Most dancers are familiar with this story: You get that first company contract, and figure that you just have to show everyone—your director especially—how special, reliable and talented you are, and your career will be everything you dreamed it to be.
But what happens when casting goes up and your name's fourth cast or worse—not even there? When you're working so hard, pushing through pain, but you end up feeling frustrated and invisible, wondering how all those goals you began with will ever be realized? Do you shrug it off, keep your head down and hope things will change? For how long?
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But what happens when you're working overseas? Three American dancers who've joined companies abroad gave Dance Magazine a glimpse at how their eating habits have changed in their adopted countries.
Anspach McEliece (in peach) in Ronald Hynd's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB.
I remember the exact day my dreams were dashed.
I'd been dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet for over four years. Having trained at the school, I'd been around long enough to know how things worked—or at least I thought I did. As a child, I'd sat in the red velvet seats of the opera house and watched this company of extraordinary dancers perform beautiful ballets. I saved every program and collected well-worn pointe shoes in the hope that one day I might see my name in those programs, I might have my own shoes to sign away to some little girl. I dreamed of being Clara or Cinderella. I dreamed of being a ballerina.
Fast-forward a few years, and the dream was coming true: I received my apprentice contract to dance with PNB, and the door seemed wide open with every opportunity laid out before me. Principal dancer, here I come! Because, let's be honest, what dancer says, “When I grow up, I want to be in the corps de ballet"?
Photo by Angela Sterling
But as senior corps parts kept going to newer or younger dancers, that optimistic open door seemed like a mirage. At first, I'd rationalize away my feelings, making up any excuse, any story to keep the door open. Yet with every passing rep, disappointment hit.
Finally, my confusion and frustration reached a boiling point. So I did something crazy: I sought the truth.
In ballet we're used to wearing next to nothing onstage, but I never felt more naked than on that November day when I went into my director's office and laid it all out. Humbly, vulnerably, honestly, I asked him why I kept being overlooked.
His response? He didn't see me as anything more than a corps dancer.
Those words were heartbreaking, but they were also freeing. Telling the truth is not always easy, nor is hearing it, but it is always good. I now knew where I stood. And a fighter at heart, I told him that while I appreciated his honesty, I respectfully reserved the right to prove him wrong. And boy did I try!
With an attitude of determination, I continued to push myself, and was constantly in his office asking to learn parts, asking to dance more. And while at first this approach seemed to pay off with new opportunities, the change was fleeting. His mind was already made up.
Anspach with principal dancers Lindsi Dec and Laura Tisserand in Balanchine's "Diamonds."Photo by Angela Sterling.
I wish I had a fairy-tale ending to this story: The underdog dances, proves her worth and her dream of principal dancer comes true. Instead, this June, after performing for 12 years professionally, I took my final bow on the PNB stage. There was no petal drop, no gala or fanfare. There rarely is for a career corps dancer.
And while at times I do wrestle with those whispers of inadequacy, I mostly reflect on my career with pride and overwhelming gratitude. It's easy to focus on what we don't have. But that mentality will poison every aspect of this gift we've been given: to be a dancer, to dance.
I don't deserve this life I've lived. Sure, I've worked hard—I've sweat, and bled and cried—but so have countless others. And we all have dreams and aspirations.
Eventually I found peace and satisfaction with what I'd been given, relishing the role I had as a mentor within the corps and company. The bond that exists between a bevy of swans or a flurry of snowflakes is unlike any other. We hold each other up—sometimes literally. And the amount of time I had onstage, even if it was just as a villager or a Wili, was still an opportunity to perform. Sometimes every night. As a principal or soloist you get maybe a few shows, but in the corps I got to be in every show. Being onstage is what I worked so hard for. It's the sprinkles on the sundae. And I got a lot of sprinkles.
Photo by Angela Sterling.
The reality is that not everyone can become a principal—or a professional dancer for that matter. Accepting this does not mean that I settled or gave up. On the contrary, it took courage! I continued to push my limitations and honed my craft with every opportunity I was given until the very end of my career. Above all, I consciously chose to cherish every plié. Every sauté. Every second in the studio or onstage. Because it is all a gift.
My dreams weren't actually dashed on that November day. The little girl who sat on those red velvet seats spent a career performing with the only company she ever wanted to dance for. Her dream came true.
With her professional dancing days over, Jessika Anspach McEliece is pursuing her passions: traveling, interior design and writing.
Imagine this: I'm at a beautiful July wedding, and at the moment the furthest thing from my mind is work—that is, until in the buffet line I run into an acquaintance who introduces me to his friend Kim.
And as Kim and I shake hands he continues: “Kim this is Jessika. She's a professional ballerina with the Seattle Ballet…"
Quickly I interject: “It's actually Pacific Northwest Ballet…"
But before I can say anymore, her eyebrows rise with astonishment as she says, “Wow! So were you like in The Nutcracker?"
The magic words are uttered and another friend standing behind us interrupts our conversation with: “Oh, Jessika! I think I want to take my nieces to see Nutcracker again this year. Do you know which shows you'll be in, because we want to buy tickets for the one you're in."
I don't even know which question to answer first. Was I in Nutcracker? As a member of the corps de ballet, it's laughable to even think that I'd have the option of not being in it. And wait, what month is this? I don't begin Nutcracker rehearsals till mid-November. It's July.
