Thursday 23 November 2017

No holds barre'd

We get a glimpse of the relentless training schedule of the stars of the Birmingham Royal Ballet for its production of 'Giselle' in Dublin

Iain Mackay and
Jenna Roberts of
the Birmingham
Royal Ballet prepare
for their production
of ‘Giselle’
Iain Mackay and Jenna Roberts of the Birmingham Royal Ballet prepare for their production of ‘Giselle’
"If you are not dancing you're working out" - Jenna Roberts.
Materials marked out for making into costumes for Giselle.
Iain Mackay and Jenna Roberts of the Birmingham Royal Ballet prepare for their production of ‘Giselle’
Rehearsing in the studio for Giselle.
Dancers train in the mirror lined studio.

Laura Kelly-Walsh

'I can't ever remember being bullied to the point where I was upset about it. I didn't tell any friends for a long time." I doubt, looking at Iain Mackay now, that many bullies would try to cross him.

I'm sitting in front of two of the principal dancers – Iain and Jenna Roberts – from the Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of 'Giselle'.

We're in a small dance studio that's lined with mirrors. Sweat lingers in the air. Iain and Jenna have just finished a gruelling six-hour day of rehearsals. Their lean, sinewy bodies are drenched; their muscles glistening.

These two are ballet dancers, sure, but they're more than that – they're athletes at the top of their game.

Iain and Jenna rehearse for 'Giselle'.
Iain and Jenna rehearse for 'Giselle'.

There is hard graft behind the grace. Self-discipline is crucial for ballerinas, but it comes at a price.

"I left school when I was 16 to come and train in the Royal Ballet School," says Jenna. "Sometimes you had friends who were off doing something, while you had to go straight to ballet after school."

"I'm the same," adds Iain. "I moved to London when I was 17, but your career takes you to where you have to go. You have to go to where the best training and schools are and the best company to work for is.

"I missed a lot of friends' weddings. I've also missed family funerals; I've looked at it and said, 'No, I can't come home for gran's funeral because I've a show in two days and I need to rehearse'. And then you look back and think, 'shit'."

Despite the relentless schedule, they are both very proud to be working for the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

"In the company as a whole, the atmosphere is really healthy," says Iain. "There is a competitiveness, which is natural in any company – it's got to be there, but it's a really positive working atmosphere."

Ballerinas are more than dancers, they're athletes at the top of their game.
Ballerinas are more than dancers, they're athletes at the top of their game.

The competitiveness seems stiffer between females, albeit less openly.

"Not behind each other's backs, but it's all a bit quieter," explains Jenna. "It is a bit like that with females anyway; in general, they're not so open about things."

The dancers get five weeks' hard-earned holidays a year, but even then they're hesitant to rest for too long.

"You're always thinking about getting out of shape, because you come back from holiday and you've got to dance," explains Jenna. "The pressures are huge when you're performing in front of audiences. I constantly have to do something – I need to keep busy, to exercise."

"You can't be out drinking pints of Guinness the night before the show," laughs Iain.

The life of a ballet dancer seems suffocatingly insular. Jenna's boyfriend works for the company and Iain is married to one of the ballet dancers. They tell me there are many other couples within the company.

"Jenna and her boyfriend, Joe, and my wife and myself and another guy from the company, we're all going on holidays together to Spain for a week," says Iain.

"It's hard to meet people," adds Jenna, "especially because we're on tour a lot."

Iain's quick to interject, "but ballerinas are pretty attractive anyway".

Strength and tenacity are vital characteristics for a ballet dancer. If you get injured, it's a test to come back stronger than before you left.

Jenna fractured her foot and, rather then nursing it and resting, she danced rigorously on it for two years. Doctors had to operate by adding two pins along with bone marrow from her hip. She was forced to take a year and a half off.

"It was hard, really hard, mentally more than physically," she says.

So she knitted during her time off – and worked out every day in the gym.

"I had to do a lot. When you're not dancing you're working out, especially if you're injured. It's the best place to be," says Jenna.

Or the worst.

"You're in [the gym] all day and your friends and colleagues in there are rehearsing and progressing. You don't progress anywhere within the company when you're injured," Iain explains.

The on-site physiotherapist, Lorcan McGee, insists that they train harder than footballers – and he'd know, having previously worked with Aston Villa. {Incidentally, Iain played football growing up and attributes to it much of his success as a ballet dancer.}

"Aston Villa soccer players would train eight hours a week, whereas dancers do six hours a day. Footballers would train for 90 minutes at the weekend; dancers for two hours," Lorcan explains.

As he's saying this, I spot a lithe young woman sweating profusely on a crosstrainer nearby. Lorcan highlights that there is little downtime and that their diet is key to recovery.

"A lot of them are always thinking ahead. These dancers work ridiculously hard. I've never seen athletes like it. When they're not in rehearsal, a lot of them are in here doing their bit. They're rehearsing for 'Giselle' now, but they're also rehearsing for next year."

It's obvious that the BRB invests in its dancers – they are here for the long-run.

"We want to build them, not just for today and tomorrow – we want to build a future for them so that they can work until they're 40. One of the dancers is retiring, she's 41 years of age; in comparison, there's an 18-year-old in there, too," adds Lorcan.

The life of a ballet dancer is no easy ride, but there's a lot to learn from their hard- working ethos. They have led very different lives from those of your average twenty-something, and my only hope is that they get to indulge in a Guinness or two once the curtain goes down on the last night.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet's performance of 'Giselle' will play for four shows only from July 4-6 at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Tickets from €25 are on sale now from Ticketmaster. See

Irish Independent

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