An Indian warrior inhales deeply from his opium pipe, falling back on a voluminous pile of pillows. The lights dim, a harp begins to play: a sign that something magical is about to happen: and then a dancer, all in white, steps out into a long, slow series of arabesques, down a steep incline, as if descending from the skies. This dancer is followed by another, and another, until the stage is filled with twenty-four identical, shimmering figures. We are in the famous "Kingdom of the Shades" scene from La Bayadre, a vision of heavenly perfection created by living, breathing, highly controlled, aching bodies.
For many of the women at American Ballet Theatre, this moment is a rite of passage into life as a professional ballet dancer. On any given evening, one, two, or three of these ethereal figures are probably not even fully-fledged members of the company, but apprentices, seventeen or eighteen years old, hired on a trial basis. If they prove themselves, they will become permanent members. Every season there are injuries, babies and retirements in the ranks, so there will always be apprentices, eager to make the cut, filling the ranks of swans, flowers, harem girls, villagers or Shades. "Kingdom of the Shades" is the ultimate test, a metaphor for the discipline of the dancer: she must exhibit total clarity and control, responsiveness to the music, and an understanding of the mythic dimension of the scene. But she is also part of an organism larger than herself, a body with twenty-four heads, twenty-four backs, forty-eight legs, but only one intention.
This sense of one-ness is among the most difficult skills for a new apprentice to master. Ballet students are trained to shine, to excel, to dazzle, especially these days, when international competitions have become such a common stepping-stone. Every dancer aims to jump higher, do more pirouettes, demonstrate his or her flexibility. But then, if they are lucky enough to be taken into a large classical company, they come face to face with a new reality; no matter how talented they are, they must begin in the corps de ballet. And dancing in the corps de ballet is not like winning competitions or performing in a small ensemble like ABT's Studio Company. Suddenly they are part of a large group, arrayed in tight clusters on the margins of the main action. As corps member April Giangeruso (who joined ABT as an apprentice in 2010 and became a full member later the same year) points out, "you might have a girl one foot in front of you and another girl one foot behind you." The meticulousness required to make this work comes more naturally to some than to others. Isabella Boylston, now a Soloist, remembers that as an apprentice, she often found it difficult to stay in line. "I had no notion of spacing," she says, "and I think that sensing what other dancers are doing around you is a skill you have to learn. You have to breathe as one. It's becomes like a trance state." This attention to the finer points is essential for the aspiring dancer. "It makes you focus on details," Giangeruso says, "the use of the feet, the hands."
Every dancer wants to be noticed, but as a rule, in the first months as an apprentice, less attention is probably a good thing. This lesson is instilled early on; Sterling Baca, who became an apprentice at eighteen (and a full member last spring), remembers the wise words of his teacher at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, Franco De Vita. "You have to stand out, but not in a bad way." In other words, learn the choreography, avoid making mistakes, and most importantly: no showing off. It can be a difficult lesson for a young performer, in a hurry to make a mark in what is, inevitably, a relatively short career. Baca remembers being reprimanded for trying to jump higher than his colleagues during Balanchine's Allegro Brillante when he was still in the Studio Company, a mistake he did well not to repeat as an apprentice. What Susan Jones, the ballet mistress in charge of the corps de ballet at ABT, expects of her dancers, even the youngest, is that they will take care of themselves, learn the material quickly and independently, absorb whatever corrections they are given and ask questions when they are unsure of the steps. She realizes that it can be lot to ask of a seventeen-year-old, but this is the reality of life in a busy company. During the spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, ABT performs eight evening-length ballets over the course of seven weeks, often rehearsing one ballet while performing another. There is simply not enough time to be running after wayward swans. "Time is precious, and we never have enough of it."
Not that funny situations don't arise from time to time. Calvin Royal III, who joined as an apprentice in 2010 and is now in the corps de ballet, remembers his first Sleeping Beauty at the Met, in which he played a "Fairy Knight." "I was about to go on-stage and I just blanked," recalled Royal. "What's the choreography? Where do I have to be, and when?" So he turned to the dancer on this left, asked a few key questions, and came in on time. Quick reflexes are essential. Most often, the youngest dancers turn to senior members of the corps, the guardians of institutional and artistic memory; they are the ones who guide the newcomers through the trickiest choreography, imparting secrets about getting from here to there without bumping into anyone, but also about where to find casting sheets, and, most importantly where they can watch videos of all the company's productions, an essential tool for learning the steps. Of course, there is also a bit of friendly teasing in the studio, especially among the men; Baca says the young principal Cory Stearns took to calling him "Pren": short for apprentice: in the early days, to which he responds by calling him "Prin," an abbreviation of "principal." A sense of humor helps.
Every Shade hopes to one day graduate to the role of Nikiya in La Bayadre, just as every toreador wants to be Basilio in Don Quixote and every guest at the Capulet ball dreams of one day dancing the role of Juliet. Along the way, if they are lucky, they will get to participate in the creation of new choreography, hone their skill and build their stamina, and deepen their musicality and stage presence. There are no guarantees. As Roland Petit told Violette Verdy when she was still very young: "perhaps you will one day be a star, but in the meanwhile you are in the corps de ballet." That's where it all begins.
Marina Harss is a freelance dance writer and translator in New York.