Eighteen stars of dance today open up and explain to Dance for You how they are living this emergency time and what they are doing to train both their physiques and their minds. Optimism, discipline, good food, hobbies, family time, meditation, inventiveness: here the first nine reveal their secret recipes to Alessandro Bizzotto
The situation is a tough one. With the curtains down in many countries, going on stage and performing is not the only thing that ballet dancers are missing: as much of the world is locked down, doing class to keep in shape is a necessity, yet that cannot be done as easily as in a studio.
Everybody is struggling to find his or her own way to stay fit during the COVID-19 pandemic emergency. Dancers, mostly unable to reach their theatres, are of course not an exception. And while in a growing number of countries people are barely allowed to leave home to buy food and basic necessities and any social interaction is seen as a risky move, training the brain becomes as important as training the body.
This became evident from the very beginning of the long series of interviews I conducted to find out how some of the stars of the ballet universe are dealing with the confinement and the necessity both to stay fit (so that they can eventually resume their jobs in the shortest possible time) and to remain positive.
Principal of the Boston Ballet Ashley Ellis agrees. «This difficult time is very strange for all of us right now» she tells me. «However, it is so inspiring to see people around the world using various forms of technology to connect with each other, providing motivation and accountability through online classes, interviews and general encouragement».
She has started with a training routine right away. «To keep myself going I have been doing a core Pilates series every day to stay connected and then mix it up between barre, running, other strength exercises, and a dynamic stretch series we practice with the Boston Ballet PT team and is fantastic for maintaining hip, leg, and core strength while not jumping».
What’s important is not wasting time, Ashley clarifies. «I do think it is helpful at a time like this to stay busy» she asserts. «With so much extra time it’s a great opportunity to study or learn something new, come up with a creative project, and also to reconnect with people that you might not normally have the time to sit down and have a little FaceTime with».
Isn’t staying at home tiresome or boring? «Personally, I’m glad that I’m not having any trouble staying busy and keeping my mind occupied» she affirms. «I have a 14-month-old, Gray, who I’m chasing around most of the day, and I have a dancewear brand, RubiaWear, that allows me to continue to be creative in other ways. I’ve also been taking on some virtual teaching and other collaborations that might come up to stay engaged and working at this time».
Words full of poetry and truth are reflected by Principal of the Korean National Ballet, Kim Lihoe. «Flowers were blooming as Spring arrived, but the things I was looking forward to doing have been put on hold for the time being because of COVID-19».
«My daily life has completely changed, as all my colleagues’ lives» she adds, «and here I am, training at home to keep in shape and maintain my fitness level. I try to do everything I can while staying at home – I do floor barre, I work using a band or a ball for fine motor skills, and I do barre exercises every day holding a table».
One important area of focus, in her eyes, is food. «Diet is playing a very important role as well » she points out. «I spend my days at home, so I keep every single meal low in sodium for my child. I have to say it seems to boost both the strength and the well-being of my physique too». She really likes cooking. «I used to take some cooking classes in my spare time» Kim says, «and after having a baby I started cooking at home every day – I myself cook every meal for my child. Now in my spare time I love watching movies with my husband… though I can do it only when my kid goes to bed early!».
She is dealing with the emergency with patience and long-sightedness. «It is a matter of fact: social distancing and the shortage of masks have become a painful reality globally» she tells me. «Performers around the world are moving online to cheer for one another: it is great, isn’t it? Unable to go on stage for now, I keep ploughing through everyday life, patiently looking forward to one day when I can meet the audience again».
«I hope we will overcome this pandemic the best possible way» Kim says, «and I wish that, in the future, we all will be even able to make the most out of this situation, in order to facilitate an environment where people can easily enjoy culture and arts not just indoors, but in open spaces too».
For Principal of the Paris Opera Ballet Stéphane Bullion the days at home, in these weeks, start as a teacher. «My children have homework to do every day, their teachers send them to me and my wife, and we spend our mornings with the children helping them… as the early hours are the ones during which they can concentrate longer and work better».
The children absorb much of his time. «They are our priority» he proudly explains, «so after the homework we play together on the terrace, and we cycle or we skate in the parking lot of the building. It’s just after the children are gone to bed that I can think of myself and find some time to train and keep in shape».
