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Interview with Jillian Vanstone
Being a Ballerina
“The feeling of it is actually very difficult to describe. I think there’s an element of the physicality releasing endorphins. That is something. It’s being able to express yourself emotionally and maybe discover other sides of yourself that you may not normally be able to explore in every day life”.
Hi, I’m Jillian Vanstone and I’m the first soloist with the National Ballet of Canada. The first soloist means that I do mostly solo work in productions. I also get some opportunities to do principal parts, which is really exciting. Generally, if there’s a solo, I’m going to be involved in some way.
What is great about my career actually is that every day is different. We get our schedules on Fridays for the coming week, but as a general rule, we start a ballet class at 10am.
We have two blocks of three hour rehearsals after class. Generally, I’ll dance for about seven hours a day and I can move between two ballets, only do one ballet, or I can do up to five.
Difficulties of Being a Ballet Dancer
One difficulty is the mental aspect of getting up in front of many people and doing some very difficult things.
A lot of the times when things don’t work it’s actually more of the head that prevents you from doing it than technical ability or strength. So it’s a lot of work to get past the jitters I suppose.
And besides that, there’s just the physical aspect of it. I think a lot of people don’t realize how physically demanding it can be because we have to go out on stage and make it look like it’s easy!
But to get to that point, there are so many hours of rehearsal and I do a lot of cross-training, pilates, I swim, I jump ropes, to get my endurance up. People don’t realize that because we have to smile and we can’t show that we’re really dying at the end of a variation, or at the end of a ballet. At the end of the day, I’m usually exhausted.
Life and Routine as a Dancer
I don’t tend to go out really late at night very often and I have trouble getting up in the mornings sometimes. But I’d say it’s really a combination of mental and physical stress that goes into the job.
We have different ballets every year, except for Nutcracker, which of course is a tradition. So it really changes with each season. Some seasons I’ll have a particular stressful time, but that can happen any time during the year.
Usually I put most of the pressure on myself! If I have a role that is coming up which is more difficult than I have ever done or which is new to me, that’s generally when I put a lot of pressure on myself.
I want to get it right, right away and I want to be good at it right away. It’s my challenge to have patience with myself., to get there and to trust myself that it will happen.
When you’ve trained and trained and you reach that point where your strength is high, you can really let go and the freedom comes from that. In the beginning, at the part where your partner looks at you, you have this connection and you just know its going to be okay. It’s those small moments on stage that are really special.
Dancing on Stage vs In the Studio
It’s so different dancing in the studio to dancing on stage, with the lights and the live orchestra music, which is really such a treat to have and you know, the costumes and hair and the make-up and the common-goal of everyone and the energy of everybody wanting the show to go well.
And the energy, of course, coming from the audience. There’s really nothing like stepping out there and you have the nerves going and that can be hard sometimes, but it also helps you really push.
Sometimes you can really lose yourself on stage. You just forget everything and become the movement and the character.
Those are just the most enjoyable times when everything kind of falls into place and it just works and you have a connection with the audience, and with your partner and with your colleagues. It can be really magical!
I think the greatest artists are the ones that are really brave enough to lay themselves bare. It’s not about putting something on to become a character – It’s about stripping down and exposing yourself, which can be extremely difficult.
Often, bringing something in from your life that’s happened to you, whether joyful or tragic, can really help with the character or just with the feeling of the ballet.
But it can be very difficult to do that because you are really exposing yourself and if you really go deep to what that felt like, and risk rejection or risk people not liking it, that can be a very hard thing to do.
But I think in the end, you’re generally much more successful when you’re brave enough to let down all your barriers and let who you truly are in the inside, come out.
I just strive every day to become a better artist and to become a better dancer.
I guess the more I can develop myself artistically, that’s the most fulfilling thing for me. I’d love one day to be considered a great artist; a great actress; a great dancer.