Dancers are emerging after the latest lockdown in many different ways. Some are lucky to have performed in their company’s theatre, without an audience, for online video streaming. Others find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings for summer season open-air performances. Whatever, it hasn’t been easy for anyone, and issues surrounding dancers’ mental health have become paramount. Although it’s true that pliés by the fridge are better than nothing at all, a kitchen barre is no substitute for a studio class, and a rehearsal studio is no substitute for a stage.
One of the first post-lockdown encounters with a stage and a public for Laurretta Summerscales (principal dancer with the Bavarian State Ballet) and István Simon (international principal guest artist) was at the Ballet Star Gala of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
“It had been a while since being on stage,” says István. “When the Covid-19 pandemic hit I was on a tour which I organised in Pakistan with Andreas Heise’s Winterreise. We were lucky to be able to come back to Germany with the last plane before the borders were closed. It was an extremely adventuresome experience. Since then, during the past one and a half years, I have only performed a few times, for example, The Great Gatsby in Ljubljana, the White Swan pas de deux in Budapest, and Winterreise for two of my close friends for a private performance.”
Laurretta says, “It was really exciting to find out that we could perform shows again, so the adrenaline rush was great, and rehearsing became even more enjoyable although with added pressure which I hadn’t experienced for a while. Pressure is a factor that not many people think about when they see ballet dancers. It’s one thing to dance but another to cope with nerves and negative thoughts that may come into your head. I feel this also needs practice sometimes, and for me, even though I was so happy to be dancing on stage again, I could feel my body reacting differently from my brain. When I performed my third show back, I finally felt like me again.”
What were the most negative aspects of lockdown?
“Losing precious time to dance,” she says. “Already we have a time restriction on our careers, and it is very upsetting to accept that you are losing more time. Also, for most dancers, we have spent our whole lives living for ballet, we eat, sleep, and breathe it, so then to lose this you can feel like you have lost yourself and don’t know who you are anymore.”
István adds, “As a freelancer, I was experiencing great financial loss and huge insecurity. That was topped with the lack of sharing space with other performers, not being able to dance together with others, the restrictions for meeting friends and family, not being able to travel, going to cinema, theatre, concerts, restaurants…”
Is there a positive side?
“It was good to find out what other passions you may have and find who you are without ballet,” says Laurretta. “It was also a time to really go back to basics and get those bad habits under control without having to get ready to perform.”
István has found positive aspects to lockdown too: “Having to re-evaluate everything and changing routines offers the possibility to consciously redesign our life and create healthier and more beneficial structures. Many things can be optimised, important things can be addressed for which ‘there has never been time’ or looking at the things that were not in perspective before. I have made more space in my life for improving as a person, gaining new skills, and developing deep self-reflection. I have acquired a garden in which I have the chance to enjoy nature. Being a constantly traveling international performing artist meant that recently I could spend lots of quality time with my wife and my son.”
István even set up an organisation during the period: the Praetorian Non-Profit Art and Health Consulting. It aims to support building healthier social structures in the dance world, with crossover projects relating to dance and mental health, dance and science, and working for the advocacy of dancers. [More details below]
When he didn’t have access to a dance studio, István trained not only at home but also beside the river Elbe in Dresden. “I have changed some principles of my training. I was never an advocate of running as a form of complimentary training alongside ballet, as it enhances muscle pathways that are not perfectly aligned with the best synergies of classical ballet’s en dehors, but now during this time it was useful to run because it maintained the buoyancy of the body and nurtured stamina.
Together with his wife, Boglárka Simon-Hatala – who is an expert in dance medicine, body awareness coach and physiotherapist – and ballet master Yannick Boquin, they created a series of safeguard ballet classes for classical dancers, providing them for dancers in more than ten companies. “This management work also benefited my own ballet dancer shape maintenance to a great extent,” says István. “Thanks to these classes I could safely practice movement sequences that offered complexity, variety, and useful coordination which kept the firing patterns of my muscles active.”
