SIPHE NOVEMBER: It sounds so cheesy, but [laughs] it’s just… dance is life, you know. When we don’t have anything else, we have the music and we have the dance, that’s it. Like, that’s it.
GRETA HODGKINSON: I think for a dancer, it’s unlike any other profession in that it’s not just something that we do, it’s who we are. […] I joined the company when I was sixteen years old, and I was – that was the farthest thing from my mind, is how long is my career gonna be.
VERONICA TENNANT: Age nine and ten, and desperately wanting to—to be in the full National Ballet School, and it was always a matter of having to prove myself, prove myself, prove myself. In dancing. It was always just trying to push boundaries that surrounded me, ’cause I had lots of hurdles to overcome.
JILLIAN VANSTONE: I feel like in a way, I’m falling in love all over again with what I do. Which I didn’t really feel like I’d fallen out of love with it, but I feel like within the last year, year and a half, I… I feel like there’s this next level that I’m really excited about.
HEATHER OGDEN: It’s a hard thing to tell a six-year-old, an eight-year-old, because at that stage, you should be doing it because it’s fun, like, no one—you don’t want someone to be making someone… so it’s a hard balance, because you have to love it, you have to… you have to, because it’s too hard. Like, you have to have a passion for it, because if you want to be a dancer, you’ll sacrifice a lot for that.
NOAH RICHLER (HOST): Hello and welcome to this, the fifth episode of the Walrus podcast, Pivot.
Is there any vocation that promises the opportunity of grace in such a Faustian manner as the ballet does? Dancers in their apogee are transported by music and rise close to the sun; they have it in themselves to realize the beautiful—and yet the fruits of the deal made at the doors of ballet school—a deal the parent is more likely than the child to understand—are fleeting: you will know these moments of grace, moments in which you will lose yourselves blissfully, moments that will leave those who watch you breathless, but only for a short time. Because your bodies—distilled through a magnitude of determination and years of rigorous training into states of perfection that are more Platonic than they are natural, will break down. And then you will remember yourself, and need to move on and leave the dance world that has been your “always.” Your moment of pivot will come when your chance and your apogee is behind you. Joysanne Sidimus, once a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, knew this and founded the Dancer Transition Resource Center as a consequence, counselling and retraining dancers sometimes suicidal so bereaved could they feel after their last turn upon the stage. Now more attention is paid to dancers in their moment of pivot, but the deal is the same and still made in that earliest moment in the arc of a dancer’s life. Bliss, briefly. Fair terms.
VERONICA TENNANT: Hello [laughs]. I’m Veronica Tennant, and in my first incarnation, I danced with the National Ballet of Canada for twenty-five years, and I’ve had a second very glorious one for almost as long as a filmmaker. And sort of a creative artist, I think.
NOAH RICHLER Do you remember ever being in awe or overwhelmed by the prospect of your ambition? Do you remember, perhaps, as a younger—as a young dancer, thinking, this is outrageous to expect success, or anything like that?
VERONICA TENNANT: It’s interesting, I—I want to answer your question accurately, but I always said that I never set myself specific goals. I never said, I want to be a principal dancer. I want to do this. It was always just trying to push boundaries that surrounded me, ’cause I had lots of hurdles to overcome, and see where they led, as opposed to setting my sights on something. So I did not have a perfect, what they call, ballet body. I didn’t have the very long legs and the tapered muscles, you know. I didn’t have perfectly, beautifully arched feet. So it was always a struggle, always a push for me.
NOAH RICHLER: Though all these years later, I noticed on your way into the studio, you still do walk like a dancer, with your feet pointed outwards.
VERONICA TENNANT: [Laughs] You mean limp like a dancer? [laughs] With all my injuries. So… it’s interesting, I think a way to illustratively answer your question is, that I could not look—I mean, our lives are governed by the mirror, in the studio. In the ballet studio. And it’s how to get the form, and you—you’re not just mimicking, you’re mirroring your teachers, and the whole style, and the grace. What I did was blur my eyes. I didn’t want to see what was actually there. So that what I saw in the mirror was my image of what inside me was a beautiful dancer. Because… if I really looked at what was actually there, I would not have said that I was a beautiful dancer. [Laughs]. Does that make sense?
NOAH RICHLER: It does. Performance was very important to you.
VERONICA TENNANT: Absolutely. I was not your, sort of, ballet class dancer. My technique was good and everything, but where I just shone and blossomed was when I started to perform. That whole idea of going beyond self, and going beyond the kind of, physical and perceptive reality of who you are, who Veronica is, into either the Juliet that I was so blessed to be given and to dance as my debut—
NOAH RICHLER: At age eighteen, I think.
VERONICA TENNANT: Yeah, at age eighteen, which was an extraordinary achievement on Celia Franca’s part—she took such a risk on me, I mean, such a risk on me, and even more so, because my final year in the school was my first injury. I was trying so hard to change my body and make it more pliant that I would sort of force myself into back-bends and I pushed my back too far, and I had a really serious back injury, which we know now was a herniated disc. I was seventeen, and I wrote my final exams at the National Ballet School in bed, I was flat on my back, I was put in a—in those days, a plaster cast for nine weeks, like, I was a tub of misery—and then, I made a recovery—it was slow, it took me a year—and then she has the courage to cast me as Juliet.
