Fifty-four years made a certain difference in outward appearances for us both, but when Ballet Mistress for The National Ballet as well as its venerable footwear coordinator, Lorna Geddes, peered around the door of the company’s inner sanctum to greet me last week, it was pretty much like no time had passed at all.
Lorna and I first met backstage in 1961 when the National Ballet had been on tour in Windsor, Ontario, where I grew up. My mother, a former professional ballet dancer in England headed up the local ballet guild, in part because of her acquaintance with the late, Celia Franca, the company’s then artistic director. No doubt her undying love of all things ballet played a part too, and mine by default was as the local guild’s diminutive five-year-old mascot. ‘Our’ role was to prepare tray after tray of squishy white bread pinwheel sandwiches stuffed with cream cheese and cucumber, or peanut butter and banana – a favourite exotic combination back then, as well as all manner of sweet treats inhaled in the green room during intermission by beautifully sinewy, voraciously hollow-legged dancers. Doing his job behind the scenes, a photographer with The Windsor Star was, I’d heavily wager, coerced by my well-meaning stage mum’s yearnings to include me in a photo opp. As a result, Lorna, resplendent in her Coppélia costume – a young sprite of a dancer two years into what is this year her 56th year with The National Ballet – posed jovially with me, a saddle shoe-wearing ballerina in-the-making, feet arranged in a little girl attempt at fourth position as if street shoes could hope to be ballet slippers. The result was a newspaper clipping and a memory that as it turns out, Lorna and I have both kept all these years with a certain fondness.
We stayed in contact writing back and forth, Lorna sending me letters written on the palest of pink stationary befitting a grown up ballerina to send, until things unfolding as they often do, we lost touch. That is until I pulled out an old photo album that sent me on a Google search ending in the knowledge that Lorna Geddes, miraculously, is still with The National Ballet of Canada.
After all these years…
After making contact, I received a phone message – a lengthy, humorous declaration of Lorna’s contempt of computers, and the Internet in general, but with numbers that I could reach her at directly, and that we “must get together!” She generously invited me to spend the day with her at the Walter Carsen Centre, the Company’s Queen’s Quay home in Toronto, and I leapt at the chance. What ensued was very special behind the scenes tour from someone who is arguably as much The National Ballet as anyone has ever been.
Lorna left the corps de ballet in 1985 to become a Ballet Mistress – essentially peer tutoring other dancers – helping to refine the performance intricacies of their roles in a variety of ballets. As well, she began taking on character roles in well-loved classical ballets like Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.
Assisting dancers with not only movement, but with acting ability – specifically, facial expression – was something ingrained in Geddes by Celia Franca, who Lorna describes as both “a genius” and someone who at times could be “terrifying”. Franca’s demand for perfectionism in the corps did however leave Geddes with an invaluable legacy of performance skills worthy of passing on to today’s corps members.
In a ballet dancer’s career routinely having the longevity of a blinking eye, Lorna had back then already been with the company a whopping 26 years along with her husband, Hazaros Surmeyan, who also remains with the company to this day, playing a variety character roles. Lorna and Hazaros not only managed to entwine the birth of a wonderful son with their demanding dancers’ lives, but as Lorna proudly announced pointing to a photo, – they now have a toddler grandson, shown noticeably to be in what looked like a very promising ballet pose.
The sole of the ballet.
In 1998, Lorna’s role expanded when she was given the position of Footwear Coordinator for the ballet. That’s a big deal as it turns out, given that the fit and comfort of a dancer’s pointe shoes, ballet slippers, or boots, can make or break a career, if poor fit causes injury. The pressure to get it right is on as a result, and tensions can run high in the quest to find shoes that meet each dancer’s unique needs, sourced from the limited number of highly skilled custom makers planet-wide on which the National Ballet relies. Apparently, one pointe shoe order of about 30 pairs can take approximately 6 months to arrive, so there’s little wiggle room for error.
Lorna joked that “even if God made pointe shoes, there might still be a problem.” With that, she led me into the hallowed room where I started to understand the magnitude of the job. Stack upon stack of blush pink satin pointe shoes, what must be thousands of them I’m guessing, slotted into two-foot by two-foot floor-to-ceiling cubicles, one for each corps de ballet member, principal dancer, and apprentice alike. Out of the company’s 65 male and female dancers, roughly two thirds of them are pointe shoe-wearing ballerinas.
Lorna went on to remind me that one pair of pointe shoes might last for only eight hours of rehearsal and/or performance time, depending on the ballet. A pas de deux might typically require a more newly minted pointe shoe, as might choreography with frequent pirouettes demand newness, since the toes take such a heavy beating. At any rate, the demand accounts for the tidy mountain range of them in the room, primed and at the ready for what is on average the 2-3 pairs of them needed per dancer, per week, or the roughly 100-140 pairs each ballerina goes through in a year. Considering that they cost about $90 a pair and can be worn up to six hours per day in a mere eight-hour ish lifespan give or take, I couldn’t help but hear the distinct cha-ching of the math being done in my head.