At what time? «At about 8:30 pm I start doing some stretching» Bullion tells me, «then I do the barre and, after that, I move on to proprioception and balance exercises, to strengthening exercises for my muscles, to push-ups with different hand positions and to core stability exercises. When the children leave me some time, I train my body also with some cardio exercises that don’t require much space». It sounds like a long training session. «One hour more or less. I know it is not enough to be at my best… no dancer can be at the top of his or her game working at home, but it is just an interlude. It is about not being completely out of shape when I’ll be back in a studio».
To his mind, this moment is also an occasion to take care of his physique. «I want to take advantage of this kind of training to work also on the little injuries I have been taking with me for a long time, so to try and heal them completely… but also to break some bad habits that can negatively influence me in those months during which I work a lot on different productions, dancing more than one role».
Stéphane has been one of the most famous stars of the Parisian company for several years, yet he has suffered few injuries. «It is new to me – being at home every single day» he explains, «as I seldom got injured. However, I really want to get the most out of this emergency and turn the period I must spend at home into something positive… although I admit I am extremely disappointed as I won’t be able to have my debut in MacMillan’s Mayerling next May».
What’s most important now? «I think being able to literally transform this experience, that’s really negative as far as our job is concerned, into a period made of calm, of refocus, of relearning in some respects».
« I am shocked by what’s going on in Italy, I feel so sad for your country» Principal of the Dutch National Ballet Maia Makhateli tells me when she picks up the phone. «Though many countries in the world are now in a very similar situation». Her voice is light, I’ve known her for some years now, but she’s less playful this time.
«I was in Italy when it all started: I was supposed to dance Medora in José Martinez production of Le Corsaire at the Rome Opera House. The theatre was closed down due to the coronavirus the day of my first stage rehearsal».
«When I saw Rome completely empty, with no people around… I was honestly frightened» she says. «Then I came back home and in a few days we all started realizing the virus was quickly spreading across Europe. Panic was in the air. You know, I had been dancing so much in the last months… and then, out of the blue, we found out the virus had reached the Netherlands and our theatre was closed».
What is Maia doing now that she is not rehearsing? «I could not imagine the emergency would turn so serious at the outset» she answers. «It was something new and I didn’t know how to behave honestly. I felt very confused, so I started jogging and doing jump rope so to keep active and fit – I was scared it all would have been a shock for my body. Then, after the first days, I’ve slowly started to build a routine: everyone must avoid the risk of letting himself or herself go and spend the day wearing pyjamas».
When she tells me about her new daily life, I can recognize the strong, tenacious Maia Makhateli I used to know. «We cannot afford the luxury of being weak now» she explains, «I must be strong and keep going somehow. I know my family in Georgia is fine, so… now it’s up to me: I can’t give up, I want to make the best out of this situation. Furthermore, I have a little son, and my husband and I must take care of him: it’s great in his eyes as mom and dad are home all day long, yet I don’t want him to spend his days using an iPad or watching TV».
What’s essential, in Maia’s mind, is to prepare her body for the moment the theatres will open again. «I know it won’t be easy, so I try to keep as fit as possible – I do cardio and floor barre every day, alternating two different levels of intensity. I use Skype both to talk with friends and to do some barre with my colleagues… all together. I’ve got linoleum and a barre, so it all is a lot easier now».
Will Maia be the same after the COVID-19 emergency? «The coronavirus will change us» she answers me. «I’ve realized the moments we can spend on stage are beyond precious. Two weeks ago I watched for the first time a video of my performance of Swan Lake as a guest with the company of the San Carlo Theatre, in Naples: I had never seen that recording, watching it brought tears to my eyes, as I realized how much I miss performing. We cannot take it all for granted. So, when the world will have won this fight, I’ll remind myself of these moments stuck in our houses every single time I will feel tired and exhausted after a rehearsal or after a show. Here’s why I won’t give up».