NOAH RICHLER: So, what is your relationship, at such a young age, to the body, then? It’s—the body is your vehicle, but it’s also your nemesis, in a sense.
VERONICA TENNANT: Nemesis is a very good word for it, and it certainly was mine. I mean, I really have had four herniated discs, major knee injury mid-career—I didn’t walk for four months, I had to learn to walk again before I could dance again. So in a way, my body betrayed me, but in the other way, out of each one of those—because they were always so dramatic, everybody—other people, they have little—you know, they have a foot. Or they have a knee—but mine were, they went on for a while. But somehow, by overcoming them, I was able to say, this was good. It changed me, it furthered me in the end.
NOAH RICHLER: Can you remember a moment in which perhaps you completely lost yourself? In which… I suppose you became – you lost your self-consciousness because you were… doing everything you wanted? Because you were expressing yourself beautifully? Can you remember the first moment of, you know, of ecstatic thoughtfulness?
VERONICA TENNANT: I would say—yeah, I would say that… 1976 at the MET, performing with Rudolf Nureyev. We’d been performing with him for three or four years, it started in ’72 with the Sleeping Beauty. There were performances—I can’t even say the first, but performances of Giselle that—with him, that went just beyond a sphere of reality into kind of this ecstatic simplicity. And the audience responses, and you know, the thunder that came from—at the MET, we were at the MET. And… I would say those were the first. I would also say that [laughs] that climax in the career, where I started to finally find—the first climax, where I started to find what it was that I did have as an artist, then was disrupted for a year and a half with the major knee injury, and then when I made it back, I was a new Veronica and I had more freedom and the second part of my career, physically as well as artistically, was the better extension of that.
NOAH RICHLER: So is it that your body’s frailty brought maturity on earlier?
VERONICA TENNANT: Yeah. And it brought a physical liberation, believe it or not. Just because it took a year and a half to get past that major knee injury, yeah.
NOAH RICHLER: After a moment of ecstasy—I don’t think it needs it, but the fact that your body breaks down must have provided a lesson to you about the short nature of the career. Did it?
VERONICA TENNANT: Well, there were headlines, “Tennant Finished,” in ’76, ’77, you know. There was an article in the Star by a writer who basically predicted that I wouldn’t make it back. And I could’ve succumbed to that, but I was so determined—especially because of having that glorious realization that I did have something to offer, and that I did have qualities that were worthy of being a ballerina—I was determined to come back. And I remember pounding my fist on the desk of Alexander Grant, who was our artistic director at that time, and saying, “I’m not finished yet. I am going to make it back.”
NOAH RICHLER: And you did.
VERONICA TENNANT: And I did. It took a year and a half. And I wrote a book, in the time, and I had a baby! [laughs]
22:17 NR: Could you not have been busier?
VERONICA TENNANT: [laughs]
NOAH RICHLER: Does there come a point, regardless of injury, in the—in a bright dancer’s career, where suddenly the future is apparent? And you need to think, out of necessity, of what you might do afterwards?
VERONICA TENNANT: So… twenty-five years later, after the second half of my career being really—far surpassing the first, when I saw Romeo and Juliet on the roster for the year, I came to a really difficult decision, because I—I had never been dancing better than I had then. 1989, 1988 is when I announced it. And it was heartbreaking, but I just said, “I am going to close the dressing-room door with composure and pride. I’ve never been prouder of the way I’m dancing than I’m dancing now.” And I had young dancers in the company coming up to me and saying, “don’t go! You don’t need to go!” And I said, “yeah, I do.” Because I didn’t want any decline in the quality of what I was doing.
NOAH RICHLER: Was there some—I mean, what you’re describing is where this podcast begins, it’s called Pivot, we’re looking at the sort of watershed moments in which a turn occurs, in which you might have to tack to go froward, if I can… Was there some external event that pushed you to this realization? To this pivoting moment?
VERONICA TENNANT: Well, I do remember we were dancing in LA, we were on tour in LA in early ’89 and we were doing Onegin, which was a role that I adored. And there was an interviewer with the LA times who was… had always written so favourably about—and he did a pre-interview with me, and then I said, “are you coming to the performance?” And he said, “oh, no, I’ve seen you in the past,” you know, “you’re great.” And I said, “no no no, you need to see me now.” And then I realized that now… was now. And that tomorrow, I might not be as proud of what I was doing. So that was kind of a watershed moment that I, I had to make that decision. Then I saw Romeo and Juliet was planned, and it’s what—it’s the circle. Completing the beautiful circle. That was my first role, and of course I danced it, you know, at stages throughout the career, and yeah. That kind of—it took a lot of thinking through, but I wrote this letter, pinned it on the noticeboard at the National Ballet, and went ahead.
MOLLY JOHNSON: Hi, I’m Molly Johnson, and I am a retired ballerina, now a musician, and running a Jazz festival.
NOAH RICHLER: Do you remember – how old were you, first of all, when you started at the National Ballet School?
MOLLY JOHNSON: Four.
