Ballet: Becoming Odette

Performing the role of Odette in Swan Lake is a dream come true for professional ballerina Claire Calvert. Photographer Flore Diamant captured Claire's backstage rehearsals, and here the pair discuss their love of dance from every angle

By Glorious

Photography Flore Diamant

Flore Diamant has always loved to dance, and although she never had any intention to make dance a career, as a professional photographer she was thrilled to fuel her fascination with movement by documenting the gruelling backstage life of First Soloist with the Royal Ballet, Claire Calvert. Flore’s aim was to bring to people’s attention to the often unseen commitment and hard work of rehearsals in the lead up to just one performance, which in this case was Claire’e leading role as Odette in Swan Lake. Here Glorious talks to Flore and Claire about their passion for dance, the project, how their friendship developed, what it takes to become a professional ballet dancer, and who they would most like to invite for dinner!

Claire stretches while Nicol Edmunds rehearses his solo.

Glorious: Has dance always played an important role in your life?

Flore: I’ve always been fascinated by dance. Having danced all my childhood, with no aim to do it professionally, it was my after-school and holiday activity, where I made friends, and where I could unwind. As a kid, you probably don’t realise all this until later on, but it was a rhythm I was used to. I don’t think I was ever very good, but being surrounded by more talented pupils when you are learning always pushes you to persevere. There were always a few girls (and boys) who stood out by their grace and talent, and they were the ones I was baffled by. I always thought, why does their body bend and fly like this and not mine? I still go to classes from time to time, and it is such a different and refreshing experience as an adult. People come after work, before dinner, do as they please and you can see everyone feels better after it, with no other aim but to make their body work and clear their mind.

Getting ready for rehearsal.

Glorious: Tell us about your journey, who inspired you to dance and who inspires you now?

Claire: Having been in the Royal Ballet for 15 years now and starting my full time training at aged 11 at the Royal Ballet school, my journey is long but I have always loved dancing and performing. Of course I was inspired by Darcey Bussell, as a British ballerina, but over the years getting to work with and alongside some of the top dancers in the world like Marianela Nunez, Tamara Rojo and Vadim Muntagirov (and many more) definitely keeps me inspired. It’s not hard to find inspiration working in the arts as there is always something amazing happening but I have a group of friends that I trained with and our journeys have all been so different – but they inspire me every day.

Glorious: Was this the first time that you had photographed ballet dancers? How did the shoot with Claire come about, and why did you want to document her story in this way?

Flore: I had done a few shoots with The Royal Ballet, through a great magazine that sadly doesn’t exist anymore called The 405 that focused on behind the scenes in music and arts.

They gave me free range to document dancers as I please. After photographing musicians and artists for a few years, I understood that what we – the audience – see is only a fraction of what actually goes on, and that it is important to also shine a light on what happens behind the curtains. From my first visit to the Royal Opera House, I was completely mind blown – discovering a whole world hidden behind the stage door. From costumes to decors to rehearsal rooms to many more. Being able to witness how everyone worked, the tight schedules they have to follow, rehearsing for three different shows while also going to physio and having some lunch, was pretty eye opening.

During that first shoot I worked with Alexander Campbell, principal dancer at the Royal Ballet (and also now, Claire’s fiancé). A few years later, he happened to walk in with Claire where I worked during Covid. We had a nice chat and realised we should do more images together, when we could. I had reached out to the press officer since then, and we figured out the best – and only – way to start documenting the backstage was to focus on one dancer at a time, so we thought it would work well with Claire.

l-r: Claire and Nicol in rehearsal; changing shoes when needed, adding a plaster or re-adjusting a ribbon is always super important.

Glorious: What is a typical rehearsal day and your training regime to keep you in tip-top condition? Do you live in fear of getting injured?

Claire: A typical day is class/warm up at 10:30am which is a ritual for ballet dancers and done every day. Rehearsals start at noon which is our time to practice for performances, learn new repertoires and also squeeze in extras like strength and conditioning, Pilates and physio. If we have a performance we finish around 5:30pm with the show starting at 7:30 and running until 10:30pm. Our schedule changes daily depending on what shows are on. Injury is something we are all very aware of and we have a great healthcare team that is working hard on prevention and creating amazing programmes to rehabilitate people as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Glorious: How well did you get to know Claire beforehand? Professional ballet dancers are used to being photographed in all their glory, so was Claire receptive from the beginning to this shoot?

Flore: I didn’t know her that well at all – we exchanged a few emails here and there but mainly for planning purposes. I was, at first, very aware of my presence and did not want to disturb or interrupt, but am quite used to being a fly on the wall. Knowing how dancing and movement works a little means I could try and anticipate steps – leave plenty of space so as not to be in the way but also know when I could get closer to get what I wanted. Claire was very receptive and welcoming to me being there but after all, her priority is to rehearse. There is such limited time for her to learn and practise everything – there are four acts in Swan Lake! – that my presence did not seem to impact her at all.

One of many solos in the acts for Swan Lake.

grace

Just behind the stage, the outfits for the swans are ready.

Glorious: As a professional ballet dancer you have to be so dedicated to your job and a healthy diet and lifestyle. What advice would you give to young budding ballerinas?

Claire: Work hard and push yourself but remember to have fun. It’s hard to think of specific tips as everyone is different and goes on their own journey. We are artists as much as athletes.

Glorious: Ballet dancers know how to strike a perfect pose, so how much direction did you have to give for behind the scenes images and what input did Claire provide?

