WHILE WORKING AS A FREELANCE photographer for the Royal Ballet of Flanders, my good friend Yevgeniy Kolesnik—principal dancer and choreographer—asked me to appear as the opening act in a choreography he was making for fellow dancer Claudia Phlips and himself.
So when this piece, alongside another solo Yevgeniy created for Claudia, got selected to be performed at the 2013 Moscow Ballet Competition, I tagged along with my ballet dancer friends for a brief, nerve-wrecking, appearance on the Boshoi stage, as well as an in-depth photo reportage off-stage.
Armed with my 35mm camera—and under immense, ever-growing pressure for my fast approaching moment on the Bolshoi stage—I captured the 2013 Moscow Ballet Competition from within the darkness of the wings and the restlessness backstage.
The 2013 Moscow Ballet Competition was Claudia’s first ballet competition experience, while Yevgeniy is a true competition veteran.
This reportage combines my photographs with excerpts from interviews with my dancer friends Claudia and Yevgeniy, in order to provide a greater inside in the world of competitive ballet dancing.
Yevgeniy & Claudia in the Moscow Subway, on their way to the Bolshoi Ballet Competition.
Moscow. The lion’s den. The heart of classical ballet. Everything originates from here. And the competition continues that tradition. The bar is set very high there indeed.
In a company you will more often have a family feeling when performing. In a competition it’s all about competing. You won’t be making friends there as easily. You’ll be thinking, “Shit, she’s got better feet. Shit, she has a better turnout.”
A competition seems to be about putting yourself ahead of the rest.
A performance is an art form, wherein you can build and perfect your technical execution throughout a series of shows. At a competition you’re actively on stage for five minutes when performing a solo, or for fifteen minutes if it’s a pas de deux. Therefor you need to prepare yourself physically and mentally and during which you have to deliver your technical best. It’s more about technique than about your artistic baggage.
The audience and the other dancer aren’t there to see you perform. Everyone is there for the competition and thus everybody is feeling the pressure of being surrounded by well-trained competitor.
A dancer prepares to mark her solo on the Bolshoi stage.
Claudia & Yevgeniy pass the time, mentally marking the choreography to the music.
You arrive, you receive your number and the schedule for setting your piece and doing your lighting on stage. And then you wait…
Waiting is an added source of stress, which, unfortunately is a part of competitions. You just have to learn to deal with it and understand that it is hard organizing the timing for these competitions. It’s not like a performance where everyone knows their cues. In a competition anything can happen and anything can be shifted.
It can happen that you are there a whole day and the entire schedule just keeps on shifting. If setting the lighting of the pieces takes longer, for example. You have to accept that. It happens that if you leave to stage area, you could miss your time for setting your piece. So you are stuck there, and you can’t do much. Just hang around.
The most exhausting is that you don’t know when you’re time will be because nobody can give you an exact time. So you wait, and wait and wait and still it can happen that you don’t get your time.
That is very frustrating.
As a dancer, you’re just focused the whole time. There’s nothing worse that thinking, “Now’s my time,” and then have to shift another hour. And then another hour. And then another. You’re focused the whole time, to make sure you can get everything done that needs to get done, and that you’ve seen, investigated and felt the stage within the time that they’ll give you.
An exhausted choreographer sleeping in the Bolshoi corridors.
A ballerina preparing herself for the coming moment on stage.
You feel everybody is putting themselves behind their own walls. They enter their own world of concentration. You do whatever you need to do, to be able to concentrate. Small things. Some don’t like people watching them warm up, some can’t stand watching others’ performances. We all need time to mentally prepare ourselves to go on stage. So usually you don’t see what other dancers perform on the day you go on stage yourself.
Insecurity will bring you down. If you allow to lose yourself in it, insecurity can completely paralyze you. At a competition it is an art to keep your composure and stay focused. Put blinders on, crawl into your own world and think about what you have, what you want to create on stage, and why you are there.
It is a fact that you can always perform better. There are always new grounds to break and things to improve on. That is both the annoying and the fantastic thing about this profession—never ending work. Which is why the thing to do while waiting for your turn on stage, is to rehearse.
Claudia warming up her muscles.
Pointe shoes being sown in preparation.
Claudia & Yevgeniy rehearsing last-minute before being due on the Bolshoi stage.
Ballet dancers doing some final rehearsals in one of the Bolshoi studios.
Yevgeniy applies his performance make-up.
