I'd rather you didn't drop me

As top ballerina Viviana Durante has shown, partnerships between dancers can be highly problematic.
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The Independent Culture
The news that Viviana Durante, one of the most glamorous ballerinas at the Royal Ballet and a major draw at the box office, was dropped from a lucrative Japanese tour only hours before the company was due to board the plane has caused a crescendo of tut-tutting among the dance community. Bad behaviour, appalling timing, is the general verdict.

But the circumstances which prompted the stamping of a pretty foot are all too familiar. "Oh, spats between partners in the rehearsal studio happen all the time," roars Derek Deane, himself once a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, now artistic director of English National Ballet. "And I mean all the time. It goes with the job."

What reportedly happened in that West London rehearsal room, where the entire company was gathered to rehearse their production of Manon, was that Durante turned angrily on her partner, Bruce Sansom, after he apparently brought her down to earth with a bump after a tricky lift in a pas de deux. She denied there was a public row, but admitted the incident escalated afterwards. "Some of the lifts weren't going well and I started crying." Sir Anthony Dowell, director of the company, stood by Sansom, and Durante was dropped, leaving her and the Royal "reviewing their future relationship".

By any reckoning the male/female partnership in ballet is uniquely precarious. For a start, it would seem that sustained flesh-on-flesh contact forces dancers into an unnatural intimacy. Hands grip buttocks, noses are pressed into groins, legs knot round necks with sweaty regularity. Yet dancers say they get used to this, "like doctors do". They also play down the exteme level of trust that must develop between them.

The man has to give the impression of wafting seven or eight stone up and above his head as if it were no more than a drift of thistledown. The woman must know precisely where and when to place her grip and shift her weight. Any momentary lapse in competence - on either side - may result in injury which can cause a dancer to be laid off for weeks, and at worst may end a career.

Royal Ballet principal Deborah Bull was once dropped from a very great height in rehearsal (she won't say by whom), "but luckily I landed on a soft bit. And no, I didn't throw a wobbly because in these situations what's important is to get up and do that thing again, immediately, like getting back on a horse. Also, I'm not so cocky about my own ability to be able to say it's always the other party's fault."

Marguerite Porter, whose Royal Ballet heyday in the Seventies saw her partnered by such greats as Rudolf Nureyev, Anthony Dowell and Wayne Eagling, believes there is a code of manners cultivated in the studio expressly to prevent flare-ups such as the Durante/Sansom debacle. "It's always very humiliating to make a mistake with lots of people watching in rehearsal, and even more so for the man. Everyone is so insecure anyway. He's thinking, `Oh God she's not comfortable with me'. She's thinking, `Am I light enough? Am I giving him trouble?'. There has to be give and take on both sides."

"A response such as, `Sorry, it's my fault I'm sure, but when you lift me could you possibly put your left ...?' sorts out the problem and leaves both egos intact," says Porter, "even though both of you know it's assumed, not a natural reaction." She hastens to add that she herself has "behaved dreadfully in the past". At one time she was having a volatile affair with her regular partner, and when that crucial politeness was dropped, "it was always me walking out, or him walking out. It came to the point where the rehearsal directors refused to work with us because they knew it would end in tears every time."

The famously temperamental Sylvie Guillem will only work with one partner. She favours the Royal Ballet's (married with children) Jonathan Cope, partly because he is very tall - and when point shoes add a good six inches to her already tall 5ft 7in this is important - and partly because she says he is the only dancer she can trust not to drop her. Even so, beady ballet-watchers will notice that she regularly cuts one of the most striking moments in the final pas de deux of Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, possibly because she thinks it too risky even in Cope's capable hands.

Romeo has picked up the drugged Juliet and tried to dance with her, lugging her despairingly about the stage like a piece of dead meat, then - in MacMillan's original choreography - hugs her feet to his face while letting her body hang upside down, wobbling along its length like a jelly. Other ballerinas regularly put themselves through this ordeal by shaking. Is Guillem perhaps the only one with the nerve to refuse?

Deborah Bull is promiscuous compared to her Parisian colleague - or maybe just more easy-going. In the role of Gamzatti in La Bayadere she has danced with "at least 20" different Solors over the years. "I'm not tall and I'm not small," she says, "so I'm one size fits all," which is a modest way of looking at it. In her experience, any divergence of ideas in rehearsal is more likely to hinge on details rather than major technical problems, which can be sorted out at the learning stage. "It's more usually a question of ... would we like to do this on the left leg or the right leg, or would we like to look at the audience at that point? In all partnerships there has to be a leader and a follower. So when it comes to the crunch, when there is a divergence of ideas, one of them has to back down. If I'm dancing with a younger person I'll tend to lead, If it's Irek [Mukhamedov] I'll defer to him.

"If ever a relationship gets out of hand it's generally to do with people thinking they're better than they are," says Derek Deane. "The fact is we've got too many divas and not enough stars in ballet today. You didn't get Margot [Fonteyn] behaving in a high-handed fashion. She never stopped listening to people or taking corrections. And nor did Sibley, or Seymour, or Beriosova. But when your ego gets bigger than your talent ... that's when things start to go wrong."