Flore: As the aim was to capture the essence and reality of Claire’s journey, we did not need to change much at all. It was mostly about timing – knowing when I could come a bit earlier to capture her getting ready, when she was adjusting notes in the corridor, etc. As Claire has a pretty jam-packed schedule, we made do with the time we had. I only came to rehearsals with Claire and Nicol (the prince ) as it was too complicated to organise access to ones with more people there.

A swan and her prince.

Glorious: Were you excited to be part of a shoot of this type, which isn’t generally the norm, and how important is it to you (and other dancers) that the build-up to a performance is showcased to recognise the hard work and perseverance?

Claire: For me this was a huge milestone in my career and I was so excited that Flore was asked to come in to document it. The role of Odette/Odile is the ultimate ballerina role and having the process documented in this way is so special. The work of a professional dancer is never done. For one show alone needs months and months of rehearsals so having this documented is a huge privilege and I hope it gives an insight into the constant hard work and dedication it takes to deliver a performance.

Glorious: As someone that knows what it takes to become a professional ballet dancer, were there things that still surprised you, and how did you manage to capture these moments

Flore: I am always surprised and in awe of it all, but what baffled me the most was that Claire was learning this whole part for one performance. It is such a huge achievement to get the chance to dance the main swan – Odette / Odile, that no matter what, you would take it. The small adjustments that were pointed out in each rehearsal – an arm a little higher, a slower turn, smaller steps – is all to be remembered and repeated for the final performance. It must require an incredible memory and determination. I tried to capture it as such – it is all somehow repetitive but also different each time.

Glorious: How does playing Odette in Swan Lake compare with other performances?

Claire: I have performed other full-length principal roles during my career but this role is (in my opinion) the ultimate role for a ballerina. Odette embodies the purest of classical technique with deep emotion and on the other side you have flashy classical tricks and a strong, commanding personality. Playing both these characters and mastering the classical technique shows that you can do it all.

l-r: Claire transfers from Odette to Odile - a white swan to a black swan; Claire waits for the stage call to begin.

Glorious: Did you watch Claire perform live in Swan Lake. Can you share your thoughts and emotions?

Flore: I was lucky enough to be able to attend a stage call – which is a company-wide full performance with orchestra, on the main stage. Going from a rehearsal studio to a huge stage with the whole company was such a drastic change, and must be such a different experience for dancers. It is incredible how they transport what they did in a small studio onto the stage. Being able to be in the wings surrounded by all the ‘swans’ was a very surreal experience for me, it somehow was quite an achievement and I felt very lucky to have made it there. Everyone was very welcoming and I did not feel like I was in the way at any point, which is what I feared, as I still wanted to capture all angles. I shoot most of my work on film with quite an old camera that has quite a loud shutter. It would not have worked in the wings as it would have distracted the musicians and dancers in quieter moments. I was very grateful for my lockdown purchase of a digital camera with a silent shutter – something I was against for a while but that has come to the rescue a few times, especially then.

Glorious: When you’re not dancing, do you play or watch other sports? Are you good at other types of dancing as well?

Claire: My fiancé is an avid sports watcher so there is alway sport on in the house but I don’t personally watch a lot. When the Olympics are on I do enjoy watching the athletics. I haven’t found another calling in the dance world yet!

Glorious: Why do you think so many young women don’t continue playing sport after school/university?

Flore: When you start a sport as a kid the motivation comes from your parents to start with and it grows till it becomes a passion. It is such a competitive world that very few make the cut, and teachers or coaches make it quite obvious who are the good ones and who are not. It might be an activity that fits into your school years, which is quite repetitive – school every day, then practice, then homework and sleep – that maybe once you leave that rhythm it is harder to continue with the same persistence, coinciding with other factors like studying, working, socialising etc. Possibly the push that we do get from our parents or teachers when at school is what keeps us going.

l-r: In the wings amongst the other swans, Claire catches a breath; about to enter the stage and be the swan she has dreamt of.

Glorious: If you were not a professional ballerina, what would you like to do?

Claire: We get asked this question a lot but when you train professionally from such a young age it’s hard to even imagine what else you would do!

Glorious: Are you interested in photographing other sports? If so, which ones and why?

Flore: I’m always more interested in the process than the final result so I think any sport would be interesting in preparation; when athletes train or prepare, see how they are outside of their competition zone or right before a match or performance. I think, even though I did ballet before, what attracts me is the blend between sport and arts; it’s a very creative environment that requires incredible physical strength which might not be obvious, in comparison with other sports.

Glorious: What’s next – back to rehearsals?

Claire: Yes but we now only have two shows left of the season and then we have a few weeks off. I will be doing the final bits of organisation for my wedding and enjoying spending time with friends and family.

Glorious: If you could have dinner and each invite three influential women, who would you invite and why?

Flore: Always a tough question, there are too many to choose from! Annie Leibovitz is an inspiration as a female photographer from the ’70’s until the present, she has pushed many boundaries and has shot some iconic work on film. Because you need a good chef, Thomasina Miers has recently inspired me to be more creative – in food and everyday life. She has not only co-founded the big chain Wahaca, but has also created a stronger female presence in kitchens and a more approachable side of cooking and hosting. I would totally agree with Claire for choosing Emma Thompson as she is a wonderful actress who uses her voice wisely to support important movements. Let’s get the dinner started!

Claire: Jessica Ennis-Hill, because I love what she is doing for women in sport, the research into women’s health and how it affects their training, I hope this approach will start to transfer to ballet some day. And Lady Gaga, because I think she’s an incredible artist and Emma Thompson because she is a wonderful actress and advocate for women.

Becoming a swan is not only steps to remember, but also emotions and specific mannerisms to learn.

Photography by Flore Diamant, Editorial Design by Root

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