Artists of The Australian Ballet rehearsing Madame Butterfly. Photo Jess Bialek
Partnering is a very difficult technique to learn. To dance convincingly, dancers have to be able to adjust to one another, both physically and emotionally. The term 'pas de deux', French for “step of two”, is used to describe the meeting of two dancers on stage, and when it is done well, it is truly magical.
Technically, partnering has changed a great deal over the years. During the Romantic era, in ballets such as La Sylphide, the pas de deux presented the male and female dancer in a true and equal partnership; later, in works like Swan Lake, it was little more than a vehicle for star ballerinas and their cavaliers.
In the ballets of Danish choreographer August Bournonville, the man and woman dance side by side, the man given as many occasions for displaying his technical skills as the woman. More frequently, however, the supremacy of the ballerina in the 19th century meant a male dancer's chief task was to show off his ballerina with the maximum skill to her adoring public.
In France, ballerinas such as Fanny Elssler – who was partnered by her sister Thérèse – managed to abolish the male dancer entirely. Even Coppélia was originally performed with the principal male role of Franz played by a female dressed as a man.
Later in Russia, Marius Petipa's ballets still tended to present the ballerina in a dominant role. While ballet was declining in Europe, he was insisting on the highest standards of dancing, musical accompaniment and staging in St Petersburg, where he soon made 'ballet' synonymous with 'Russian Ballet'. Apart from extending the range of pointe work required from his ballerinas, he also demanded a new type of pas de deux. In fact he invented the standard structure of what we now know as the 'grand pas de deux'. In his ballets, the stars always started the pas de deux with an adagio, in which the ballerina was promenaded, lifted and displayed on the strong arm of her cavalier. Then came a solo for the danseur, followed by one for the ballerina, and finally a coda in which the ballerina's virtuosity (and rather less so, that of her partner) was danced in a feast of fast and brilliant steps.
This approach to pas de deux remained for many years and can be seen in some ballets even today. However, in the early years of last century, it was Mikhail Fokine and the Diaghilev Ballets Russes who restored the equal partnership between the sexes in ballets such as Le Spectre de la rose.
In the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s, partnering became more athletic, and in some cases acrobatic. One-handed lifts and spins in the air were previously regarded as acrobatics and not part of the dance vocabulary, but the Russians changed all that, and now all dancers are required to be able to perform the most sensational pas de deux movements.
The technique for partnering is very complex. To the casual onlooker it may seem that the man does all the work, but fortunately this is not true. Ideally the woman helps her partner. During rehearsals they have developed a unique rapport – he will sense when she needs to leave a balance, or needs to be steadied, and be there to offer his support. In supported pirouettes or fingerturns, both dancers will sense how many turns to do, and instinctively phrase the choreography with the music.