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  • Emma Louise Alvarez

'Learning To Embrace Mistakes:' An Interview Into The Ballet World


© Scottish Ballet || Constance Devernay-Laurence in rehearsal for The Scandal at Mayerling - Credit Andy Ross


“Being a ballet dancer is not always about being perfect, but about being human:” an interview with Constance Devernay-Laurence, a Principal Dancer at Scottish Ballet.


Music has the power to empower: to inspire and transform. Dance, therefore, is another thing altogether. To transform not only the dancer but the audience, the room, the atmosphere - to be so wholly absorbed in the moment that you become one with the music and dancing.


Ballet, especially, is an art form so technical it demands perfectionism. However, being a ballet dancer is also about being human and not always about being perfect - so how do these two spheres intersect?


INJECTION Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Constance Devernay-Laurence, a Principal Dancer at Scottish Ballet, who spoke to us on all things beauty and balance, mental health and injury, and offers an insight into the professional ballet world.


When did you first know you wanted to be a ballet dancer? Was the journey a straightforward one?


It definitely wasn’t; no, when I was little, I always wanted to be a vet. And I think, if I were not a dancer, I probably would’ve pursued something more medical - maybe physiotherapy. Though I think fitness would always have been an important part of my life.


It was when my mum brought me to a ballet performance in Paris, and I just remember looking up at the stage in awe and thinking, ‘I want to do this.’ That was when I fell in love with ballet, and I immediately wanted to do classes after, but I never really thought, ‘wow, I could make money from this.’ I never knew that was even really an option till later.


What have been your favourite dance performances to work on?


That’s a difficult question. There are so many that I’ve loved being a part of and performing. I think if I had to choose, I would say David Dawson's Swan Lake, The Scandal at Mayerling and The Snow Queen. It’s hard to pick one; every single work has a challenge in it and something that makes it special or beautiful.


© Scottish Ballet || Principal Constance Devernay-Laurence and Principal Guest Artist Ryoichi Hirano in Kenneth Macmillan's The Scandal at Mayerling - Credit Rimbaud Patron


And for ‘The Scandal at Mayerling,’ The New York Times interviewed the Scottish Ballet company around consent and intimacy workshops. Was that the first time you were introduced to intimacy workshops in ballet?


It was the first time, yes. And it was amazing because I’ve been in this job for a while, and I didn’t realise that actually young people coming in might be partnered up with someone completely new and that perhaps they would not know how to approach them. I think for me, it was like, ‘why haven’t we been doing this from the start, in the past?’


Naturally, you do ask the partner you don’t know different questions, like ‘is this ok,’ but sometimes, when you’ve been doing a role for a while, it might not come to you that this person might be new to it, or younger, or doesn’t really know how to approach something like this.


So the consent and intimacy workshops were a really good process, and it was something that was able to be ‘taught.’ It made people consider the impact on actors and dancers and everyone else - even as a viewer; it can be quite powerful. The workshops with Rc-Annie were very useful, and it goes beyond this one performance and production. It is something we can carry to day-to-day life and even just ask someone how they are and to check in with them.


Mental health is also becoming an increasingly talked about concept, and slowly this is coming into professional life. To what extent are there open conversations taking place within the professional ballet world?


Actually, this is a really great thing within ballet, or within Scottish Ballet, because we are made aware that there are services to support us, and actually, once a week, there is someone there professionally that we can talk to.


And sometimes it can be really hard because a company can just do the bare minimum and say, ‘ok, well, here’s a helpline,’ but that doesn’t really mean anything.


There is a person who comes in every Friday, and you can talk to them, and just having that option to talk has made us stronger as a team. Because you can just talk about it. And I’ve realised the most important thing is talking and the other person listening. Whether it’s talking to someone who is more experienced than you or someone completely different who you don’t know - it was a bit taboo, but now it’s a lot more talked about.


People are realizing that it is the best way to get the best out of a performer and to get the best out of people. Companies are definitely putting things in place so that we can access help should we need it. But before we get to that place of professional help, companies should do more to include it in the everyday work ethic.


