Every ballet company in the world shares a ritual – the morning ballet class. Brett Chynoweth has been doing it since he was nine years old. Now a Senior Artist of The Australian Ballet, his routine continues, only now with a few more people.
“Every different rank in the company does class together,” he says. “The ensemble, the soloists, the principle dancers, no matter what position. The basic structure is you start at the barre, then you move to the centre and get a bit more physical. Then you end with jumping and turning and doing the most extreme movements you would do in a show.”
With the launch of The Australian Ballet’s 2018 season in March, he will again soon be doing what most humans consider impossible – leaping, flying and gliding through the air with perfect form and grace. Chynoweth makes it look effortless. But it’s incredibly demanding.
“I’m required to do a cardiovascularly challenging repertoire,” says Chynoweth. “It’s high jumping, fast moving, and with virtuosic movement. That's the fun part. But you also need to work out what your physical limits are. If you're on every night and you're feeling like, oh my ankle is a bit tight, or whatever, you have to assess it. Because that night you have to perform in front of thousands of people, so you need to work out how to make that happen.”
Chynoweth needs to keep his body in peak physical condition. For the rest of us, despite our less than prime physiques, we can still learn a lot from ballet and some of its basic exercises. Some are just as applicable to a muscle-dense superhuman as they are to a newbie or non-dancer.
Leanne Stojmenov is a principal artist in The Australian Ballet and part-time Pilates instructor. We asked her for five tips on how to stay flexible, mobile and active.
Stojmenov starts every day with a rollup. “It massages your spine,” says Stojmenov, “and gets all of your core and inner thighs working and it lengthens your spine. Mobilising your spine and having a healthy spine is really crucial for your body.”
Begin by lying down, preferably on a yoga mat. Reach your arms up so they’re pointing at the ceiling or sky. Then, vertebrae by vertebrae, roll up towards your feet, your arms extended, until you’re reaching over your legs, looking down at your knees with your arms pointing forwards. Then roll back downwards and repeat.
Stojmenov says to always tuck in your belly during the exercise: “Avoid your belly popping out. It should be tucked right in, like you've scooped some ice-cream out of it.”
It’s the classic ballet image – standing straight with one arm holding a barre or bench. But what does it do? “This is what we start with at ballet barre,” says Stojmenov. “It mobilises your knee joints, your hip joints and your ankle joints. It's also good for your coordination.”
To do a version at home, stand with your legs together, heels touching and your feet pointing outwards. Bend your knees while keeping your back straight so your legs take a diamond position. Your heels stay on the ground at all times. Come back up again then repeat.
Forward and backward port de bras
“This is a big stretch at the barre,” says Stojmenov. “It really just undoes any tension. It's good for people who sit down everyday, because you’re stretching your back and glute muscles.”
Stand in first position and lift your arms up above your head. Your arms should be slightly bent, with fingers pointing toward one another to form a circle that frames your head. In this position, bend forward while keeping your back straight. Then backwards but only so far as it’s comfortable.
Stojmenov calls this a classic ballet position. Stand on your right leg and outstretch your left leg straight behind you at 90 degrees. Raise your right arm in front of you and your left arm out to the side. Relax, swap sides and repeat.
“This strengthens your back and opens your chest,” says Stojmenov. “Your standing leg will get incredible strength in your ankle, your feet and your calf. The working leg works your back.” Note: Stojmenov says don’t arch your back.
This one delivers strength to your calf muscles and puts a spring in your step. “We usually do 30 to 35 of these at the end of barre every day,” says Stojmenov. “We need as much strength in our calves as we can get.”
Stand with your legs and feet together, then raise your heel on your right leg so your left foot is slightly off the ground, so your right toes and front of foot is holding your weight. Hold for a few seconds, come back down, swap legs and repeat.
Both Stojmenov and Chynoweth will be putting their bodies to the test in The Australian Ballet’s upcoming season. To see Chynoweth in action, look for the June 2018 run of Verve. “Verve is always exciting for me because I like doing contemporary stuff as well as classical,” he says. “With modern stuff you really get to push yourself.”
Stojmenov recommends The Merry Widow. “It's a special ballet to The Australian Ballet that has since expanded to many ballet companies around the world,” she says. “It’s a fun one with a great story.”
The Australian Ballet runs studio classes, if you fancy practising these moves in the same studios as their ballet artists.