Laurretta and István arrived on the island of Gran Canaria to find lots of sun and lots of wind. “If it is very windy it can be hard to find your balance, so you may not feel like you can perform your best,” says Laurretta. “There are many things that are not predictable. If the temperature is too low it is bad for your body when dancing, especially if you do not have much of a costume. Also, if the air is very humid or it has rained, or is raining, then this makes the floor very slippery and can cause injury – with pointe shoes and jumps in particular.”
István agrees that humidity is one of the most dangerous problems but adds: “The wind can have an effect on balances, but on the other hand, the wind may give also a very special feeling to the performing experience. It can be an additional element that helps us to feel free and can contribute to creating the experience of unrestricted movement.”
“One thing that is really lovely about dancing at night under the stars is the atmosphere,” adds Laurretta. “In Gran Canaria it was very windy and a little chilly but once you started dancing you didn’t feel the cold, but the wind, especially for La Bayadère really gave a wonderful feeling; I felt like I was dancing with nature, and I had more presence onstage as there was something almost spiritual. It was a wonderful moment!”
István agrees that a stage, even indoor, is an essential part of a dancer’s formation that goes beyond building strength and stamina. “Being on stage comes with an elevated emotional state and sensitivity giving sharpened attention. The performer is channelling an emotional content to the audience and artists need to guide themselves through the process of a performance too. This channelling becomes more challenging after a longer break.
“A balanced repertoire is indispensable, especially for a freelance dancer. My return was with the White Swan pas de deux, the Don Quixote grand pas de deux, and La Bayadère pas de deux from the shades scene. The small details that make quality in classical ballet are the hardest to present, but at the same time was heart-warming to feel competent and to acknowledge the choices that I have made during the preparation and during the performance.”
When I interviewed The Royal Ballet’s Lauren Cuthbertson last year during the first lockdown, she thought she would be more ready than most for coming back as she’d already experienced the uncertainty of not knowing when a period away from the stage would end. Her post-viral fatigue after glandular fever eventually kept her offstage for 18 months. “When I was injured, it was finite: this problem will take six weeks, and this takes seven, the bone bruising will take three months, and so on. There are always a few ups and downs, but you have a rough idea of how you can build up. But this current situation is similar to when I was ill, and I really didn’t have an idea of how long it would take. I had to learn how to exist with the unknown and yet still be positively moving forward when I could, and not let things frustrate me when I couldn’t.”
They are sentiments that István echoes: “There is a difference between not performing because of an injury, going on holiday, or a lockdown. The undefined end of a lockdown effects the performing artist’s identity in a particularly strong way. What happens to the performing artist’s self when not being able to perform and having no information on how long such a period will be? It is unpredictable. After lockdown, I had to answer these challenges before going on stage again.”
István Simon on his Praetorian Non-Profit Art and Health Consulting project
Taking into consideration all the experiences and consequences following on from the measures imposed since last March because of the pandemic, I have decided to initiate a project which rehabilitates the art of the artists.
Bringing Boglárka’s project idea, Taming Our Trauma to life I have partnered up with Tristan Agency in Dresden and we have applied for funding at the National Performing Arts Network, which is also one of the distribution bodies of the Neustart Kultur program in Germany. The programme was selected, and this opens the possibility to realise a new project model that, on one hand, deals with the traumas experienced by performers during the pandemic and lockdown, but also to go much further. We aspire to develop new communication structures to respond to the most urgent topics of the dance profession today, such as the need for anti-abusive practices, inclusive and tolerant environments, solution-oriented processes in dance.
We have a great team of experts – counsellor and psychotherapist Terry Hyde, trauma-informed care expert Lilla Gerlinger from the Trauma Centre in Budapest, neuroscientist and health expert Boglárka Simon-Hatala – a wonderful choreographer, Andreas Heise, and four remarkable dancers: Kristin Mente, Aya Sone, Pedro Henrique Ferreira, and Thomas Rohe. For a month we will undergo an experiment to find emotionally safe environments for top choreographic creation in order to simultaneously improve the health of the participants and to provide practical examples to show that true art should not root in suffering.