However, it is tricky because ballet is a profession where you need to get feedback, and you need to get critiqued so you can improve. And sometimes it’s also easy to throw the word ‘mental health’ out in defence, “it’s not good for my mental health,” but actually, sometimes you need to go to that place to learn from the mistakes to improve and become a better dancer, performer and artist.


It is ultimately a balance, and sometimes you can get it wrong. But with the support in place from friends, family, and colleagues, it is much easier nowadays to talk about mental health. It’s definitely much better than it used to be. But there’s also still room for improvement; that it’s really introduced into our work ethic.


I imagine that perfectionism plays a complicated role in this - both internally and from external environments - how do you manage and balance that?


I’m quite a perfectionist, and ballet is one of those things that’s never really perfect. It is difficult, but it’s about allowing ourselves to make mistakes and learn from them - and not always about being perfect. It can be an inspiring journey.


To create a space where you can make mistakes but not judge yourself. And there is a lot of trust involved with the people who are at the front of the room, whether it’s your coach or staff, director or even the audience. It’s making sure that they know you are human.


But I think it’s more inspiring to see someone make a mistake and then learn from it. It’s not just about improving, moving up the ranks, and getting better roles. It’s about the journey, about how you make mistakes, how you learn, and how you get better.


And I would say it’s more difficult now than when I was younger because of social media. You see these amazing photos of dancers, and their body is ‘right,’ but then again, what is ‘right?’

It might be a really good photo, but then you remember that dance is a moving art form. Dance is about communicating artistry or emotions, and it is so much more than a beautiful picture. I think young dancers need to be reminded of that and not fall into the trap of ‘I must look a certain way’ because that does not necessarily mean that it is the most successful way to be or to dance.


© Scottish Ballet || The Swans in David Dawson's Swan Lake for Scottish Ballet - Photo by Christina Riley


There are some misconceptions about the ‘perfect ballerina body,’ what you need to look like, and even having the right bone structure - to what extent do you think ballet and ballet dancers are accurately represented within mainstream media?


I would say some of it is true. Obviously, in movies, they put their ‘Hollywood stamp’ on it to dramatise it further, but some of it is true. When you’re young, and you try to get into the biggest companies, they do tend to look at bone structure first. They want you to fit into their version of ‘what the perfect ballerina is.’


I faced a lot of rejection when I was younger; I did not get into Paris Opera, and I did not get into London Royal Ballet. I think it’s because I was too small or my feet weren’t right, so I have been there. But in a way, I have seen it in dancers where it has totally broken them, and they stop, but in me, after a lot of crying, it did give me a bit more determination. Because there might be things that I can’t do anything about, like my height or bone structure, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be better in other ways. You can work the muscles around it; you can work your feet, your hips - there are so many ways now where you can improve what you think can be the better version of yourself.


The audience isn’t going to remember whether you’re 5’2 or 5’7; they might notice that, but it’s not what they will remember. What they will remember is whether they were touched and what emotions the performance evoked out of them - they will not remember the height of the ballet dancers.


It’s about not comparing yourself - which can be very, very difficult - but to learn about what your best things are and what you might not be as good at and to work on both.


To what extent is ‘healthy competition’ within auditions encouraged, and how have you experienced different audition processes?


In ballet, this is a very difficult balance. To some extent, you have to compare and be critiqued in order to improve, but then it’s also about knowing that it’s not necessarily a critique of you but of what’s needed for a specific role. It’s allowing yourself not to be the best but maybe looking at where you can improve and to work towards that.


I always say, ‘it’s not about the goal, it’s about the journey,’ and I know it sounds cliche, but I think it’s really true. You will feel a greater reward and happiness when you look back at your journey and know what you’ve come from and got to.


I’m actually directing a ballet competition next February. And while a ballet competition is kind of a ‘taboo’ thing as well, it can really help with improving someone’s confidence. You are on a stage, learning to perform, and if you want to use dance as a career, it’s kind of an ultimatum. I want to use this ballet competition as a weekend of dance, where it’s more of a celebration of dance than just presenting your solo and winning a prize; it’s also about taking classes with professionals, learning from them, and taking part in a group dance - a défilé - where every dancer in the competition can dance together. It really is about celebrating and celebrating how far you have come.


