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Filming Ballet
by Caroline Dickie
June 10, 2021

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Svetlana Lunkina, Brendan Saye and Paolo Santos during the filming of Apollo. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of theatres worldwide, prompting many ballet companies to move their offerings online. In the absence of live performance, virtual content has been meeting the demand for ballet among existing audiences and attracting new followers who want to experience a range of styles and companies from home. For many audiences, the sustained availability of dance online has been a bright light in a year clouded by challenge and loneliness. But what has the experience been like for dancers and choreographers accustomed to live performance? We asked Principal Dancer Sonia Rodriguez, Corps de Ballet member Genevieve Penn Nabity and Choreographic Associate Robert Binet to share their experiences with commissioned dance films for The National Ballet of Canada.

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Sonia Rodriguez in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

Principal Dancer Sonia Rodriguez performs as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty Variations for Spotlight Series.

A live audience adds so much energy and excitement to ballet performances. Did you find a way to replicate that during filming?

Having the opportunity to perform in Spotlight Series was one of the highlights of this pandemic year. The project itself was postponed several times due to lockdowns, so when the day finally arrived and we walked into Prima Studio with makeup, costumes and lights, it felt as exciting as any opening night in a theatre.

Performing such a pure, classical piece like The Sleeping Beauty was a huge challenge after training in the conditions that we have been forced to for the past year but we all welcomed the challenge and rose to the occasion. There was a real sense of excitement, support and respect among the dancers, artistic staff and film crew.

Princess Aurora is a very familiar role for you. Did you perform the choreography differently for film?

The Sleeping Beauty was filmed respecting the choreography and how it is presented for an audience on stage. What I mean is that it is not a film about The Sleeping Beauty but rather Beauty filmed as if it were a live performance. Having said that, we did take advantage of being in a studio to create a more intimate film by using different cameras to record close-ups and other types of footage that you would not be able to capture if you were simply filming from the front of a stage. We gave a full performance from beginning to end and then broke it down into smaller sections to capture more intimate moments and details of the choreography. It was a long and very exhausting process but so satisfying and rewarding to have the opportunity to once again be performing in our costumes and under the lights.

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Genevieve Penn Nabity and Christopher Gerty in The Dreamers Ever Leave You. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

Corps de Ballet member Genevieve Penn Nabity performed in the digital premiere of The Dreamers Ever Leave You by Robert Binet.

How did you prepare for filming after so many months in isolation?

Preparing for The Dreamers Ever Leave You was quite different from a normal performance but also very special because Rob knew that we were coming to him after five months dancing from home, which is extremely difficult. Rob would teach us the material and give us plenty of time to work through it on our own so that we could relearn the patterns without stressing our bodies. At times he would even suggest marking something or taking it easy, since I was so excited to be working that I would start to push past my limits. It was also amazing to have the freedom to make choices in terms of the dynamics of the piece, which made it a rewarding experience artistically as well as physically.

What was the filming process like?

Filming was an eye-opening experience because it was my first time working in front of a camera. It was daunting at first knowing that we could be repeating a section multiple times in a given period. But the crew were very well prepared so it went smoothly and we didn’t have to repeat too often. I was very fortunate to work with Second Soloist Christopher Gerty, who is very knowledgeable about dancing for film and supported me when I was nervous. He is a superb partner.

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Robert Binet rehearsing The Dreamers Ever Leave You at the Harbourfront Centre. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

Choreographer Robert Binet has staged two works for the virtual season, Lake Maligne for Expansive Dances and The Dreamers Ever Leave You for Spotlight Series.

How does the absence of a live audience change your creative process or the way you think about dance?

It changes it entirely. Live performance is about risk, chance and the moment-to-moment choices a performer makes to create magic. When working with film, especially through the editing process, we must fix all these choices and decide exactly what we want the work to be, forever. I think of creating ballets as creating an arena for connection and surprise through movement and music so there is always a lot of variables. On film, we have to make different decisions that narrow the work down to one fixed statement, which is a different kind of challenge.

You filmed Lake Maligne outdoors at Evergreen Brickworks in 2020. What was that experience like?

It was really exciting because when I originally created this work for Company Wayne McGregor in 2012 it was inspired by the art of Lawren Harris and so is deeply connected to nature and the symbolism of the natural world. This solo became the jumping off point for The Dreamers Ever Leave You in 2016, so it was rewarding to revisit this work and set it amongst the natural elements that inspired it. Light is so essential in Harris’ painting, so to play with natural light was wonderful, even if it meant we had to start shooting at 5:00 am!

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