After my time training in France last month I’m back at Semperoper now at the start of a new season and the weather in Dresden is absolutely beautiful. Whether in ballet school or professional companies, the beginning of a new dancing year should be something to be excited about. You go back after your summer break with new hopes, new visions and new intentions, refreshed and enthusiastic with new goals set.
I opened the 2016/17 season immediately with rehearsals for Kenneth MacMillan's ‘Manon’ and three performances of this amazing ballet in one week. Now I am concentrating solely on the company’s world premiere of Don Quixote, on November 5th, which is very exciting. The Semperoper Ballett Director, Aaron Watkin is creating this as a brand new version of ‘Don Q’ for the company. A new ballet is a huge undertaking for any company, so we’re in rehearsals, full-on, every day, in our two studios and on stage. The majority of the choreography is from scratch and it’s really special to be part of something like that.
After that we’ll start preparing for a tour to the Paris Opera Ballet's Palais Garnier in January, where I’ll be making a debut dancing in William Forsythe’s ‘In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated’ and I’ll also be rehearsing for the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in ‘The Nutcracker’. My daily routine is ballet class every morning and then rehearsals any time between 11:30am to 6pm.
Ballet class is quite a focused affair. It’s like putting oil in a system to get it going for the day. We start with a warm-up - I like about a half-hour beforehand to stretch and do strengthening exercises – and then we start at the barre, slowly building up to getting our legs higher, moving faster, getting our cardio going. Then we move in to do centre exercises, with turns and jumps. Again it gets faster and more energetic. Class is usually an hour and 15 minutes long and we do it six days a-week. You do ballet class every day for the rest of your life and career and it is hugely important. One millimetre of your leg getting higher every day is going to make a huge improvement over time. It’s all a work in progress. People shouldn’t get disheartened when they don’t see immediate progress. You need to accept and enjoy the process because, when I look back to my days as a young dancer in Northern Ireland, it helps me realise just how far I’ve come now.
I still get critiqued in class. That is all part of the process of constantly improving. I started to deal better with critique from working with Masha. She taught me that you need a thick skin, or more like a brick wall reinforced with steel sometimes! But to improve in any career you have to be able to take and use criticism. I learned to understand it is for my benefit and not to take it personally. There is a difference between personal opinion and professional opinion. Understanding that difference stops a lot of necessary tension.
When I joined the Royal Ballet I looked on ‘Manon’ as this complete dream role. I remember being in the corps de ballet watching these incredible ballerinas taking on that role and it was truly like a dream to me. But you can’t just watch in awe. In life, like ballet, you can appreciate what other professionals are doing but, if you want to be there yourself, then it’s something you have to look at in a different way. You have to watch with a learning eye which will pay off whenever it comes to your chance to take on those challenges.
As a ballet student you have to be constantly watching, analysing and growing yourself. Always remember that every single professional started out as a student. Everyone started in exactly the same place - with their hand on the barre in ‘first position’ - and worked their way up from there. Everyone does that in their own way and, as well as working exceptionally hard, you have to be incredibly smart about how you work and learn. It is not all about ‘the dream’. I always remember that great saying: ‘Dreams don’t work unless you do!’
Melissa Hamilton (27), from Dromore, Co Down, once described as ‘Charlize Theron in pointe shoes’, has defied all the odds to make a name for herself in the ballet world. A relatively late starter, she was rejected by the Royal Ballet School at 16 but got a scholarship to train at Elmhurst School for Dance in Birmingham. Fortunately one of her teachers, the former Bolshoi Ballet soloist Masha Mukhamedov, quickly spotted her potential and in a bold move, Melissa chose to leave Elmhurst and instead train privately under Masha's mentoring. A year later, in 2007, Hamilton successfully auditioned for and joined The Royal Ballet Company. After eight years in London she made the decision to take a sabbatical to guest as a Principal dancer with the Semperoper Ballett in Dresden for 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons.
Melissa is an Allianz arts and cultural ambassador and will be writing a monthly blog about life and ballet.