The Pilates phenomenon

THERE’S more to getting ready for a ballet performance than donning a stunning costume, doing a stage-worthy make-up and rubbing a rabbit’s foot for luck. Before the curtain goes up there will have been countless hours of rehearsal over weeks and months (not to mention the decade or so of training to get to that point). Before rehearsal comes class, every day. And for a great many professional dancers, before class comes Pilates.

Far from being just another fitness fad whose popularity waxes and wanes with public taste, Pilates has long been a favourite with dancers. It helps keep them in peak form but has a further benefit. From its earliest days Pilates has also been associated with rehabilitation, and because of the physically arduous nature of the business, dancing and rehab go together like Nureyev and Fonteyn.

Juliet Burnett in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby
Juliet Burnett in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Juliet Burnett knows this well. The Australian Ballet senior artist, 30, was back onstage for the Sydney season of La Sylphide after a two-month hiatus caused by a foot injury. “It was a stress reaction in my second metatarsal. Luckily it was caught at an early stage so it didn’t progress to a stress fracture, which would have seen me off for quite a bit more time.” Part of her rehab program was Pilates, of which Burnett was a particularly early adopter. “I started on the recommendation of my ballet teacher when I was 12, so probably I was younger than many younger students would have followed it back then. It was still relatively new – it used to be ballet dancers and athletes who had cottoned on to it, and gymnasts.”

Burnett, who started dancing at about the age of five and joined the AB in 2003, always does Pilates daily but it was more intense during her time offstage, making up for the physical work she was missing in class and rehearsals. “You can still work the muscles in a horizontal plane,” says Burnett. “For the first couple of weeks I was not allowed to bear weight. I wasn’t to walk around too much, wasn’t allowed to stand around and cook. People waited on me. I relished that.”

Pilates is named after its German founder, Joseph Pilates, who made a study of practices such as yoga, martial arts, bodybuilding, gymnastics and boxing to improve his fitness – he was apparently a weedy youth. During his internment in the UK during World War I Pilates helped care for injured servicemen, a circumstance that inspired his trademark resistance exercises, which he developed using springs taken from beds. The exercises could be done while the men were lying down with their heads, shoulders and backs supported. “That’s basically the crux of what we have now,” says Pilates teacher-trainer Penelope Hoess.

Pilates ultimately made his home in New York in the mid-1920s and his evolving method was taken up by some of the biggest names in dance, including the fledgling New York City Ballet.

“Before Pilates I had no concept of how vital core stability was for a dancer when performing,” says Annabel Knight, formerly with Sydney Dance Company and now in the ensemble of the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney. “A strong core is the foundation to your movement.”

Annabel Knight demonstrates Darren Spowart's ConsciousControl Pilates program
Annabel Knight demonstrates Darren Spowart’s ConsciousControl Pilates program

Ah yes, the core. Core strength is a term much bandied about these days but what exactly is it? Not just the abs, that’s for sure. “It’s a great question,” says Hoess, who describes the core as the area from the base of the pelvis to the lower ribcage, from front to back. Within this area is a set of deep abdominals (such as the transversus abdominus),  the multifidi (which connect the vertebrae), and a collection of pelvic floor muscles – essentially the group of muscles that support the spine and upper and lower torso.

“Physiologically, our centre of gravity lies in our pelvis,” says Hoess, a council member of the Australian Pilates Method Association (she was also a dancer who trained at London Contemporary Dance School). “It’s a really important area to base your strength and range from. Pilates balances muscles around a joint and that increases the range of movement. Because of the systematic approach, you’re also gaining strength and flexibility to support that increased range.”

Naturally this is of keen interest to dancers. AB artistic director David McAllister says Pilates enables targeting of the muscle groups that support ballet technique. Learning about the importance of the small and linking muscles and not just the prime movers such as quads, glutes and hamstrings helps dancers prevent injury, improve technically and perform their heavy workload consistently (the AB has about 170 main stage performances a year). On a personal note, he says: “I think danced for as long as I did 100 per cent because of Pilates. I had so many shocking injuries but I could continue because I worked those small muscles.”

