Behind the Scenes with the Ballet Nacional Chileno

On an average Wednesday night in a tiny dance theater in Bellavista, the stage is bare, without props. The curtain is up. The lights are hot. The director waves his hands anxiously, speaking in rapid Spanish. Dancers wait in the wings, hanging on his every word. Some move their hands in a fluttering, falling motion, closely following his instructions.

 Photo by Haylee Magendans
Photo by Haylee Magendans

The man waving his hands like a butterfly is Gigi Caciuleanu, director and choreographer of the Chilean National Ballet. He's a perfectionist, a teacher, an artist and, apparently, a man consumed with the work that leads to performance. For the opening of the 2011 ballet season, Caciuleanu showcased his dance rehearsals, giving the public a chance to take a look behind the scenes.

The venue for the rehearsals, Teatro Mori on Constitución in Providencia, is stark and small, creating an intimate scene. The dancers seem vulnerable, without costumes, proper shoes or even music. Instead in bare feet and under the hot white lights of the stage, they totally rely on their director and choreographer to count out the beats. Caciuleanu pushes them every second for the perfect performance.

 Photo by Haylee Magendans
Photo by Haylee Magendans

The dancers warm up individually and Caciuleanu leads them in a series of group warm-ups: demi-plié, grand-plié, leg stretches and bends. As bodies twist and turn, jump and fall, even warm-ups stunningly exhibit the human body in top condition.

The ballet team works through a short clip of choreography, dedicating nearly an hour to just one minute of movement.

This rehearsal is real. Mistakes are made. The dancers glisten with sweat under the hot lights without makeup, straining over each moment. Watching the dancers interact with the director, listen to his tips, make the mistakes and achieve brilliant moments personally involves everyone in the audience.

At the end of the practice period, the lights go down and the dancers come out in costumes, ready to perform the full 10-minute piece just rehearsed. The piece itself is a short, comedic bit that Caciuleanu prepared for this special rehearsal. The audience bears witness to the entire process.

 Photo courtesy Ballet Nacional Chileno
Photo courtesy Ballet Nacional Chileno

Caciuleanu focuses on, to a ballet outsider, what seem like small, insignificant moments. Spending many minutes repeating one fluttering hand motion, over and over, until the dancers reach perfection, Caciuleanu constantly speaks of different niveles or levels of performance which the dancers should always hold in their minds. He reminds them to focus on the philosophic concepts behind the movements and bring those ideas to life. For example, during the butterfly-like hand movement, the director suggests that the dancers believe they are young children involved in a game, thereby giving them an image to copy in movement and adding a certain frivolous component to the dance.

Watching the intense rehearsals leads many audience members to the same question: where does practice end, and art begin? By opening up his rehearsals, Caciuleanu brings the intensity of any performance to his practice space. At the end of the rehearsal, an audience member raised the question about differences between practice and the live stage. One dancer wisely responds: "Clase es una presentación, todo una presentación (Class is a presentation, all a presentation)." Art happens at rehearsals as well as during stage performances. Art happens in everyday life as well as in more specialized moments.

 Photo courtesy Ballet Nacional Chileno
Photo courtesy Ballet Nacional Chileno

Evidently, Caciuleanu obsesses over the line between performance and real life as well. Everything is a performance. Life is a performance. He shows this not only in open rehearsals, but on a Friday night during Sinfonía fantástica, the first cycle of performances this season at the Teatro Universidad de Chile.

The performance starts with a dancer sitting in place on the stage at a chair in front of the curtain, apparently readying herself. She checks her hair in the mirror, she powders her face. Suddenly, when the moment arrives and she feels ready, the dancer simply stands up and starts dancing. As if by magic, the music follows her cue and starts as she dances, encouraging the idea that performance limits itself not only to the moment when the lights dim and the curtain goes up, but all the time.

Three more cycles remain in the 2011 ballet season. Cycle two begins in June with a piece enticingly titled La Sangre de las Estrellas ("The Blood of the Stars").

Ballet Nacional Chileno
2011 Season
Teatro Universidad de Chile
Plaza Italia
CP$2000 to $5000
Students: $1000 and $1500
Metro: Baquedano

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