Grabbing on to that Second Chance

Sometimes life gives you a second chance, even in ballet, and it’s always what you do with those moments that counts. So when my second chance to dance a huge role came around I really wanted it to mean something

Second chances. Moments we wish we could redo. Turn the clocks back and try again. Another opportunity to improve on experiences or approach them at a different age to see how we would handle it now. Who doesn’t want a second chance at moments in their life? And as a dancer I can tell you, it is often a wish of mine to have the chance to perform a role once more for these exact reasons.

Little did I know it wasn’t quite the end of that chapter

In my previous post, ‘Never Say Never’, I wrote about my fortunate moments of getting second chances and what I gained from them, but I think having Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Swanlake’ come back into my life this season is possibly the biggest chance for me to see what has changed after six years of professional performing.

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Performing as Odette with Zhike Xu as Prince Siegfried (Photo: Jochen Klenk)

At the age of 21, I had the chance to take on the lead role of Odette/Odile during my second season with the company. A dream role for a ballerina and one of the hardest, most famous female parts in ballet. Following the story of good versus evil – emphasised through the soft, fragile White Swan in contrast to the mysteriously seductive Black Swan, both of which the ballerina has to take on in one night. So as you can imagine, this role comes with big responsibilities and I have felt the weight that comes with performing such a role fall on my shoulders as a young new professional and now, as a much more experienced performer.

Looking back to 2011/12 I honestly don’t know how I managed it. Somehow it was my first ‘leading lady’ role, and I remember being full of worry and pretty much just overwhelmed by it, as I knew what an iconic part I was about to take on. I only had about three weeks of intensive rehearsal time, which honestly I don’t think is enough preparation at all for this kind of role, and the hurdle of not getting a stage rehearsal (quite normal for second/third casts here) contributed to the nerves.

I remember even getting nervous to do the rehearsals, as it is not just the technique within the role that is difficult, but also how much content there is within a four-act ballet, put together with needing great stamina and the challenge of playing the two contrasting characters.

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Rehearsing my Black Swan variation in 2018

When the performance arrived. I was lucky enough to have my mum in the audience, but I think she was as nervous as I was sat out there. I specifically remember my first entrance – a huge grand jete into the middle of an empty stage, then delicately transitioning into an arabesque balance. As I moved my legs into the balance I can still feel them shaking and see my hands wobbling in front of me. A good friend of mine watching told me it was the first time he saw my nerves come through on stage.

❝I am even able to enjoy it more with the belief in myself much stronger now

Somehow I actually got through it and even managed to do it a couple more times and then it was over. I had done the best I could and most importantly I had survived. It was a true relief and I told myself that whatever had happened, the fact that I could say I had the chance to perform Odette/Odile during my career was an honour. I could put a tick next to that one and move on to whatever came next. Little did I know it wasn’t quite the end of that chapter.

I talked often with my sister about how relieved I was that it was done, and yet deep down having these mixed feelings of satisfaction and curiosity. Would I want to do it again, to see if I could do it better now? If that opportunity ever did come along how would I handle it differently? Who knew that I would be here six seasons later, performing the same role, doing exactly that. Talk about a second chance.

So how was it, you wonder? Was it any different?

I guess it got easier in some ways. I certainly handle the pressure much better now. My nerves are much more tamed, and even though I still have my moments of weakness, I feel I can live up to the role much more – I fill her swan-shaped shoes much better. But honestly, it is still a killer and it really does take everything I have to manage it. I don’t think I will never be satisfied with myself in this role but at least I can say I do it much better than when I was younger. I am even able to enjoy it more, with the belief in myself much stronger now.

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Performing as Odile with Zhile Xu as my Prince Siegfried (Photo: Jochen Klenk)

However, I feel this role will never become easy for me and I will forever be learning how to get through it. Staying calm helps the most and now I am able to find moments where I can save my energy for the better. I enjoy playing more with the characters and music, which helps forget the difficulty. But unfortunately, the stamina still kills me and after the 2nd act, I don’t know how I am going to go on in the 3rd act as Odile. My nerves still get the better of me before the Black Swan grand pas de deux, so I have almost accepted that this is an endless struggle for me.

Through it all, I can see that we learn a lot through age and time. Situations that overwhelm us at a younger age seem manageable with a little experience under our tutus. For me to have had the opportunity not once but twice to step on stage as Odette/Odile, makes me extremely grateful and proud, something I realised much more this time around. A second chance comes rarely around in life and they don’t mean anything if you didn’t learn from your first. They should never be taken for granted. They must be there for a reason.

With love,

Harriet

Main photo: Admill Kuyler

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