Editor’s note: Atlanta Ballet company dancer Alessa Rogers agreed to chronicle her journey from the audition process to final rehearsals for this weekend’s production of choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Also on the bill are Allegro Brillante by George Balanchine and Petite Mort by Jiří Kylián. Rogers, who is among the dancers who will leave the company at the end of the season, offers a unique and inside perspective on how dancers prepare for their roles.
Part One: The Audition
It’s August 2016 — the start of a new season, a new company really, with new artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin in his first few weeks at the helm of Atlanta Ballet. Even though it’s only August, and we’re not exactly back in shape yet from our long summer break, our thoughts are turned to April and the Atlanta premiere of choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird.
We can give some credit to Possokhov for Gennadi being the new director at Atlanta Ballet. It was Yuri’s Classical Symphony that first introduced Gennadi to us when he came in 2013 to stage (that is, to teach) that ballet. I think we’ll be seeing quite a lot of Yuri in the future, which is fortunate for us — he is a big name in dance, and also a big character — he fills up a room with his presence, his gruff, dry Russian humor.
Firebird is a historical ballet, the first collaboration between Stravinsky and Diaghilev in 1910. (I’m not actually a ballet trivia buff; I learned everything I know about Firebird on Wikipedia the week before Yuri came into town). It’s been done and redone by many companies and choreographers; I did John McFall’s version during one of my first years in the company. It’s a remarkable ballet no matter who is doing the retelling. The music is epic and instantly recognizable, and the story is fantastical and kind of bizarre: a Russian fairy tale consisting of a magical bird, an evil sorcerer who hides his soul in a giant egg (sound like a Horcrux to any other Harry Potter fans?), and of course, the requisite Prince and Princess.
To cast Firebird, Gennadi and Yuri observe the ballet class that company members take every morning. There is a lot of whispering and pointing going on between the two in the front of the room, making the dancers wish we’d secretly learned Russian over the summer. Yuri has all of our head shots with names in front of him. Between the two of them they will decide on a first cast, a second cast and sometimes a third cast, which they will post on the board after class.
I’ve never gotten used to casting days and can’t help but be anxious every time we have one, but, alas, it is an unavoidable part of my job. We don’t audition for specific roles; rather, they watch us all and everyone has equal opportunity to get cast in any given part. Sometimes choreographers will take a few extra hours or days having the dancers learn the particular style of their choreography, but Yuri knows who he wants just from watching class.
Though I feel pressure to do well during “audition” days, I don’t ever feel I am competing against my friends, yet that’s exactly what I am doing. I imagine the culture of competition is probably different at other companies, but here I feel supported by those around me and am happy when different people get opportunities to shine.
I usually watch the videos of choreographers before they come to get an idea of their style but also to figure out which pointe shoes to wear. Shoes are in varying states of hardness or softness, and I rotate about ten at any given time depending on the rehearsals of the day. If there is a lot of partnering I will wear harder shoes; a lot of jumping, I need softer shoes. Picking pointe shoes is an art all on its own, time-consuming and exact. Before every show I spend at minimum 30 minutes choosing my pointe shoes for that part.
When we sidle up to the board after class I see that of the two female leads in this ballet, I am cast as the Princess. When I watched the tape of San Francisco Ballet performing this version of Firebird, I recognized the ingénue qualities of the Princess as ones that I have played in other ballets before, and it is a character that I love doing.
Most exciting to me is that I am partnered with Christian Clark as the Prince, and that my good friend Jackie Nash is the titular Firebird. When we see we are in the same cast, Jackie and I are giddy; you spend a lot of time with those in your cast, and they are like your team. It’s not what part you do but who you do it with that really matters.
Part Two: Initial Rehearsals
My first Firebird rehearsal is the pas de deux for the Prince and Princess. Christian and I are working together under the direction of Possokhov himself. I’ve never worked with Yuri before (though I did perform his Classical Symphony), and I am a little nervous. We’re at the dawn of a new Atlanta Ballet era with a new director, a new ballet master and a new ballet, so we are all trying to display our very best dancer selves.
