Behind the Scenes: Portrait of a Ballet Dancer in Tartu – Liviu (Romania)

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘ballet’? Tutus? Pointe shoes? Classical music? The Nutcracker or Swan Lake? Anna Pavlova? Usually, people tend to associate it mainly with good taste, high class, and it is something that people plan on watching at least once in their lifetimes. But can it be more than just recurrent clichés?

The audience comes to the theatre, watches a show, they understand the story, they enjoy it and they leave home satisfied that they spent their time watching a fine piece of art. But behind those 2-3 hours of on-stage performance, lie hundreds of hours of script and choreography writing, hundreds of hours of training with dancers and choreographers, tens of hours of work with the orchestra, costume designers, make-up artists, lighting technicians, stage technicians,  and all departments backstage. And to add to all this, every dancer has to deal with their own personal challenges and struggles that each dancer goes through in the process of rehearsal and training.

While studying at the University of Tartu, I met one of the dancers from Vanemuine theater during the Estonian language course. Her name is Yukiko, and as our relationship developed, I gradually started learning more about her life and eventually a previously hidden world started to uncover before my eyes. At the same time, through her I was able to meet other ballet dancers with fascinating life stories, different experiences and similar struggles. Everyone is part of a world unknown to most people, but fascinating in its complexity and beauty.

Also, I must address my huge thanks to ballet dancers Emily Ward, Hayley Jean Blackburn, Yukiko Yanagi and Bleiddian Bazzard for helping me with the writing of this blog post.

Emily, Hayley, Yukiko and Bleiddian. Picture credit: vanemuine.ee

The job of a lifetime

“I have danced ever since I can remember. Ballet is such a big part of my life. It helped me grow as a person. Ballet helped me make connections with wonderful people from all over the world. Every time I step foot on stage; it lets me out of this real-world; it feels like I enter a different world, like a magical feeling. What I think the most beautiful thing about ballet is expressing yourself with your body movements instead of using words.” – Yukiko

Most of the dancers start dancing when they are really young. In the case of Yukiko, she first started dancing at the age of 3. From then on, she started to develop an attachment to ballet, and dreamt of becoming a ballerina like the ones she saw and admired on stage. Like many dancers, after finishing her ballet studies, she travelled around the world looking for the right place to settle and work. She found her place here, in the city of Tartu, and has been performing at Vanemuine Theater for six years.

Yukiko as Galathea in “Metamorphoses”, October 2021. Photo credit: Gabriela Urm

Ballet is not like a regular job

“The biggest thing that differentiates ballet from other occupations is that it is not a target based, goal setting type of job. Ballet is something entirely linked with personal growth, which feels compelling and rewarding but is not something that is linear. It’s a journey on which you get to connect with your mind, body and soul, on a mental, physical and emotional level, and the greatest result would be when you can bring those three aspects equally to the table. The result is then entirely subjective to your audience.”  – Emily

Emily as Queen in “Swan Lake”, October 2021. Photo credit: Silas Stubbs

Ballet is unlike any other job. It requires extraordinary stamina and a well-maintained physical condition, as well as good acting and a sharp sense of rhythm. All the moves that you see are not random, nor improvised. A dancer must count all the moves they perform in their head while performing the dance, act appropriately, and remain in the right locations on the stage. If you try to do all this at once, you will probably fail at least in one aspect. For a ballet dancer, this is everyday work, but it comes after almost a lifetime of practicing every day.

Apart from attending daily rehearsals and training at the theatre, a ballet dancer must also go to the gym almost every day, maintain their body weight, eat well and relax. Furthermore, injuries are something that every dancer tries to avoid as they can force a person into recovery and the subsequent inability to participate in a show. In addition, dancers must also pay extra attention to their mental health and be ready to face pressure from the choreographer, their partners, or just the complexity of the performance.

However, despite all difficulties, dancers manage to strengthen their characters through hardships and succeed in staying dedicated and fulfilled. When it comes to ballet, it is not money that is important, but the feelings that you get while being on stage and the sense of accomplishment as you see the audience applauding and cheering as you finish your show and perform your reverence.

