Though professional dancers now benefit from modern transportation and conveniences, guesting in present times poses many of the same basic difficulties that Elssler would have encountered and probably provides similar rewards.
Stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov spun the globe during the 1960s and 1970s, making guest appearances with countless companies. The pursuit of artistic growth and freedom, greater exposure and financial reward are certainly motivations they would have shared with today’s guest artists. That pursuit, however, does not come without its challenges.
Imagine Elssler doing her daily ballet class on the rocky ship across the ocean or warming up between train carriages travelling from one city to the next. It must have been impossible for her to have felt on top form. The pressure to perform well on her US tour would have been immense. Though Elssler’s enterprise is well-documented ballet lore, it does highlight some areas of consideration that are very much relevant to guest artists in dance today.
Travelling and guesting go hand in hand. The dancers at Birmingham Royal Ballet, like many other companies, are accustomed to travelling and adjusting to new stages, studios, audiences and digs. Feeling good physically after a journey is always of prime importance. The usual precautions are taken to minimise jet-lag and muscle stiffness and the company’s touring coach is usually filled with ballet-body accessories to help ease the ill effects. Guesting, however, often requires the dancer to travel into new, unknown situations with very little time to recover.
Feeling at ease in a new situation can be as important to the success of a performance as feeling good physically. Principal dancer Nao Sakuma has made countless guest appearances during her career at Birmingham Royal Ballet, and for her this is always a concern. 'For a lot of my guestings, I arrived the day before the show. There was so little time to meet everyone and adjust to the stage that sometimes I didn’t feel as good as for my normal company performances. I prefer guesting in productions where I have more time to feel comfortable with the other dancers and environments.'
It can be very unsettling for a guest artist if there are too many things to adjust to in a short amount of time. Top of any worry list is the condition of the dance surfaces. Stage and studio floors can vary greatly from what a dancer may be used to. This caused panic for me on more than one occasion as I found a new floor had far less grip than what I was used to. Lighting for performances can also be a factor, as well as temperature or climate if you are working somewhere much warmer or colder than usual.
For any dancer on the road, finding and maintaining an appropriate diet is a constant challenge. Dancers may not be particularly keen to sample local cuisine with important performances looming, or simply find it difficult to locate something suitable. Some find travelling to perform easier than others or learn through experience how best to deal with any inconveniences.