Television

Running a 5K on tiptoe: Pro ballet dancers perform gruelling feats to make beautiful art

CBC docu-series Swan Song follows Karen Kain and a group of diverse dancers from rehearsals to opening night of The National Ballet of Canada’s Swan Lake.

CBC docu-series follows Karen Kain and a group of diverse ballet dancers through rehearsals

A group of ballet dancers stand in a studio with their hands on their hips. They are dressed in costume and their belongings are scattered on the floor around them.
National Ballet of Canada dancers during rehearsals for Swan Lake (Christopher Sherman/Swan Song)

Watching ballet is transcending, as dancers appear to glide effortlessly across the stage. It's supposed to be a magical, surreal escape.  But behind the curtain lies a much different reality.

In June 2022, after years of pandemic delay, The National Ballet of Canada's Swan Lake finally debuted in front of audiences in Toronto at the Four Seasons Centre. It was a triumphant culmination of Karen Kain's 50 years of working as one of the most celebrated ballet dancers in the world. But this time, she was the creative director and tasked with shaping and overseeing the entire production.

Film crew documents the making of Swan Lake over several months

For a behind-the-scenes look, filmmaker Chelsea McMullan and her crew took their cameras, and us, into rehearsals as the ballet came together over several months. "This filming was real. It was the reality of what we were going through and the tension in the room and the joy in the room and the fun in the room, but also the hard work we were endeavouring to do," says Kain about the four-part docu-series now streaming on CBC Gem.

The series starkly captures the chaos and reveals the incredible challenges that ballet dancers face as they pull together with musicians and technicians to perform on such a large stage. 

The crew interviews principal dancer Jurgita Dronina who discloses that she's been battling a nerve injury for 8 years. Increasing pain forces her to make a difficult decision around treatment before opening night.

Watch | Dronina describes how she deals with her injury. 

"[The] audience should not know these things. It should stay surreal what we do on stage, it should look effortless. It should look beautiful," reveals Dronina.

Shaelynn Estrada, one of the corps ballerinas followed throughout the docu-series, speaks honestly about the injuries dancers face — and try to ignore, "I'm almost positive that my foot is broken again. But I'm not going to say anything to them. Because I do not want to be taken out of big swans."

Complications arise during staged rehearsals

The cameras capture how stakes get even higher when costumed rehearsals begin and move out of the studio and into the performance hall. "The first run with costumes was craziness," admits Siphe November a principal dancer who moved from South Africa at the age of 11 to join the National Ballet of Canada.

A black ballet dancer stands in costume holding an bow, pointing it at the camera./A white dancer wearing a wig holds a banner which says Swan Song.
Siphe November and Shaelynn Estrada are both dancers in Swan Lake. Their story is documented in Swan Song. (Christopher Sherman/Swan Song)

"These big ball gowns are gorgeous, but they're really hard to dance in and we're wearing these wigs and these masks that dance and they start falling on your eyeballs," explains corps dancer Arielle Miralles during rehearsals, "it's a whole other world."

When sets, costumes, lighting and dancing come together, exhausted dancers face a new series of obstacles. In just one last-minute adjustment, designer Gabriela Týlešová rushes onto the set to trim down trees which threaten to impale tired dancers.

"It's kind of like a shitshow right now. It's like crazy and chaotic. I'm like, so anxious and all of the girls were like, just like, feels like we're just like working and working and working our bodies," says Estrada. 

Dancer reveals that ballet is like running a marathon on your toes

Tene Ward, another corps ballerina wears her smartwatch during rehearsal and discovers that she has just run an incredible 5 kilometres — and that was only during Act 4. The day isn't over yet.

Watch | Ward talks about the toll rehearsals take and Kain reacts

"There have been a couple of nights that I just went home and Ross [her husband] was 'like how's it going?' And I'm like, 'not well'. In the last few days, I felt it going even slower than I could have imagined," admits Kain during the final rehearsals.

The stakes are high. The world premiere of the 3-million-dollar production is just days away.

"I know what it felt like and I have the greatest respect and love for them all because it's a really tough profession. There's a lot of physical pain involved," says Kain, "And that's not just because there's something wrong with them, it's because you're working so hard physically every single day and you're making your body do things that it wasn't necessarily built to do."

Cameras roll as the entire team has opening night jitters

When the curtain finally drops on opening night, the excitement is palpable. McMullan's crew has nine cameras on hand to capture the drama.

Four ballet dancers in costume pose for the camera.
Corps de Ballet dancers Arielle Miralles, Tene Ward, Shaelynn Estrada and Selene Geurrero-Trujillo (Christopher Sherman/Swan Song)

"It's been a stressful few days and [we've] gone through a roller coaster of emotions. But there's only one world premiere. And that's tonight. And I'm so excited that I get to be part of that," says Miralle moments before the performance begins. 

Swan Song is an absorbing, behind-the-scenes look at the sacrifices and the celebration of performing a world-class ballet.

Says Kain, "I hope that people respect what it is that these artists do day in and day out to get on the stage and give the performances that they give and that they see how demanding it is for them all."

How to watch Swan Song

Swan Song is now streaming on CBC Gem. 

CBC Gem is available for free as an App for iOS, tvOS, Fire TV, Android TV, Android phones and tablets, LG and Samsung Smart TVs, Roku, and Xbox One/S/X and online at gem.cbc.ca







 

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