Through the looking glass

We follow National Ballet dancer Heather Ogden as she prepares for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Sitting on the floor in a small lounge at the National Ballet of Canada’s combined studio-office space downtown, Heather Ogden, legs stretched in front of her, her hair twisted into a girlish bun, pulls out three items from her bag: a lighter, a pair of needle-nose pliers and an X-acto knife.  

Laid out on the oblong coffee table, these look like the pocket contents of some teenaged delinquent, but in this case, they’re the tools of an expert pointe shoe manipulator. As if she’s peeling an apple, Ogden twists the blade around the perimeter of the toe, removing a layer of peach silk from the pointe. “That’s for grip,” the principal dancer explains, “so it can absorb the rosin,” a powder used to improve traction on slippery flooring.

Next she breaks out the shank and removes the nails that hold it in the sole — she likes her slippers to be more pliable, she explains. It takes about 15 minutes to prep a pair of shoes, which also involves sewing on ribbon and burning the ends to keep them from fraying (hence the lighter). On average, Ogden wears through one pair per day, so these steps have become a sort of mindless ritual, an appropriate way to wind down at the end of a day that began with four and a half consecutive hours of dance.

“I get up around 7:30,” Ogden tells me. “And if I’m lucky, I get a tea in bed. I have an amazing husband” — Guillaume Côté, another principal at the ballet, whom Ogden wed two years ago. They eat breakfast, get ready and then commute to work from their home in Leslieville.

From there, their schedule diverts quite drastically from what most Torontonians experience before noon: at 10 o’clock, Ogden and Côté — along with the 68 other dancers that make up the National Ballet’s company — participate in an hour-and-a-half ballet class to warm their muscles and prepare for their day’s work. 

I watch from the sidelines as the pair stands across from each other at a barre near the front of the room — Ogden in a pink hooded sweatshirt and purple leg warmers, and Côté in black aside from his bright red slippers. Still like newlyweds, he sneaks his hands to her waist and they whisper and laugh between routines. Overall, the class seems quite relaxed: dancers interpret the moves as they please and pause to stretch when they want. There seems to be little if any expectation of uniformity, nor the psychotic demand for perfection we see in films like Black Swan. 

“One of our biggest learning tools is a mirror.”

Still, it doesn’t seem any less physically demanding: following class it’s straight into rehearsals. The barres are moved to the back of the studio and replaced with makeshift props. In two days, the company heads to L.A., where they’ll perform Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. An encore run of the 2011 collaboration with England’s Royal Ballet, the popular show is back in Toronto from Nov. 10 to 25 before continuing its tour to D.C. Ogden dances the title role, and today she’s doing a full run-through while the Royal Ballet’s Jackie Barrett, who also led the morning class, coaches. I manage to catch a few words with Ogden on her first break, while she sits adjusting her slippers, and chats with other dancers. “Are you exhausted?” I ask, amazed. “Oh yeah,” she says. But in no time, she’s back on her toes, fully into character. I’m impressed by how animated she is and ask whether dancers take acting lessons, surprised to learn that most of this direction comes from their dance instructors. Clearly, there’s a natural talent here. 

Following the run-through, Barrett gives specific instructions for improvements — details that are lost on me, even after 15 years of my own dance training. Here’s where the perfectionism comes into play, I think, and much of that pressure is self-inflicted: “One of our biggest learning tools is a mirror,” says Ogden. 

It all sounds a little intimidating, but Ogden says she has had a very positive experience since joining the company at 17.  “I made friends right away.” She learned a lot from the older dancers, including how to prepare her pointe shoes. 

“And, of course, I met my husband here.” The couple doesn’t have any children, but Ogden says she would love to have a family someday. “Back in the ’70s, if you decided to have a family, it was like you’re throwing in the towel,” she tells me, “but now it’s much more supportive. Some dancers here have two kids — they just pop back into shape.” 

Not surprising: staying in shape is top priority for Ogden, and so next we’re off to a physiotherapy appointment with the in-house athletic therapist, Paul Popoutsakis. Ogden sees him about three times a week, sometimes for immediate pain (today she’s tense in her lower back) and other times for injury prevention. They seem to have a close relationship and chat about mutual friends, mostly other dancers who have left the Ballet, while Popoutsakis works on her legs. Ogden mentions a former dancer who started a new fitness studio called Union, co-owned by members of Canadian rock royalty Our Lady Peace, oddly enough. Ogden herself designed a ballet barre class for Union and has taught a few classes there. Although it went well, teaching is still something she’s getting used to. “I don’t really get stage fright,” she says. “I was more nervous teaching than dancing.”

It’s something she’ll continue to do sporadically, but for now, her focus is on the National Ballet’s 2012/2013 season. Following physiotherapy, we head straight to a wardrobe fitting for the March production of Nijinsky. Amidst racks of extravagant costumes, resident cutter Ruth Bartel helps Ogden slip into a floor-grazing red velvet dress held together by a row of safety pins down the back. “It’s beautiful,” Ogden says, and twirls in front of a full-length mirror to get a sense of how it moves. The company seamstresses rely on feedback from dancers to make sure costumes don’t restrict movement in any way. In this case, Ogden also gives Bartel some insight into the character: she suggests opening the neckline to make the dress less demure — her character is much more vivacious.

On our way back downstairs, we stop by the change rooms, where each dancer has a cubby to store her personal belongings. Like high school lockers, they’re decorated with photographs and other mementos (Ogden’s includes a wedding photo and a glossy shot of Côté from last season’s Romeo & Juliet). After prepping her shoes for tomorrow, it’s finally time for Ogden to head home. Her evening usually involves little more than grocery shopping and dinner with Côté, she tells me. I ask about their diet and am surprised to discover her relaxed attitude: “I’m less interested in how I look and more so in how I’m going to feel,” Ogden explains. “I think about what’s going to sustain me and give me energy for the day.” 

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