So here we are, on the evening of August 22nd, waiting for the dawn, and the start of the new 2011/2012 season at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. It was a fantastic vacation, but I feel now that the time has come to try to remember what real life and responsibilities are like again.
During my vacation, I was asked to return to my old ballet school in my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and speak about my experiences both in training, and as a professional dancer. Several people had asked me afterwards if I might be able to put the speech on my blog or publish it in some way. So without further ado, here is the speech that I gave at 6pm on August 11 at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I remember the first day that I walked into the Conservatory…Yes, there were the cracked floor tiles, broken ceilings, odd odours, and a ceiling that would reverberate with the sound of a thousand galloping horses in the main office when people would be jumping in the recital hall above…but I hoped that I had found a new home of sorts. I also hoped hat Barb…or should I say Ms. Dearborn would be able to take my awkward and…marginally flexible 9-year-old self, and turn him into a boy who could dance.
Yes, there were the usual hurdles to overcome being a young man just entering into the world of ballet: Being the only boy in classes, to struggling to lift your legs, to uncomfortable conversations about the necessity of buying a first dance belt! It was an important year for me, when I learned that ballet was not just something that I did to improve my work in theatre (I was a child actor, but that is a story for another afternoon), but something much more. It was a CAREER.
When I was 11, I left Halifax, my home, and my family to attend Canada’s National Ballet School. I was a naturally very, very homesick child, so the choice to go shocked many people, but it was something that I wanted to do. I thought that I wanted to be a ballet dancer.
As it turned out, it was just that. I did only THINK that I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I didn’t yet KNOW it; and it was apparent. I was not re-accepted for the following year, but with the proviso that I would leave for a year or two to find my focus, and if I did indeed wish to return, that they would be happy to see me.
So I returned to the Conservatory and became the very first member of the new “professional program” and back into…Ms. Dearborn’s care. I think that I should take this time to discuss just how much she deserves the title of “Miracle Worker”, because that is exactly what happened with me. Yes, I was a musical child, but the things that I had going for me pretty much ended there. I had no grasp of fundamental technique, and couldn’t even touch my toes. I remember day after day of morning coaching sessions (I was attending King’s View Academy upstairs at the time, so I had the freedom to come down to dance for a couple of hours in the mornings) with Barbara just holding my leg on her shoulder, slowly inching it closer to my head. Goodness did we work that year, so much so that I did two RAD exams in one year…and passed both with flying colours. Having an ego at all is something that most professional ballet dancers find extraordinarily hard, but that year, I freely admit that I had just a little one. I was transforming, and I could see it right before my eyes.
I did indeed return to the National Ballet School the following year, having discovered that ballet was indeed something that I not only KNEW I wanted to do, but something that I KNEW I COULD do.
While at NBS, for two years I had the most typically Russian teacher I think that I have ever met in my entire life. He was extraordinarily tough on me and my technique. Positive reinforcement seemed like a foreign concept to him. I remember one class in particular when we were doing adagio in the centre or something like that. I made an incredible mistake, totally lost where I was in the combination and had to walk off and start again. He only said one word while the music was stopped: “Congratulations.” and then looked at the pianist to get her to start again. Luckily, I did not have him forever. I thought that he was putting far too much value on technique and nothing else, but it was what I needed at the time.
Despite the difficulties that I occasionally found in ballet class itself, coming to the stage was something I always looked forward to with unabashed joy. I was incredibly lucky to be able to perform some of the things that I did when I was in school. Including an adaptation of the Lord of the Flies, George Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, The peasant pas de deux from Act I of Giselle, and a duet called Four Proverbs…a piece that former National Ballet of Canada Artistic Director James Kudelka choreographed on us. It was my very first creation by a known choreographer that I was ever in, and still my most vivid stage memory. My stomach still flips when I picture that blue curtain at the Betty Oliphant Theatre going up in front of me and hear those opening clarinet notes….slowly turning around to face the audience for the first time.
I was about seventeen when I got on a streetcar on a cold and snowy morning in January to head to the Walter Carsen Centre; home of the National Ballet of Canada, to audition for the company. It was my very first professional audition, and I. Was…. Petrified! I was most certainly not a stranger to the competitive world of auditioning, but by that point it had been a very long time since I had to don a number to stand in lines and be judged by several severe looking people sitting behind a table. I have a particularly clear memory of standing at barre doing rond de jambes or some such, and Karen Kain herself was walking around the studio of roughly 90 people, all who were vying for the 8 apprentice positions that the company had that year. She would walk around with her paper and clip board, and standing no more than almost an arm’s length away, and watch you. The temptation to look and lose focus on what I was doing was almost more than I could bear.