Claudia warms up in the wings.
Right before I enter the stage, it is quite easy—and a really nice feeling—to enter this zone, this focus and state of being. You forget everything.
You’re occupied only with when the music will start, when you will have to begin, how you will do it, and which emotions you will bring.
You change yourself into a dancer—into a body that is about to dance and perform something.
As the previous performers run on stage to bow, Claudia does some final stretching in the wings.
You've been working for this moment for the longest time. And then you bust your cardio.
It's like trying to run a kilometer without walking into it. You are hectic.
Claudia performing her solo on the Bolshoi stage.
In a competition you’re going on automatic pilot most of the time. You have just a few minutes to deliver what you have been working on, sometimes for years.
When you’re on stage in these conditions, most of the time you don’t even know what just happened. You just did it. How you did it, you will find out later.
When you perform, the wings are full of people who are watching your every move—and not at how great you’re dancing. Secretly, they’re all hoping you’ll fall flat. It’s not a company of colleagues watching you.
Then again, you can interpret this in any way. You can never truly know what these people are thinking. So for the most part you fill in their thoughts yourself. It can be negative, or it can be positive.
How you view it comes down to your own security or insecurity.
Competitors watch a potentially painful landing.
In a competition the choreography mostly just happens to you. You get this adrenaline rush and once you finish, that’s the moment you say, “Okay, now I’m really ready. Now I could do it.”
From the audience you simply see dancers coming on and going off stage. Behind that goes everything else. All your preparations, all the work you do, the way you live and how you take care of yourself.
Watching a ballerina from the shadow of the wings.
A competition is not like a series of shows, where you have several opportunities to create something amazing. In a competition you have only one chance. You can’t say, “Sorry, I’ll get it right next time,” if you fall flat on your ass.
This “one time chance” just hangs in the air. It’s not a work in progress. You have to nail it! And if you do, then it’s amazing. Then you can even go home a celebrated and award-winning artist.
In the Bolshoi wings, a ballerina runs on-stage to perform, as a dancer collapses after giving it his all.
Competitions are about the results. So tension is there. After you perform, you’re just waiting for the announcements. You don’t know what to expect.
If you feel you’ve done a good job, you’re satisfied. If you win, you’re double satisfied. It’s the same for any athlete who’s dedicated so much time and effort, and then gets awarded for it. It’s fulfilling. Very satisfying.
If you don’t win, you don’t win. You get nothing. If you are still young you probably won’t care as much, and you’ll figure new things will come.
If you’re older—in my experience—you will re-think why you did it. You’ll think that maybe it wasn’t worth all this effort. But then again, things might be boring otherwise. You would be missing out on all this adrenaline.
So you do these competitions anyway, for the adrenaline. Which is addictive. Once you’ve felt it, you want it again.
You’re exposed. People are looking at you. In that moment you’re the center of attention. You want to satisfy the audience, because you’re the only person being watching. By lots of people. That’s where the adrenaline comes from.
A single dancer floats in the attention of the theater audience.
It’s hard finding a job, and connections are everything. So competitions are a great way of meeting people. It's one concentrated source of potential connections. The perfect place to wander the receptions, to meet people, and to talk to them.
Competitions are a great platform for dancers to use any extra special talents they feel they can’t express in a company performance.
When you’re graduating from ballet school, competitions are a great way to introduce yourself, and to gain practical experience on stage at the same time—which you don’t get an abundance of in ballet school. It’s a great way to present yourself to an international jury, made up of important directors, choreographers, and peers.
6. FINAL THOUGHTS
The older you get, the more realistic you get about competitions. They can seem unfair and biased. You need to know what to expect.
The first competition I did, I won the gold medal. The second I did, I was awarded the first price for mu interpretation of a modern variation. At my third competition I again received the gold medal for best male dancer. So I never had a competition where I didn’t get anything. There is a danger in that—you don’t learn how to deal with losing…
I’ve never really felt much for these competitions. Maybe because they scare me a bit: the pink tights, the pointes, the rake… stress.
Enter a competition, first and foremost, for the pleasure of dancing. Because it offers you the opportunity to dance something you want to dance. Be kind to your competitors, because it relaxes you and it will enable you to meet new people. Enjoy the whole process and make the best of it. Otherwise it’s just too much stress, which is horrible.
The Bolshoi stage lays at the feet of an eager ballerina.
Text & Photographs © Sam Asaert - 2013