Opus Osm goes behind the curtain to find out how a ballerina prepares for her starring role
By Mary Matz
Almost every girl secretly wishes to be Cinderella, with her own Prince.
But Zuzana Šimáková will actually become Cinderella on April 14-15 when she premieres the role with the National Theatre Ballet.
So what does a dancer have to do to transform herself into such a mythical creature?
It starts with training and rehearsal. A whole lot of it.
Mrs Šimáková goes to work, like most of us, about 9 o’clock every morning. But then she spends the next nearly two hours practicing jumps, doing exercises for flexibility, repeating combinations of steps over and over, and standing at the wooden railing, the barre, repeating ballet movements.
After that, most of us would be ready to hit the showers and go home. But her day is just beginning.
Except for the 30 minutes when she relaxes over a small, light lunch, she spends the rest of her work day, from 11 am til 5:30, on her toes — rehearsing the steps for Cinderella.
The inside of the National Theatre’s ballet studio looks pretty much like any gym or fitness studio, a big open room lined with mirrors. Over in one corner, five young men are stretched out on the floor, apparently exhausted after a workout. In the back of the room, several guys are piled onto some wooden crates, chatting; one does arm reps with a heavy dumbbell. Only the piano gives the tip-off that this isn’t an ordinary gym.
Suddenly, music blares across the room. The five sleepers spring into action, rising smoothly into leaps, twirls, and dips.
They weren’t asleep after all.
Zuzana Šimáková watches it all, concentrating, from the sidelines. You might think that the hundreds of steps in a ballet are written out in some kind of short-hand code. Probably the dancers download them onto their iPods for study later, and revisions are sent to all the dancers by email, right?
Well, no. Dancers still learn the steps the old-fashioned way, memorized from a ballet master showing them, again and again, the combinations and order of each move. The dancers learn them only by repetition.
Their only technological ‘cheat’ is the relatively new ability to first watch each sequence on a DVD of another’s performance. In this case, it’s Jean-Christophe Maillot’s production of Cinderella staged by the Ballet de Monte-Carlo. The dance company is cooperating closely with the National Theatre Ballet, sending choreographers and assistants to Prague regularly, before Mr Maillot’s production opens here.
“I like this Cinderella,” Mrs Šimáková says, a version that contains a lot of easily understandable pantomime, facial expressions, hand movements, and emotion. “I like this acting,” she tells Opus Osm. “I like roles that have more feeling, more emotion.”
Since her part is composed of many tiny pieces and stage entrances, rather than one or two long dances, she writes notes on where she is supposed to enter the stage.
Meanwhile, Backstage …
And what does she do when she’s not on stage, when she’s waiting in the wings for her cue? Surely she’s not checking her mobile phone! But maybe she chats briefly with the other dancers?
“Nooo,” she says, her eyes widening. She’s apparently horrified at the thought. “Of course, I have to change my costume. I drink. I have to drink a lot. Also, I have to fix my make-up. And I watch the other dancers.
“This Cinderella is different,” she says, explaining that this version is appropriate for older girls or young teens. The avant-garde costumes reflect that. For example, the step-mother wears a corset, not the traditional flowing, long skirt, and other dancers are outfitted in flesh-toned corsets. For the dramatic, first entrance, the Fairy wears a long, dark cloak which she tosses off to reveal her costume of glittering, gold sparkles that catch and reflect the light. And instead of wearing a glass slipper, Cinderella’s feet are covered with gold sparkles.
“It’s magical,” she says.
“Dancing is very hard work,” Mrs Šimáková admits. “Your body is very tired. Sometimes you have no power, but you have to perform. So — I just do it. And the audience helps. You can feel their reaction. The emotion you feel from them is like a spirit.”
Despite the hard work and tired bones, dancing transforms her. “I like becoming a different person on stage. All my troubles go away. I don’t have to think about my family, my boyfriend …” she sighs, “love …” she giggles. “It’s like flying, or being in a different world.”
It’s been a long day of rehearsals and Cinderella comes back to the real world. It’s six o’clock in the evening and Mrs Šimáková is heading home to her cat and her boyfriend and maybe a French class.
So is there some wish we can give her for good luck at the premiere? Something rather horrible like the traditional ‘Break a leg?’
“Yes,” she confirms, “we say ‘Break a leg.’ Or better [in Czech], we say ‘Break your neck.’”
Break your neck, Cinderella. oo
Zuzana Šimáková says she has always wanted to be a ballet dancer. The first Cinderella she remembers was the one broadcast on the children’s television program Večerniček.
Originally from Košice, Slovakia, Mrs Šimáková graduated in 1998 from the Dance Conservatory there, and was engaged by the JK Tyl Theatre, Pilsen as a member of the corps de ballet and a solo dancer.
Since the 2002-03 season she has been a member of the National Theatre ballet in Prague, and since 2004 a demi-soloist. She has danced the role of Bianca in Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew; the pas de trois in Swan Lake; and in The Nutcracker-A Christmas Carol, as well as in several solo roles in choreographies by Petr Zuska.
She also performed in operettas and musicals in Pilsen, and tried her hand at choreography, “but that was a long time ago,” she laughs.
Photo Credits: All photos by Hana Smejkalová, except Cinderella in costume, bottom, by Pavel Hejný, and Zuzana Šimáková, portrait, by Miroslav Setnička