Whatever it was that she saw that day, she must have thought would fit well with her company, because about a month later, I was offered one of the places as an apprentice with the National Ballet. Never did the phrase “It is my pleasure to inform you that…” have so much impact on me…or make me jump up and down, screaming with delight.
It was an odd thing for me; to get up, shower and eat food that I had made myself, get on the subway and go to WORK. No uniforms, no school, just dancing. It was fantastic, I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to do the thing that I loved the most, all day, every day. However, the transition from student to professional also had its challenges. The largest being the “fall down the ladder”. When I was in grade 12 at the Ballet School, I was the top of the top, the oldest and most experienced (and besides only a few of my classmates, one who had been at the school the longest). When I joined the company, it was like the very first time I threw on my NBS uniform and walked into class at the age of 11. The absolute lowest of the low. There is a strong hierarchy in most classical ballet companies that cannot be explained or even fixed. It’s just something that has to be accepted.
Luckily, there is a separate ballet class in the mornings for the apprentices most of the time. And for the first few weeks, the only time that we ever saw anyone from the company was in rehearsals, but after a while, mostly due to scheduling conflicts, it was time for us to start taking our morning class with the rest of the company.
I think that watching dancers stream into the studio in the half an hour before class is almost more interesting than watching the class itself. You learn a lot about the dancers just by watching their pre-class ritual. You see who arrives a half hour or more before to warm up, and the people who arrive two minutes before (or in some cases, even during plies!), the ones who carry on lively conversations, and the ones who don’t remove their headphones until they see everyone getting up to stand at the barre, the ones who help to move the freestanding barres to the centre of the room, and the ones who just lay there sleeping. But there is one thing that is never different…. everyone always stands in the same place at the barre; every morning, without fail. Let me just say that coming into class on that first day and not knowing where all 60 members of the National Ballet of Canada stand to do their morning barre…is not a pleasant experience. If you’re lucky, one of the younger dancers might indicate to you that the place you have chosen is in fact occupied by a principal dancer. If you’re not so lucky however…my condolences!
For me, all these practical considerations were not very important. I was there for one reason: to get on stage. Unfortunately, being an apprentice, there are times when even this becomes rather difficult to achieve. Every dancer in the National Ballet of Canada is also required to become a member of the Canadian Actor’s Equity Association, both for our protection and the protection of the company. There is a rule in our contract with the union that states that all roles must first be filled by full company members before the apprentices are allowed to compensate for any lack of dancers. This means that more often than not, you either end up being in the “second cast” (which they try to have on stage an equal number of times as the first cast…but never happens) or an understudy; which means that you have to sit around and pray that someone drops from an illness or injury. Often in this case, you’re given more than one place to learn, which means the workload is far more than a member of the corps de ballet, and more often than not you will never get a chance to dance that role onstage.
Early on in my first season with the National Ballet, I thought that I was the luckiest person in the company. We were doing Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite, and it just so happened that one of the “Jets” whose place I happened to know the best of all of them had badly sprained his ankle…Gosh, I was so excited! And his recovery period would not have him ready to dance again in time for the performances. His place was now mine, and I was in the ballet. I rehearsed that ballet every day for a month, and at that point, I was the only apprentice in the ballet at all. However, there was trouble on the horizon.
Due to some scheduling problem, one of the new members of the corps de ballet that year, was unable to join us in Toronto until late October, which meant that he was not to appear in West Side Story Suite since he had missed most, if not all, of the rehearsals. There was a dancer in the company whose name I will not mention who was also our union representative. He told the ballet masters that it was a violation of union rules to have this apprentice dance in the ballet when there was a “perfectly capable” member of the corps de ballet member who was not involved at all, even if he did have to learn the whole ballet in a few days. I was finally removed from the ballet two days before the premiere, and I cannot remember the last time that I was that angry and upset. Needless to say, my first few months with the National Ballet had gotten off to a rocky start.
That was the lowest point of my first year, and the whole debacle really soured my view of the company…until The Nutcracker came along. Now, when I was a young student at the school, I had been involved in the production for several years dancing as one of the children (who have a very large role in the ballet compared to other versions that I have seen), and I remembered every day on that stage, looking at all those company members who seemed so experienced and so great, and I would have done anything to be like them…and now I was standing on the same stage with those same sets, but this time, I was one of them. Mind you, I did have to do some of the thankless jobs, including what we called “magic” which entailed sitting in a sled forever on stage, and handing toys out through a little “magical” hole while Uncle Nikolaj was passing toys out to the children, and dancing the role of the rear end of the dancing horse…both of which I don’t think I will be including on my CV any time soon. I also got to be one of the four crazy, cartwheeling waiters in the second act, which I have to admit was great fun, even if at the end of my two years I spent in the company, I had done over 40 shows of the same role!
