How Illness Made Me Realize That What I Love Most Is Going To The Ballet

February 5, 2018

I’ve had a sticky note on my desk since 2013 with a horoscope that reads, “What would you do if you made happiness your number one priority?”

Like many things in life, at least for me, there is no single, simple answer to that question, which is perhaps why it’s still sitting there.

The past year, I was very sick. You wouldn’t have necessarily known it to look at me, but I was. The kind of sick that prompts soul-searching, and meaning-of-life searching. The kind of sick that has you thinking, “There has to be a takeaway from this awful experience; I can’t have gone through this for nothing.”

So I started thinking about what I liked, what I enjoyed—in part because it seemed like a positive way to get through six miserable months of treatment. I like a whole lot of things, chief among them dessert and Harper’s Bazaar UK. But what I really like is going to the ballet.

This was not a shocking realization.

Many of my best memories are of wonderful performances—the first time I saw The Royal Ballet, seeing Alessandra Ferri in Manon, watching my friends dance their first principal roles in Nutcracker. Going to the ballet has in many ways defined my life. Performances I have seen serve as landmarks when I look back. I’ve traveled across the country just to go to the ballet, as I did last summer when I went to see Jewels at Lincoln Center. And if I’m already planning a trip, I always make sure that there is a performance to see while I’m there.

Going to the ballet
Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca in Manon. Photo by Gene Schiavone

When I was in my first year in Nashville Ballet 2, artistic director Paul Vasterling choreographed Carmina Burana. I wasn’t cast in it, and I wasn’t understudying it either. I was disappointed—but also, secretly, relieved. I could tell that Carmina was going to be a big production, and I deliberately didn’t watch rehearsals, wanting to wait and see it onstage.

And when I did—oh, what a thrill! The ballet was a spectacle, by turns dramatic and romantic. When the curtain came down, the audience leapt to its feet. As I stood applauding with the crowd, I felt genuine pleasure to be an audience member. My delight at watching was as great as what I felt when dancing.

Anyway, I was sick, although I felt well enough to go to the ballet. And it just so happens that I work for a ballet company, Smuin Contemporary American Ballet, and that in addition to all of Smuin’s performances, I was sick during San Francisco Ballet’s season. So between November and May, I saw a total of 17 ballets at SFB, of which 13 were new to me and four were world premieres. Two performances featured retirements, which is always a special thing to see. At Smuin, I saw The Christmas Ballet and Dance Series 02 about a dozen times each.

When Dance Series 02 ended, I felt like I was in withdrawal. I’d gotten accustomed to watching those ballets every night! When the curtain went up, I would fall into the world onstage while my realities melted away. For those two hours, I was free. I wasn’t a patient or a carefully contained wreck. I was just me, sitting in the dark, watching the dancers move.

The famous line from A Chorus Line, “Everything is beautiful at the ballet”—maybe this is what the character meant. Not merely that ballet is beautiful, but that whatever unpleasantness is present in your life dissipates while watching it. The magic of the theater is that you can leave your life behind.

Now that I’m done with treatment and moving forward, it’s time to prioritize happiness. To that end, I launched Going to the Ballet. I’ll be writing about performances I see and, hopefully, interviewing people about why they go.

If we can express why we love ballet, perhaps we can get other people to love it too. I hope to see you at the ballet!

The author taking a photo at a BalletNext performance