Power of the corps: Important dancers form foundation of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
By Mark Kanny
Published: Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Everyone wants to be a star. But while the path in ballet to principal dancer goes through the corps de ballet, being a member of the dance chorus is important in itself.
“The corps is the foundation of the company to me,” says Terrence Orr, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's artistic director. Many memorable moments in beloved ballets are created by the corps de ballet, which is French for “body of the ballet.”
It was a corps de ballet moment in “Giselle” that made Caitlin Peabody want to be a dancer. And although she says she's always had a goal to be a soloist, she's really looking forward to “Don Quixote” in April 2014 because she discovered it's a fun ballet for the corps when she performed it with Boston Ballet early in her career
“The corps definitely has a very powerful team feel. When you've finished a ballet with the girls and guys around, you know it was a team effort. It's a naturally euphoric feeling,” she says.
Peabody, 25, says it's a truism in the corps that you're only as good as the person next to you. Understanding that one-upsmanship or competitiveness is out of place makes the corps more powerful in the ballet.
But there are frustrations.
“Put five girls in a room and try to get them to agree on everything is one way to get arguments,” Peabody says. “One girl who knows the count, we'll go with her. There's one person who picks on details and argues until they're right. There are ones who are laid-back and say, ‘I'll do whatever you want.' There are different personalities in the corps, which is necessary to make it run.”
The way the corps is used varies by repertoire.
In romantic ballets, the corps can be a soloist of its own, Orr says, pointing to the Dance of the Snowflakes and Waltz of the Flowers from “The Nutcracker.” He says in “Swan Lake” the corps provides an already built foundation for Odille and Odette when they make their entrances.
“George Balanchine (in the mid-20th century) is really known for the quickness of his feet. The petite allegro magnified dance in America,” Orr says. “People became much more articulate in what they were doing. Before, corps dancers would make a few big movements and three pirouettes or something. He was also very inventive in how he created different kinds of movement on stage by holding hands and not letting go, and getting so wound up and finding a way out of it.
“When you compare Mr. Balanchine and 21st century corps de ballet, dance has become so much more demanding on all dancers, not just the corps but principals, too, in the kind of material they must know and be able to perform. Consequently, dancers are much better today than they were five or 10 years ago, especially so compared with 20 years ago. Their bodies now move in (their) entirety to the point of almost being dizzy.”
Twyla Tharp, whose dance opens the Pittsburgh Ballet season on Oct. 25 to 27, divides her dancers so much the corps almost doesn't function as one, according to Orr.
“Instead of having 24 girls dancing exactly the same thing, as they would in ‘Swan Lake' or ‘La Bayadere' or ‘Giselle,' she might have four girls over here and six girls over there,” Orr says. “They might be broken up into a fugue. It's more interesting than it used to be.”
William Moore, 23, is looking forward to his first season in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps.
“Having already been a professional dancer for three years, I feel sort of established. I know my body, what I need to do on stage,” he says.
After training in London, Moore was a member of the corps of the Estonian National Ballet in Tallinn for three seasons. He came to Pittsburgh looking forward to the challenges an American company would provide for him.
“European dance has a more specific style,” he says. “There are new challenges here because of the repertoire that changes my idea of moving and timing. American dancing is more musical and more music-based than character-based. It's very healthy to have this new challenge when you're dancing. I feel like a fresh dancer in the company. I feel like I'm joing my first company rather than my second because of the challenge of the repertoire.”
Looking back at her years in corps, principal dancer Alexandra Kochis has mixed feelings. She was always striving for the next level and pushing herself, so eight years in the Boston Ballet corps and two more in Pittsburgh became frustrating.
“But I also really got to appreciate and value that sense of community and the unity within the group being something super-special. Twenty-four people on stage breathing as one is one of those moments in life you'll always remember,” says Kochis, who joined the ballet in 2006, became a soloist in 2008 and a principal dancer in 2009.
Kochis identifies four ways the corps experience was necessary for her development.
“The first thing is discipline,” she says. “In the corps, you're really drilled. You have to know what your body is doing. Know the port au bras and head inclining so you're all the same.”
Dancing in the corps also taught her stamina and focus. In her first season with Boston Ballet, when she was 18, she did five roles in every performance of “Swan Lake” with quick costume changes — for three weeks, 18 shows. That was an education in itself, she says, in not getting overwhelmed and staying in the moment.
Musicality also is developed dancing in the corps because “so much of it is within the confines of the music. Corps dancing is really an education in respecting the music. You let the music dictrate the mood and your movements. As a soloist, you always can extrapolate on something or embellish it but you have to know the basics.”
Finally, Kochis says the corps develops artistic integrity.
“I was fortunate enough to dance for two companies that really saw the corps de ballet as another principal player in the ballet,” she says. “That's important in coaching and having them be the backdrop on which the whole story takes place. Being part of that, really finding your own thought, and, as a true artist, transporting the audience — that's something I learned in corps.
“Now, as a principal, when I do interact with the corps, in a mad scene or a death scene, and look in the eye staring back in the story, that's what casts the spell on the whole theater. That artistic intregrity really follows through your entire career.”
Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-3207877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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