“The most special thing about ballet is that it has to look easy,” says Etienne Ferrère. “Performers cannot show the strenuous side of the activity when we’re on stage, and this creates a magical aspect—a make-believe that can take people on a journey.” As a principal artist at Singapore Dance Theatre, where he’s worked for a decade after training at the revered Paris Opera Ballet school, Ferrère knows well the physical demands of making a performance appear effortless. Having danced from a young age, he’s been subject to years of the intense pressure and strains that are inherent in a sport that’s physically taxing on the body. At our photo shoot for this story, Ferrère flippantly recounts some of the many injuries that he’s endured: broken toes, a fractured nose. “The body is pushed beyond its limits all the time to achieve greater results, and over time it definitely takes a toll on the joints, muscles and bones,” he says.
It’s strange, given these rigours and challenges, that there still remains a stigma—though dwindling—about men, and perhaps more specifically boys, entering the world of dance. Perhaps the effortless-looking nature of it means that as onlookers, we can’t truly appreciate the physical specificity required, and yet a landmark 1975 study by Dr James A Nicholas in The Journal of Sports Medicine ranked ballet as the most physically and mentally demanding sports activity, above bullfighting and football. “Ballet is definitely very demanding,” confirms Ferrère.
Born and raised in France, the birthplace of ballet as we know it, Ferrère began dance classes from a young age, having asked to tag along with his sister. While it’s more common for male dancers than for females to begin later, such as in adolescence, ballet nevertheless remains a profession that requires training from early on in life when the body is more malleable, less resistant to manipulation. “It takes years of daily practice to attain the level of fitness as well as to create the lines that are expected,” explains Ferrère, referring to the universally standard body positions that make up the language of ballet. “The body’s memory and awareness take years to develop, and genetics play a big role, too, as some people may be naturally more or less flexible, or more or less coordinated.”
“Our body is our instrument and we need to take care of it so we can perform at our best and sustain the demanding schedule."
The other thing about ballet is that it’s a full-time job. Ferrère and his colleagues begin each day by warming up and then taking class, nearly two hours of perfecting and maintaining the rigorous technique expected of their bodily movements. After, they’ll spend the day rehearsing the scenes and sequences for upcoming performances. It’s a routine adhered to for five to six days per week, but this doesn’t take into account the additional aspects of body conditioning, such as yoga and Pilates to strengthen and realign the body, and physiotherapy sessions for injury prevention. “Our body is our instrument and we need to take care of it so we can perform at our best and sustain the demanding schedule,” says Ferrère. “That said, accidents happen and dancers have to learn how to deal with injuries, both big and small. We also need to know when it is time to rest, and understand how to prevent or heal the problems that come our way.”
It’s understandable that the world of ballet, with its collective strive for perfection and a dancers’ limited career span, is inextricably linked with mental health pressures. For Ferrère, finding a way to disconnect is important in maintaining a level of equilibrium. “I think we all have a love-hate relationship with the craft. It is our passion, therefore we always strive to get better, but that can be very frustrating. Patience and hard work are key, but we are humans and like everyone sometimes we need a break, so discovering new interests outside of ballet is important.”
“[In ballet] the body is pushed beyond its limits all the time to achieve greater results, and over time it definitely takes a toll on the joints, muscles and bones."
Like most things in 2020, Singapore Dance Theatre’s performance programme and touring schedule were cancelled. As at the time of writing, theatres could legally seat up to 50 patrons for a live performance, but such limited numbers aren’t viable for most production companies, and so the company found itself connecting with audiences virtually through various video classes, interviews and mini performances. And while there still remains to be any official announcement about going into phase three, the company made the bold move at the end of last year in announcing its 2021 programme, titled Dance From Within, a blockbuster six-season including such significant and much-loved works as Coppélia, opening the year this March, and The Nutcracker, closing out the season for Christmas.
According to Ferrère, audience interest in and appreciation for ballet are on the rise in Singapore, an observation seemingly reaffirmed by the ambition of the company’s 2021 programme. “In Europe ballet has a long history of at least a few hundred years, while in Singapore the dance heritage is still very young,” he muses. “I think people still see it as an art form for those who know and understand it, but actually dance has no language and can reach and touch anyone. Over the last 10 years, the audience has grown a lot and I’m happy to see that more and more people are interested and want to support and encourage its growth.”
Photographs by Sayher Heffernan
Grooming by Zann