“ARE YOU BEAUTIFUL?” asks Laura Hood Babcock, her voice muffled by the food she’s chewing. She has just entered the Ballet Arkansas costume room, clad in black yoga pants and top, her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun, a couple of wisps escaping around her ears. Laura, the company’s ballet mistress and a former ballerina, understands the pressure and the technical prowess it takes to be successful in the field, having worked under the direction of the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov. She stands tall and stoic, peering at her ballerinas, hands on her hips.
Their waists are ringed with voluminous layers of starched tulle, the bodices embroidered with golds and blush pinks and gemstone beads. “Oh, their waists are tiny,” says costume designer Verda Davenport-Booher, fixing a seemingly invisible elastic band with a safety pin to keep the ruffled sleeves in place. “In a month, it won’t be this size. It will be even smaller. From rehearsing all the time, and they stress out a lot. And sometimes, they don’t eat.” She shoots one of the ballerinas a disapproving look.
It’s a joint rehearsal between professionals of Ballet Arkansas and students of Shuffles & Ballet II, and it seems there’s hardly any space to move without bumping into metal racks full of costumes, tutus stacked on top of one another like plumerias strung along a lei, or the dancers themselves. On days like these, the ballet studio on Little Rock’s Merrill Drive hums with energy, but there are quieter days, too—days when the studio is still, except for a rehearsal room tucked down a hall dotted with autographed posters and framed photographs. In this room, which is hot and humid and smells faintly of musk and high school locker room, the Ballet Arkansas dancers navigate the sprung dance floors with pliant feet, chins held high. It’s here that, as the George Balanchine quote painted on the wall suggests, music is made visible.
Laura tap-tap-taps her foot to Tchaikovsky, a swoon of clarinet, oboe, bassoon, French horn and trumpet. She’s sitting on a chair topped with a bubblegum-pink cushion, counting: one and two, and two and three, and three and four. Stop. The dancers are lined up diagonally, dressed in leotards in mismatched colors, ripped footless tights with labels jutting out from the smalls of their backs and, of course, lavender-pink pointe shoes with satin ribbon wrapped around their ankles.
As the dancers tread along the chorus line with moves vaguely resembling the cancan, any naïve idea of ballerinas being petite and dainty is lost entirely. Instead, Lauren Bodenheimer, who plays the Sugar Plum Fairy and the lead dancer in Marzipan, has an unorthodox beauty—defined cheekbones, arched brows seen only on Scarlett O’Hara. Lauren’s body is strong and sinewy, every leg muscle defined and exaggerated through the sheer nylon. She launches into a couple of grand jetés, the floor thudding as her feet strike it.
“Take it slow,” Laura’s voice travels over the stereo. “Take a breath.”
The next move is arguably the hardest in the piece; Lauren has to pivot on a supporting leg roughly 15 times without a pause. In ballet terminology, each turn is a fouetté, and to get it just right, the dancer must employ what’s called the spotting technique, or setting her gaze on a fixed point while whipping her head to maintain balance, prevent dizziness and control orientation. She only gets to nine fouettés, and when she spins to a stop, her upper rib cage is glazed and contoured by sweat. She’s heaving like a racehorse, and even while doing that, she maintains a calm, unreadable face.
“Nearly.” Laura gives the word a cold intonation, a kind of flat finality.
Then they take it from the top, with Laura chanting the accompaniment in a drumlike beat: pum, pum, pa-pum, pa-pum. In the studio, they appear to speak another language entirely—déboulé this, dégagé that, and pas de bourrée after relevé—and trying to make sense of it is somewhat reminiscent of being on the outside of an inside joke.
Fast, loud breaths steadily become faster and louder as the clock ticks by. Such are the sounds lost in a performance hall, sounds masked by music and applause and distance. Onstage, the dancers’ demeanor leave no insight as to the workings of their peculiar athleticism and magic. And Marzipan, which, in rehearsals, stretches into hours and hours of twists, twirls and teetering around en pointe, is a fleeting, two-minute segment.
Lauren takes a break and is replaced by Megan Hustel, who was cast as the Dew Drop Fairy and as the lead dancer of Marzipan in the second of the double-casted production. Lauren lifts her leg and rests it on a waist-level freestanding barre, holding her hips square and bending forward toward her foot. And just when it seems like she might snap, she lowers her chest even farther, hugging her leg as she would a pillow before sleep, the slanting sun falling on her figure through the window. She glances up from bending over the leg she is stretching to loosen, abandons the pose and fishes around for something in her backpack. Coating her lips with a fresh layer of blood-red lipstick, she takes a seat by the wooden shelving unit, where in one cube, a graveyard of used and unwanted pointe shoes lies stacked in a pyramid. (Even though the company provides 25 pairs a season, pointe shoes should ideally be replaced every two days or so, with a pair ranging from $50 to $130.)
As Lauren fiddles with the ribbon she had sewn on her slipper herself, it almost feels as though the pointe shoes are a natural ending to her elongated legs, yet they are anything but. It’s a shoe that appears deceptively uncomplicated and ethereal, almost—and aesthetically, it is what makes a ballerina look like a ballerina. Little is known about how the shoe molds to a dancer’s foot, how the sole supports the arch, how if the flat, boxed front is not quite the right hardness or softness, the shoe could cause severe injury.
A week later, Megan is struck with the bad news. After getting an MRI, she learns of the sprain on the ligament across the top of her foot. The surrounding bones are inflamed, and consequently, she will have to sit this year’s show out. It’s no easy news for a dancer, even one who has performed in the production about a dozen times. (Not to mention the fact that she teaches 13 classes in Conway, dancing for eight hours a day on average.)
“I love that you have to work for this perfection that’s totally unattainable,” she tells me later over a cup of black coffee. “But it’s something that everybody strives for. And you think, Someday, I’ll get there, even though you know it’s never going to be perfect. No ballerina has ever done anything totally perfect onstage. It’s that idea of feeling never good enough, but in a good way.”
Megan may not be able to dance—doctor’s orders are keeping her off her toes for a month—but she’s back in the studio, watching from the sidelines in sweats, her foot stuck in an orthopedic boot she says she has trouble balancing in. She follows the movement with her eyes and upper body, her long, unruly locks freed from being shushed into a knob of a bun. And since she’s no longer able to perform in Marzipan, Hannah Bradshaw, a rosy-cheeked dancer who makes occasional jokes and funny faces after fumbles, has stepped in. (Ballet Arkansas will also bring in guest dancer Virginia Ramey from Ballet Memphis to fill in as Dew Drop. In all, six of nine female company dancers wind up with injuries ranging from tendinitis to sprains—a number atypical to the company.)
Hannah misses a step, rolls her eyes, and with a serious face, she says, “I should have kept going—like a professional.” The other girls laugh, scattered at various corners of the space, some wrapping hot pads around their ankles, others stretching with foam rollers, toes en pointe even after they’ve stopped dancing, the instinct never quite leaving them.