Burnett says that many dancers who come to Pilates later in their career “do comment they wished they’d started it earlier because it would have helped them ground the right technique much earlier. When you’re preparing for a role, you can cater your Pilates program to help you out with those technical aspects.” For the title role in La Sylphide, for instance, Burnett does lots of targeted upper leg and calf exercises.

Knight, 30, calls Pilates “such a vital tool for me. You’ve got so much more extreme movement when you’re stable within your core and centred. It’s a larger range of movement, but also I’m stronger, I’m fitter.”

Rohan Furnell Photo: James Braund
The AB’s Rohan Furnell Photo: James Braund

Darren Spowart, a former dancer with the AB and Sydney Dance Company, takes AB dancers for Pilates when the company is in Sydney. It is vital preparation says Rohan Furnell, 26, who “simply wouldn’t be able to perform at the required level if not for Pilates”.  As a member of the corps, the largest and busiest rank in a ballet company, he is likely to be dancing in every show. Like Burnett and Knight, Furnell does Pilates daily.

“It gives me a confidence in my ability. I never feel as secure in what I’m trying to achieve on stage and in class and in rehearsals when I haven’t done Pilates,” he says. There are further benefits too. “Our repertoire and rehearsal schedule is so varied throughout the year that you can be so busy one week and then not so busy the next week.

“The Pilates is a constant that’s really important for me. It allows a consistency in my workload that really helps for maintenance and injury prevention.”

Spowart, 49, was regularly asked by members of the AB if he could record some of his classes for them so has produced a series of DVDs. They are based on his AB work and have found acceptance within the wider dance world. Additionally, he has been asked by the Skating Coaches Federation of Switzerland to speak and present videos at a seminar in May in Zurich.

But the programs can also be used by non-dancers (this writer is a devotee). “Elite dancer work can translate to non-elite people. I have delved deeply into each exercise, to what they are achieving and why they are achieving,” Spowart says of his ConsciousControl Pilates series, which has five levels through which practitioners can progress. Burnett, Knight, Furnell, AB senior artist Rudy Hawkes and soloist Robyn Hendricks are among dancers who demonstrate the programs, which are also available online.

Rudy Hawkes demonstrates ConsciousControl Pilates
AB senior artist Rudy Hawkes demonstrates ConsciousControl Pilates

Pilates is not for the flighty. It is technically challenging and requires patience and perseverance. “It’s definitely no quick-fix process,” says Hoess. “It’s part of the methodology to commit. We’re teaching your nervous system a particular language. Like learning anything, regular practice gets you to where you want to go.” Spowart says it takes a 10 to 12-month commitment for someone to get his program into their body. Essentially it’s a mind-driven process, with the Pilates principles of concentration, centering and control leading to the desired precision and flow.

“Pilates definitely has its role in creating the ideal classical ballet dancer with a good and sound technique,” says Burnett, but she is also convinced of its wider application.  “My husband is a musician and he spends a lot of his days in front of a computer. Pilates is such a great way to get realigned and grounded,” she says. “Now it is very much a ubiquitous thing and that’s fantastic because it should be an essential practice for everyone.”

Knight agrees. “No matter who you are or what you do, you’ll always find benefits in every way,” she says.

Not everyone will end up looking like Burnett, Knight or Furnell, but if they put the work in they will look and feel stronger, more flexible and more aware. That much is guaranteed.

The Australian Ballet’s La Sylphide, Sydney, until November 25. Juliet Burnett dances the title role on November 18 and at the November 23 matinee. She appears in the La Sylphide curtain-raiser Paquita on November 20, 21, 22 and 25.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Theatre Royal, Sydney. Ends December 8.

Darren Spowart’s program:

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in The Australian, November 15.

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