How important is American Ballet Theatre's corps de ballet? Enough so that most ballets would resemble plucked gardens without it. Literally, "the body of the ballet," it enables the beating hearts and noble souls of the principal characters, whether Giselle or Siegfried or Aurora, to become fully fleshed, fully dimensional. The corps de ballet supports, embellishes and stimulates, fluidly ushering the drama or mood onward via the music.
"The corps de ballet can be used for so many different things: foreshadowing a mood, providing a look to the ballet, giving the principals someone to react to, setting the scene," says Julio Bragado-Young, who joined ABT's corps in 1999. An elegant version of a Greek chorus, ABT's corps de ballet bears witness to tragic or scandalous events, such as Mercutio's death, Giselle's unhinging, Nikiya's fatal snakebite, Lensky's manic outburst or Odile's wicked treachery.
"There is so much going on in Giselle," says Kelley Boyd, who fulfilled her dream of joining ABT's corps in 2001. "It's not only her death that you react to as a corps member, but also Albrecht, and what he's done and how he's leaving."
"The audience looks to the corps de ballet for intention," says Arron Scott, an ABT corps dancer since 2004. "Wherever we put our energy, the audience puts their attention too." And Marian Butler, who joined ABT's corps in 1995, compares ballets, especially full-length works, without their wilis, gypsies, fairies, temple dancers, pirates, odalisques and huntresses/nymphs, to epic films without a supporting cast: "I just think a movie wouldn't be the same, and there wouldn't be a ballet without us."
The architecture of a ballet achieves its spatial majesty when the corps de ballet takes the stage. Think of the mesmerizing symmetry in the iconic second act of La Bayadre, futuristic in its minimalism, as the Shades glide through their arabesques in unison. Swan Lake, Act II is replete with what could be termed sacred geometry. "The way all the swans weave into a pyramid behind Odette, and then the 'V' shape and the 'W' they make before they exit: it's all magical and supports the story so well," says Boyd. And if you watch from the upper tiers of the Metropolitan Opera House, you can see two pointed arrows, formed by the corps de ballet during Odette's and Siegfried's intimate pas de deux.
"In Giselle, there's the scene where the wilis circle Hilarion and dance him to death," says Butler. "Later in the second act we form a long diagonal to lead Giselle on before she asks Myrta to save Albrecht."
But painting such intricately elaborate pictures that convey a sense of order within the chaos of life's dramas requires a corps dancer's acutely sensitive timing and proprioception. "A lot of what we work on in the corps is breathing together," says Butler. "So any time we have to change positions or move to a different formation, we all try to take a breath together so that we can walk together, usually on a musical cue."
The corps de ballet plays a foundational role in allowing the audience to "see the music, hear the dance," as Balanchine famously proclaimed. Often it provides a bass line to the melody of the leading dancers. "In Symphony in C, the corps will do very similar steps to the soloists and principals, but they don't happen at the same time," says Bragado-Young. "There are syncopation, canon, variations on a step or on a theme that the music is dictating, which Balanchine was a master at and understood perfectly. You can see it, and that's what brings the ballet completely together." During the ballet's fourth movement, all 52 dancers on stage perform the choreography in unison as the music pushes toward its grand crescendo. Without a corps de ballet, the finale would fizzle.
Similarly, Alexei Ratmansky's works, which sometimes resemble living organisms due to the vivid energy of the corps de ballet, possess keen musical sensibility. This season, ABT is premiering a triptych of his ballets set to Shostakovich, starting with the composer's Ninth Symphony. "Ratmansky's ballets are very physical and he demands a lot, whether you're dancing or acting," says Butler. "He always gives you something to play off of or something to think about."
In a piece like Mark Morris's Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, all the players, ranging in rank from principals to corps members, act as a meticulously meshed ensemble. "All three choreographers (Balanchine, Morris and Ratmansky) have one thing in common, that is, the corps is just as important as the principals in a musical aspect," says Bragado-Young. "They go by the score: that's enormous."
There are some ballets that corps members favor over others, usually because the ensemble adds extra meaning to the production. "The ballet I'm most attached to is Romeo and Juliet," says Butler. "If I'm not onstage, I'm always backstage watching." And, as a former student who obsessively watched videos of Mikhail Baryshnikov in Don Quixote, Bragado-Young now says, "I remember walking on stage for the first time with the full Don Q set and thinking 'I can't believe I'm here.'"
How essential is the corps de ballet? They're often on the stage eight times a week during the Met season, compared to once or twice as a norm for the principals. And they're frequently tapped for soloist or principal roles, especially as the season wears on with inevitable injuries. Butler has danced the Cowgirl in Rodeo, for example, while Boyd has been featured in Paul Taylor works such as Airs and Black Tuesday. Scott has performed the Bronze Idol in La Bayadre, and Bragado-Young has frolicked on pointe as Bottom in The Dream.
Dancing in the corps requires equal parts stamina, talent and love for the art form. "If you're a stage junkie, it's the best place to be," says Bragado-Young. "You're on every night."
Joseph Carman, a former ABT dancer, is a senior contributing editor for Dance Magazine