; very strong, and I don’t have to worry about it at all. This ballet is so physically demanding, I don’t think it would be possible to do with any outstanding injuries. That being said, I have been focusing on keeping my legs and core strong. The first week of rehearsals, my legs were completely shot, and I needed a lot of massage to get the lactic acid moving. I think stretching and rest will be imperative to staying healthy. The best way to prepare stamina-wise is physically doing the ballet. No amount of running or biking or any kind of cardio can prepare you for the rigors of this ballet. You have to do it continuously to build up the endurance needed to get through it.

You’ve performed this piece several times with American Ballet Theatre. Do you think it will be different performing it in Australia? 
I am actually very curious to see how Australian audiences react to this ballet. When we performed it at ABT, the New York audiences went crazy at the end – they erupted with applause, screaming, and immediate standing ovations. The Australian audiences seem much more reserved, and it will be interesting to see how they react. Performing this ballet in the States was such an incredible thrill. The entire cast came together to create such an amazing atmosphere, and the morale of the group was fantastic. Everyone involved was excited about every performance and was eager to push themselves to the extremes to create something wonderful and magical. All the elements of the ballet – the movement, music, staging, costumes, entrance and exits, the smoke … everything involved works together so brilliantly, and it really is a choreographic masterpiece.

Nicola Curry. Photography Kate Longley

Did you get the chance to work directly with Twyla? If so has she influenced you in any particular way?
Twyla was at ABT for my first ever rehearsal of In The Upper Room. She he has an incredible presence when she’s in a room. She is strong and will tell you exactly what she thinks. She expects you to give it everything you’ve got and to continually strive to be better, constantly pushing your limits.

Can you tell us what it’s like performing in sneakers vs pointe shoes? Does it alter the way you move or perform?
I love pointe shoes, but it is definitely a thrill performing in sneakers. They help you become much more grounded which is required in so much of the movement in this ballet. You have a wider platform, so some turning is a little easier, but it’s not as easy to point your feet … it’s more about the idea or the illusion of pointing!

The opinions expressed here are wholly of The Australian Ballet and Nicola Curry

Applaud this spectacular ballet when we open our 20:21 seasons in Sydney and on The Australian Ballet’s 2015 China tour to Shanghai and Beijing.

Beijing 16 – 18 October
National Centre for the Performing Arts

Shanghai 23 – 25 October
Shanghai Grand Theatre