Forget tutus. What does it take for male dancers to overcome pain and injuries to make it in the fiercely competitive world of classical ballet?
Four weeks out from the auditions for the Sydney Eisteddfod, Australia’s biggest ballet competition, 18-year-old dancer Cameron Holmes was faced with a difficult decision.
A displacement fracture on his middle toe and a crush fracture on the next meant he had to choose: perform in the competition — risking further injury at the start of a long and, hopefully, fruitful dancing career — or go for glory?
“A lot of teachers told me not to do it. They said like, ‘Maybe skip this one. You don’t want to further damage it’.”
Holmes had been training for more than 40 hours each week to prepare for the competition.
So, what to do?
“I was like, let’s just see how I go. Do the audition, see what it’s like and if it’s sore I’ll just sit down.”
Decision made, Holmes reached the final of the eisteddfod, and all those weeks spent rehearsing for his moment under the spotlight at the Sydney Opera House paid off.
“It’s pretty crazy I think, just to be 18 and performing in front of a massive audience at this age,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s something I thought I would do when I’m further on in my career, not just yet.”
As physically demanding as any sport
As Holmes’ experience preparing for the eisteddfod shows, ballet can take its toll on the body as much as any sport.
“I think it’s tough. It’s not easy. You’ve got to do jumps, turns and you’ve got to make it look easy,” he said.
“With sport, you can show a grunt on your face. But in ballet, you’ve got to make it look like it’s effortless.”
Dancer Isaac Shaw, who also made it to the final of the eisteddfod, spoke of the discipline required of top-level dancers.
“I think ballet’s probably a lot more physically demanding that a lot of other sports,” the 16-year-old said.
“As much as we want our bodies to be limber and strong we have to also strengthen.
“It’s pretty intense right through from 8:30am to 4:00pm each day.”
But there was never any question of whether the broken bones and the thousands of hours of practice are all worth it.
“It doesn’t really matter what other people think if you enjoy it you should definitely do it,” Shaw said.
“And do what makes you happy.”
The stigma of the sport
As a former principal dancer and now teacher at the Queensland Ballet, Paul Boyd knows the lengths that dancers will go to make it in the art.
“The technical aspects of what’s required of them is huge now,” he said.
“Ballet dancers today are finely trained athletes.
“But then of course, we are artists.”
With so many capable dancers coming out of Australian schools, Boyd said many have to head abroad to find work.
“There is a lot of talent. We’re producing some beautiful young men,” he said
“Because of the job situation and because there’s not a lot of ballet companies, they do have to venture elsewhere.
“So I look upon it as training dancers for the world of ballet. They can head over to America. They can go to Europe.”
“They can go where they need to go and they’ve been as well trained as anyone in New York, or London or Japan.”
But the competitive nature of the world of ballet also has to compete with other forces to attract new male recruits.
Lucinda Dunn, the artistic director at the Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy, addressed the question of whether there were more boys going in to ballet.
“Unfortunately no. The stigma of the sport is always beating over the art of ballet,” she said.
“And it’s such an enriching art form in itself. We would love to encourage more boys.”
But Dunn, a former principal artist at the Australian Ballet, said there was one reason why men would always be important for classical ballet.
“The reality is you can’t be a female ballerina if you don’t have someone to stand behind you.”
Topics: dance, arts-and-entertainment, events, sydney-2000