Take me to church: like a ballet dancer

Last Sunday, listening to the radio swatting up for the pub quiz, Hozier’s Take Me to Church came on.

Every time I hear that song, I can’t help being reminded of that video. You know the one: it went viral. A lone dancer in an impossibly beautiful barn, shafts of light pouring in at all angles. Powerful, moving and shattering any perceptions of ballet as simply about tutus, tiaras and tights.

Published to YouTube in February this year, the video has been viewed over 12 million times, and it’s even been recreated on the The Ellen Show.

Who’s the dancer?

So, just who is the dancer everyone’s fallen in love with?

I started to look into who was dancing, and discovered an even greater appreciation of this piece of work.

Like Hosier’s original video, whose characters are dramatically battling their demons, Ukranian dancer Sergei Polunin shows a striking similarity, and by finding out about his story, you can start to really appreciate where the power and the emotive performance comes from as he dances.

You’ve probably not thought much about the ripped tights and the tattoos proudly visible, but neither of these would be tolerated on the professional stage of Britain’s ballet companies. The piece is raw, unapologetic choreography to match; with both the song and Sergei’s story.

At the age of just 19, Sergei Polunin became the youngest ever Principal of the Royal Ballet, a prestigious role for someone who got into professional ballet training quite late. But by 22, he had left the Royal Ballet amid stories of drugs, late nights and disillusion with the discipline. He was fighting a very personal battle in the spotlight.

So, how fitting that, in this piece, he is conveyed naked, alone, seemingly wrestling with the choreography and dipping in and out of ethereal light. The barn is a constricted space, and some of the leaps seem constricted and frustrated by lack of room.

Ballet, but not as you might know it

This raw depiction of ballet perhaps resonates more easily with the majority of people. We have all felt alone and have grappled with demons at some point, however big or small. There’s something in the nature of Sergei’s performance, in it’s power and pain, that’s very real and emotional. He’s not the traditional dancer, but seen by many as the bad boy of ballet. He’s human.

Ballet isn’t just all about the prim and proper routines and carefully-choreographed steps of the traditional ballet performance. That’s the beauty of dance. It is whatever you want it to be, and it’s personal. ┬áSergei has brought the personal to the masses thanks to the internet.

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Dancing en pointe

Photo By Laura Bittner via StockPholio.com
Photo By Laura Bittner via StockPholio.com

Dancing ballet en pointe is hard. The end result might look graceful, elegant and effortless, but the training is messy. Think bloodied toes, blisters and bunions and generally very sore feet. Watching the faces of the pointe class before my own ballet class, I am reminded of why I gave up dancing en pointe: because sometimes your feet just can’t take any more. Pointe work is both physically and mentally exhausting – you’re asking a lot of your two big toes to support all of your body weight, so you have to make sure you’re ready to help them out with strong ankles, legs and core. You have to ensure your body is a buoyant as possible to even make it work, and this is as much of a mental struggle as it is a physical one. Since ballet, or its dance origins, have been around for the best part of 500 years, why and how did we suddenly decide dancing en pointe was such a good idea?

The earliest ballet dancers, back in the 16th century, wore soft slippers with low heels. Back then, a ballet was a court dance, usually led by the King and Queen. It wasn’t until the 18th century that ballet with a particular emphasis on dancing high on the toes, was introduced. By then, ballet had taken on a rather more professional form. Anna Heinel seems to be one of the earliest dancers who was described as dancing on ‘stilt-like’ tip-toe in 1770. She could well have been one of the first dancers ever to do so, adding it to her invention of the double-pirouette.

About 20 years later in 1795, Charles Didelot gave dancers the ability to pause on their toes before leaving the ground, courtesy of wires attached to their costumes. This ‘flying machine’ allowed dancers to express a more ethereal quality and a lightness on the toes, which captured the imagination of audiences and other dancers worldwide and spurred them on to establish new ways to achieve this without wires. Dancing on the toes began to develop, although the earliest ‘pointe shoes’ were little more than satin slippers strengthened by darning the toes and sides. With so little support, dancers were more likely to pause on their toes for a moment or two during dances. The first recorded ballet where en pointe choreography was used all the way through was La Sylphide in the 19th century. Principal dancer Marie Taglioni danced in modified satin slippers en pointe.

Today’s shoes are much more supportive for dancers feet than these early models. Pointe shoes now consist of a hard ‘block’ which encases and supports the toes. This is made from tightly-packed layers of paper and fabric, which are glued together. It is this glue which provides the rigid shape to offer support. The front end is flattened, to allow dancers to balance en pointe much more easily than the earliest, pointed slippers! To support the arch of the foot, the sole of a pointe shoe is made of a rigid material, which often has to be broken in before a dancer will wear them to perform. There are many, many different types of pointe shoe models to choose from, allowing dancers the flexibility of having the best shoe for the job. Quick, intricate choreography often requires a harder, more rigid structure, whereas more expressive, lyrical dances can be danced in a softer shoe. Over time and with wear, pointe shoes become softer.

Dancing en pointe is now an integral part of ballet performances. For professionals, the ballet shoe is the pointe shoe and for amateurs it is the nirvana that you aim to reach, to be a ‘proper’ dancer. I guess it the elegance that comes with dancing on your tip-toes that makes pointe work such an integral part of ballet and such a graceful means to get around the stage, even if it is hard work!