NOAH RICHLER: Do you remember first crossing that threshold?
MOLLY JOHNSON: I do. My house was—growing up in a house of civil rights-driven, wonderfully crazed parents who had draft dodgers and black panthers and musicians and, just our house was full of it, and it was just a really bubbly, busy place. So going to the National on any day was so calm. And I knew what to expect, and I knew exactly what was expected of me. And I kind of loved it. It was kind of restful… As I got older, in my early teens, what I loved about the ballet is I wanted to be a choreographer. I wanted to make stuff. I was really into making stuff, and could I make dance? And I was fascinated by the way every choreographer had a different way of writing out their particular ballet. There were no girls doing it then. There were certainly no women doing it then. Now, of course, it’s a completely different, exciting world of choreography, but back in those days—and that’s early sixties—that just wasn’t a thing. But that’s kind of where I… felt and learnt how to make stuff.
NOAH RICHLER: What is it in you that you think explains the urge to choreograph so early on?
MOLLY JOHNSON: Bossy. Like, making stuff so I’m in charge of it. The big shift there was, you know, around 17, realizing, okay, you’re not going to be a choreographer, you’re doing these beautiful dances, beautiful, and you love it, but at that age, in ballet, you can kind of see the end of the road very clearly.
NR: I imagine your mother expected no less of you?
MOLLY JOHNSON: Yeah. I think my mum… neither of my parents are artistic, necessarily, or certainly not musical. But I think, okay, for my mum, as the white mum in a racial marriage, my mum in the 60s was a little concerned for her little brown-skinned kids, and where are they gonna live in this world, and how are they gonna live in this world? ‘Cause it was a different world. And that was the theatre piece. She thought, theatre. What a great place for my kids to live, ’cause there’s a safe environment. Music, dance, art—that’s where my kids can live ’cause people will accept them there. And I’m not sure about this other white world.
NOAH RICHLER: But I think—I was thinking of that Civil Rights aspect, I mean, the idea that as a woman, as a young girl, a young girl of colour, that you had a right to all the desserts. You know.
MOLLY JOHNSON: Man, I had a very privileged, very privileged life. And I did a Billy Holiday record—the last record I made was a Billy Holiday record, because people bugged me about Billy, Billy, Billy, Billy, and you’re just like Billy, and you’re just—and like, I kept saying, I’m nothing like Billy Holiday. I’m because of Billy Holiday. Billy didn’t know her dad. My dad adored me. And it made me mad. I actually made a record called Because, and that’s the Billy Holiday record. I am because of Billy. I’m because of all those people, my parents included, who fought so hard so that I got to go to Brown Public School at St. Clair and Avenue Road. I got to go—I got to go to the National Ballet School, I got to be—you know, I got parents adoring me and a fantastic life in Canada because of that generation of people.
NOAH RICHLER: Was there a moment, perhaps of self-consciousness, when you thought, no, I want more than this? I imagine that being part of a corps de ballet is somewhat like that, when things go well.
MOLLY JOHNSON: Not really, not—I loved being part of a team. I loved being in a band, I’m a real team player, my father was a gym teacher. My dad used to say, “a great team is when you walk out the door and the shit doesn’t fall apart.” And a lot of people—”didn’t you like not being the same as everyone?” Well, as a little brown-skinned girl, I gotta tell you, I kinda liked being the same as everybody. Like, it kinda felt great. Like, I’m finally fitting in here. Like, I didn’t fit in in public school, and I was the only brown-skinned kid in my entire school, other than my brother and sisters, in the 60s, in Toronto. So, to be a part of something like that was—I loved it. And that’s—there’s so many different types of dance. That’s just one kind, and if that’s not your thing, there’s a million other things to do. But don’t mess with that—that’s a classic thing that is beautiful, I think.
NOAH RICHLER: It feels to me like you were already different from most in that you were imagining a life outside dance.
MOLLY JOHNSON: Yeah. I never thought I’d be Karen. I never thought I’d be Karen Kain, that was pretty clear. Like, you know that dead right away. And that’s either going to kill you, or not kill you. And I—it did not kill me. I just was a huge admirer of hers. Like, fantastic. Did I—would I be her? No. She works way too hard. Still, to this day. I’m way lazier [laughs].
GRETA HODGKINSON: I’m Greta Hodgkinson, Principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada.
NOAH RICHLER: Dancing, there is in the shadows, the prospect of a body that, you know, will alter at a certain point, a point that perhaps you can no longer dance in the same way. Was there ever a point in your career where you became conscious of… the longevity of a dancer’s career?
GRETA HODGKINSON: Yeah, I think it’s always there, kind of in the back of your mind, but I think for a dancer, it’s unlike any other profession in that it’s not just something that we do, it’s who we are. So I don’t think that just because I’m not, you know, I eventually am not to gonna do that anymore, or that particular role, because of maybe the limitations that it—that I’m not a dancer anymore. Like, I don’t know that I’ll ever not be a dancer. I think over time, for me, the idea of it morphs, and it changes, I joined the company when I was sixteen years old, and I was—that was the farthest thing from my mind, is how long is my career gonna be? You know, there’s just so many things that I wanted to do and accomplish, and you’re very much living in the now, and I think it wasn’t ever a thought, but certainly as I started to grow through the ranks, and also dancers that I saw and admired, I saw them go through different things and different stages, and so—so I think it’s always there.