Principal of La Scala Ballet Antonino Sutera has never liked moments of pause. «For years it has been a kind of obsession» he informs me after chatting on the phone for a little while. «I used to consider going on working as a kind of medicine: I’ve always had just two weeks off every year, and I have always spent the other two holiday weeks I had doing barre work and stretching. Here’s why I immediately started building a routine at home the day after knowing my theatre was closed».
His days are very well organized and he tries to keep himself to a regular schedule. «It can’t be like rehearsing in a studio, but I have 1.5×1.5-meter shock-absorbing platform, which allows me to do barre, centre… and even some jumps: jumping is extremely important for me, as I’ve built my career on high-energy and high-jumping roles».
His Mondays are like his Sundays, but «having stuff to do helps me both to find an inner balance and to make the most out of the time I am given. I do my workout exercises as well to keep my arms strong, training biceps and triceps, and some more exercises to tone up the muscle of my left thigh after an injury I had one year ago. I want this to be also an occasion to take my time, anyway, and to spend time with my daughters… my schedule is usually so hectic, it was great to have time to play Monopoly with my younger daughter last week».
«I started seeing a nutritionist a few years ago, yet I have always tried to have a healthy nutrition» Antonino reveals. «Of course, I eat less today! I am not that hungry. My body doesn’t need the food that’s needed after an evening spent dancing Basilio in Don Quixote!».
He tends to be an optimist by nature. «I really hope theatres will reopen soon, although I know it will take some time. Bit theatres and big companies will bear the weight of this crisis. On the contrary, I am worried about smaller companies: I really hope national governments will do something for them. We all will fancy and need to go to the theatre when the emergency will be behind us: art and culture feed our souls and encourage us to think about our lives… in order to understand what’s going on better, now more than ever».
I reach Principal of the Royal Ballet Laura Morera via phone: hearing her serene voice in such a moment is a relief in some ways. «It is a horrible and anxious time for everyone. We cannot control what is happening but we can control our reaction to it, so I am trying to focus on the positives» she tells me. «This is a rare chance to find out who you are as a person and not just as a dancer, something we will all have to do eventually or even when injured, so this might prepare you better for when that moment comes. You have time to really listen to your inner self and your body, to work on things that you wanted to improve on in your work».
What is Laura doing in these days? «I am taking company class in my living room, paying close attention to the greatest details, so I can hopefully be better when I eventually get back to the studio. When the Royal Opera House first shut down, I did not do anything for a week, but then I found my motivation. As dancers we need to move, it is easy for our minds to start playing tricks on us because inevitably our bodies feel different – many will be worried about weight and body shape. But there are so many ways to get fit! It’s time to try out different things that might suit us».
«As for me, yoga is that different thing» she explains. «There are so many free contents online, so I found out videos of several different teachers and I am loving trying different approaches to this discipline and having the time to practice every day. I also meditate and practice breathing exercises and different techniques I learnt in Thailand to help heal my mind and keep me connected to my body».
«Food wise, take time to have proper regular meals that are nourishing and delicious» she recommends, «and listen to your body to find out how hungry you are. Avoid boredom snacking and remember to stay hydrated».
Many dancers today use social media to live stream their classes. Laura doesn’t. «I am not on social media, which at the moment can make me feel shut out at times» she reveals to me, «but my advice to students taking all these online classes is to really think about your level and what you are capable of. You can try new things and push yourself as long as you understand the technique behind it, so to stay safe. If nobody is supervising, learn how to adapt or ask for advice, and if you have really hard floor use a yoga mat to jump. It will help».
She also suggests taking some time to watch movies or recordings of theatre performances. «They have always been a massive source of inspiration for my acting. For example, Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons really helped me shape my Countess Larisch in Mayerling, a deeply layered character. The last scene when she is booed out of the theatre, exiled from society, is always present in my mind when Larisch is kicked out of court in Act Three».
Any other advice? «Put on some pop music to release those happy endorphins and dance like nobody is watching… as right now nobody actually is! Be kind to yourself during this time and use it for personal growth. We will get through this».
Principal of the Royal Danish Ballet Marcin Kupinski explains that what he feels is important now, is staying busy. «I work on small projects everyday» he tells me, «I fix small stuff in my apartment and I clean everything. Never sit back! I have even time to learn how to colour grade and how to edit some videos, and of course I listen to a lot of music at home. Furthermore, I try to stay in touch with my family and friends via Internet as much as possible».
