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‘My feet are killing me!’

Isabella McGuire Mayes • 06 May 2021

‘My feet are killing me!’
She is one of the youngest foreign students ever to go to the Kirov’s ballet school. Britain’s Isabella McGuire Mayes relives her first, painful steps.
Wednesday 10 September, week 1:

My first ballet class. I came into the studio quite nervous. I didn’t know anyone. But they all gathered round me, asking where I was from, what was my name, all in Russian. They began talking English, and I tried to say something in Russian. They are really nice girls, and we manage to communicate.

The ballet here is really tough, repetitive. The teacher gave me a few corrections, which was good. Now I’m going to watch Heroes on my computer as a night-cap.

Friday: The normal hour-and-a-half ballet class. Pirouettes felt funny. The raked (sloping) floor felt as though it was falling away. My legs have been aching and sore.

Monday, week 2: I squeezed my mum’s hand frequently, knowing she will be gone soon. I’m going to be alone in Russia without my parents. I feel nervous, but confident as well. I had a big lunch, but that didn’t seem enough. I want to eat like an elephant. I feel like I can’t get my energy back. When I was at the Royal Ballet School, I did use a huge amount of energy, but it doesn’t seem like half as much as I need here. We had a pointe class. According to the timetable, it lasts 45 minutes, which I think I could have survived. But I was in there for an hour and a quarter. My feet were killing me.

Just watched Heroes again (something familiar) and then got into my thermal underwear, pyjamas and leg-warmers and hid under the covers. All the other girls here are quite a bit older than me. I called my mum in the middle of the night.

Week 3: I was a lot more positive today. I think I’ve recovered from my depressed phase. The class was difficult, but they are really good teachers and pay close attention to detail – especially the arms and head alignment. It’s intense, but the end product does look very beautiful. It’s getting really hard.

I’ve just thrown myself on my bed. I am too tired even to take my scarf off. We did this exercise, and the teacher shouted something in Russian. I think she was saying: “It’s no problem for me, I can do this all day.” I was dead by the fifth exercise at the barre. The barre is definitely the hardest part. My mouth was completely dry, as though all the water was going to my muscles to try to keep them going. I think all the girls found it tough.

Week 4, October: They were choosing people for The Nutcracker. It was from 6.30pm to 8pm, after class, so it was a long day. I was nervous because they had nearly picked everyone. But finally they picked me. We learned the Waltz of the Flowers. There was a woman writing notes, probably to help decide who will do the real thing. Hopefully, I will have a little luck there.

I have had stomach problems for three weeks. It might be the water. Then I got a muscle spasm in my back which gave me a pain in my chest. My mum was visiting and wrote a note in Russian to my teacher. She wrote that I had a pain in my “chest of drawers”.

The heating has been turned up, which is making me sweat more and making everything seem harder. The adage at the barre I dread. It involves being on demi pointe for a long time and rising up and down. By the end, I can hardly rise up on my toes at all.

Week 5: I had no energy today. My eyes felt glazed and heavy. We did lots of pirouettes and, after an hour of pointe, fouettes, which are continuous pirouettes. The Russian style is different. The Russians turn and plie with their leg out to the side, whereas the English turn and plie with their leg efface – on the diagonal. The pianist said: “You should try to do the Russian way.” I was just thinking: “I’m in the last three years of my training – do I really want to start trying new ways of fouettes?” I’d much rather perfect my own way.

Week 6: I am really at home here. I like walking in Nevsky Prospekt, or to the supermarket over the Fontanka river. I have decided that I should practice fouettes in the Russian way.

Week 7: My legs feel stronger. My pointe shoes are quite comfortable at the moment. I cut material off the toes so they can grip. And I’ve hardened the middle of the sole. The glue hardens in 15 seconds, useful if your shoes go soft during a class.

I was doing some jetes, which is where you split your legs in the air. I went to do another and, when I landed, my knee gave way and I collapsed. I laughed because it didn’t hurt. But the teacher was anxious and said you must land this way because you could injure yourself. All this was in Russian. I think I am beginning to understand more.

Week 8, November: I saw [ballerina] Diana Vishneva from our hostel’s kitchen window. I was mesmerised. She was rehearsing in a studio. I admire her so much. She worked so hard in school – and now she’s a world star.

December: It’s been freezing for the past few days. I am wearing a fur hat with ear flaps. But people are saying it’s warm for the time of year, and that it should be minus 10C. I bought a Christmas tree. My room is really cosy.

The school is starting to rehearse The Nutcracker in the Mariinsky Theatre, which is big and grand like the Royal Opera House. Many of the teachers have been great stars. I’m just hoping some of their magic rubs off on me.

Christmas Day is an ordinary work day. I open a couple of presents, but it is a bit depressing.

January: The production opens. For a week it plays to full houses, amazing for a school performance. They have the full orchestra, the scenery and one of the Kirov company’s main conductors. The dancers are so young, but so good.

I don’t feel so agonised in class. I can feel my strength is coming, especially in my legs. They are now preparing me for the Young British Dancer of the Year competition in spring. They talk to me in Russian and demonstrate. I just feel so lucky to be here.

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