NOAH RICHLER: I’m not asking you to be immodest, but what is your idea of excellence? Can you describe to me what, to you, is somehow the most satisfying or perfect dancing moment?
GRETA HODGKINSON: For me, it’s when… and it doesn’t necessarily have to be on stage, in a performance, it’s happened to me a few times on stage where… where I am so in the moment of what I’m doing that I kind of lose all—like, I’m almost not me, and I feel like that’s—it’s quite—it’s like a little euphoria that I feel when that happens. After years of this sort of… that’s what we do, we’re thinking, we’re trying to perfect something that is—could never be perfect, you know. The body, the shape, the line, the step, the dance, the ballet, the whatever, and so I think that when you—when the training is so ingrained that you can forget about it and be who you wanna be in that moment, I mean, one of the things that really—that still draws be to ballet, but one of the reasons why I wanted to be a ballet dancer, was to tell stories. So yes, I love the physicality of it, and all of those things, but it was the—you know, it was the sort of, inhabiting something else, and being something else, and forgetting…
NOAH RICHLER: Is there ever a tension between you, Greta, the storyteller—in which I imagine your primary relationship is with the audience—and you, the dancer, in seeking to attain, or seeking to achieve that unattainable perfection—so, your relationship to technique, I suppose—do you vacillate, or can you do the two at the same time? You’re asked to do the two at the same time.
GRETA HODGKINSON: You have to do the two at the same time and—but I think that when I was younger, it was much more on the—I was much more worried about having the perfect performance, and so I didn’t trust myself enough to realize that it’s really not about that particular step, whether you did it perfectly, I don’t even know if that’s possible. And so now, I feel like there’s—I feel like I have a much better balance and I enjoy myself more.
NOAH RICHLER: Did that revelation come to you—
GRETA HODGKINSON: Late [laughs]
NOAH RICHLER: Too late [laughs]
NOAH RICHLER: [Laughs] You’re a mum?
GRETA HODGKINSON: Yeah, I have two. Yeah, my son is eight and my daughter just turned two.
NOAH RICHLER: did motherhood alter your feelings about dance at all, or?
GRETA HODGKINSON: I think so? I mean, I sort of came back from both of my—having both my kids very quickly, but—so I always sort of said, well, I’m no less ambitious about what I wanna do. Like, I’m no less passionate about dance, than I was before. But I do think it’s changed how I see it and how I am, because I feel like I’m softer, I guess would be a good word, I’m more—I’m more forgiving of myself and of others, I feel. I feel.
HEATHER OGDEN: I’m Heather Ogden
NOAH RICHLER: Did motherhood teach you anything, or affect – did motherhood affect the way you think of performance, or perform?
HEATHER OGDEN: I think… I think it affected me as a person, like I feel like it—first of all, having kids has been such a rewarding experience, I’ve just loved it, and I’m a happier person. I feel like it offered some good perspective, like… I have a tendency to be… I can be really hard on myself, or maybe like, you know, come down a bit to seriously about certain things, and that, you know, it offers a great perspective on life and what’s really important, like I have these two beautiful kids that I’m gonna take care of, and they depend on me, and I… it’s not that—it’s not that it’s made me less serious about ballet, but in a way, I think that’s been good for me, to… you know, it is ballet, and you can try again tomorrow, and I think that’s been good for me. I think… like most working parents, you become kind of amazed by how much you can juggle and handle, and just knowing that, like… I’ve worked a lot with Suzanne Farrell, and her style of working is very intense, like we – the rehearsal schedule is more intense than I’m used to, when we perform, it’s like, you know, maybe here I’ll be used to sharing a role, there I wouldn’t, and at first the thought of it is daunting, you’re like, “aw, am I going to be able to do that?” And then I’m like, I’m always surprised by how hard I can work. Like, that I’m actually going to be fine. So I feel like motherhood has taught me that too, like, there was a lot of nights that I didn’t sleep very much and I came in to work and I was like, [tsk] “I’m actually fine.” And like, you just become more resilient and you know, all that hard work and discipline in life that I learned growing up as a dancer.
NOAH RICHLER: Can you imagine a life outside of dance?
HEATHER OGDEN: I can. I mean, I can’t imagine it exactly, I don’t know what that’s gonna be for me, but I’m—like, I don’t feel delusional about that. Like, I know that—I know that this will come to an end one day, and you know, there’s certain—you have to like, respect your body, and that like, there’s only gonna be a certain amount of time that my body will be able to move like this. and like—like I mentioned, I feel like I have high standards or demands that I would like to put on my body, so I know, you know, I’ll have to balance that, but. It’s hard—sometimes it’s hard for me to think, of, like – like I love what I do so much, it’s really a passion, and it is my job, but… I feel so lucky to have found that at a young age, and to have had that lifestyle, so I’m like, will I ever find another job that—that I love so much? And—and maybe I don’t have—you know, not everybody loves their job, and maybe I—maybe I don’t have to, but I guess there’s a part of me that’s like, “How am I gonna do that? How am I gonna…?” You know. I’ve been spoiled with this passion, in a way.
