Learn About Ballet

Overview

Ballet is an art form like no other. Insight into what happens behind the scenes can be a great way to gain a brand new perspective.  

Photos

Behind the scenes photos.

  • Keiichi Hirano and Artists of the Ballet in ballet class.
    Keiichi Hirano and Artists of the Ballet in ballet class.

    Keiichi Hirano and Artists of the Ballet in ballet class.

  • Rebekah Rimsay putting on make-up for The Sleeping Beauty
    Rebekah Rimsay putting on make-up for The Sleeping Beauty

    Rebekah Rimsay applying make-up for The Sleeping Beauty 

  • The making of a tutu
    The making of a tutu

    The making of a tutu.

  • David Brisken in rehearsal with the National Ballet Orchestra
    David Brisken in rehearsal with the National Ballet Orchestra

    David Brisken in rehearsal with the National Ballet Orchestra.

  • Heather Ogden waiting in the wings
    Heather Ogden waiting in the wings

    Heather Ogden waiting in the wings.

Behind the Scenes

Before a ballet is ready to be performed on stage, hundreds of hours of work take place behind the scenes.

Ballet dancers are a very elite group of athletes. They train for many years before becoming professional dancers and once they join a company their training does not end. Dancers' bodies need to be extremely strong and flexible to execute the demanding technique of ballet so they must practice and rehearse every day to keep their bodies in top physical condition. In daily ballet class, rehearsals and performances, a dancer's body is pulled and stretched in many different directions. When executing grand leaps and jumps, their feet, knees and backs are subject to further abuse by landing on very hard concrete floors. As a remedy, most dancers dance on specially constructed dance floors to absorb the impact of jumping. For every minute of dancing you see on the stage, there has been an hour of rehearsal.

The setting of the stage in a ballet helps to evoke the time, place or atmosphere of the production. All of the sets, scenery and props used by the National Ballet are made at the company's production workshop, a large building the size of an airplane hanger. From the initial drawings made by the set designer, scenic artists, carpenters and electricians work together to bring the setting to the stage. Lighting design is then added to enhance various aspects of the production.

Often the same person who designs the setting of a production will also design the costumes. The designer will start with a drawing of what they think the costume will look like and then the National Ballet's wardrobe department will make a pattern, choose material, sew it together, decorate the costume and finally fit it on the dancers. Ballet costumes have to be carefully reinforced so that the dancers can move easily in them and not worry about them coming apart while they are dancing.

Making Swan Lake costumes

Chris Read making costumes for Swan Lake. Photo by Cylla von Tiedermann.

When performing in a theatre, the National Ballet must transport all of its own equipment to the location including wigs, costumes, sets, props, lighting equipment and the specially designed dance floor. Many of these items are packed in wooden crates to keep them from being damaged during the trip. Very delicate items like tutus are packed in wicker hampers called "skips" for transport. All of these items are loaded into tractor-trailers and shipped to the theatre where they are stored backstage. Often items from several different ballets live backstage until it is time for the ballet to be performed.

When dancers rehearse in the studio a pianist plays the music for them. It is usually at the dress rehearsal that the dancers hear the orchestra for the first time. It is also at the dress rehearsal that the dancers have their final opportunity to try on their costumes, work with the props and scenery and practice the steps on the stage. Everyone's hard work is rewarded the moment the curtain rises and the ballet begins.

Making Swan Lake costumes

Artists of the Ballet from the wings. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Pointe Shoes

Female ballet dancers are able to stand on the tips of their toes by wearing a special shoe called a pointe shoe. Each dancer at The National Ballet of Canada is specially fitted for their pointe shoes and have their shoes made perfectly to fit their feet.

The shoemaker uses a mold of the dancer's foot size and then places layers of glue and canvas over the mold to make the toe area into a "box" to support the foot. The shoe is then hardened in a very hot oven and finally covered with pink satin. The sole of the shoe is made of hard leather which prevents it from bending too freely, and also helps to support the feet as the dancer rises up and down off their toes.

To keep the shoe on securely, the dancers sew satin ribbons to the sides and tie them tightly around the ankles. The dancers also cut the satin off the tips of the toes and apply rosin (a powdered substance also used by stringed instrument players and baseball players) to the tip and bottom of the shoe so they do not slip on the dance floor.

Lorna Geddes in shoe room
Lorna Geddes in The National Ballet of Canada Pointe Shoe Room.
 

When the dancer gets a new pair of shoes, they are very hard and would be uncomfortable and noisy to dance in. So the dancers spend time breaking in their shoes by gently hammering them or wedging them in a door frame. Wearing new shoes for ballet class and in rehearsals can also help to soften them to be more comfortable for a performance. When dancing, sweat and body heat soften the shoe even more, to where it can no longer support the dancer's foot. Pointe shoes generally last a maximum of eight hours, depending on the difficulty of the choreography, however some dancers can go through one pair of pointe shoes in a single performance.

Professional dancers have spent 8 to 10 years training to perform on pointe and have built up calluses on their feet to prevent excessive discomfort. Some dancers choose to cover their toes with lambs wools or toe tape to protect their feet from uncomfortable blisters.

Male dancers typically do not wear pointe shoes. They wear canvas ballet slippers or special ballet boots made of leather that are flexible enough for them to move and jump in. 

Photo Flip Book: Principal Dancer Sonia Rodriguez puts on her pointe shoes > 

Video: Principal Dancers Heather Ogden and Greta Hodgkinson prepare their pointe shoes > 

Suggested Reading

We highly recommend the following books to learn more about The National Ballet of Canada and dance in general. These and many others are available in many books stores and local libraries.

