How I started dancing – my first memories of dance
I grew up in England, not far from London. I fell into dance completely by chance. The mother of my best friend had bought several ballet lessons for her and her brother, but her brother was ready to give up after the first class. Since the lessons had already been paid for, she offered my parents the remaining classes.
I remember my mother sitting me down and asking me in a very serious way whether I wanted to try ballet. At first I said yes just to be able to spend time with my friend, but I ended up enjoying it from the start.
I was the only boy in the class, and had a natural rhythm and coordination, so got a lot of attention. As the third of four children, it felt nice to find a space that was all my own. Ballet became my thing.
The small things I remember from this time
My friend’s mom was French and used to give us a mint from a little coloured box, “cachou,” and it felt very chic. I remember having to gel my long hair down, and I wore leather ballet shoes, and the scents of gel and leather still bring me back to those days.
I felt early on that I was good at ballet. “This is what I am supposed to be doing,” I thought, although initially more as a hobby. I liked to dance on my own time, but did not want to leave home to do ballet full time, so I went to regular school until age sixteen. I was also playing flute and there was a time when I hesitated between the two. I practiced ballet and music simultaneously for years, and at one point was more involved with music than dance. When I finally joined a professional dance school, I had to keep up with the level of the students my age. Fully devoting myself to ballet this late in the game was a challenge, in particular psychologically. What helped me a great deal was the support of my friends and family. Still today, I need to know my friends and family will love me whether or not I complete a successful pirouette or land a particular role.
My first stage memory
Every year my ballet school would do a show. It was always fun. I never felt any performance anxiety. I was just proud and happy to go out and demonstrate what I had been practicing over the previous months. From when I first began ballet until my teenage years, I felt confident about my talents. One special memory I had was playing Toto in “Oz.” The role allowed me to hang out with the older kids, which made me feel very special!
Dancing to me was instinctive as a child. Music played and I moved to it. In my family, we all loved to dance. We would put on music, push the furniture aside, switch off the lights and the six of us would dance in the living room. Classical ballet aside, dance was a big part of my social interactions.
And it still is. I am still the first one on the dance floor at a party. In my family, dance parties have become a tradition, continuing with my siblings’ children. Being expressive through dance is part of our family heritage.
What I would like to give my audience
In each ballet, as a performer you wish for the audience to leave with a certain feeling. After “Alice,” you hope people leave excited and happy that they were taken to another world. “Romeo and Juliet” should drive the audience to think about life. I always hope the audience not only appreciates the acrobatic or athletic aspects of a performance, but also feels something deep through watching. To me ballet is a bit like a moment in a film when there is no dialogue, only music and a facial expression or body movement that makes the viewer experience more than dialogue alone could have elicited. An expression that conveys sadness is readable across cultures. If you can integrate that into dancing ballet, that is when it reaches art for me—transmitting a deeper emotion to the audience. I always strive for this. As a dancer, if you can go to an honest place, and put yourself in the role so that you feel that you have, for example, seen the love of your life die, I believe that is when the connection happens for the audience. If you can take yourself to that place internally, it reads more to the audience than if you try and show them how you want them to feel. I research techniques to make the emotions of the characters I play my own, and believe it is as important to ballet as technique. There is a tendency for ballet to become an athletic show, to prioritize the gymnastics elements over the story, and sometimes the art can get a bit lost. There is a difference between being impressed and being moved.
Ballet, like any form of art, should hold up a mirror to the audience and make each person ask him or herself what it means to be human.
A character I feel close to
James in The Sylph is very special to me. I danced him at the right time in my life. James does not feel like he quite belongs. The society he is part of tells him “this is how you should behave”, and “this is how things are done”. He wants to fit in, do the right things, and fulfil the dreams of his mother and his fiancée. However, there is a hidden side of him—his fantasy, his feminine side, the Sylph that is calling him and telling him he is supposed to be somewhere else. When she is there, his whole world becomes technicolour. When she is not around, everything is grey. Something about that resonated with me, the thought that “I have more in me than people are seeing”. It is something we all feel. James is so repressed that he creates this character to mentally run away. He cannot touch her but he becomes obsessed with her. Wanting to own part of the people we love is a very human feeling. His desire to own and keep his lover triggers his own loss. That struggle, that desperation for love, touches me a lot. I feel a lot of empathy for James. I would like to talk to him as a friend and reassure him, offer him comfort and sympathy.