Pretty soon, it came time for Karen Kain to tell us apprentices whether or not she wanted to hire us for the following season as a member of the corps de ballet. When I walked into her office, she told me that she felt that I was not yet ready to join the corps de ballets, but that she could really see me fitting into the company, and that she would like me to do another year as an apprentice. I heard most of the same words that I had heard every year that I was a student at the school: “I think that you are a great expressive dancer, but we really need to talk about some work that you can do in other technical areas. You are quite turned in, especially during jumps, and your grand allegro really needs work. I’d like you to take some extra studio time to work on these things.”
Can I let you in on a little secret? I dislike jumping. I really do. I know that I’m a man and men in ballet jump, but it was always my least favorite thing to do. Double tours, grand jetes, and saut de basques were the bane of my existence as a dancer. So doing extra work on them was not something that I was particularly keen on. But I thought to myself that if I really could buckle down and focus on these things, that the next year I would get into the corps, and maybe even a soloist several years after that. Then, who knew what I would able to do!!
That’s what I thought anyway. And so I went into another year as an apprentice. The director of the apprentice program was a man with whom I really did not see eye to eye. His approach to teaching irritated me, and I think my stubbornness irritated him. It was also in my second year that I discovered that every time we would rehearse a classical “white tights” ballet so to speak, I wanted to be anywhere but in that studio, struggling with my TURNOUT and my GRAND ALLEGRO. I still enjoyed the grace and beauty of ballet, but I wanted to MOVE!
And so it was in November, right before my first show as one of Arkadina’s admirers in John Neumeier’s “The Seagull”, that I walked into Karen Kain’s office and told her that I no longer thought that I was a good fit for the company. With incredible synchronicity, she told me that she thought I was a very talented and expressive dancer, that she would put me in contemporary works in a heartbeat, but every time one of those “classical, white tights” ballets came around, she would not be able to give me anything in it. She could see that I had really tried to improve in my problem areas, but that it was simply not where my body wanted to go. We both sat there for a moment, trying to process what the other had said. I think both of us had prepared ourselves for that meeting ready to fight, almost certain that the other would say the exact opposite, but for the first time, we were in agreement. It was a mutual separation under the best of circumstances.
The performance that I gave that night after the meeting with Karen was the best performance I ever gave in two years. I knew I would not stay there, and for the first time, I wasn’t trying to impress anybody with my dancing. I was just there, having fun, doing what I loved. It was a huge exhalation moment for me.
Of course, then came the question: “What the hell am I going to do next year?” I needed to move to a new company, but I had positively no idea where to begin. From January to April of 2009, I took Europe by storm, doing auditions. The search started off with a judicious selection of companies that I thought my mindset and style of dancing would be a good fit for (at least from what I had seen of them…the internet is a wonderful tool, isn’t it?), but as time wore on, and there were no jobs to be had anywhere, my net widened until I was heading to any company that would respond to my CV. I went to 10 different cities in three months that year and auditioned for 11 different companies. Everywhere from the super classical English National Ballet in London to the ultra modern Danish Dance Theatre in Copenhagen. Everywhere I went, I got the same lines. In the classical companies, it was “You’re classical technique is just not up to snuff for this company”, and in the modern ones, it was “You really look like a great classical dancer, and you have great technique, why are you not in a classical company?”
My patience was wearing thin, and I was getting ready to throw in the towel. I had had enough of the ballet world and its ups and downs. I felt that perhaps the universe was trying to tell me something, to move on and go back to my first love of theatre. There was one particular emotionally wrought phone call home that I remember having while I was staying at a friend’s house in Copenhagen, with a new rejection from the Royal Danish Ballet to add to my ever-growing list. It lasted well over an hour, but at the end, my mother told me to “stop rowing against the current”…and that’s what I decided to do. Stop getting caught up with everything, and let the wind take me where I was supposed to go. I had one audition left, for Jean Christophe Maillot’s Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in the principality of Monaco. A company that I had seen a year prior when they were on tour in Ottawa. I had taken class that weekend in Ottawa with the company in the hopes that they might consider giving me a job. At the time, they had told me that I was too young for the company, since the dancers are mostly over 25, but that there was a quality of mine Jean Christophe liked. They asked me to return in a few years time.
At that point, only a year had passed since I had first shown up in front of him in Ottawa, and I really didn’t think that I had a shot in hell. But, it was my last scheduled stop, and it was Monaco. If nothing else, I would get a few nice days in a warm city. A mini-vacation as it were. I had already pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I was going to stop dancing, and was making preparations to stay in Toronto and pursue acting and theatre instead.
