If Oscar-winning 2010 thriller Black Swan taught us anything, it’s that being a professional ballet dancer is tough. Few have both the mental and physical stamina to dedicate their life to such a fastidious art in an industry that’s infamously fickle.
Romanian ballerina Bianca Fota has been dancing since she was ten years old and knows the game all too well. This month the 29-year-old performs the lead role in Sofia Ballet’s Don Quixote at the Madinat Theatre. When we speak to her, Fota’s voice is unsurprisingly timid and feminine. But it’s immediately clear that she has a sturdy head on her shoulders. ‘There are some truths to Black Swan, but it’s exaggerated because in the end you realise that the main character is sick,’ she says. ‘The difficult situations from the film do happen in real life, but people that are healthy mentally don’t manage things like the character from the film did,’ says Fota.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that a career in ballet is all smooth sailing. Fota has been a principal dancer for four years, meaning that today she only performs in lead parts – a title that naturally comes with a target on the back. ‘This is a role that I have in my repertoire and I’ve danced it many times, so it’s not a surprise for me or a big challenge,’ says Fota on her part as Kitri in Don Quixote. Yet, along with the crown comes some social setbacks. ‘When you are a principal it’s harder to make friends. I have more friends outside the ballet circle,’ she says. ‘It’s not that nobody wants to be your friend – you just have to fight all the time for the roles. Every year younger people come, and they might be better so you have to stay in a permanent state of fight. In this kind of atmosphere it’s hard to make friends.’
The road to glory certainly isn’t a walk in the park, either. ‘There is a lot of training. At first everyone goes into the group ballet ensemble, and after two years if you work hard enough they make you a soloist. Then you have to work really hard to get principal roles, especially for the girls,’ says Fota. ‘It’s every girl’s dream to be a ballerina so there are many, many girls in the ballet world.’ In the run-up to a performance, Fota trains seven hours a day every day, from 9am until 2pm and then from 6pm until 8pm. ‘I might work more if we have a premiere or I have a role that is more difficult for me, such as Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake – they are the most difficult roles. They are very technical,’ she says.
Waking up at 7am each day, Fota says she has cereal with milk and cookies for breakfast before heading to warm-up, while dinner consists of chicken and rice or fish and mashed potatoes, plus her favourite spinach salad. ‘I eat a lot of cookies in the morning,’ she giggles. ‘I can tell you that ballet dancers eat a lot. I consume a lot of energy, because if I don’t eat in the morning I might faint in class.’ The rest of the day is spent putting the body through its paces. ‘In class we have a set of exercises that we do every day with a piano and a teacher, and we do almost the same exercises every day to train the muscles.’
On top of a tough training regime, ballet dancers also battle debilitating injuries. Fota admits that after difficult shows she finds herself limping the next day and has a lot of pain in her joints. She also has problems with one of her knees and has had surgery on her ankle after breaking a bone while training.
So, does this toll on the body actually pay off in the performance? ‘Not every day is a good day on stage,’ she says. Sometimes you might have to take the audience with you because they might be tired or bored. When you get in there, you have to catch their attention, you have to be really, really powerful. If you get them, you feel better, they applaud and you dance better. If you cannot take them with you, it’s a little hard,’ she says.
Self-criticism also comes with the territory. ‘I can never relax after a big show. I rewind everything I did on stage, the whole night I think about every movement, every step, and every mistake over and over,’ she says. But Fota says passion, hard work and discipline are integral to being a good dancer. ‘If you’re talented but you don’t have the discipline, you won’t go anywhere. It’s not only hard work, it’s your whole life,’ she says.
When she does have downtime, Fota spends her days off watching movies or spending time with her dog in the park. ‘I try to read and talk to other people, because if you train your body every day, sometimes you tend to isolate yourself like many sportsmen,’ she explains. ‘I read to gather information. The more information you have, the better you dance.’
Don Quixote runs from Wednesday April 17 to Friday April 26 at 7.30pm, tickets Dhs250 to Dhs375. Madinat Theatre, Souk Madinat Jumeirah (04 366 6546), www.timeouttickets.com