It struck me that here in the big leagues, that toonie-sized disk of layered glue and canvas in the toe of a pointe shoe parallels the importance of a professional gymnast’s balance beam. It’s athletic apparatus of the highest order and Lorna Geddes is as devoted an equipment manager as they come, in what is a high stakes operation for those doing the balancing. Ballet dancers could legitimately join the Olympiad in my mind for that reason as well as for the many other remarkable feats of physicality they are capably of, on or off pointe.
Speaking of which…
Our next stop was to watch the rehearsal of two of the company’s modern ballets being polished for performance in Montreal – The Second Detail, choreographed by William Forsythe, and Chroma, by British choreographer, Wayne McGregor. Artist-in-Residence, 30-year veteran dancer, Rex Harrington was at the helm of the rehearsal. Perched in a seat only a few feet from the action, it was a rare glimpse I had, hinting at just what it takes to do what these dancers do for a living. The action on the floor of the rehearsal hall was one thing to behold as they did a run-through with the musical score blaring at a decibel level bold enough to meld with the dancers’ DNA. But the goings on in the room’s periphery informed what a dancer’s life looks like in the quiet, audience-less moments of which there are many, and I found the contrast humbling. Ankles being iced, knees tensor-bandaged, kinks being un-kinked in postures so demanding of flexibility that it would require heavy machinery and yards of duct tape to try to replicate anything remotely similar at home, if the average person was crazy enough to try. There was a smattering of injured dancers marking their parts instead of dancing full on as a means of saving themselves for the performance. Hours and hours of daily ballet class, rehearsal time, and performance time taking a bodily toll that the vast majority of us cannot possible imagine. A massage table for the company’s masseurs is routinely stationed, guarding the entryway to the rehearsal hall, and the company physiotherapists are always close by and at the ready when needed, and it is when, not if. It’s a mesmerizing, layered world ballet is, in which the high price for supreme beauty is willingly paid by these dancers daily. I’d say that to appreciate what’s being offered is a given, but what it takes to fully offer it is something else entirely.
And the athleticism…
I’ve been a fan of ballet all my life, but unless it’s just me I’m pretty sure that today’s young dancers are an especially athletic breed. I was taken by the passion summoned to complete each and every move, the savant-like intuitive body awareness. The fearless flying into gravity-less lifts demanding above all else – trust – that made me nudge Lorna, wide-eyed and ask. “How the heck did the choreographer even think that up in the first place?” I commented to Lorna that I noticed that dancers are tinier than they used to be too – at least the ballerinas anyway – maybe by a good ten to twenty pounds lighter in fact. Perhaps it’s this magnified athleticism, the new rigor required, the seemingly boundary-less pushing against any concept of limitation the body might have, as if it could be coaxed through with just a bit more plucky determination. Anyway, I lost weight just watching.
Then, it was on to lunch in the dancer’s commissary, followed by a tour of the extensive wardrobe department and a sensory walk down memory lane as I was able to touch the costumes of the many ballets I’ve seen over the years, hung in the same wardrobes they’ve been housed in since forever. I lingered at The Black Swan’s tutu in awe of the handy work involved in corralling that much tulle into such beautiful form. The vast costume design department overlooking The Gardner Expressway, with its quietude of highly skilled seamstresses, ear buds in listening to music, was equally remarkable.
Costumes being made, replaced, or mended, headdresses being concocted, costumes being washed, dyed, bolts of fabric being labeled and stored, and fabrics being painted – this is where it all happens.
Just down the hall, ballet boots and pointe shoes were being dyed and customized for certain roles; then packed into what looked like large onion bags waiting to be filled with the shoes each dancer would require in an upcoming performance.
Next stop was to the company’s archives, which amounted to a surprising number of time capsule-like towers housing all things National Ballet in media form, perched on top of floor-mounted runners for easy sliding, filing and finding for the company archivist, a friendly women who peeped out from behind a hollow for introduction. Nearby, we passed Artistic Director, Karen Kain’s open office where I caught a blur of her chatting with one of the dancers. It’s Kain’s 10-year anniversary in this role, although she was proudly homegrown by the company, having attended the National Ballet School as a young dancer prior to starting her professional career. Notably, she has done amazing things for the National Ballet, not only by succeeding in bringing an exciting new repertoire of ballets to the organization, but in attracting many of the best dancers from around the globe because of it. A culture of caring for every aspect of dancers’ lives on or offstage is imperative to success in the modern ballet world, and Kain’s leadership to this end looms large.
From what I got to see which was a lot, I’d say that The Walter Carsen Centre is a finely tuned beehive of activity on all floors – a macrocosmic ballet-centric world that if part of its inner circle, you might have a very hard time leaving to return to the real world each day’s end, I suspect.
Lorna certainly seemed in no hurry to head home on what was a Friday afternoon even after I suggested it, that’s for sure. But for certain, when I took my own leave, I left with much more than just my love of ballet still in tact.
Likewise Lorna, much love and gratitude.