So, I journeyed to Monte-Carlo, to the land of the rich and famous, which did fulfil its promise; it was very warm and sunny the whole time I was there! When I stepped into class on my first of two days, I was struck by how much of a difference there was compared to other companies that I had been to. Yes, it was routine morning class, but there was something about the atmosphere. It felt light, the people were all so nice and happy looking. People even started singing along when the pianist played a popular song at barre. It didn’t feel like a ballet company, it felt like a family. I was back in the game. It felt right, and I so wanted to be able to become part of this great family that I had discovered.
After the morning class, I was one of the few dancers auditioning that day (I think there were about 8 or so) who was asked to stay to learn a short piece from the company’s repertoire. The music was uncountable Stravinsky, and the movement style was totally foreign to me. I struggled to learn the steps of a short 45 second excerpt when I had the reputation back in Canada of being a very fast learner. I left feeling quite frustrated and downtrodden. I called home that night to report in about the events of the day. I said how awful I felt in the repertoire, so much so that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go back the next day. “I’ve lost it” I thought. Whatever it was that I had that made me want to be a dancer, I was sure it was gone. Once again, the ever-wise voices of my parents told me to “stop paddling against the current…” so I took a deep breath, slept on it, and went back the next day.
I’m not sure I have the words to fully explain what happened. I walked into the repertoire rehearsal on that last day like a new person. The day before, I could barely remember four steps in a row, and now the steps were just falling out of my body like I had been doing them for years. We were then to have a short half and hour in the studio with Jean-Christophe to show him what we had learned. I was fully prepared to walk into the studio, show him the 45 second bit once, and then be done with it. I did it once, and then he got out of his chair and started talking about it with me, giving corrections. Do this more like this, sharper here, and it would be better if you phrased this differently. He was working WITH me; not just sitting and judging my dancing in a way that I was starting to get used to. He was everything that I had hoped Karen Kain would have been. When I left the building, the woman in charge of auditions asked me rather cryptically if I would have the means to fax them parts of my passport, which I said I did, while desperately trying to hide my grin.
On the morning of April 23rd, 2009. I opened my email in the morning as I do every day. There it was again, that phrase: “It is my pleasure to inform you…” At that moment, I think that whoever lived in the apartments around me must have thought someone was being murdered. I jumped up and down and screamed like there was no tomorrow. Jean-Christophe Maillot, director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo had offered me a job. I couldn’t believe it. Against all odds, and my own brain, I had managed it. Joined the company where I KNEW I would fit. No “white tights and tutus”, but still with ballets that you can call ballets. It was a surreal day for me. I remember that I even had an apprentice school show that afternoon, and for the first time in a long time, I enjoyed it again. My friends were all thrilled. I remember walking up to one of my best friends, who was in the corps de ballets at the National Ballet at the time at the beginning of a Giselle rehearsal, and saying, very quietly: “Now, I don’t want you to scream or make a scene, but I got a job at Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo” Naturally, she didn’t listen, but I think her scream and that moment totally summed up my feelings on the matter: sheer joy!
And so, in July of 2009, I left Toronto, and Canada to move to Beausoleil, France, the city where I now live, just up the hill from Monaco, overlooking the Mediterranean Ocean. I’ve discovered that the company really is like a family. We work together, and live together quite often when we tour, which is extensively. Since joining the company, I have been to many cities in France, Spain, China, Italy, Switzerland, Romania, and Syria. And this coming year alone that list will expand to include Lebanon, the United States, Japan, Germany, and Turkey.
And with my new family, I’ve had the pleasure of dancing many exciting ballets. Everything from contemporary versions of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, and Scheherazade, to George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son and Maurice Bejart’s Rite of Spring. But the memory that I treasure most of all however was dancing Jiri Kylian’s Les Noces. I have admired him since I first discovered his work at the age of 14, and finally getting to dance something of his was a dream come true for me, but not only that. Jiri Kylian himself actually came to rehearse us for several weeks before the premiere. I have never stood in a studio full of dancers who are so quiet and awestruck. He is truly a legend, and I thought that I would have to wait years to finally be able to dance something of his, let alone meet and work with him.
Looking back on all the things I have done and all the experiences I have had, I consider myself very, very lucky for a 22-year-old. The thought of things to come, makes me giddy with excitement. Yes, there were some moments that were not very proud; my focus faltered, or I let the good old dancer’s “inferiority complex” get the best of me, but it takes time to find your niche. We never think we’re good enough. Or legs aren’t high enough, our feet don’t point, we don’t have enough turn out, or we need to work on our acting skills (which are just as important as all the technique in the world!) But the truth of the matter is, THEY WON’T BELIEVE UNLESS YOU BELIEVE. Once you do, you’ll find your spot, whether it be in life, or just standing at the barre at 10:30 in the morning, and it will be sunny and bright, maybe even with a breeze flowing through the open window. And when you find it, you’ll know that it’s a place to stay.