SIPHE NOVEMBER: Hi, my name is Siphe November, I’m a corps de ballet dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. I grew up in the western Cape, which is about an hour and a half, two hours away from Capetown, called Zolani. I started to dance… I was very young. I don’t remember the age, but I think, like, my mom and my brothers say I danced since, you know, I could walk.
NOAH RICHLER: And what about your peers? What did they think? The guys that you used to street dance with, what did they think of you doing classical ballet?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: Well, it was a bit weird. They didn’t go in that direction, obviously, but… they just found it weird, and strange, obviously, but they didn’t think much of it, I guess. It was just a weird thing for them. That they did not want to be a part of [laughs]. It started to get serious when I came to Canada. When I joined the National Ballet School. Being around a bunch of other dancers who were also very good, from all around the world. And also the selection process, I think, is when it started to get serious. But I guess I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I never really thought of it as a career, so to say, it was just my life. Like, no matter what happened, even if I went to university, even if I decided to do something else, dance would still be a part of my life. I don’t know. It was just always—it’s who I am. Like, I never thought of it as… as something else. I’m a dancer. There’s nothing else. Since a young age, it’s just, I’ve always been a dancer. Everyone in the community knew me as a dancer, and it’s what I was going to do with my life, whether it made money or not, it was just—I was always going to be a dancer.
NOAH RICHLER: How old are you now?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: I’m nineteen.
NOAH RICHLER: I will tell you that as someone who goes to see the ballet, the classical ballet, as someone who comes to see the National Ballet of Canada, frankly, wishing there were more African-Canadian people, or Afro-Caribbean people in the audience. And there are generally very very few, and very very few black performers onstage. Did it occur to you, or did it ever feel to you, that race was a barrier of any kind?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: Oh, yes. Coming from South Africa where, like, all my friends were black, and like, I was in a black community, and there was still racism in South Africa, and so I experienced all the racism I could before age ten. So for me, race is always a barrier. Race is always a part of everything I do. Unfortunately, you know. And then joining a company which is predominantly white, and in a profession that is predominantly white, race is definitely a barrier. It’s something… whether I like it or not, it’s always going to have an effect on me, and it’s going to be there. It’s going to be evident. And that’s just something that I have to, I guess, deal with as an artist. And as a performer.
NOAH RICHLER: Diversity can be represented in the cast of a corps de ballet, and its principals, but I suppose there’s some further way in which, to be truly inclusive, this very, very traditional canon of classical dance… might have to change. Do you feel that, ever?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: That’s a – me and my brother always talk about that, and—he dances in London with a smaller company called Ballet Black—I don’t know if the ballet has to change, but I think companies have to change. I think schools have to change. And then that representation would be there. And then we can focus back on what the story is, or focus back on the technique of the dancers. But that all takes time, right. So I don’t know if the ballets have to change as much as the culture of the ballet world.
NOAH RICHLER: Can you imagine a South African—South African novel or story, being a platform to that kind of change?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: Of course. I think there are many stories to be told, and there are companies that are doing things like that, but the problem is it’s classical ballet. I don’t think it’s so much the narrative, or… it’s just the… it’s just the – in the way in which the stories are told in ballet. It’s—there’s a look to it that—it doesn’t really matter what the story is, but if the dancers don’t fit the image, it doesn’t really – yet – make sense to the audience. Like, you know, in a classical ballet, when I’m standing there, I just feel exposed. And I just feel like people are looking at me. Now, I’m in the corps de ballet. I’m like, in the back, right. I’m not doing anything special. But there’s still this feeling of, like, you stand out, and people are looking at you.
NOAH RICHLER: You mean, you stand out because you’re black?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: Yes.
NOAH RICHLER: Do you ever – do you ever reach any kind of state of euphoria, dancing? Do you ever lose consciousness of yourself?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: I’ve had moments. I’ve had moments onstage, as a student. I’ve had a lot of moments where I lost myself. But it has to do with the choreography, it has to do with the music, and it has to do with the role that you’re doing. I find it very hard to lose myself when I’m, like, I feel exposed, like I said before. And performing gives me a lot of anxiety, obviously, naturally, but I lose myself a lot when I’m dancing in the studio. No pressure, and there’s just the freedom to—to explore, and see what happens. That’s when I lose myself, I think.
NOAH RICHLER: Does that sensation of being exposed get in the way of it? Get in the way of that feeling?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: I think so. I think… feeling like people are watching you in a group of people – in a huge group, yeah, gets in the way of me feeling lost in whatever it is I’m doing, you know. I just feel added pressure. I’m already performing, you know, it’s like, a lot of pressure, but then… feeling exposed on top of that, it’s just not a great feeling, but obviously I try to, I try to get back to what it is I’m doing, I try to get back to the music, I try to get back to the dancing, and looking at each other, and experiencing this with my friends. And so… But then again, I haven’t performed that much yet, right. It’s my first year in the company, and I have a lot to learn, and the company will change with time, and—just have to be patient, I guess, with that as well. And so, it’s just, it’s a—it’s a weird place to be, though. For sure.