My nerves settle shortly after I come into the studio to watch the last few minutes of Jackie and Tara Lee in the Firebirds’ solo rehearsal. Yuri is swaying his hips while telling the Firebirds, “More seductive, ladies, like this.” He’s surprisingly good at it for a big, dry, stern-faced Russian man. Jackie and Tara are remarkably composed, though I can tell they want to giggle at his demonstration.
The primary goal of the next three weeks will be to learn the whole ballet in terms of the choreography. We will also become intimately familiar with the music so that it is internalized and we don’t even have to think about it anymore. Stravinsky is hard to count; a lot of the score is in 7s, while dancers are used to counting in 8s. Additionally, we will need to work on the technical skills, coordinate partnering elements, absorb Yuri’s stylistic quality and apply details and develop our characters. While this all may seem like a lot to accomplish in three weeks, don’t forget we are also rehearsing three other ballets while we do this one.
I learn a lot from watching the videos of past performances of Firebird but also from the other casts in the studio. Nadia Mara and I alternate the role of the Princess — we often have discussions about the sequence of the ballet and remind one another what the step is when we forget the choreography. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have friends as coworkers. I also do a lot of homework at night, watching the DVD of San Francisco Ballet to go over choreography. Some dancers don’t have to do that. They are incredible sponges that can absorb and retain details almost before it even comes out of the choreographer’s mouth. They don’t have to get up early to watch videos or stay up late taking notes. That girl is Rachel Van Buskirk, not me. I’m the girl with the notebook. It’s not ideal, but it makes my job possible.
I’m not the only person who uses notes. New Atlanta Ballet ballet master Roman Rykine takes copious notes as he observes rehearsals, writing down key details, diagramming the ensemble’s traffic patterns (much like a football coach) and highlighting entrances in the score.
Each of the three ballet masters at Atlanta Ballet are responsible for a different piece in the April program. For Firebird, it’s Roman — lucky for him, as his history with Yuri goes way back. When Yuri leaves, Roman will continue to coach us throughout the year with the integrity of the choreographic intention intact. Throughout dance history people have tried to invent a codified language system to record dance steps (most famous probably is Labanotation), but it never really worked out. It is up to each ballet master or mistress to determine how they want to write down a step so they can understand what it is when they look at it on paper many months or years later.
Yuri is only here a couple days then stager Anita Paciotti comes in from San Francisco Ballet to take over. The job of the stager is really interesting. Many times when doing an existing work the choreographer may come in for only a few days or not at all. Once the choreographer who creates the ballet is done, they move on to other projects. It’s the stager who carries forth the vision. As the walking memory of a particular choreographer, they carry forward the original intention to a new group of dancers wherever in the world the work is being staged. Working in such intense rehearsal periods, it is possible to form strong and lasting bonds with stagers. I’ve formed friendships with stagers that have lasted years and even crossed oceans to visit them. (Of course the reverse is also true. In some cases, you hope you never have to work with that person again — but that is rare in my experience.)
Anita is a stalwart at SFB, though she is new to us. One challenge we encounter is that Yuri is the type of choreographer who changes little things on a whim, such as an arm placement he decides he doesn’t like anymore, but since Anita wasn’t here when he made the changes, we keep having to tell her, “Oh, Yuri changed that. It’s a different head now.” This ballet has a large cast with many group sections, so Anita often refers to existing videos. I’ve known stagers who won’t use a video during the entire process because they don’t want us to be influenced by those dancers’ choices.
As rehearsals progress, a couple of people have to change partners due to height differences not being compatible. The stamina is a struggle since it’s the beginning of the season. Firebird isn’t a full-length ballet, but it acts like one. The choreography is dense, as are the details that explain who each character is. I have worked for literally hours on a recurring little hand flip that expresses the nonchalance of the Princess. We learn the difference between Greek and Russian folk dancing (apparently if you dance too close to your partner, it’s Greek and thus unacceptable for this ballet). And yet, a ballet is coming together before our very eyes.
To me every ballet is a story ballet, even if it’s contemporary and the choreographer insists that there is no narrative. I always have a story in my head. But in this one I do have a character — the Princess — though I don’t get much more detail than that. I don’t even get a name. That leaves me to fill in character gaps myself, which Yuri and Anita graciously allow.