Maybe you've experienced a similar situation. For most people Nutcracker is all they know about ballet. Balanchine? Forsythe? Who? But mention Nutcracker and their eyes light up. For them The Nutcracker is ballet. For me, as a professional corps de ballet dancer, it's an inevitable and inescapable part of life. Even in July.
And reminders of this only intensify as October turns into November. Suddenly storefronts are strewn with snowflakes, tinsel, and twinkle lights. I'll be driving in my car and the “all Christmas all the time" radio station will play the ever-popular Sugar Plum Fairy variation tune. I'll turn the TV on to relax, only to hear the whirling-dervish music (PNB's version of the Russian divertissement), blaring in some blowout department store ad. But the all-time worst is when, between shows, I'll be aimlessly wandering the aisles of the grocery store, hungry and exhausted, and all of a sudden the cascading of the harp plays over the sound system, signaling the beginning of the “Waltz of the Flowers." And I'm not hungry anymore—just sick at the thought that I have to dance that part yet again in a few hours.
Beginning on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and generally ending just a couple days shy of New Year's Eve, PNB gives somewhere between 35 and 40 performances. And with 11 different parts, I'm lucky if I get a couple of those shows off. My mantra during the month of December sounds something like “Don't stop. Just go. Don't think. Just do." But in this incessant whirlwind of Nutcracker, more things than nuts are cracking. Let's just say my mind, body, and general sanity are hard-pressed on every side.
One particular day stands out in my memory, but honestly it could represent any day in this marathon that is Nutcracker. Running toward the quick-change area as I rip off the doughnut of fake curls that surrounds my bun for the Frau Stahlbaum role in the party scene, the only thing occupying my mind is the fact that I can't remember which Snowflake part I'm dancing. Snowflake No. 1 or Snowflake No. 11? As the dresser hooks up my baby blue tutu, I try and picture the sign-in sheet for that show. Which number did I cross off? Think, Jessika, think! Nope. Nothing. Pinning in my blue scrunchy headpiece, I feel like I'm playing hide-and-seek, and I'm the one seeking someone who dances one of my two parts. Finally I find my answer as Snowflake No. 11 sits at the rosin box putting on her pointe shoes. With a sigh of relief I quickly warm up my cold feet and stiff ankles as I mentally go through No. 1's steps and counts using my hands to do the dancing—I've got to save my legs, which are already sore and tired from the shows earlier this week.
Later that day, after completing another two acts of dancing, I stand in front of the call board by the backstage doors, staring blankly at the casting sheet that looks like someone's little kid went to town on it with a rainbow of neon highlighters. Suddenly the giant bag of ice I'm bringing home for an ankle ice-bath starts dribbling, waking me from my stupor. And I realize I've been standing for a good five minutes trying to figure out if any of the changes (unfortunately due to illness and injury) affect me. Jessika, it's time to go home.
So how do I persevere? How do I survive Nutcracker without cracking? How do I make sure I'm not one of those highlights on the casting sheet? And more than that, how do I keep the magic alive?
Well, I may be the wrong person to ask, because in truth I have a secret confession to make: I actually love Nutcracker. A part of me looks forward to it every year.
You see, PNB's Nutcracker holds a special place in my heart. It was the first ballet I ever saw. Now, our Nutcracker is not your typical Nutcracker. When Kent Stowell (PNB's founding artistic director) created it in 1983, he collaborated with the world-renowned Maurice Sendak—author and illustrator of the children's book Where the Wild Things Are. From the sets to the costumes to even the exotically patterned marley floor, no detail was left untouched by Sendak's genius. The result: a children's storybook come to life onstage. And Stowell's choreography perfectly matches the beautiful Tchaikovsky score, conveying with energy and intrigue the original story by E. T. A. Hoffmann.
As a little girl I remember sitting there in the audience watching, all starry-eyed, the breathtakingly beautiful snow scene, serenely lit by soft moonlight. And as the snow began to fall and the dancers dressed in their baby blue tutus swirled, swooshed, leaped, and lunged, a seed was planted deep within my heart. I longed for the day when I would don that tutu, when I would be a Snowflake. And this desire only increased when at the age of 11, I got my first taste of the stage as the tallest member of the toy soldier infantry. Nutcracker was not only the first ballet I ever saw, but also the first ballet I ever danced. I remember standing in line waiting for our cue to go on, clad in my little military costume, my face ghostly white with fright and cheeks rosy red with face paint. But my anxiety quickly lifted as a puff of blue tulle passed by. And I must have looked like the strangest soldier going to war with an enormous smile plastered on my face. But I'd seen my dream up close. How could I not smile?
Fast-forward 14 years and now I'm the one in the baby blue tutu. My dream has come true. And as I stand at the barre warming up with those little tin soldiers all lined up next to me, eyes wide and jaws dropped, my heart can't help but hiccup. Suddenly all my aches and pains seem to die down. I remember where I came from, and I am thankful; I am inspired. My mind turns to all the little girls out there in the audience who might be seeing this for the first time; for whom this very show might plant the seed of dance in their hearts. And I can be a part of that.
These thoughts and memories are what keep me from cracking. Sure the long run of Nutcracker can be monotonous, strenuous, and draining. But each show is a gift, not just for others but for me as well. I'm blessed to be on the stage and I love to dance and perform. Nutcracker provides me with ample opportunities to share these loves. But the reality is I won't be a dancer forever. So I try to enjoy each and every moment I'm out there.
So how do I survive Nutcracker? I remember the past, I enjoy the now, and I dance in the snow.