  • 101 Stories of the Great Ballets by George Balanchine with Fancis Mason, 1975.
  • Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet by Robert Greskovic, 1998.
  • Beyond the Dance: A Ballerina's Life by Chan Hon Goh, 2002.
  • Dance Canada by Max Wyman, 1989.
  • The dancer who flew: a memoir of Rudolf Nureyev by Linda Maybarduk, 1999.
  • Dictionary of Dance: Words, Terms and Phrases edited by Susan Macpherson, 1996.
  • Encyclopedia of theatre dance in Canada/Encyclopedie de la danse theatrale au Canada edited by Susan Macpherson, 2000.
  • Footnotes by Frank Augustyn and Shelly Tanaka, 2001.
  • Hooray for Ballet! (Smart About the Arts) by Margaret Frith, 2003.
  • Miss O: My Life in Dance by Betty Oliphant, 1997.
  • Movement Never Lies by Karen Kain with Stephen Godfrey and Penelope Reed Doob, 1994.
  • Oxford Dictionary of Dance by Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell, 2000.
  • The Power to Rise: The Story of The National Ballet of Canada by James Neufeld, 1996.
  • Tutus, Tights and Tiptoes: Ballet History As it Ought to Be Taught by David W. Barber, 2000.
 

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is ballet?

    It is a type of stylized dancing involving a specific technique.

  2. How do you become a professional dancer?

    Most dancers study ballet for 10 or more years and then audition to join a company. Dancers often audition for many companies around the world to find the company that best suits their style and technique.

  3. What do dancers do when they aren't on stage?

    They practice exercises in daily ballet class to stay in shape. After ballet class they spend up to 6 hours each day in rehearsal learning dances taught by choreographers.

  4. Can children dance on stage?

    Children who take ballet lessons sometimes are asked to dance small roles with professional companies in such ballets as The Nutcracker. Some ballet schools have annual recitals in which all the children get to perform. But to be a professional dancer, students must study in a professional school until they are 17 or 18 years old.

  5. Is ballet just for girls?

    No. Every year more and more boys are taking ballet lessons. Ballet dancers are elite athletes and to dance at a professional level requires great co-ordination and strength. Today's choreography features many exciting roles for male dancers to show off their athleticism and power. Male dancers must learn to partner female dancers and to lift them and make it look beautiful and easy. Many male dancers do special weight-lifting programmes to develop their muscles in the chest, back and arms. This helps them with partnering and prevents injury.

  6. Is training different for men and women?

    In some respects, it is. Women dance in pointe shoes on their toes. They perfect delicate but strong movements through years of rigorous training to develop and strengthen their leg and foot muscles. Men, on the other hand, work on jumps, turns and the partnering of women.

  7. Don't dancers get dizzy when they turn?

    No, they don't get dizzy because they are taught a trick called "spotting." Before they turn, they choose something on the wall, or somewhere else in front of them, to look at — a clock, a door, a light — and they try to keep looking at it as they are quickly revolving around and around.

  8. Are injuries an occupational hazard?

    Yes, injuries are a constant threat to a dancer's career. Injuries do not occur only from falls. Dancers must take class every day to keep their muscles strong, loose and warm, and their bodies flexible. They put rosin powder — the same rosin that's used on violin bows — on the bottom of their shoes to keep from slipping. Even with all of these precautions, dancers injure their backs, necks, shoulders and knees, pull muscles, sprain ankles, twist joints and break bones.

  9. Where do dancers practice?

    Dancers practice in a large room called a studio, which has mirrors on the walls so the dancers can see what they are doing. There are wooden or metal rails attached to the walls called barres. The dancers usually perform warm-up exerices while standing at the barre and holding on to it with one hand to keep their balance. Ballet class and rehearsals are accompanied by a pianist.

  10. Do all ballets tell stories?

    Story ballets such as Giselle, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake are straight narrative works told through dance and mime. Dramatic ballets also usually follow a narrative or have a literary source. Story and dramatic ballets must be detailed in structure, with exact pacing and build-up of dance and dramatic effects.

    Abstract ballets have no story but are mood pieces in which the movement and patterns are the focal point. Abstract ballets have come to the forefront in the 20th century. The first such ballet was Les Sylphides, created by Michel Fokine in 1908. Fokine, and many choreographers since, created ballets for the sake of movement and mood alone, with no specific plot. Don't look for a story in these ballets, because there isn't one. Audiences can just sit back and enjoy the ballet and let their emotions and mental images be stirred.

  11. What is the difference between a Corps de Ballet Dancer, a Second Soloist, a First Soloist and a Principal Dancer?

    The Corps de Ballet is the backbone of a ballet company and performs in all the large group sections of a ballet. The female Corps de Ballet in many classical ballets must be very well rehearsed so they can maintain symmetrical lines and perform in perfect unison.

    A dancer who excels in the Corps de Ballet may be promoted to a Second Soloist and be asked to perform smaller group dances and some solo roles.

    Demonstrating their talent and strength as a Second Soloist, can lead a dancer to being promoted to First Soloist. As a First Soloists, dancers are given more solo roles to perform and are groomed for principal roles.

    When a dancer has reached a certain level of technical ability and artistic maturity, they are promoted to Principal Dancer, the highest ranking of dancer. Principal Dancers perform starring roles in a company's repertoire.

  12. At what age do most dancers retire?

    Most dancers stop dancing between 35 and 40 years old. Sometimes a dancer may have a specific injury that has forced them to stop dancing and sometimes their bodies are just tired from all the physical strength that is required for ballet. When most adults are settled into their careers and are financially secure, retired dancers have to go through a career transition. Some dancers remain in the profession as teachers, choreographers or artistic directors. Others find new careers as photographers, actors, writers, doctors, lawyers, massage therapists and psychologists.

Do you have more questions about ballet? Please email us at info@national.ballet.ca and we will be happy to answer them.