“Ballet can give you some of the most beautiful moments in life, and there have been times where dancing has given me a sense of freedom and given me a sense of almost transcendence that is like nothing else on earth. And for me the hardships are worth it for those moments.” – Bleiddian

Bleiddian as Courtier in “Swan Lake”, October 2021. Photo credit: Maris Savik

Breaking the stereotypes

“I think something people should know about ballet is that it is multifaceted. There is something for everyone. Every show is different, in style, musical choices, and story. Even if you don’t think it’s for you I think you should look into the different experiences that are on offer and give something a chance.” – Hayley

Hayley as Psyche in “Metamorphoses”, October 2021. Photo credit: Silas Stubbs

If you think ballet is about classical music and girls dancing in tutus, then you need to get rid of this image. Especially at Vanemuine theater, the repertoire is diversified, with different styles of dancing. From classical to modern, each show takes a style or even combines them in order to tell a story. And yes, every show has a story that may as well represent a puzzle. It is not just random dancing just for the sake of art. On the contrary, each move, facial expression and music piece represents a step further into the story unfolding on stage. I would even dare to say that ballet is therapeutic: each show offers a chance for introspection, as the stories tend to dwell on dilemmas, moral choices and deep struggles of the soul that we go through in our lives.

Perhaps another stereotype going around is that ballet is only for girls—another false stereotype. Vanemuine Theater is home to many talented male dancers who undergo rehearsals and training like everyone else. Usually, they dance in pairs with their female partners and often act as support for the movements that the female dancers must perform. Oh, and they don’t get to wear pointe shoes.

Speaking of which…

Did you know that pointe shoes are amazing? A ballerina learns to keep her balance on the tip of these pointe shoes, which have a narrow surface. Each shoe is handcrafted according to the foot measurements of the ballerina! And because so much pressure is exerted during dancing, pointe shoes do not generally last more than two weeks of use. Another major downside is that wearing them is often painful to the dancer and can lead to bruises and wounds. Of course, ballerinas do not complain because of the pain, which is why dancing like this amidst all difficulties looks like a superhuman quality.

Yukiko in her pointe-shoes, May 2017. Photo credit: Alex Fine

The family away from home

“The Vanemuine Theatre is a very creative theatre, and they are always looking for a new take on something. It is a magical experience to be part of a new creation and see it develop from the beginning through to the end result. I also think Tartu is a very beautiful town to live in. As a mother, I see that it is especially a lovely town for young children to grow up.” – Hayley

Vanemuine Theater may not be the largest or the most well-known theater in the world, but what it does have is cohesion and unity. The ballet group is closely tied together and they always hang out together. This may be why it is so tricky actually to meet a ballet dancer outside their group. For that matter, most ballet artists establish romantic relationships inside the company and even get married to other dancers. The word that describes the ballet company of Vanemuine theater is ‘family’.

“Vanemuine is a really beautiful theatre; I love being surrounded by so many different performing arts. I also really love the family ethos of the ballet company in the theatre. I feel so lucky to work alongside such talented and lovely people. The whole theatre has a really lovely community feeling, and it’s just a really wonderful thing to be a part of.” – Bleiddian

Bleiddian and Emily backstage after dancing as partners in “Metamorphoses”, October 2021.

Ballet is more contemporary than you would actually think

“Ballet can tell a story through movement when words are not enough, but it is also a piece of art that reflects what society says at the current time. When it finally comes to the stage, it is always a celebration. It is something that feels very profound for everyone to reveal their inner world and present their hard work as an ensemble.” – Emily

My life became intertwined with ballet life, even though I do not play a major role in it. However, I was able to see what lies behind the scenes. I learned how the whole process of becoming a dancer actually is and how tough it is to obtain a role in a show. Yes, sometimes there is competition and that is stressful for everyone, regardless of how good relationships between dancers are.  I have witnessed the ups and downs of ballet dancers. Of course, nobody in the audience can determine whether a dancer has had a tough day before the show. Nobody can tell the sacrifices they make, and nobody knows the fact that most of them had to leave home from a young age in order to pursue a career in ballet. The hearts of ballet dancers may carry wounds from the past, but they all heal as soon as the curtains are raised and the show starts. From that moment, the dancers’ hearts know nothing but happiness.

I recommend everyone who lives in Tartu or is planning on moving to Tartu to attend a ballet show at Vanemuine Theater, so you too can witness how the combined hard work of hundreds of dedicated people can create art and heal hearts.

Vanemuine Theater. Photo credit: Tarmo Haud

For more information about the theatre, and the shows currently being running this season, visit https://www.vanemuine.ee/en/. Students receive a 20% discount upon presenting their ISIC card or other proof of enrollment in the university.