The Corps de ballet and the power of many

By Leilani Tian

Corps de ballet /ˌkôr də baˈlā/

noun

(from French) body of the ballet

Perhaps few endeavors are as challenging as moving at the same time with exactly the same shapes as people with completely different proportions from you. This is precisely the function and the beauty of the corps de ballet, a group of dancers who dance in unison in a ballet.

The Wilis dance in unison during Act II of GISELLE. | Photo by Tony Spielberg

If you have seen the synchronized undulating swan arms of the swan corps in Swan Lake produce an awe-inspiring image of a flock of flying swans, you have seen the power of the corps. Similarly, the Wilis corps de ballet featured in Act II of GISELLE set an ominous scene, immersing you in a mystical forest of supernatural creatures where you can’t help but feel like something unfortunate will happen.

While the corps de ballet work of individual ballets may have different qualities, just as the lyrical swan corps in Swan Lake differs from the ghostly appeal of the Wilis in GISELLE, the purpose of the corps de ballet is the same — to serve as the mainstay of the dance work.

Ballet Austin Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin is responsible for staging and rehearsing GISELLE, especially focusing on the corps de ballet. With a keen eye for detail, yet an acute awareness of the big picture, Martin rehearses the Wilis corps, ensuring that the synchronization and stylistic elements elicit the haunting yet tragic aura of this ghostly sisterhood.

As dancers cast as Wilis file into perfectly straight lines, preparing for Ballet Austin’s upcoming production of GISELLE, we learn from Martin what the rehearsal process is like — and what makes corps work so challenging and rewarding.

Could you describe the importance and effect having a corps de ballet has on a ballet such as GISELLE?

“I love corps de ballet work. The first time I see any dance work with a group component, I find myself always focused on what’s going on with the corps de ballet. For any ballet, the corps de ballet serves several functions. It provides the framing of the scene. It also carries forward the themes and the emotions and the plot of the dance by guiding an audience member’s eyes towards the things that are important for the choreographer and for fully engaging and investing in the work.”

Count Albrecht pleads with Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, in GISELLE. | Photo by Tony Spielberg

What are the challenges of corps de ballet work?

“The challenges of a corps de ballet are many. That’s part of what I love about working on that material. It’s that you’re asking women, and sometimes men, who are all very individual — individual artists who have a particular way of dancing and individual human beings who have particular body proportions and dynamics by which they naturally move — to come together and essentially move as one.”

What makes the corps de ballet work in GISELLE difficult?

Even though for ballets like GISELLE the choreography is fairly simple, the aspect of sustaining the technical aspects of things while staying in line and moving in physical unison makes it very difficult. There are 16 women in the Wilis corps who have to do just that. They have to move across the stage at the same pace with legs and arms at exactly the same heights. That’s asking for a lot!”

Precision is key in the type of corps de ballet choreography you’ll see in GISELLE. | Photo by Tony Spielberg

What makes staging a ballet like GISELLE and its corps de ballet rewarding?

“Because I’m very interested in the corps de ballet, I love to stage corp de ballet work. I like to be a part of that process of bringing about that unison, of building that world for the corps de ballet dancers. It’s rewarding because you can see a lot of progress. Where a corps de ballet starts working on Monday, by the time they get to Friday and have had five days of rehearsal, you can see such progress.”

What makes being in the corps de ballet rewarding?

“I remember when I was a dancer, I loved the corps de ballet. It creates this wonderful bond and this wonderful world among all the dancers in the corps. It’s hard for dancers to feel their own progress. But when you’re dancing in the corps de ballet, because there’s a volume of energy that comes from working with other people that closely and that intensely, you can actually feel the progress of the group. That’s a very special environment that you can’t really find anywhere else.”

Standing still, in unison, is harder than it looks! | Photo by Tony Spielberg

Experience the haunting Wilis’ corps de ballet in Ballet Austin’s 2018/19 season-ending production of GISELLE, set for Mother’s Day weekend, May 10–12, at the Long Center. Four shows are scheduled, including two evening performances and two, weekend matinees. Visit the GISELLE section of Ballet Austin’s official website, https://balletaustin.org/performances/giselle2019, for tickets and show information. #GiselleATX

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