He works on his physique too, of course. «What’s essential to stay in shape is keeping at least an intermediate level of fitness. So, keep doing the barre and train every part of the body so to go on having every muscle in some kind of activation: I mean doing a medium workout conditioning the whole group of muscles needed in ballet. Every day I do the barre and bit of centre, plus some general strengthening exercises. Once a day I even go for a bike ride on my own to get some fresh air».
According to Marcin, this can even be the moment to gain some weight. «You know what? I eat more now» he laughs. «I have a very quick metabolism and my schedule at the theatre is always so busy… it can even prevent me from eating, from time to time. It’s definitely time for me to gain weight».
In his eyes, the future won’t be all sunshine and rainbows. «It won’t be easy for many theatres: people are losing their jobs and, after this emergency, limited incomes will prevent many people from finding the money for entertainment and culture. Culture will probably be the first thing to go out the window once more, due to the upcoming crisis – I guess difficult times are on their way». In spite of everything, he hasn’t lost his optimism. «Let’s stay positive!» he exclaims. «Why? Because we have a lot of spare time now, and spare time can be a cradle for inventiveness – so, let’s take this great opportunity to be creative! It will surely help us».
Principal of the Bolshoi Ballet Evgenia Obraztsova explains to me that she posted some of her video classes on YouTube. «They are on my channel. I really like Knyazev’s gymnastics, exercises that help you to keep fit: I found them very useful and I decided to make videos of myself doing them available. I hope they’ll help everyone to practise during the lockdown».
Until a few weeks ago she had the chance to take class at the Bolshoi. Now Moscow is locked down as well. «But I have a barre at home» she says, «so I can keep practising».
«Food wise, I can recommend intermittent fasting. That is what I personally do» Evgenia answers me. «Long story short: there is no special restriction, you just need to eat during a certain period of time that lasts eight hours per day. As far as I’m concerned, I eat from 10:00 am till 6:00 pm and I eat nothing for the rest sixteen hours. I think it is a very good way for everyone to stay fit and healthy».
According to her, everything will be fine sooner or later. «I think art in general and ballet in particular will last forever. The current situation and the coronavirus emergency won’t change them. Ars longa, vita brevis. I guess that, when the lockdown will be over, theatres will open again, dancers will start performing again and dancing roles they love… and the audience will be back to see dancers dance, to see their favourite artists back on stage».
Principal of the Tokyo Ballet Mizuka Ueno has experienced a slightly different situation. «We, the Tokyo Ballet, have been lucky enough to keep having classes and rehearsals till a few days ago» she reveals.
«We kept dancing with smiles on our faces, as we knew we were lucky» she tells me, «but we had clearly in mind the fact that the world has changed from the very beginning. Arts and performing arts are considered non-essential ones during critical times. But I know from books I have read that during the wartime senior dancers tried to continue to dance all over the world, giving even very small shows to entertain people, to make them somehow happy. So, I keep smiling, believing in the value of arts like they did».
She is mindful that trying to keep in shape without being able to reach a studio is not easy at all. «Currently, most of the dancers have no room and no music to rehearse. I see many videos of them having barre exercises. I totally agree when it comes to doing barre exercises every day at home». In addition, Mizuka has valuable advice. «Let me recommend one more method as far as how to rehearse even in a very small bed room… I developed it during my childhood years. Choose the widest space in your room and dance a choreography going back and forth the distance using the very same energy you would use on stage, even if you have to turn several times with piqué turns. It is important to imagine you are dancing on a stage. Try to stop the best possible way, finishing with an elegant position… as if you were on stage. Practicing fouettés in a small space can even improve the accuracy of your fouettés! And I guess many will find out that rehearsing in a room can even keep stamina up».
Her final words are a true nod to hope even for those who are living in the darkest of times. «After COVID-19, I believe that people, myself included, will be able to appreciate the true value of happiness and peace. And hopefully the value of arts as well, leaving behind what’s meaningless and futile».[To be continued. The Volume 2, with nine more ballet stars, will be published end of this week].