NOAH RICHLER: Can you imagine a life outside of dance?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: Can I imagine a life outside of dance as a whole? Just… dance? I don’t know. I don’t know if I could. I love music, I play music, I play piano and, I love photography, I’m very into photography and videography, but both those things for me make sense with movement and dance, and so I don’t know if I could live without dance. It sounds so cheesy, but it’s just – dance is life, you know. When we don’t have anything else, we have the music and we have the dance, that’s it. Like, that’s it. Most of us artists, because we love what we do, we don’t think about that. You know, for me, love – love is freedom. And so, when you feel free, doing what you do, why would you stress yourself over something else? You know, that’s restrictive, and so, you just try to hold on to that freedom for as long as possible. And you never feel like you’re working, really, because you’re just in a free space.
NOAH RICHLER: Have you ever surprised yourself by your interpretation of a piece?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: Not yet.
NOAH RICHLER: Not yet. That’s a good answer.
SIPHE NOVEMBER: I try to be as authentic as I can, you know, in every piece I do.
NOAH RICHLER: how authentic… can you be when the movements are so choreographed?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: That’s – I think I say this, you know, in the corps de ballet, there’s this idea of being the same, right, you know, you have to present the same idea and story across, and… I’m not the same as everybody. So there’s no point in me trying to fulfill that in the same way that others should, you know. If… there’s no point in me trying to be, like, a… you know… what’s a good example of a story where… the waltz in sleeping beauty, or, you know, I cannot be the same as everybody else, you know. When we have to wear those wigs. It’s like, this wig is not for my hair. My skin tone- like, it doesn’t work! You know.
NOAH RICHLER: You’re making me think of a whole bunch of things that could be done, like—there are other conventions, men are meant to be lifters. Men lift women. Why can’t men lift men?
SIPHE NOVEMBER: Yeah. That’s true. I mean, there’s – there’s a lot of questions in the ballet world, that are just like, really? But… I think being an artist and, you also have an obligation to serve the art. Obviously I wanna push it forward, and I wanna make a lot of changes, but at the same time, you need to serve it and you need to preserve it, and… if I’m to inspire kids to push for classical ballet companies, and all these other things that they should achieve if they wanna do this I need to serve the art the best that I can, right now, and hopefully, if there is a taller, handsome black man, and technically excellent, if it takes me being here first, and others being in front of me and doing it, and then they come along and they are provided those opportunities, that’s… that’s more than enough.
GILLIAN VANSTONE: You know, there’s a lot of this job that is going in and working when you’re tired and you don’t really want to. But often those are the times when you discover something about yourself, or you learn something new, or even just the fact of showing up, even if you only improved a little bit that day, it’ll get you somewhere. I think one thing that I’ve discovered is that I spent a bit too much time valuing other people’s strengths, and I think people do this in any type of profession, but what comes easier to you, you think of as not as valuable because you didn’t have to… really, really work hard for it. and I think if I were to advise somebody, I’d say, of course, you know, work on your weaknesses, you have to, you have to always be improving, but… enhance your strengths and really show what makes you special. And I think – I think that sort of applies to a lot of professions. You just think that what you’re not is maybe better.
VERONICA TENNANT: A lot of people come to me. And what I always say is, “please don’t lose your sense of fun. Your sense of joy, your sense of why it is – when you were three, when you were five, when you were seven, that you wanted to dance. Don’t ever lose sight of that.” And the little bit of teaching that I have done, like, the masterclasses that I have done, I always start with that. You know, I say, “put your hands on the barre, yes, we’re gonna do pliés, but before we start… I want you to think back to when you were this little kid, and you wanted to dance. Or if you didn’t want to dance and you were sent there, when is it that you – or have you – found that it’s your own will?” I think you’ve been getting at that. When is it – when does it become your idea?
Be ready to work very, very hard. The other thing that anyone entering the life of dance has to understand is répétition. The French word for rehearsal, repeating, repeating, repeating. Every day of your dancing physical life starts in the same way, from that first class you take, to the very final, you know, senior, post-career that you do, and physically, you put your hands on the barre, you stand in first position, and you do the same exercises. The actual sequence has changed every day, but it’s pliés and tendus and rond de jambes. And it’s repetition.
Aurélie So, my name is Aurélie [Garrant ?], and I’m from Quebec, Saguenay. And I started dancing when I was three years old. I started dancing because my mother is a dance teacher, so I think she just… brought me into it, and I really enjoyed it, so I kept doing it.
It kind of has been just a part of my life since I was born, so I think it was, yeah, it was part of my decision. It was… I was named after a ballet dancer from the Paris Opera, Aurélie Dupont, so I think just knowing that, I just started looking up at her and wanted to be like her, so… yeah, it’s just, yeah. I think it was my decision. I wanted to be a professional dancer.
