Earlier this year I was pushing desperately to get back into cardio-shape after a ridiculously long injury. After 20 minutes of gruesome lengths in the pool, I thought about how the beating in my chest and shortness of breath I felt was nothing compared to what dancers go through during the tougher choreography. I laughed to myself about certain pieces where you are quite literally on the verge of vomiting or peeing your pants due to the extreme cardiovascular demands. Most dancers I know actually love these kinds of experiences because they test your limits. Some make it, some don’t. When the new season is announced here each year, there are knowing glances and loud sighs and roars around the room when certain ballets are mentioned. Some repertoire is so aerobically difficult that just making it to the end can be rewarding for the dancers and for audiences, who often end up on the edge of their seats.
I just got finished dancing Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, which is 12 minutes of pure athleticism and adrenaline. It combines quick, concise steps with boastful wide-open movements that can catapult a dancer to the other side of the stage in the blink of an eye. To get through it, I had to think of even more strenuous works, like John Cranko’s Holberg Pas de Deux or The Taming of the Shrew (in the role of Lucentio). Both of these pieces are like dancing Vertiginous except with a complicated 10-minute pas de deux tacked onto the end. I also think of all of the Glen Tetley works that were created here. Anyone who has danced Voluntaries knows how incredibly puffy it is whether you are in a corps or solo role!
I’ve always been curious about different dance companies and their at-your-own-risk deadly cardio pieces. Part of the fun of making it through these works is trading war-stories, so I decided to call up some friends. Robert Tewsley puts Tetley’s Rite of Spring at the top of his endurance list. “It’s 30 minutes of relentless dancing where you have to push yourself to the limits of your strength to achieve what the ballet is trying to say: dancing to death and then rebirth,” says Robert, who even broke his finger and knuckle in one performance. “I got to the level of exhaustion where I had an out-of-body experience. Towards the end of the ballet when the company was circling me, everything started to go gray. The music felt like it was being played in another room and I had the feeling that I was floating in midair.”
Tewsley goes on to cite MacMillan’s Mayerling as another of the most difficult endurance ballets. The role of Crown Prince Rudolf in the three-act ballet consists of seven pas de deux with five different women and some serious character development along the way. “I don’t think there is a more challenging role for a male dancer,” he says. “You cannot run all of the pas de deux every day, so it has to be rehearsed in a carefully structured way.”
Across the Atlantic, it is another MacMillan ballet that is physically assaulting American Ballet Theatre’s David Hallberg. “The audience has no idea how tough Romeo and Juliet is,” he says. “Romeo never stops! Good thing the fatigue can be used for emotive breathing.” Like most versions of Romeo, including Cranko’s, MacMillan’s, and Nureyev’s, the first act has Romeo running off his feet with sword fights, dances with harlots, variations, moments with Juliet, and finally the famous balcony scene. “By the time this passionate scene comes, you are mostly thinking about how much you want to die,” he kids.
When I ask David more about ABT’s “cardio repertoire” he offers up Balanchine’s Theme and Variations as something that “never becomes less stressful or excruciatingly painful” as the years go on. Theme has been a staple at ABT since it was created there in 1947. Though the ballet is only 20 minutes, Baryshnikov was famously quoted saying, “If you can do a good Theme and Variations, you can do a good anything.” For the female lead the ballet is a dizzying display of hard-boiled technique; for the male there are combinations that David suggests are the most demanding feats in the classical idiom. “I am so tired by the end of the marathon that the last thing I want is to have someone sitting on my shoulder,” David says of the famous last pose when the curtain goes down. “No disrespect to any of the ladies, but I never get a ballerina down from a lift quicker than I do after Theme.”
I remember Ana Maria Lucaciu being super-tough when we were at the National Ballet School in Toronto together. Since those days she’s accumulated a diverse repertoire for herself and is only getting tougher. “From a ballet perspective I’d have to say any Swan Lake is brutal for the corps girls,” says the former Royal Danish Ballet dancer. “In the last act we had to run in a big circle. There were changing patterns. It was chaos. One girl started running in the complete opposite direction. There were 23 of us going one way and one lost swan going the other. I think she was so tired she was ready to run straight home!”
Now Lucaciu dances for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, where she declares Ohad Naharin’s notoriously challenging Decadance as her new cardio standard. Recalling a particularly grueling performance in Tel Aviv, she says, “I was more tired than usual, but I pushed and the fatigue ended up taking me to a place of utter joy. I was grounded and genuinely happy.”
Min Li of Scapino Ballet Rotterdam was raised in China and went through rigorous training that included waking up at 5 a.m. to run up and down umpteen flights of stairs. I didn’t think he would find anything tiring after his transition from Chinese folk dance to more contemporary work, but he agreed with Ana. Min says Decadance has been his biggest endurance challenge to date. “I danced it at Batsheva and I remember one part called ‘Black Milk’ very clearly,” he recalls. “It’s a 15-minute section with five boys where we put mud on our faces and dance until the sweat and mud mix and drop into our eyes. We still had to jump and run right till the end, hurry backstage, scrub off the mud, change costumes, run on and continue dancing for another 20 minutes! It was nothing like what I had done in China.”
Thiago Bordin is the kind of dancer who never appears to be tired, but he says that dancing for Hamburg Ballet means being exhausted a lot of the time. “In Neumeier’s choreography there are lots of roles where you think you won’t make it till the end,” Bordin sighs. “But I believe that John does this purposely so you can get where the role needs to take you!” When I ask about ballets that have almost killed him, Bordin cites Neumeier’s Othello and Joseph’s Legend. “Both ballets are incredibly physically and dramatically taxing,” he says, “and you can hardly walk the next day!”
But it is Pierre Lacotte’s version of La Sylphide that Bordin and Paris Opéra étoile Isabelle Ciaravola insist is one of the most punishing pieces out there. They blame the demanding French footwork and the endless allegro. “Her big skirt and his weighty tartan outfit don’t make things any easier,” Thiago states. “Pierre Lacotte is thrilling to work with, but his works (especially Sylphide and Le Papillon, for me) are notoriously difficult aerobically!” Isabelle says with a laugh. “For some of the entrances someone has to practically push you out onstage!”
All of these dancers assert that they have improved in these roles after training in an intelligent way. You must find a way to be two steps ahead while rehearsing in order to avoid unnecessary stress onstage. Tewsley does aggressive weekly cardio, and Ciaravola swears by yoga and the benefits of breathing properly when dancing. But after all of the intense physical preparation, each dancer celebrates the fact that it is the beauty of spirit and mind that ultimately makes the difference while challenging yourself. “The body can do far more than you think if you are not afraid to take it past what you think your limits are,” Tewsley explains.
Like Olympians, dancers crave Herculean moments to satisfy our curiosities and triumphantly discover new parts of our own constitutions. We go through hell burning calories and losing electrolytes during these (literally) breath-taking pieces. But it is each thrilling experience gained from this type of choreography that makes us itch for more!
What to think about when you’re sweating it out:
Calm yourself by taking long, deep breaths between spurts. —Ciaravola
Feel the floor. Rushing preparations never leads to good things. —Hallberg
Trust yourself; positive energy goes a long way. —Min Li
Approach like a warrior. Don’t overthink! Start swimming, biking, working out more heavily so that when you’re tired your body is ready to take it. Fatigue is the number one reason for dance injuries. —Lucaciu
Feel the music and let it carry you through. It will help and inspire you. —McKie
Never be afraid to push harder than you think you can. —Tewsley
Avoid constant tension. It’ll exhaust you far too soon! —Bordin
Pictured: Evan Mckie in Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude