Having been dancing since the age of three, Rachel Gillespie is currently a member of the Northern Ballet and plays Young Jane and Adele in Cathy Marsden’s adaptation of Jane Eyre. She speaks to Forge Press about her daily routine, her diet and her most embarrassing moments on stage. Turns out ballet dancers keep Percy Pigs in their bags, do drink alcohol and don’t do the splits out in the middle of town on nights out.
First of all, tell me a bit about what you do on an average day of rehearsals – what’s your daily routine?
We usually start the day at 9:45 when we have an activation class. This is basically a warm up, but it’s more specified for dancers. Then we go into company training which starts at 10. That’s like a ballet class but aimed to strengthen what you need for rehearsals or the show. It’s like brushing your teeth; you have to do it every day. We normally finish company training at 11.15 and have a 15 minute break, then go straight into rehearsals. We then have a 15 minute break around 1 so the dancers can replenish, have a snack and go to the loo (all the mundane things), and then we go back into the studio until 2.30. After this we have an hour for lunch and then get back into rehearsals at 3.30. This week we’ve just had Jane Eyre rehearsals again so it’s more customised to what we needed from the last rehearsal or what we need for the next run of shows. So that’ll be from 3.30 until 5 when we break for another 15 minutes, and then from 5-6.30. It’s a pretty gruelling rehearsal schedule if it’s a full day, so you’ve got to rest well afterwards.
Do you do anything outside your rehearsals or your training?
We only really get one day off a week. If it’s the rehearsal period, we get Sunday off. If we’re touring (because we perform on Saturday night) we have Sunday to travel and Monday as our rest day or visa versa. It is quite hard to fit in anything extra during the week. Personally, I really like to relax, I like to go to yoga. It’s really beneficial for ballet dancers because it helps to lengthen muscles and you’re using your brain and your body in a different way and you meet different people. Most of the time when you get free time you need to rest. Netflix, resting, nice food.
With such a jam-packed training schedule, you must burn quite a lot of calories! How strict is your diet? Take me through what you eat on a typical training day.
You know what, I think the only thing you should be strict on is thing like alcohol and things which aren’t really going to do anything for your body. You need to have plenty of carbohydrates and plenty of protein. Hydration is another massive one. If you’re a big coffee drinker that’s not always great because it dehydrates you, so I always drink decaff coffee and tea.
For breakfast I always have something like toast. For lunch it depends, you don’t want to have too much so things like sushi are always a good, or soup and a sandwich. For high-protein snacks, I always have things like boiled eggs on me. But I think it’s also important to have good treats, like a haribo every now and then. Keep some Percy Pigs in your bag.
How do you prepare in the few hours before the show begins? Do you still get nervous before you go onstage?
I think it depends. If you’ve been doing the role for quite a long run you don’t get nervous, but it wouldn’t be right if you didn’t have a bit of adrenaline in there. Obviously, you need to get really warm before a show and get your hair and make up sorted, but I like to take half an hour before a show just to think about what I’m going to do, go through the steps in my head, and think about the corrections because there’s always room to improve. Also, it helps to think through the story, because if you really think about what the character’s feeling, it helps you. I think as a responsible artist you do have to think through what you’re doing and prepare yourself before the show.
Also if you’ve got new partners it’s always good to practice things like lifts too; it makes the journey on stage much more enjoyable if you’re prepared It’s live theatre, we’ve got live music, and dancers that are onstage all the time that don’t really get rests, so you just have to be prepared for anything.
What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened on stage?
Oh my, I can tell you that one easily! My entire costume came undone on stage. It was in Dangerous Liaisons and I was wearing a corset which was done from behind really tightly. I was dancing with a guy who had a lot of buttons on the front of his costume and the loop of my bow got caught on his button, which then (when he moved away) pulled it. Gradually it just came undone until the whole costume including my skirt came off. Yeah, it was not a great moment for me, but I remember it fondly. There’s nothing you can do other than just keep it cool, but you just feel mortified like ‘There’s hundreds of people than can see my underwear right now’. I remember turning to my friend who was sat at the back of the stage and I just looked at her and she was just like ‘I can’t look at you in the face right now’. You just have to carry on and pretend it’s meant to be part of the action. And the audience love it, they love a bit of live drama. Everyone has at least a couple of funny stories behind them.
It’s often thought that ballet dancers live very strict lives, have very disciplined diets and need their beauty sleep. To what extent is that true, do you ever pop to the pub or go out clubbing?
Oh, of course! Do you know what, I won’t really drink too much alcohol if I have a show the next day but at the weekend, I think you’ve got to go and enjoy yourself. You need to go and enjoy normal things. I love to go and see my family or my friends. I love Yorkshire’s pubs and we’re so lucky with beautiful restaurants. You need to go out and see movies or other theatre productions, or go shopping.
What’s your go- to dance move on a night out?
I don’t think there’s a go- to dance move, I think we just go crazy! You see some of these ballet dancers and they look incredible, but even when they go out on the dance floor some of the stuff they can do is crazy. I don’t think there’s one signature move. Just to let your hair down and have a good time, a. As normally you’re told what to do in the studio. T, to go freestyle and do whatever you want when you’re on a night out is just so much fun.
Oh, so not whipping the splits out in the middle of the club, then?
Oh no, I’ve never done anything like that!
Just quickly about the actual production itself, what do you think it is about your production that might appeal to a student audience?
It’s an amazing production, it’s such a good adaptation. Cathy Marsden had such a clear vision and it really follows the story it’s so true to the story. There’s brilliant acting, the choreography is’s beautiful. I, it’s a really clever set as well – it’s just a whole visual treat. And the live music alone is such a massive element of it as well, it’s beautiful music. I’ve told all my friends and family to come and see this one; it’s one of my favourites. It’s definitely a good one to come and see.
Just to finish off, how many pirouettes can you do in a row?
Well the most I’ve done is four, but it doesn’t happen very often. You know, for us dancers it’s not about how many pirouettes you do, it’s the quality of what you do and your general training. A lot of younger dancers do get hung up on ‘I can only get a job, or I can only go to this school if I can do this step or this many pirouettes’. But, it’s totally not, it’s about how hard you work, what qualities you have as an individual and what you, as a dancer, can give. It comess more about from your heart and soul and it’s not so much about numbers.
Photos by Emma Kaldhaur.