I think the hardest right now is to be away from home. I feel like a lot of… a lot of love is sent from home, and you get to talk to your family like on Facetime, or on the phone, but you never get to see them, so that’s kind of hard. You need to, you know, think, well, I’m able to do this. You don’t have your mom beside you to hug you when it’s not okay, and… so I think it’s just… you have to take decisions by yourself, and you have to, like, commit a hundred percent by yourself to it, it’s not with your parents or with that help coming from older people. We have like, councillors in residence, but I think being away from home is the hardest thing.
EMERSON: Hello, I am Emerson, I am twelve years old, I live in Toronto at Canada’s National Ballet School. I have two brothers, one’s here, and one’s back home. I have two parents who are still together, and… yeah.
I started dancing when I was two and a half, back home in London, at a studio. And I remember, it was a ballet class when I started, and I remember I would never want to go – I would like, never want to go – and my parents would always bring me and I would say “No, no, no, I don’t want to go!” And then once I got there, I would never leave. And I’d just keep wanna dancing, and keep dancing, and… yeah. For me, it was just another way to express myself, ’cause you can scream and you can cry and you can laugh, but it’s just a new way to express yourself, and it’s a cool way to express yourself. And I think I really fell in love with it, because it’s just, a different way to do things. And I think that’s why I really liked it so much. And I really liked getting like, hard challenges, because that’s… that’s good, having challenges, because it can make you better when you have really hard stuff, and it’s like, it’s cool working through them and then achieving them and performing it, and all those kinda things.
At first, it was really tough, and your legs are always sore, and your body is always sore, but if this is really what you love, you’ll come back every day working harder and harder, getting more sore and more sore, because being sore makes you know that you’re getting better, so… that’s what my teacher always says, she always says that if you’re sore, that means you’re working hard. So you kind of just – like I just get used to it, always being sore and always being tired at the end of the day, because I know that I – that means I worked for what I love, and that means I’m doing what I love, and I really am doing it, so… at first, it was really tiring, but it’s just become like the flow of things, and it’s just expected that we can dance that long and it’s what we do.
I think for me, the most important – or the hardest thing, being a ballet dancer, is probably just the amount of dedication you have to put from your previous lifestyle, where it’s a couple classes a week to every single day. I think that was – that’s probably the hardest part, like, the dedication, and there’s no sick days, or any of those things, where you can just stay at home, it’s… you’re dedicated to this and this is what you do, and you always really get tired, and you always are super sore, you’re always tired and sore, but you have to come back to dance ’cause that’s what you’re here to do. And I think that was probably the hardest part for me. Just really getting the dedication into it, and really knowing that this is what I’m here to do. I’m not here to sleep, I’m not here to fight with people, I’m not here to argue, I’m here to dance.
CAMERON: I’m Cameron [Viscer?], I dance at Canada’s National Ballet School, I’m in grade 7, and I study ballet.
my first ballet lesson, I did not enjoy it, at first I did not like dance, I didn’t like putting on my tights or ballet shoes, or leotard, I was more open and I didn’t really love ballet, so, I mean, I definitely didn’t, like… I wasn’t too into it, so, it wasn’t… not much I can remember from it, but I know later on I did end up wanting to take ballet more seriously than I did with all styles.
I think what we have in common is the maturity. I think moving here to such a prestigious school definitely brings up the maturity level. And also the kids – most of the students in my class live in residence, too, with me, so I think also that – you have to – the maturity level has to be raised a little bit. So I feel like we’re all so it changes, like, when you’re in a public school versus this school. I found it much different, like, with my classmates, ’cause I felt we all have the same passion in common.
EVAN: hi, I’m Evan Williams, I’m seventeen and I’m a grade 11 student at Canada’s National Ballet School.
I started dancing when I was four years old, and I started recreationally in tap class, because I was at the store with my mom one day, and I saw a pair of tap shoes being sold, and I thought, I absolutely need to have those because they just look so fun and flashy. And so my mom got them, and I didn’t know anything about tap, I just liked how the shoes looked, so… I just kind of went on from there.
My first ballet class… was… scary, just because the movement was so foreign to me. But it was fun, I mean, ballet is never easy, it was never something that I was completely – I could completely indulge in, because it’s technically very demanding, but I remember it being fun, and I liked the aspects of it that are… classically motivated, so. I guess it was fun.
The thing with dance is that… there’s no right step. There’s no right way of doing things. There’s no, yes, you’ve reached this point, you’re finished. It’s constantly evolving and we’re constantly changing, and we’re constantly trying to find movement in our own body, and so it’s – every day, we are rediscovering ourselves, rediscovering our movement, and that’s very exciting to me. There’s always – yes, you can do a plié a thousand times, but you can do it in so many different ways, and, so you’re constantly re-discovering how to do things that suit your body, and so I think that’s why it never gets old. And also because I love doing it.
Of course I’m taking my career very seriously, and my training very seriously, but I wanna keep things open, I’m open to wherever this is gonna lead me.
