Were this a different life, she might lie abed another hour, and sleep the sleep of death, and even dream until a time of gentle waking.
But there’s no time to waste for this sleeping beauty who rises now to begin another day as a professional ballerina devoted to a sensible diet, perpetual body maintenance and, above all, the full-tilt daily classes and rehearsals necessary to prepare for her role in one of the most famous ballets of all time.
“A lot of people don’t realize it’s a full-time job,” says Maggie Small of her ballerina life and especially the constant training and focus necessary to play Aurora, the ill-fated princess at the center of “The Sleeping Beauty,” Tchaikovsky’s hypnotic and timeless ballet masterpiece that runs Feb. 9-11 at the Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center .
“When you think about it,” Small says, “it’s a lifestyle.”
And not a lifestyle for the timid or undisciplined.
First thing each morning, Small jumps right in the bathtub. “I always take a bath for my muscles,” she says. “I feel really guilty about the amount of water I waste!”
Next comes a warmup exercise regimen of home pilates designed to strengthen her core, the abdominal power center that governs her stability, posture and extra-flexible extremities.
Now it’s time to grab some start-the-day food. “It’s usually a pretty sturdy breakfast,” Small says. “A whole-wheat English muffin with cheese, scrambled egg and avocado on it, plus a small protein shake.”
A native Richmonder now in her 12th season performing with the Richmond Ballet, Small usually arrives at the company’s high-energy, busy-bee facility on Canal Street by 9 a.m. to begin a full day of work.
Like the company’s other professional dancers, Small observes a regular, five-day workweek and typically spends her first hour at the studio “rolling out” her calf muscles by balancing atop a foam roller or moving back and forth upon lacrosse, tennis or golf balls to isolate particular muscle areas that need special attention.
She and the other dancers also regularly avail themselves of Richmond Ballet’s exercise facilities, which offer stationary bicycles, pilates “reformer” equipment and the company’s in-house physical therapy services.
Small, who will share the role of Aurora with company ballerina Cody Beaton in alternating performances of “The Sleeping Beauty,” then starts her official workday with a 90-minute classical ballet class designed to hone and improve overall technique.
“Our body is our instrument, so we have to tune it,” Small says. “A piano needs tuning on a regular basis, and that’s the same for our body.”
After a 15-minute break, the dancers then launch into six full hours of rehearsal for several ballets at once, which means switching dance styles and genres.
“That’s challenging in its own way,” she says, “because you have to jump from one style to another, which is great for versatility but a challenge to your body.”
Intensive rehearsals for “The Sleeping Beauty” began directly after the company returned from Christmas break in early January, though the dancers had already spent many months working on bits and pieces of the show.
“The Sleeping Beauty,” which premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1890 and has delighted audiences ever since, begins its story by introducing us to the princess Aurora as a baby, surrounded by fairies on the day of her christening.
But evil fairy Carabosse, excluded from the event by Aurora’s parents, casts a resentful curse upon the child: When Aurora turns 16, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die.
Well-known for challenging the physical abilities of its dancers, “The Sleeping Beauty” pushes the limits of those who play Aurora, especially in the famous seven-minute “Rose Adagio” sequence in which four suitors court Aurora on her 16th birthday just before the infamous prick that consigns her not to death but instead, by intervention of the kindly Lilac Fairy, to a 100-year sleep.
The sequence calls for Aurora to promenade “en pointe” across the stage at length, receive and entertain her gentlemen one by one, and balance in motionless one-legged “attitudes” for long periods of time.
“It’s not just what we’re doing; it’s the stamina you need to do it — the stamina not just of your body, but of your breath,” Small says. “It’s being able to sustain throughout the entirety of this ballet at a high level of technique.”
Malcom Burn, longtime ballet master and artistic associate at Richmond Ballet, has shortened this production of “The Sleeping Beauty” from its traditional three-hour-plus duration to just over two hours with one intermission.
But even though Burn has trimmed and condensed “The Sleeping Beauty” to hold the attention of fidgety modern-day audiences, he knows his dancers have the skill and strength both to handle the physical challenges and still shepherd the story’s many languid, reflective moments and connect with the audience in meaningful ways.
“The communication will be there if we do our job right,” Burn says. “We never play to an audience. What we do is play for an audience. And there’s a vast difference.”
“These are seasoned artists, and I don’t have to push them,” Burn adds. “They’re the ones pushing themselves. If anything, I’m the one telling them ‘Chill it out,’ because they are really determined to do everything correctly, and the way it should be done, and present it in the best way possible.”
After calling it a day at 6:30 p.m., Small returns home to take up much of the same regimen she observes each morning. She avoids dinners out in favor of eating “wisely and well” at home and does most of her own cooking to save time and stay focused on her exercises.
She will take another bath — often with Epsom salts, which help relax the leg muscles — and then roll out her muscles again while watching TV or chatting with friends.
Finally, Small will engage in a time-honored ritual observed by dancers around the world: icing her feet to soothe tired joints and ligaments and relieve the pain and stress that come after a full day dancing and jumping on a hard studio floor.
“I use ice packs, or I fill a medium-size trash can with ice from my freezer,” she says. “Then I pour water in it and stick my foot in for 10 minutes.”
“I do it up to my knee because I like to get my calves as well,” she adds. “It’s very, very cold! But later, you’re very glad you did it.”
On weekends, Small will pick one day just to let her body rest, a preventive strategy designed to help her avoid the tendonitis, calf strains and knee and ankle injuries that can be the bane of all highly trained athletes.
“It sounds sort of counterintuitive,” she says, “but I learned after coming back once from an injury that rest is just as good for your body as it is to push yourself.”
And then, with rest well-earned, a professional ballerina’s day is done, and it’s off to bed, where sleep and dreams await — no needle prick required. If only it could last 100 years.