And it is ok to look at other dancers and think, ‘oh, that’s really beautiful,’ how can I try to bring that into my own version of dance? And it’s ok not to get the best mark this time around or not to get the role for the audition, but that doesn’t mean you are not good enough; it just means it didn’t fit into what they were looking for.


In terms of healthy competition, it just goes back to communication. Because of that fear that ‘I must be better than this other person,’ you forget that, actually, that’s not the goal. It’s about learning about leadership and teamwork and having that appreciation that all these amazing dancers might have their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s about talking and learning from others so that you might improve yourself.


© Scottish Ballet || Constance Devernay-Laurence in Scottish Ballet's rehearsals for The Crucible by Arthur Miller, choreographed by Helen Pickett - Credit Mihaela Bodlovic


What is the most difficult thing about being a ballet dancer, either physically or mentally? And what is your favorite thing about what you do?


I will start with my most favorite thing - definitely performing. It’s why you shut yourself into a studio for most hours of every day. It’s hearing feedback from an audience member, seeing little ballerinas be really inspired at the end of the show - kind of what I felt a long time ago - but also it’s that reward in yourself. Knowing you have worked really hard. I really do have the best time on stage; the minute the music starts, and you put that front foot on stage, you sort of become part of this different world. It’s what reminds us of what makes it all worth it.


My other favourite part is touring - I love travelling and seeing new places, new theatres, and different cultures and bringing Scottish Ballet all around the world.


The most difficult, because it always happens to someone at some point in their career, and it never happens at the right time - I don’t think there’s a right time - is injury.


It’s tough because that sort of athletic identity - that dancer’s identity - goes when you’re injured. You kind of question who you are without that one thing that your everyday life is devoted to. It’s tricky. You see yourself being replaced straight away, and it’s completely normal - dance just moves on. You see your colleagues perform, and you feel like you’re missing out, and that loss of identity.


When I got injured, it was probably the lowest point in my career, but I became so much stronger mentally and physically. So, in a way, it’s a good reset button. But it also helps remind you of everything you have outside of dance - you’re not just a dancer. You might be a sister or daughter, or maybe you’re studying; it’s bringing and maintaining all these other aspects outside of dance so that when you do need to lean on someone or something else, you have it.


I loved your description of what dance means to you and stepping out on stage for a performance. Could you describe what it is like preparing for an opening night of a performance you have been working on for weeks? What is that moment like for you?


It starts with a massive adrenaline rush, the good type of anxiety. It’s like your muscles are fizzing and your whole body is tuning, and every fibre of your being is working toward that one goal. It’s being in the moment - every worry, every problem goes out the window.


You become what you do. I’ll take the Snow Queen as an example, and it’s going to sound really cliche, but I become the Snow Queen. You believe everything you’re doing: you’re not just playing a character; you are that character.


It is almost that you can feel that the bridge between the audience and the stage becomes one. The emotion transfers and you know you’ve got every single person in the audience grasped, and that is a really amazing feeling when that happens. It is both a physical and spiritual connection; when the music and the dance join, it just becomes one thing.


© Scottish Ballet || Principal Constance Devernay-Laurence in The Snow Queen - Credit Andy Ross


Throughout the interview, it was easy to see Constance’s eyes light up every time she spoke about ballet or about being on stage. To hear the joy in her voice when she spoke about what she loves. Looking at her performance photos and videos, it is clear that she is exactly where she is meant to be. To see Constance on stage for her latest performances of The Snow Queen, you can visit the links below to book tickets to the Scottish Ballet’s upcoming performances.

To follow Constance on Instagram: Constance Devernay-Laurence

To visit her website: https://linktr.ee/YogaMademoiselle

To book tickets to the Scottish Ballet’s upcoming Snow Queen Tour:

https://www.scottishballet.co.uk/event/snow-queen



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