How It's Done: Perfecting "Paquita"

Behind the scenes with Ballet West’s Beckanne Sisk.
Published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue.

Sisk worked most on the simple moments, like walking and posing. Photo by Luke Isley.

Paquita’s variations are some of ballet’s most celebrated examples of 19th-century classicism—and some of its most difficult. Interestingly, the solos we see today never existed in the original two-act ballet. Choreographed for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1846 by Joseph Mazilier, the story centers on a Spanish gypsy named Paquita, who saves the life of Lucien, a French aristocrat. When she discovers that she is herself of noble blood, they marry in a big celebration.    

The famous grand pas de deux was added by Marius Petipa in 1881, when he revised the full-length Paquita for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg. The variations didn’t come until a gala performance in 1896, when all of the reigning ballerinas of the day performed their favorite solo from a ballet of their choice. This one-act version stuck, while the full-length fell out of the repertoire.

Ballet West’s production honors this history, naming each solo for either its ballerina or its ballet of origin. The second variation, called “Pavlova,” is slow, lengthy and technically precarious, full of luxurious piqué arabesques and controlled pirouettes (Petipa choreographed it for Anna Pavlova in a different ballet). Demi-soloist Beckanne Sisk—with her expansive extensions, rock-solid balance and calm, centered demeanor—proved an easy choice for the role. “You need a lot of control for this variation,” says Sisk. “It’s so slow, there’s no hiding—if you’re not on, it’s obvious.”

A Regal Bearing
Although Paquita’s narrative no longer survives, Sisk still needed to reflect aristocratic elegance. Elena Kunikova, who staged BW’s production, helped her capture the light, lyrical approach that Pavlova was famous for, as well as the ballet’s detailed classicism and Spanish-styled épaulement. “Proper épaulement not only helps to define her character,” says Kunikova, “but it also captures the aura of the period.” 

Sisk carefully observed the angle of Kunikova’s neck and shoulders whenever she demonstrated. “While I was dancing, I would picture Elena and try to mirror her,” she says. Kunikova stressed that Sisk keep her eyes focused somewhere specific, such as directly over her hands during the piqué arabesques or under the elbow in the bourrées. She also worked with Sisk on the tendu preparation before the bourrées, coaching her to initiate the port de bras with her breath and to feel resistance in her fingers, as if passing through water, to gain a soft, natural quality.

Sisk jokes that she practiced simple moments, like walking out on stage, more than the variation itself. The entrance and transition sections are surprisingly challenging. “One has to fill up long passages of music by simply walking and posing,” says Kunikova. “It’s not easy to stay in character when there are no steps.” 

In order to project a poised, noble presence, Sisk needed to stay relaxed. She used her time backstage to find a Zen-like zone. “I would try to stay cool, calm and collected—the three Cs,” she says. “If you tense up, it’s just not going to look right.”

Stamina and Technique
The variation can be broken down into four main sections, and for Sisk, the second and third proved the most difficult. (“I like it that way, though,” she admits. “It’s nice to have the beginning and the end feel strong.”)

The second section calls for a set of bourrées, followed by a slow développé à la seconde into a relevé fouetté to arabesque. “I had to sacrifice some height in the développé side to prevent my leg from dropping in arabesque,” she says. Additionally, Sisk tried not to pull off her standing leg in anticipation of the piqué attitude that follows. “You can’t let your mind get ahead of what your body is doing. You have to finish the line first.” Yet once it’s time to piqué, “Really push off that front leg. Don’t be tentative, or you’ll never make it.”

She found the following section—a series of cabrioles landing in fifth to soutenu en dehors—the most exhausting. “You start to get pretty fatigued,” she says. “It’s been slow, slow, slow, and then suddenly the music speeds up and you have to jump.” To find the momentum to rotate all the way around in the soutenus, Sisk added a little extra oomph to her arms as she brought them in from second.

Because the variation lasts several minutes, Sisk initially struggled with her stamina. She worked gradually, section by section, to build endurance. “I would rehearse the first section by itself,” she recalls. “Then start over and do the first and second section together, then the first, second and third, until I finally got through the whole thing. By the third day of rehearsal, I could push through it.”

Less Is More

Turns come naturally to Sisk, so she looked forward to the pirouettes from fifth at the end of the variation. Still, the slow tempo presented a challenge. “You can’t punch the pirouettes,” she says. “You have to listen to the music and use less force.”

A solid fifth position preparation is another key to the turns’ success. Many dancers make the mistake of moving the front foot out of position in plié. “That just throws you off,” says Sisk. “Instead, take a second to feel your fifth, and breathe.”