International Guest Artist Petra Conti on How Surviving Kidney Cancer Refueled Her Love for Dance
As a very shy little girl, my happy place was my room, where I would wear improvised costumes and giggle with happiness while dancing for an imaginary audience. I was raised in a family where dancing was “normal.” My mom and sisters graduated from the national ballet academy in Poland, and I, of course, wanted to follow their steps. But I was never forced to. I am proud to say I discovered the magic of ballet all by myself.
Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti
It’s incredible that such a shy girl would feel so comfortable in front of a big audience. The very act of performing is both terrifying and enlightening: It illuminates the soul of the performer so that the audience sees beyond the costumes, beyond the movements, beyond the physical body. The stage somehow is able to reveal the true spirit of a human being. I have always loved the purity of this concept.
No matter the role, once onstage, it all seems so real to me that it consumes me. The stage is truly the place where I am able to scream the emotions I have inside. The stage is where I am, where I feel most alive.
I don’t know if this gift of dancing is for other people to enjoy, or for me to live. Do I dance for the people, to touch their hearts, to make them feel something? Or do I dance for myself, for my own well-being? I think for both. But the magic happens only if both parties are present: one in front of the other, connected together on a higher level, in a mystical way.
Dance is born within us—it is like an animal instinct. When words are not there, when words are not enough, when words hurt, there is always dance. Dance connects, recharges and heals. And we all somehow knew this when we were kids. I am happy that the kid inside me never left, that that fire is still burning inside me. This is what allows me to start fresh every day at the barre. That fire is my light and my strength, and I am passing it along as I go through my career, sharing it to ignite other fires that need to be revived or need a little help to burn brighter.
Photo by Conti’s husband, Eris Nezha, courtesy of Petra Conti
After I underwent surgery for kidney cancer two years ago, that fire is now burning stronger than ever. Before the surgery, and for many months after, I didn’t know if I would ever be able to perform onstage again. One week before hospitalization, when I was performing Swan Lake, I thought, Maybe this is my last time ever. I clearly remember all of the emotions I had within me during that last show—gratitude for being onstage, sadness and pain. Every time I go onstage now, I think about how lucky I am to perform again. I feel blessed to have been given a second chance, and when I am onstage, I am not afraid of anything.