“GUYS, IT’S GOING to be a rough morning on you today.” There’s a nervous laugh from the dancers of Ballet Arkansas as they walk onto the rehearsal floor. Michael Fothergill, the company’s executive and artistic director, warns them, “We’re going to take it slow, but pay attention.” The six dancers, three men and three women, split apart—men off to one side, pretending to wait in the stage’s wing, while the women nestle themselves into the room’s back corner, a makeshift stand-in for what, come the day of the performance, will be a balcony.
It’s the first day of rehearsal for the famous duet from Romeo and Juliet, and the dancers have their work cut out for them. With just over a month until opening night, mastering the intricate choreography will take not only incredible skill, but deep trust between the dancers and their partners.
Luckily, for two of the couples, that’s just what they’re counting on.
FOR SO MANY dancers, there is a distinct moment in their lives when they knew their fate was sealed, a tipping point in which their future as a dancer was cast upon them by fate, by provenance, an unerring drive to find, in the briefest moment of physical perfection, freedom from the surly bonds of human existence. It was a visit to The Nutcracker at Christmas or a spinning ballerina in a music box. It was the idea of a fairy tale come to life onstage or an image of the lone ballerina frozen in a moment, the entirety of her existence distilled into the unyielding lines of her legs and arms, her sole connection to the earth, the few square centimeters where her pointe shoes grace the stage.
Dance is storytelling without words, and that so many of the world’s greatest ballets are stories of love and loss is no coincidence. Where words race across the page, it is a dancer whose every movement imparts a meaning, in whose every look is a question and every step an answer.
I know not how to tell thee who I am: My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself. … Had I it written, I would tear the word. Shakespeare’s words, Romeo’s affirmation to Juliet that is it he who has ventured into the Capulet orchard, that it is he who shouldn’t be there but also the one who must. But for a dancer, there are no words, no couplets, no rhymes, only rhythms and patterns, the fluttering of footsteps and the waving of arms. Dance is the language of physicality, and in that tongue, entire sentences live in the raising of an arm, the lifting of a leg, each movement a rosetta stone for the audience deciphering a love story, one step and one stroke at a time.
But what happens when two people tell that story? And what when that story is their own as well? When acting isn’t acting, but living one’s life on the stage? How much clearer does the story become when Romeo and Juliet are lovers on the stage and off? How much more can one look convey?
“TOBY AND AMANDA,” Michael calls, “let’s see it.”
Amanda Sewell will be Toby Lewellen’s partner in the performance, but more than just the Juliet to his Romeo, she’s his fiancee. In the seconds before the music starts, Amanda grounds herself in Toby’s eyes, making eye contact that won’t be broken until she’s hoisted onto his shoulders. As the music swells, Toby offers her his hand, she takes it and tips over backward across his body.
Their first attempt at a lift is wobbly, fawnlike in its slowness to rise. The nature of the movement, languid and soft as they will eventually become, belies the danger that a missed hand placement or a weak joint can present. The lift in question is a hallmark of the style of Kenneth MacMillan, the British dancer and choreographer who staged Romeo and Juliet in 1965. Romeo, down on one knee, pulls Juliet back and across his shoulders while spinning and letting her swing, seemingly only supported by an arm, as he walks her across the stage. It’s a move that words fail to capture, the kind of poetry that we witness but can never be written, Juliet’s body transfigured into little more than a gust of wind.
For Toby and Amanda, however, the trust goes beyond that of just dance partners. Watching them rehearse—Toby as the brave and eager Romeo and Amanda as the shy and innocent Juliet—is a lesson in body language. Where Shakespeare wrote couplets, babbling brooks of words, Toby has but to raise an arm, and with the gentle wave of his hand, words become motion, and Juliet is in love.
“I wasn’t very sure about him at first,” Amanda later admitted about Toby as we sat around a table in the dancer’s lounge. “He just seemed very cocky.” It’s a statement that got laughs out of the dancers within earshot, and perhaps a trait helpful in bringing the brash Romeo to life on the stage. “But I think I helped with that over the years.” She’d met Toby when they’d both been freshmen dance students at Butler University, and while it hadn’t been love at first sight, to hear Toby tell it, the odds were always in his favor. “I was the only boy in my class, so I was really the only option she had.” It would take a full year before the couple would go on their first solo walk around campus, then another 10 years before, in a secluded Paris garden, Toby would get down on one knee, this time offering up a ring instead of a lift.
They rerun parts of the dance leading up to the lift, each time revisiting the moment when the two lovers first touch. Their hands press together, feet walking in time, and she looks up into his eyes, and for the briefest of moments, you can sense that she isn’t acting. Toby and Amanda or Romeo and Juliet—it makes no matter if the love is the same.
THE AURA OF a stage is a heavy thing. The lights, the curtain, sets and music—they lend themselves to the drama of a production, but in senses both physical and literal, they are but dressing, airs to elevate the dance. And the dance, as graceful as it is, is work.
If our bodies are machines, the bodies of dancers are spaceships, perfectly engineered to rebel against the confines of gravity and the physical laws of Earth. Yet even the most complex and well-designed machines have limits, and in ballet, those limits are tested and broken by the hour. But unlike machines, and much like the ways in which different painters hold their brushes or differing wines show their terroirs, so, too, is ballet hyperpersonal, with no two dancers, even side by side, their bodies moving in time, ever meeting the exact same inflection. Indeed, the beauty is in the individual syncopation, their hearts too full of life to ever be exactly matched.
