We know them as sylphs, swans, shades, snowflakes, dryads, nymphs and wilis, but the hard-working ladies of the corps de ballet are the archetypal chorus line: well-drilled, disciplined, reliable and beautiful. The lowest rank of the ballet food-chain, the corps are the work-horses that give classical ballets their structure: they are the scaffold around which the main action is arranged. Newer ballets are focusing more on smaller ensembles of more senior dancers, rarely engaging the skills of the corps.
Originally employed to fill out the behemoth opera house stages on which early ballet troupes performed, the corps de ballet were a mere decoration, framing the action of the principal dancers and soloists. Under the eye of ballet masters and mistresses, corps de ballet work became an art in itself: the choreography not demanding too much in terms of technical proficiency, the focus came to lie on synchronicity of movement and harmony of form.
Petipa’s La Bayadère, has one of the most impressive scenes for the corps: the Kingdom of the Shades. This scene is all about the corps, and for a company that is strong in that rank, it can be mesmerising: each dancer is a vision of Nikiya, the ballet’s heroine, and as such they all must cambré, penchée and bourrée identically in order for the choreography to be effective. So testing is this scene that it has become a gold-standard for corps de ballet cohesiveness.
There is a widespread assumption that companies have a “look”, that they want every dancer in the corps to be physically similar: this is slightly outdated, and also impractical. The impact of a corps isn’t in the bodily make-up of the dancers, though it could probably go a long way in tricking our feeble minds to think that it is, but in the coaching. The companies that have the best corps de ballet work have generally been around a long time and have a history of teaching and dancing the classics: students will already be familiar with the work, slotting easily into the poker-straight lines when they join the company – the work is in the blood of every dancer.
The relative success of the corps is in the discipline. Even if you have 40 ladies all with the same height, proportions and shape, this is no guarantee that they will work together. Having a sense of group sensibility, putting your own interpretation in second place to that of the group, watching those beside/in-front/across the stage from you is what will read as a group moving as one. This is where your own idiosyncratic movement and musicality have to be somewhat stifled for the good of the herd.
While some dancers will have a brief stint as a sylph or swan before starting their meteoric rise to the top, others will serve their apprenticeship on the bottom rung for longer. Any dancers who have advanced up the ranks after having served their time here all say it has given them a good grounding, and an appreciation for the work at all levels of the company. Some dancers will remain in the corps for their entire careers, which is far from an indictment of their abilities – a reliable member of the corps is just as important to a ballets success as a flashy soloist.
However, the future of the classical corps de ballet must surely be questionable. With so few choreographers creating full-length ballets, most rarely using more than a handful of dancers at a time, the corps is increasingly unused. Yes, the large ballet companies still perform the classics, but with nowhere near the frequency that they once did, and as they say “if you don’t use it, you lose it”.
So, while we all harbour dreams of dancing the principal roles, bravura or soubrette solos, lapping up our personal plaudits, we should always appreciate the work of the corps de ballet: the beautiful work of the corps in the classics is still with us, but the glory days of the original chorus-girls may have been and gone without a chance to give them their full credit.