I like the freedom to shape my character, and I know that they will mold and refine it with me. I’ve been a Princess in other ballets before, but every princess is different. And especially when there are similarities between parts I’ve played, I want to make each one distinct. This princess is a bit of a brat. That’s new for me because most of the time ballet princesses are perfectly sweet. This gives me something to work on. Roles that require acting are always my favorite because of that need to dig deep into your character.
At the end of the three-week rehearsal period, we videotape a run-through of Firebird before we put it to bed for the next few months. It’s pretty remarkable we are able to work this quickly. This is life in the fall for Atlanta Ballet. Learn a ballet, put it away for later, learn a ballet, put it away for later. There is so much to learn, and it is a wonderfully fecund period.
For the next few months we will probably not think about or rehearse Firebird at all. It’s on to the next ballet in our season . . . we keep moving, we keep dancing.
Part Three: Final Rehearsals
March 1. We’ve only had one day off after the “Gennadi’s Choice” program, which was an incredibly difficult show for all the ladies (the men, who largely weren’t in Paquita, had the past month a bit easier). Luckily, the process of putting Firebird back together is going more smoothly than I anticipated. It’s still in the bodies. I don’t exactly understand the science of muscle memory, but all I can say is I am grateful for it. Many times I don’t even know that I still know a ballet anymore and I hear the music and my body will just start doing steps — sometimes from a ballet I haven’t even thought about in years.
The ballet studio doesn’t have the hallowed silence you might expect. There is always a fair amount of discussion when putting a ballet back together. Like a puzzle, each dancer may remember one detail and forget another, and so putting it all together is truly a team effort. The ballet masters largely trust that we know our own tracks (after all, this is a cast of almost 30), but when there is a discrepancy, discussion (and sometimes debate) ensues, notes are consulted and a version is finally set.
Watching the video only seven months later, there are a lot of changes within the company. Haircuts are different. Injuries and family emergencies have shifted casting around a bit. As a result, some dancers are in new spots, having to learn new tracks. This week is more for brains than bodies. We will have time to physicalize everything next week. But I have to say, it’s a lot easier doing this ballet now than it was right off of summer break.
Roman changes the tempos around, which helps us get accustomed to the variability that can come with having a live orchestra. It’s an extra challenge to have the potential for different tempos than those with which you rehearsed, but the lusciousness of live music is definitely worth it. Many times only one cast ever gets to actually rehearse with the orchestra, during dress rehearsal. During Nutcracker when we have five or sometimes six different casts, it has happened that we will have each Sugarplum Fairy dance concurrently with orchestra — five Sugarplums sharing the same stage, some of whom are still wearing the Spanish costume or Shepherdess or whatever costume they last danced in, since it’s their one shot to get a feel for the difference between live and taped music.
Even with the premiere of Firebird just a month away, we are in the throes of “performance season.” We have a different program just about every four weeks this time of the year, so we do not have the luxury of focusing solely on one ballet at a time. There are some days when I rehearse six different ballets over the course of six rehearsal hours. It’s not too difficult for me to switch physically from Allegro Brillante (also in the April program) to Firebird, since they are both in pointe shoes and classical. Come show day, however, I will have to be very present in the moment, not thinking forward or saving myself in the first piece and then leaving that one behind to focus on the next.
I’ve continued to read different versions of Firebird to help me inform my character. Turns out the Firebird appears in many different culture’s mythology and folklore. I also read reviews of other versions because it is interesting to me to know the history and choices that came before. I’ve learned that Stravinsky was actually Diaghilev’s third choice as a composer, but knew immediately that he had a masterpiece in his hands.
I like that on this program we have Stravinsky and also Balanchine — as they were famous collaborators — although the Balanchine piece we are doing this time is to Tchaikovsky. Studying the ballets I am to perform gives me interesting tidbits, like how Stravinksy used a C-major scale for all the human characters and an octatonic scale for all the nonhuman characters. Does any of this affect my actual performance? Maybe not, but it makes me appreciate the craft more.