Romeo’s journey also touches me a great deal. At first he is the playboy, the charmer, the lover, but then meets someone and suddenly has these deep feelings. He meets someone who sees him for who he is. Since he is a character with a strong will, he wants this love in spite of everything around him, and believes it could work. He has an appealing, naïve belief in love, as well as a fierce passion inside of him and loyalty to his friends and family. As a dancer in this role, you have to put yourself in a place where you are ready to die for someone. “I don’t want to go on if I can’t be with you. There would be nothing to live for.” It is so satisfying to allow oneself to go to these areas. In one’s own private life, one cannot be so compromising.
In ballet, there are no words so you must show your feelings in your dance by going to that place yourself internally.
A moment in “Romeo and Juliet”
My favorite moment in “Romeo and Juliet” is just before the balcony “pas de deux,” when Romeo runs in and turns his back to the audience to look at the stars. He does not know it, but at the same time, Juliet is looking at those same stars. It is so simple: looking up at the same stars as the person you love, and turning around to find her there. That moment is very special for me. It is all internal work. It is beautiful. There is so much hope in that instant—he really believes in and trusts in life. There is a quote from “The Hours” where a character feels what she describes as “the beginning of happiness”. She believes it will continue, grow, and keep coming. But after a while, looking back, she realizes that very moment was happiness. Often we are so busy thinking about how to maintain happiness that it becomes a job to be happy, rather than allowing happy moments to come and go, and enjoy them lest we miss them. If you are constantly thinking about what was or what will be, it is hard to treasure what is.
How I feel on stage
When I am on stage, I feel a responsibility for the technicality of the dancing to be in place. I have a duty toward the audience to show what the choreographer wants to show. There is a pressure on the dancers to stay true to the choreography.
But I can also suspend life while I dance. On show day, especially when the role is important to me, all that exists is what leads up to those two hours. What I eat, how I sleep, the rehearsals, how I warm up, how I do my make up. There is nothing else. On stage I feel liberated because everything is right now—nothing else matters. Day to day thoughts fall away, and I solely focus on the here and now. This is the drug of the stage. In the same way drugs can relieve a person of his or her day-to-day worries, stage can do that as well. That is why it feels addictive and can be hard to say good-bye to stage as a dancer. “This is the only moment. It is just me, here and now.”
My responsibility as an artist towards the audience
Dancers are given a repertoire. We are not choosing what the audience will have the opportunity to see—only the people in the audience can determine what they each experience. As an artist, I have the responsibility to keep searching within myself, trying to be as honest as possible as per what I am projecting. From piece to piece, the work is slightly different, so each time I must let the work and the role echo inside myself and transmit that to the public.
What dance can do
It can bring people together, and this is not limited to classical dance. Dance in general has been a cornerstone of human societal evolution. Look at the tribes around the world who are still holding on to their ancient cultures: a lot of it is still based around dance, rhythm, moving—moving together, as a group. When you are dancing as a group, the boundaries of your own body blurs with those around you. Especially nowadays, when we are so fragmented and isolated within our technological bubbles, going to a club and sweating with others on the dance floor gives you that connection. Dance and music speak to a much more primitive and essential part of our brain. Even before a child can talk, he or she can sense rhythm and music, and wants to move. With language, we box things in. Language can be divisive and separate us. Dance is inclusive and can connect us. It is therapeutic, bonding.
Gregory Dean is Principal dancer at the Royal Danish Ballet, Copenhagen.
Thanks to Carmel Legault for her edits.