A day in the life of a Ballet Arizona dancer

Lifestyle | 10 Feb |

A trip to the theater to watch Ballet Arizona is a favorite pastime for many all year long. The beauty on stage takes over your body as the rush of emotion in the dancers’ faces tugs your heartstrings in every direction. This wonderous trance stays with you for days after while the ballet replays in your head over and over again. 

The ballet is always a magical experience, but have you ever thought about what goes into the creation of the work of art that kept you captivated from start to finish? I love the ballet as much as anyone else, but after spending the day with Ballet Arizona’s professional company, I can tell you that the true magic happens before the curtain even opens.

The dancers are in the studio starting at 9 a.m.; however their day typically begins much earlier. Principal ballerina Mimi Tompkins wakes up early to start her morning with coffee and the news before heading to the studio to start stretching and get her hair ready for a day of rehearsals.

Tompkins started ballet when she was three. Her mother was also a principal ballerina, and although she didn’t push this challenging career and lifestyle on her daughter, she was the first to put Tompkins in class. “I was really wild and she wanted me to learn discipline,” Tompkins said. “And ballet, when you’re 3 years old, and you’re facing the barre doing very simple steps, it was horrible for me. I didn’t like ballet until I was 8, I think.” After she found her love for ballet, she trained at multiple schools throughout the country. At 18, Tompkins knew she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a professional ballet dancer.

At 9 a.m., the company comes together to begin a traditional ballet class in preparation for their day. Most of the dancers started in jackets, sweats, and boot-like slippers to allow their muscles to get extra warm. The first half of class is spent at the barre as the dancers worked through their toes, ankles, legs and arms making sure that they were prepared to work the rest of the day. There was so much passion in the air that you could almost feel it seeping through your skin. 

After barre is when the real fun began — because the warm-ups were done and out came the pointe shoes. The ballerinas up on their toes were graceful and strong-willed as they worked through their adagio combos in center. The amount of pressure put on their feet when dancing on pointe was incredible up close. At Ballet Arizona, each dancer is allotted two pairs of pointe shoes a week and six pairs per show, but when showtime comes around, it is a whole different story for principal ballerina Arianni Martin. “I try to wear a new pair each act, so that way I feel very high on the shoe,” she said about harder shows such as “Swan Lake.” Pointe shoes typically run around $100 a pair making it a very expensive career since dancers can go through such large amounts of shoes.

Martin is one of the dancers with Ballet Arizona that grew up in another country. She is from Cuba and started dancing at 5 years old after her parents noticed that every day she was in front of the TV watching professional dancers. They started her in a nearby school of the arts in Santiago only to soon after move to the National Ballet School in Havana. “Since they put me in ballet, I was just so focused every time,” Martin said. She knew the pain that dancers experience every day, but she thought, “it’s okay, I’ll continue, I’m going to keep working on this,” she said. In 2013, she came to America and auditioned with Ballet Arizona. She said they gave her a contract the same day she auditioned.

Class continued with across the floor routines so the dancers could work on their pirouette turns. The leader of this particular class, Ballet Mistress Lisbet Companioni, paid special attention to every dancer in the room. It was easy to see that she wanted the dancers to learn and strive for new heights as she individually corrected them. She would watch closely and help the dancer improve their correction and grow their ballet technique. 

By 10:15 a.m., the dancers had all already had a full class, but their day was nowhere near over. It was now time for rehearsal. They had a 15-minute break to get some water, have a snack, and prepare for the first rehearsal.

Rehearsals take up the rest of the day. Each dancer has their set rehearsals usually led by Artistic Director, Ib Andersen. It is a lot of start and stop and repetition. Andersen and the ballet masters spend all day intensely watching the dancers to make sure every arm is in the correct place and every emotion is showing through just as it should. Tompkins said, “As ballet dancers, perfection is something that is always strived after, but there’s that idea of you’re never perfect and there’s always things to be critiqued.”

The art of ballet is always beautiful once it hits the stage, but the time and effort that is put in before the stage is unbelievable. Martin said the dancers will spend about three to four weeks learning and rehearsing before taking the stage. They work 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, not to mention the extra training the dancers put in on their own. For instance, both Martin and Tompkins come in early everyday to start stretching before class begins.

Ballet may be their full-time job and a major part of their lives, but it is not always what their whole lives revolve around. Tompkins goes home everyday to a hairless cat named Bones who she loves very much, “He’s like a huge therapeutic animal. He sleeps with me and does everything with me, so I play with my cat. I give him a lot of kisses,” she said. When she’s not dancing or bonding with her cat, Tompkins also enjoys reading, painting and drawing.

Martin, on the other hand, likes to spend her free time in the kitchen. “I love baking, and I love decorations too,” she said. “So I decorate a lot and I help my friends too. But most of the time I’m baking or cooking.” Martin also likes to share her love of dance with the students in the School of Ballet Arizona, so she teaches class a couple times a week. 

A lot goes into the life of a ballerina, but more than anything the strongest part of their life is their heart. “That’s a crazy thing about a lot of us dancers, we have this will-power,” Tompkins said. Dancers will work through anything if it means putting on a wonderful show, and it is the audience’s applause at the end of the night that makes every moment of hard work worth it.

The world premiere of Ballet Arizona’s The Firebird will open on Feb. 14 and run through Feb. 17, paired with romantic classic La Sylphide — two ballets for a breathtaking show. Ballet Arizona will be performing The Firebird and La Sylphide with The Phoenix Symphony at Symphony Hall.

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