The Ritual of the Curtain Call

 Hanging in the entrance of my childhood ballet school in Sydney’s East was a faded picture of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev taking a curtain call. Although the photograph is captured in black and white, it was not hard to imagine the deep crimson of the velvet curtain they stand before, and the soft pinks of the roses strewn around their feet. This evocative image served as a steady and gentle nudge for me, and the dozens of students arriving each day, to imagine themselves in that position. Surely a moment of such magnitude was worth every fresh blister, each painful stretch, and a thousand freezing morning starts.

There are hundreds of variations on the curtain call, but there is a general theme to them: the corps de ballet take a bow, soloists enter from the wings, then the principals take a central position. Often there are bunches of flowers handed to the principal women after which the principal female or male will collect the conductor from the wings, bring them to the footlights, and proceed to clap towards the orchestra. Following this, the principals often take a bow in the sliver of stage between the footlights and the curtain - a special moment, particularly when the male and female leads emerge together and offer each other a bow, often to the audience’s delight.

To an outsider, this must seem like a lot of protocol. So why do we insist on the curtain call? Is it merely tradition, or is there a stronger force driving them? A deeper desire to greet our audience, as they desire to meet the artist?

The origins of the curtain call date back to ballet’s inception when dancers in the royal court of Louis XIV would bow or curtsey to the king. I was 17 when I took my first professional curtain call with The Royal Ballet as a swan in Swan Lake. Having never been on that side of the curtain, I was struck by the methodical way in which the corps de ballet readied themselves for the curtain to rise. Although we were to be greeted by the applause of thousands (a major perk of the job!) not a single dancer felt that the show was over, just yet. Because a curtain call, despite all appearances that the performance has finished, is still a ritualistic spectacle for both audience and artist. We wouldn’t snap out of our characters until the last curtain had fallen, and we made our way back to the dressing room, unpinning our feathered crowns as we walked. The romance needs to continue until the house lights go up.

During curtain calls, I have seen audiences break out into pandemonium in the United States, reticently put their hands together in Australia, and occasionally rise to their feet in the United Kingdom. But no matter the intensity of the applause, it cannot be doubted that there is a general feeling of gratitude that emanates around the darkness of the auditorium. Perhaps because both artist and audience is thankful for allowing each other an opportunity for some respite from the ‘real’ world - even if  for a few short hours. Being held captive in a state of suspended reality is a universal luxury that transcends conventions and decorum.

It was 1965 when Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev danced the title roles in the premiere of Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet in Covent Garden. The perfect culmination of two superstars, Prokofiev’s magnificent score, and Macmillan’s (now) iconic production resulted in Fonteyn and Nureyev reportedly taking 40 curtain calls that evening. One can imagine the audience erupting that evening, on their feet enraptured at what they had witnessed. One rumbling body of respect and admiration. Curtain calls like this are now somewhat of a rarity, but we all dance on, in hope that one day, we will be as Fonteyn and Nureyev were, and the lucky few since them - greeted by rapturous applause. Even if we never quite reach that level, as dancers, being applauded for our art is one of the greatest indulgences an artist can ever be afforded. And that is why the ritual persists. 

By Annie Carroll

Image source:
1. Paris Opera - Google
2. Palais Garnier Auditorium & Stage - Wikipedia

3. The Royal Ballet curtain call, Tokyo 1961 - www.londonballet.com
4. Left: Lucinda Dunn - www.balletnews.co.uk Right: Miyako Yoshida - www.balletassociation.co.uk
5. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev Romeo and Juliet - www.behindballet.com

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