Where one dancer raises an arm and with it comes the grace of nature, or an etherealness unmatched in modern convention, yet another’s arm lifts in a fit of electric virtuosity, lightning bolts of energy seemingly disgorging from the fingers. Both are perfect; both are pure. In the dance, there is room for everyone.
IT’S ANOTHER DAY in the rehearsal studio, and associate artistic director Catherine Fothergill is holding court over the company’s female dancers, helping them, each in turn, get into and out of a bow so deep that their heads almost touch the floor. She reminds them to reach, all the while also keeping their chests open to the audience. “Keep yourself fully extended, and always keep yourself open. Don’t let your shoulders get away from you.” Of course, they’re also doing this en pointe, too.
They’re practicing the so-called “wedding” pas de deux, or dance for two, from Don Quixote, in which Kitri and Basilio celebrate their wedding by dancing a fiery pas for a crowd of excited onlookers. It’s the ballet’s finale and where Romeo and Juliet was an exercise in fluidity and soft forms, this dance calls for exacting precision and demanding technicality. Its place in the ballet canon has been solidified for 150 years, with its ending pas its crowning moment.
Catherine gives the dancers a moment’s rest before calling them back onto the floor to try the sequence to music. First up are Paul Tillman and Megan Hustel. The music begins, and Megan rises and spins on a pointe shoe before she’s caught in Paul’s waiting hands, bending gracefully toward the floor, her legs in a 180-degree split. It’s the kind of picturesque pose that defines classical ballet, the sort of image that’s ingrained in the minds of child dancers around the world. A glittering dancer poised in an impossible position, held in place by the steady guide of her partner. There’s an ease to their movement, the visible confidence that comes not with knowing the steps, but with knowing each other’s bodies and abilities like they know their own.
As well they should—Paul and Megan are engaged to be married this summer.
The pair met when Megan, an Indiana native, joined Ballet Arkansas five seasons ago. Paul had already been with the company for four seasons and took notice of Megan immediately. The feelings weren’t mutual at first, according to Megan. “I was brand new; I just wanted to dance and my career. I wasn’t looking for a relationship at all.” Of course, as it so often happens, we tend to find the things we stop looking for. To hear Paul tell it, their first date was a day-long adventure filled with old movies, brunch and Champagne, but Megan’s recounting, there’s only one moment that mattered. “We ran into Amanda and Toby, and I just thought I hope they don’t see us.”
Each of the couples agreed that taking their relationship to the stage presented them with a new set of challenges to navigate. But just as in all things, the confidence and trust that will eventually take over on the stage are slow to grow. Megan laughed when she thought back to her first performance with Paul. “There are so many random, one-in-a-million things to go wrong that were going through my mind.” The weight of executing a flawless performance is compounded by the complexity of a new relationship. In an art form that hinges on the placement of one’s fingers and feet, the pressure to be there both mentally and physically for your partner during a performance can be difficult to navigate. One wrong hand placement or a slipped foot can lead to injury within seconds, and within the competitive world of ballet, any injury has the potential to end a career. It’s a heavy burden to hoist your partner above your head and dance, but a far heavier one to also hold their future.
Though nerve-racking, both couples agree that dating a fellow dancer alleviates many of the stresses the career can put on a relationship. “It’s an artist’s understanding of a relationship,” Amanda says. Gone is the need to explain the seemingly endless hours of rehearsal, the travel and dietary demands, and the forced intimacy of the art form.
IT’S NO ACCIDENT that Romeo and Juliet, one of the world’s great love stories was chosen to be performed. For Michael and Catherine Fothergill, it was a personal choice—they themselves fell in love during a production of the ballet for Alabama Ballet. Now, as they’ve ceded the state to a new generation of dancers and lovers, they watch their own stories mirrored in their dancers. “We see them,” says Catherine, “going through and learning the lessons that we had to learn.” Together, they create a space for dancers and new couples to be themselves, to learn and grow, always raising the bar, always pushing forward.
As their time in the spotlight fades, they turn to each other to dance a new dance, and maybe, for them, their time at Ballet Arkansas, directing the company to its 40th anniversary and beyond, may be their greatest pas de deux of all.
BACK IN THE studio, Catherine is watching Paul and Megan run large sections of the pas. Their movements are delicate and precise, belying the draining nature of the dance. At the end of each repetition, Paul’s chest heaves, and sweat stains his shirt. His respite comes at the dance’s finale, when the focus shifts to Megan as she does 32 fouettés, or single-footed turns. After spending so much of the ballet supporting her, lifting her and helping her balance, now all Paul can do is watch as his fiancee completes the most demanding part of the role. It’s the moment in the ballet that Megan admits to worrying the most about—the seemingly endless turns, held in balance by a single foot and her own strength. From the sidelines, Paul watches, spinning with her in his heart.
And then she stops, the dancers clap, Catherine delivers her final notes. The dancers pack their bags. Some head out to teach private dance lessons, while others will spend the remains of the day working on other dances. Megan walks over to Paul, who’s only barely moved. He asks her a question, she smiles and nods. They gather their things and go home, because even for the athletes of God, this is still just a job, but a job in which they found their passion, and a job from which their love grew.
At home, they’ll discuss the day’s work only sparingly, preferring instead to retreat into a more familiar version of the everyday. They’ll fold clothes and watch movies, wash dishes and make the bed. Tomorrow, they’ll go back to dancing, back to the drama and the stage, to being muses, together.
Ballet Arkansas’ Fire & Rain—which includes both the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene and a Don Quixote suite—will be performed at UA-Pulaski Tech CHARTS Feb. 14-17. For more info, visit balletarkansas.org/fireandrain.