Transition is always exciting — nerve-wracking or even thrilling. All of the opportunities for movement, passage, or change within one ballet season can bring up some real uncertainty, too. With plenty of starts and stops, especially when it comes to a performance series leading directly into a layoff, dealing with the “in-between” feels as much a part of the ballerina lifestyle as the shining moments onstage.
We’ve had a chat with three dancers fresh off the heels of a month-long performance run, having taken time to recuperate and gear up for the second half of their season.
Allison DeBona, First Soloist at Ballet West, Marisa Whiteman, Apprentice at Kansas City Ballet, and Jennifer Stahl, Principal at San Francisco Ballet, reveal part of their personal process and tips for managing this time between.
Allison DeBona, Photo via @allidebona Instagram 2019
How did Nutcracker go this year? (What roles did you dance? Was there a standout moment? Anything ridiculous that happened onstage or backstage?)
DeBona: Nutcracker started rough and ended stronger than ever! I was worried about doing 40 shows in a month with a one-year old. Worried about energy and my body holding up. Somehow, it did!! I guess I learned that we do what we have to do.
Whiteman: Nutcracker went amazingly well this year! I danced 9 different roles over 26 shows. I always love being in the theatre for an extended amount of time because it allows me to become really comfortable with the atmosphere and to develop myself as an artist on stage. One of my favorite performances we did this year was a sensory friendly show. Families were able to come to the theatre without the worry of the setting being over-stimulating. Looking out into the audience and seeing all of the smiling faces, as well as meeting them during the intermission was a true gift!
Stahl: This was my 15th year dancing Nutcracker professionally. I had a handful of Sugarplum performances spread out over the 2 1/2 weeks of 30 shows. I couldn’t help but think back to my years in the Corps de Ballet when I had two roles in almost every show. It use to be a marathon and now it feels more like separate sprints.
Do you ever feel a lull following performances? (How did your body feel when you started versus now that you’re done? Do you feel emotional about it being over?
Whiteman: I think that Nutcracker is such a physically and mentally taxing experience, and there is always an initial relief and appreciation after it’s over. During the month I can feel my body take the daily wear and tear of each performance but once it’s over I always miss the time I had on stage.
DeBona: No, not really. I’m not an obsessive person so I don’t hold on to reps when we are done performing them. I can mentally move on to the next.
Stahl: It’s a mixed bag. Sometimes I’m happy with how something went and excited to start working on the next thing, and other times I wish I could build on a role even more with a few more shows. Also, our season starts so soon after Nutcracker and is pretty rapid fire once we get going...sometimes a lull is welcomed for preparing the next thing and/or a little recovery time.
Do you make a plan for relaxing and healing? (Is it hard to find a groove when you've just been going 110% all month?)
Stahl: I spent New Years at a hot spring which was very relaxing and replenishing. I love having a couple days without setting an alarm and letting myself sleep as much as I need.
DeBona: God, I wish! Not with a one year old. I need it!
Whiteman: Absolutely! After each Nutcracker run we get about 2 weeks off and I always plan some time to relax and spend time with family. It is important to give your body time to go into recovery mode physically and mentally. I always take at least a week off from dancing but I will continue to do some light cross training so the new year is not as much of a shock when we return.
How do you stay motivated while on a layoff? (How do you refresh your mind, let yourself be lazy, or perhaps enjoy other hobbies?)
DeBona: You know, it all circles back to baby. I used to obsess and work out everyday when on a lay-off. But, when you have a kid it becomes about them. I just spent time with him and didn’t think about work. I came back to rehearsals just fine and mentally ready to work. It was better!
Whiteman: Most of the time I travel to spend time with family and friends after Nutcracker is over. I allow myself the time to really just relax and enjoy the festivities. During the summer layoff months I will also perform with some summer companies or take classes with the Kansas City Ballet School Summer Intensive students.
Stahl: I went on a few long hikes, two in forests and one in the desert mountains. It’s refreshing to get out into nature and be active but in a different way and different settings than dancing.
What will you be working on in the new year? (What’s next on the season rep? What are you most looking forward to?)
Whiteman: In the new year we will come back to rehearsals for the full length “Swan Lake” by our Artistic Director, Devon Carney. It is such a technically demanding ballet but the feeling of accomplishment afterwards is like nothing else!
Stahl: Our 2020 Season opens this Wednesday, then 8 different programs until May. It’s an intense schedule but fun to get to perform that much for a few months straight. Most recently and first up, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Val Caniparoli on a World Premiere for the Opening Night Gala.
DeBona: We are in the thick of Giselle rehearsals and starting Jewels for a tour. I’ll be dancing Myrthe in Giselle and Emeralds (Violette) in Jewels. I’m excited for both!
What advice would you give to other dancers about “in-between” moments? (Have you learned any tricks or strategies, what works for you/your family after years of performing?)
Stahl: It can be difficult to maintain balance and perspective during these times. I still struggle with it, but I try to appreciate them as opportunities for rest and enjoying different sources of inspiration...nature, family and friends, going to other live performances, or tackling a different creative project.
Whiteman: The “in-between” moments of a ballet career can be tricky to navigate. I personally feel that it is extremely important to take some time to fully rest after performances like “The Nutcracker” or after the season ends. That being said, it is also just as important to maintain your body through things like cross training and technique classes throughout long layoff periods. It can be extremely dangerous to take extended periods of time completely off and then jump right back in to a full workload. Varying workouts like yoga, Pilates and swimming are all wonderful activities to keep your body moving. The biggest advice I can give is to listen to your body and mind. Each dancer is unique and your approach should match it!
DeBona: Just be kind to yourself. If you’re working your hardest, you’re doing your best. Be proud of your work because it’s all a fleeting moment you won’t get back.
Photo: Cody Black
While the situation may be the same (being “on” for performances, and then taking time “off”), every dancer learns to take the best care of themselves through a little trial and error, learning from others, and then just taking comfort in the fact that it will all keep moving.
Trusting the pattern that you can build and adapt for yourself throughout your career will help to make your time in or out of the studio and onstage so much more gratifying.
Here’s to taking on your 2020!