According to the latest newsletter from my ballet teacher, we’re in week 20 of ballet lessons via Zoom. That means I’m actually in week 21, since I stopped going to class in person the week before lockdown, when it already seemed unwise to spend time in a stuffy studio filled with panting dancers.
I’ve got a pretty decent ballet setup at home now. Our laminate kitchen floor is smooth enough that it hasn’t destroyed my ballet slippers, and the kitchen itself is just big enough for me to be able to kick my legs and (generally) not kick anything over. There’s more floorspace now that we’ve gotten rid of our food “quarantine box” and moved our supplies of instant ramen and snacks to a little roll-around kitchen trolley that I can just roll out of the way when necessary. And at the recommendation of a fellow dancer I bought a cheap adjustable clothes rail from Argos (pour one out for the catalogue) which works surprisingly well as a portable ballet barre. Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, I set up my laptop on the stove and launch Zoom to dance along with my ballerina friends, all of them in their respective little boxes on my screen, in their living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens, most of them scattered across Brighton, but some of them as far afield as Sweden, the States, Canada, and even Hong Kong.
It’s wonderful, and it’s been a lifeline in this strange time…and I’m so tired of it. The novelty wore off long, long ago, and what I’m left with is the frustration of not being able to really dance, not being able to properly see myself or anyone else, not being able to enjoy the camaraderie of the studio experience and those transcendent moments in class when we’d all be in sync and I’d feel like I was dancing in an actual corps de ballet. It’s just me and laminate floor and my wobbly clothes rail bar and a little computer screen. It sucks.
Just before lockdown, when the Brighton Ballet Company was rehearsing intensively every week for our upcoming West End performance, I realized that I needed to be pushing myself more in class. It’s so easy when you’re running through the choreography over and over to do it kind of half-heartedly, not worrying too much about whether you’re pointing your feet or moving precisely. But when we recorded ourselves performing in costume in the studio as a kind of audition tape for some other potential shows that were in the works this summer (all canceled now, obviously), I was reminded of how it takes exponentially more energy to perform as opposed to simply rehearse. Just the effort of keeping a pleasant expression on your face and not be visibly gasping for breath is tremendous—and then you have to remember and execute the choreography on top of that. It’s a lot like playing in the band; we can rehearse solidly for three hours in the practice room and it’ll be tiring, but it’s nothing like playing even just a half-hour gig, with the nerves and adrenaline and stress of not wanting to make a mistake in front of an audience who may have paid money to see you perform.
Anyway, after we recorded ourselves dancing—and I struggled to get through the routines without looking and feeling like I was about to keel over—I decided to use the rest of our rehearsal time before the show to seriously work on aspects of performance. That meant dancing full out more often, concentrating on proper technique, and really pushing myself on jumps and traveling steps to build up my stamina for the stage. I was determined to get fit for the performance and was excited to find out how much I could improve in a fairly short period. I would make the most of the time and space in the studio to dance as well as I possibly could.
And two weeks later, the studio closed.
As far as makeshift studios go, my kitchen is okay—but I certainly can’t jump or even do anything that involves going up on my toes and coming down again quickly, because it rattles the whole room. And I can’t really do any traveling steps because there’s nowhere to travel—one step takes me from one side of the room to the other. And I have to constantly be on the lookout for things I might accidentally kick or hit if I’m not paying close attention. And I don’t have a floor-length mirror so I can’t see what my alignment is like or whether my pathetic arabesques are getting any higher (the benefit of not having a mirror is that I can imagine they’re improving even though I’m fairly certain they’re not). And the few times I’ve recorded myself on my phone, I’ve just looked half-hearted, like someone struggling to fit big movements into a small space. And that’s because I feel half-hearted. I’ve lost my ballet mojo, and I don’t see how it’s going to come back anytime soon. My tutus hang gathering dust, and I feel like I’m gathering dust, too.
I just realized as I was writing this that, after the original performance date for Her Majesty’s Theatre was canceled, they offered us a new one—today, August 2nd. When we penciled that in back in March, it was impossible to imagine that this is where we’d be five months on, with studios and theaters still closed and no live performances in sight. Well, that’s not entirely true: we currently have tickets to see English National Ballet perform Creature at Sadler’s Wells in November, rescheduled from April. I had completely forgotten about that when I filled out the survey for Sadler’s Wells recently and had to answer questions about when I might be willing to attend a performance again. But honestly, my answers wouldn’t have been any different. I have no idea if theaters will be open in three months, and even if they are, I have no idea if I’ll want to sit in one, however much I long to see Creature. (The same applies to Tenet, a film I’m dying to see—but, like, I don’t want to actually die. So if it really does get a theater release at the end of the month, will I go watch it? [Insert a grimace of uncertainty and a giant shrug].)
Likewise, if dance studios open again here soon, will I leave the cramped but generally safe confines of my kitchen to enter a more spacious but also more dangerous environment? With all that we now know about the virus and aerosol transmission, dancing with other people in a studio still seems like an extremely bad idea. Our studio has no ventilation to speak of, and you’re not allowed to open the windows during class because the noise bothers the people in nearby houses. So, a fairly small, closed-up room with people working hard and breathing heavily for hours on end? It doesn’t really sound ideal. But very little does these days.
[Grimace and shrug.]