For the first time since the merger of the Ballet and Opera Vlaanderen, dancers and singers stood on stage together in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s ‘Requiem’. As these two departments of Opera Ballet Vlaanderen united, blogwriters Simon and Emmi joined to share their observations.
Simon: Dancers are scattered along the outer edge of the ballet studio. There's a stillness and poise in the air. The atmosphere seems colloquial yet introspective and focused. Absent are the open throated laughs and wide pitch ranges which normally herald the beginning of my rehearsals. My colleagues today are stretching their legs, not their voices, and they do it with relative calm and introspection.
Emmi: Recapping steps for the next rehearsal in my head, I almost fail to notice the presence of two new people in the studio. A woman and a man are sitting under the ballet barres at the entrance of the room. The man is wearing jeans and a T-shirt, the woman a skirt and nice dressy shirt. From this I assume that they have not come here to dance. They seem curious and open, greeting my eye contact with a friendly smile.
Simon: A dancer burps as she enters the rehearsal room, bashfully apologising as she realises my unfamiliar face. Another changes his dancing undergarments in the centre of the room, paying no mind to the long mirrors which line every wall of this space. In here there is nowhere to hide. It is ironic that these people are so comfortable in a room where they are observed from every angle.
Emmi: We are constantly being evaluated at work. Often choreographers or repetitors come to observe our morning class or rehearsals to make casting choices for upcoming productions. Thus, a new face always triggers an automatic evaluation process about what the role of this person might be. Very quickly us dancers arrive at the consensus that these two newcomers are harmless. Their posture is just a little bit too relaxed, the way they watch us, slightly too admiring. Having made this conclusion we go about our pre-rehearsal rituals without further inhibitions.
Simon: I sometimes feel as if I am viewing webcam footage of someone else's living room. All the physical actions that would normally be considered too private, too personal, are on full display for everyone to see. Leotards need to be removed from between butt cheeks. Bras are adjusted after a vigorous sequence, if they are even worn at all. Spread eagle stretching is constant. Flushed faces and sweaty silhouettes abound, so naturally half nudity is commonplace.
Emmi: A week after the two soloists joined our rehearsals we finally welcome the choir into our space as well. Already accustomed to the presence of singers, the increase of melodic laughter in the studio seems like a natural progression. Even so, zooming out and considering the scene from a ‘fly on the wall’ perspective, it really looks like there is a meeting of two different clans on the turf of the other. In general the presence of the singers in the space is of more volume than ours. While our body type is rather unified, there is a much bigger variety in the looks of the singers. A couple of men strongly remind me of Hagrid from Harry Potter. In fact, we dancers might well be the Hogwarts Quidditch-team, while the choir could be our teachers and professors.
Simon: As an outsider, it's easy to wonder how dancers ignore the sexual overtones that are normally attached to working with minimalist costumes in such close physical proximity. But most of these artists have been desensitised to the mystery of their colleagues' bodies a long time ago. Practical concerns and repetition have overridden normal intimate tensions, to the point that sensuality sometimes needs to be artificially reintroduced once things have been perfected technically.
Emmi: Before rehearsal we usually lounge on the floor at the sides of the studio, goof around with each other and fling our legs onto the barres to stretch. The opera singers, I notice, stand around conversing in little cocktail party-like circles. They occupy the room generously as if it was a lawn or balcony. This adds to the already present feeling in me that the singers are somehow more grown up than we are. Granted, I do think that our average age is slightly younger than theirs, but my observation goes further than chronological years. After all we are all professionals dedicated to the same excellence in performance. The dancers take on the studio just seems slightly more playful, less rigid.
Simon: To watch intently seems to stretch the limits of decency, but it is clear that the normal limits do not apply here. At least not between the dancers themselves. I consider looking away at times out of respect, but to do so would be to admit a certain level of discomfort. And in this new norm, it's clear that if I'm going to be a good colleague there is no place for awkwardness. The dancers themselves seem much more concerned with improving the efficiency and expression of movement, not just to please the choreographer, but to reduce just how taxing the sequences are on their well-conditioned yet over-rehearsed muscles.
Emmi: Since it is our space we are in, our building, our ballet studio, I sense that the party clearly adjusting more to the situation are the singers. They seem to be searching for the right balance between engaging in the situation, observing or ignoring it. I can tell that as people they are neither shy nor insecure, in fact quite the opposite. They have strong voices, that are evidently used to speaking up and being heard. Yet many of them seem slightly conflicted in how to respond to us.
Simon: Their dedication to their art form is printed all over their bodies. As physical specimens they are carved out of stone, ready to replace any statue adorning the city park. Even the women all have six packs and their strength to weight ratio is sometimes plain intimidating. But the most impressive thing is the way they use it all; these attributes create a stream of seamless, fluid movement that ranges from vigorous to vulnerable.
Emmi: Daily we sweat through our sporty dance clothing in the pursuit of perfecting our movement. Singing, however requires just as much physical engagement as dancing. This soon becomes apparent as we start dancing in the middle of people whose whole bodies beautifully resonate with sound. The experience is nothing short of revolutionary. The eery melody of ‘Faure’s’ Requiem emerges so naturally from not just the lips but really the stomach, chest and spine of the singers. Sound waves seem to be vibrating in the air. The duet I am dancing has never felt this light. I feel lifted from within.
Simon: Despite this, the compounding wear and tear on the body is visually apparent. If a female dancer doesn't have bunions, they probably haven't been doing it professionally for long enough. Knees are strapped with braces and bandages, shoulders are taped, and every now and then a dancer halts a routine to stretch out their old niggling nemesis. All this starkly contrasts the opera singer's instinct to over protect the body from any kind of strain, pressure or overuse. And yet this kind of dedication begets in me a kind of respect, even admiration.
Emmi: As soon as they start singing, this casual group of people fills the room with something otherworldly. Their unique, highly trained voices compliment and support each other in transcendent harmony. Setting their voice free to be carried away by the current that all voices together produce. And even further, letting the song flow together and be part of the world of sound coming from the orchestra.
Simon: While one of these observations could be spied in many workplaces, it's the combination of them happening at the same moment that makes this experience distinctly the ballet. To see our sound manifest in their physical expression is very reflective. As I watch their movement, I somehow feel I have new insight of our own sound and how it affects our listeners.
Emmi: I often think that the shortcoming of dance is, that you can not close your eyes and still keep seeing it. Now, performing together with the singers, I close my eyes whenever I can and let my new colleagues carry me away with their voices.