Even before I began my 14th season with Boston Ballet last fall, I knew I wanted it to be my last. I had taken the summer layoff to analyze my career, weighing my casting heartaches with my performance successes. I noticed that as I watched my colleagues dance, I felt more inclined to spend time encouraging their artistic success than fighting for my own. Plus, the timing would be cinematically perfect: The Sleeping Beauty was the very first ballet I performed as a child in 1991, and it will be the last full-length of Boston Ballet's season in May 2017.
I kept this decision a secret until my director called me in last September to inform me that he also thought this would be a good time to retire. I left his office unsure of whether I had finally communicated my feelings or just received notice that my career should end. Still, more relieved than sad, I now had the date of my final performance.
At age 34, I am what you may call a corps de ballet lifer, a prima corps de ballerina. Though I was never promoted, there has not been one day where I did not learn something new about my craft. I read a quote from Martha Graham that everyone loves to use in depressing discussions of ballet retirements: "A dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths." Though retiring is scary, I know in my heart it is not a death.
Whenever the rumor mill spins about a retirement, there is always a terrible awkwardness. So to make the most of my final season, I chose to email the entire company. I felt like being open would help everyone to stop "fearing the death" so much.
The formal announcement of my retirement only inspired me more. I began to openly acknowledge my plan to someday become an artistic director, and I set eagerly to work preparing a resumé and looking for available positions. I kept throwing my name and contact information out there into the ballet world, desperately hoping for an offer.
I also continued building my arsenal of artistic-leadership knowledge. It's amazing the sense of empowerment that comes from knowing the end of the chapter is near: After years of teaching optional open class to Boston Ballet dancers, I finally got up the nerve to ask to teach our official company class. I was granted three classes of my own in the fall. After the first one, my peers applauded this step towards the other side of the studio.
There are days when the end of this season feels like an exciting unknown. Then there are days when I am so nervous that I can barely breathe. While I'm doing pliés, instead of hearing the music, I hear a terrifying voice inside me shout "You don't have a plan for next year!" My dilemma is better than most ballet retirees. Having both graduated college and obtained my master's degree, I'm not so nervous about finding "a job" as I am about finding "the right job." I have always been passionate about my vocation. I'm spoiled by it, and I really know no other way to live.
Throughout all this, performing has been my therapy. It is one of the only times my mind is free. I will relish every performance this year while preparing myself as much as possible for my next stage.
My advice to all professionals is to dance every year of your career as though it were your last. Because inevitably, when it actually is your last year, your enjoyment becomes all the more important and yet so much harder to focus on.