I think the toughest thing I face right now is my own head, because as a dancer, and with all of the training and intense training that we have, it is so easy to get in your head and say, you know, I’m not good enough, I – I can’t do this, this is too hard. And every dancer experiences this – I wanna quit, this isn’t for me, and so breaking through that, breaking through your own head is something that every dancer struggles with. And every dancer has to fight towards – and it can be constructive. It gives us motivation to, you know, get up and work harder the next day. And so, for me, it’s that, because I know this is what I want, and in some moments it can seem like the whole world is conspiring against you. But you have to push through that. When I’m performing and I get in my head, bad things happen [laughs]. You know, I’ll forget the choreography, or I’ll make a wrong move, I – you have to – when you’re performing, it’s really important to stay in the moment, and stay connected with the people that you’re dancing with, and also your surroundings, because on stage, where it’s dark, and there’s lights coming at you and there’s so many people moving around you, it’s so easy to get disoriented, and that’s where, you know, injuries can happen, or costume malfunctions, or just messing up the choreography.
AURELIE: I want to keep dancing as long as I can, as long as my body allows me, or as long as I still want to do it.
EVAN: I think when my body starts hurting, I’ll stop, you know. It usually reaches people like, 35, a little bit older than than… of course, we deal with pain during the day, every day, but it’s a good pain. But when it turns into a bad pain, I don’t – I think that’s where I’ll – I’ll call it quits.
EM: Yeah, so, I think I wanna keep dancing until as long as I physically can’t. So I don’t wanna choose to not, I don’t wanna say oh, I think I’m going to stop, I want to – my body to not physically be able to dance anymore, because that means I’ve pushed the breaking point of when I can dance, instead of, like, sitting back. It’s not really strange to me to think about, like, when I can stop dancing, because right now, it’s what I can do. I’d rather focus on what I can do instead of what I can’t do. So I’d much rather think, well, I have all this time, and why not use it, before – ’cause some people start later in their lives, and start dancing, and they have a lot less time to dance, but if you start this young and you get the training this young, that means you can go for a lot longer. So it’s not as weird, or, awkward to think about, I just kind of keep my eyes on the prize.
I hope to keep dancing ’til, like, I feel that my body is just not, like, is done, and not gonna do anymore, but I’d still love when I reach that point to like, choreograph, and like, teach to future ballet dancers, that… yeah. So I hope to continue with my ballet, even though I might not be able to do it.
NOAH RICHLER: Such a long journey, the students of the National Ballet school are so resolutely beginning.
You’ve been listening to “The Dancer and the Deal,” the fifth episode of the Walrus podcast series, Pivot. Thank you National Ballet of Canada dancers Greta Hodgkinson, Siphe November, Heather Ogden and Jillian Vanstone, to Molly Johnson, once of that world, and—there is a future after dance—to the retired dancer Veronica Tenant, so brilliant on stage and now a film-maker and children’s books author. And thank you Canada’s National Ballet School students Aurélie, Cameron, Emerson and Evan—and to Julia Drake and Victoria Schwarzl of the National Ballet and Cailin Collet at Canada’s National Ballet School for their helping hands.
Pivot is produced by Angela Misri and Judy Ziyu Gu with the assistance of Jonah Brunet and Nara Monteiro and presented by me, Noah Richler. Should you wish, you can find transcripts, links and subscribe to this podcast at thewalrus DOT ca SLASH podcasts.
Let me leave you now with a contemplation author Dede Crane, once a soloist with the Pacific Northwest Dance company in Seattle.
Thanks for listening.
Seattle … the corps de ballet of Pacific Northwest Dance … Balanchine’s Valse Fantasie … four of us run onto the stage in formation and the world shifts to something I’m experiencing for the first time. My senses ride the music as it carries into the reaches of Meany Hall. Magical hearing discerns the instruments of the orchestra, their every note a force in tandem with the sweep of my hands, the arc of my feet, the angle of my neck. My movements are effortless and my body anticipating the next step and the next and the next. I feel able to touch every mind in the audience; that this amplified, self-evident perfection is shared, and only fades when the last notes of the waltz wean to silence. Within hours I am promoted to the rank of soloist.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, memorably described the Whirling Dervish meditation performed at Sufi celebrations… A random dancer would begin to glow—a glow not only seen but moving people to clap and chant, “Allah, Allah, Allah,” for as long as “the blessing” lasted. Afterwards that dancer was not singled out, or named—it did not belong to him—because such transcendence is confirmation of everyone’s faith in God and nothing more.
In all my years of performing, I never experienced such perfection again. Not once, not even for a second. And yet I have witnessed it in others, twice. Once in a prima ballerina whose abandon resulted in her falling onstage, and another time in a master danseur, forty and past his prime. In their bliss, I too was transported to that softened, time-lapsed place where joy meets ease and beauty is humbled by itself—a moment when dance reveals authentic reality. I saw one legendary dancer sixty-eight times, each astounding performance without falter—not a single misstep— as though he was more brilliant machine than human. But, curiously, I never witnessed the extraordinary moment, his perfection somehow limited to the material plane.
Failure is possible only when you have expectations of success. Perhaps what his technically brilliant dance told me is that perfection is possible only when you don’t.
Since retiring, that door has been opened to me just two more times–the first time, when black ice and speed veered my car into a truck, and then again during a meditation retreat: each time, a glimpse of human potential perfected. Then the car hits, the veil drops, the music ends.
Such a moment feels as if it will never end because somehow it never began. It was always here; it is we who are not.