Nina Falaise: Deaf Dancer
At the age of 10, Nina Falaise went to audition for the Royal Ballet School at their stunning studios in White Lodge, Richmond Park. She danced so brilliantly that the legendary Dame Ninette de Valois, the Royal Ballet’s founder, patted her on the head, gave her a smile, and told her: “You will go a long way.”
It was only when the young ballerina had her medical that the school realised she was deaf – and promptly failed her.
“I was absolutely devastated. It seemed to me that my dream of becoming a ballerina was doomed,” Falaise, now 55, recalls. Despite the unpromising start she went on to a dazzling career as a ballerina. Nowadays she’s determined to encourage more deaf people to get into dance.
“I feel that dance is one of the most natural things for deaf people, because deaf people are visual and more attuned to body movement,” she says.
Nina Falaise has been deaf from birth, when she was temporarily starved of oxygen. But her deafness, which is classed as severe to profound, did not prevent her from falling in love with ballet from a young age. Born into an English theatrical family (Falaise is her adopted stage name), with artists and writers constantly dropping by, she was desperate to join in the cultural action.
“I was frustrated because at that time, when I was very young, I couldn’t speak. There were poets who would get up and recite, so I got up and danced,” says Falaise, who still looks theatrical with her huge eyes, sparkling eye shadow and long dark hair. Despite her deafness, her speaking voice is melodious and very clear, and she lip-reads with such proficiency you forget she is doing it.
Like many deaf people, she can hear some low sounds, as well as sensing the vibrations of music.
“I never thought of the music as a problem, I just wanted to dance, and any sound I could hear just carried me off into this other world of my imagination. If the soundwaves of the music soared, I soared up into the air, like a bird. If the music was wild, I would spin round like a tornado,” she says.
After attending their Saturday school since she was seven, it was a shock when the Royal Ballet’s senior school turned her down on medical grounds. Perhaps, today, it would be a different story. According to a statement from the Royal Ballet School, while students need “the potential to excel at the highest professional levels of artistry and athleticism… Within these parameters there is a strong culture of equal opportunity and an open-minded attitude towards disability.”
Happily for Falaise, almost immediately after her rejection by the Royal Ballet, she was accepted by Ballet Rambert (now the Rambert Dance Company), where she won prizes for her dancing.
Ballet Rambert did not give medicals, so did not realise Falaise was deaf. She managed to hide her condition well, but one day in ballet class, failed to follow her teacher’s instructions.
“The teacher yelled at me: ‘Are you deaf or something?’ I felt as if I had been ‘found out’. I burst into tears and ran out of the studio. Later my teacher told me she did not know I was deaf. From then on, everything was fine – I felt accepted as a dancer and a deaf person at the Rambert.”
In her teens, Falaise studied with the Hungarian ballet coach Maria Fay. She wanted to learn the Vaganova method: developed in Russia in the Twenties, it is thought to give Russian dancers their distinctive gracefulness. Falaise was desperate to dance like her heroines, the Bolshoi and Kirov ballerinas she saw at performances in London. This was, after all, the mid-Sixties. Ballet fever in London was at its height, fuelled by the mesmerising partnership of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.
“I saw her enormous talent,” says Fay, who has taught dancers such as Royal Ballet principal Wayne Sleep and Natalie Makarova, the Kirov ballerina who defected to the West in 1970. The deafness, she says, “was not a barrier… in many cases she was getting things quicker and more precisely than the people who could hear.”
At 16, Falaise began her professional dancing career, touring European capitals with established dance companies. She was obsessed by dance. “I just danced, because that is my natural way of communicating,” she says.
So how did she do it? How does a deaf person manage to dance ballet? The answer is complex. Falaise uses the tiny threads of residual hearing she has to hear the lowest notes in music – low notes which she says she “treasures very much”. Like many deaf people, she has a small amount of hearing that she utilises to the maximum.
Falaise also senses music through vibrations – much the same vibrations as a hearing person will sense in a loud concert. Though the average hearing person may not pay much attention to this, deaf people are highly sensitive to the slightest vibration. “A vibration is an emotion,” Falaise explains. “Vibrations move me. There is a difference between a vibration from a violin or a drum, for instance.”
Crystal Rolfe, senior audiologist at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, concurs: “Someone who is deaf can sense sounds through vibrations. Depending on how much hearing they have, a person may also be able to hear some of the beat of the sounds to dance to, and some of the low notes in the music.”
It may be difficult for people who are not deaf fully to comprehend how Falaise experiences the emotional power of the music she dances to. But however she does it, the proof of her ability is in her success.
After a hugely successful career as a ballerina, Falaise turned to choreography and teaching. Nowadays, living in the Malvern Hills with her husband, Paul Leo, a local government officer, she is keen to encourage deaf and other disabled people to take up dance. She says deaf students of dance can be taught to develop a fine sensitivity to the vibrations in music, from hearing live (rather than taped) instruments; and they can also be taught to observe closely and copy the teacher’s movements instead of relying on spoken instructions – a technique that has served her well.
Falaise believes the most important thing in dance is for the student to love it. She wants to use imaginative stories, myths and poetry in teaching deaf students, in order to encourage their imagination.
And though she still adores ballet, Falaise’s approach to teaching dance has developed in different directions over the years. “I always taught ballet and pointe work, but now I am less interested in the technical aspect of dance and more interested in fostering self-development. What interests me is dance that grows from within,” she says.
“My love for dance will never fade, it is in my blood.”
For information about dance for deaf and disabled people visit http://www.sadlerswells.com/page/deaf-dance