Dancers’ memories are as extraordinary as their physiques: every morning class is different, and they must retain a huge volume of repertoire to perform on stage. Find out how they do it.
04 May 2021
In 2016, The Australian Ballet was dancing Stephen Baynes’ traditional version of Swan Lake. In the same year, the company toured to London with Graeme Murphy’s modern version of the ballet. Same Tchaikovsky music: completely different choreography. For the dancers to hold the two productions in their heads simultaneously and dance the right steps at the right time seems almost impossible. It was certainly a challenge, but dancers’ memories are as highly trained as their bodies. ‘Brain fade’ – where a dancer blanks on stage or performs the wrong steps – sometimes happens, but it’s astoundingly rare. Most classical ballet careers start in early childhood, so a professional dancer has spent many years practising and refining memory techniques. Dancers have different ways of learning, but, as our Ballet Mistress and Repetiteur Elizabeth Toohey says, “Repetition and retention are the most important things.”
Morning class, the official start of every working day, is where the dancers warm up, freshen up and consolidate their skills, both physically and mentally. While they’re honing their pirouettes and jétes, they’re also exercising their memories. Each class follows a structure: a warm-up at the barre progressing to slow movements in the centre and then faster turns and jumps. Class looks much the same at every classical company in the world. But within that structure, there is daily variation. Taking into account the dancers’ workload the night before and what they’ll be working on that day, the ballet staff will set combinations of steps that the troupe has to instantly remember and repeat back. “Everything is set fresh,” says Toohey, “so they still have to use their brains. They can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’ll just have that chicken Caesar because that’s what I have every day’; they have to listen, and get the ingredients, and make their own salad.”
When giving the exercise, the ballet staff use a combination of methods. They’ll chant the names of the steps, often demonstrating them at the same time. With a big group, they’ll sometimes ‘mark’ the steps, using a universal ballet language where the arms stand in for the legs and the hands for the feet. A finger twirled in the air indicates a turn. The watching dancers often mark along with the teacher to get the combination in their body memory. Then they’ll dance it full out – and, almost always, get it right. “We do have a few dancers in the company who struggle with retention,” says Toohey. “They’re aware of it, and they work on it, but it’s not their strength. It could be that they’re easily distracted, so they’re not fully focused on me when I’m setting an exercise. Sometimes it’s that a dancer has a melodic memory, as opposed to remembering steps by counting beats, so they don’t like listening to counts, and the repetition of ‘front, side, back, lift your leg’ is not dancing to them. It’s like playing scales, and they want to get to the concerto.”
Morning class is as much a memory test for the teacher as it is for the dancer. “In a ballet class, there should be very little silence. The teacher sets the exercise, and then the pianist starts to play. As soon as the music’s finished, I might give some corrections, then it’s straight into the next exercise. Because it’s like radio – if there’s silence, dead time, even a few seconds, the dancers lose their collective focus and rhythm. They like class to be challenging, and they need to know you’re on top of things.” Toohey’s memory, which is both photographic and musical, is one of her strengths. It has to be. She is not only one of the company’s repetiteurs, meaning that she teaches ballets and is responsible for their staging, but she is one of the few people in the world entrusted with Christopher Wheeldon’s works, including his epic Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland.© To teach that ballet, she had to memorise 104 different roles, as well as countless group dances, each with their own complex patterns. She also teaches Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, a wild deconstruction of ballet technique at cyclonic velocity. “It was like learning a new language,” she says with obvious relish. “I had to study for twelve hours to learn the first three-and-a-half minutes.”
Ballets used to be handed down from body to body. Notation, a written system of recording ballet akin to sheet music, is sometimes but not always used. In the modern era, video is heavily deployed, but Toohey cautions against relying on it too heavily. “Video is great as an overview, but because there are countless small variations in live performance, it’s best that a work is taught by one person.” When Toohey is teaching a group dance, she will often number the dancers and draw diagrams for them to follow. “It’s sort of like being a travel agent. You have to know where they’re going, when they’re going and how they’re getting there.” The perfect unison you see in a well-taught corps de ballet is a result of breaking down the bars and counting it out until everyone is in time. But the final, vital step is to get the quality of movement, the essential ‘perfume’ of the work that makes the steps live and breathe. “I am very aware that artists shouldn’t be counting in the back of their heads when they’re on stage,” says Toohey. “The music should just take over.”