A Professional Ballet Dancer Takes Us Through Her Day
The first and second time I experienced the ballet (yes, I'm new to this cultural practice), I watched in awe of the leaps and twirls happening seamlessly before my eyes, and found myself all of a sudden wishing I had stuck with any hobby as a kid. I was completely and utterly impressed with the ways the dancers contorted their sleek, muscled bodies, and was immediately curious as to how much dedication it takes to do this as a career.
Vancouver-born Kirsten Wicklund has been dancing professionally since she was 17 years-old, and is now in her fourth season with Ballet BC. In anticipation of the company's upcoming performance of Romeo + Juliet which opens this week, I spoke with Kirstin over the phone to ask all things I've been curious to know about. How much do ballet dancers eat, and exactly how hours are spent rehearsing before they're confident enough to perform on stage?
All photos courtesy of Ballet BC.
How long have you been dancing ballet?
“I started when I was twelve doing tap and musical theatre. Then I slowly got drawn towards ballet and then when I decided that was what I wanted to do, I had to go full force and catch up to my age group. It was an interesting way to get into it because at that point most of the kids had been dancing their whole lives.”
Do you remember the moment you decided you wanted to do this for a living?
“I think that it kind of developed slowly, it wasn’t one performance or dancer that I saw, I think it was the way that I had to work in dance class that lead me to want more. It sounds kind of weird for a kid to like, but I liked the challenge of it. Once I realized it was something I could actually make a career out of, it was fascinating to me. That this thing I really loved, I could express myself and I had to dive in head first.”
What do you think influenced you to be pursue ballet? Were any of your family members dancers?
“My parents and my family members were really supportive; they put me in everything growing up. I played lots of sports and did lots of different things, they were always supportive of whatever I wanted to pursue. The one thing that was hard for them was that once it got to the point where the dance world started to take over, my actual schooling almost had to take a back seat. They were questioning, do we support this? But I already knew I wanted to dance professionally as soon as I could.”
Can you go through a typical day as a professional ballet dancer?
“Our days with Ballet BC are pretty long, it’s Monday to Friday. A typical rehearsal day is six hours. We do an hour and a half ballet class, then three hours of rehearsal. Then after we break for lunch, we do another three hours. Then I’ll end the day with the same as the morning: yoga, sometimes getting treatment that we need, and basically just taking care of nutrition and things like that before the next day starts. So it feels like an around-the-clock job when you’re in rehearsal period, because your day finishes and you’re just trying to recover and prepare for the next day. It becomes a lot, but you just take it hour by hour, what you need to do this hour, focus on that, then maybe switch your brain to something else."
You were born here in Vancouver but have toured a lot elsewhere. Does Vancouver still feel like home?
“While I did grow up in Vancouver, I always had the desire to go elsewhere and travel a lot. My first job was in Washington, DC when I was 17, and after that I continued to do a job that took me all over Europe. It all happened really quickly for me, and I feel grateful that I got to do all of that travel kind of right away. Because as much as I learned a lot and went to amazing places – I realized how much I loved Vancouver. Every time I’ve come back – even if this wasn’t my home – there was something I liked about it more than anywhere else I had been. Vancouver brings me something that I can’t describe or put into words.”
I’m really curious to know, what do ballet dancers eat and just how strict is your diet?
I eat a pretty clean diet as much as I can I eat a lot of vegetables, I take a lot of supplements just to kind of help me get all of the vitamins and minerals that I need.”
“Health and nutrition is a huge part of what we do, because of the size of our company as well – we’re not a huge ballet company operating with 80 dancers where maybe you have one role every now and then. We’re a small company, we’re all dancing a lot and the work that we do is very physical. It’s not the women being lifted by the men all the time, sometimes women are partnering with other women. It’s a different way of working than what some people might think of as ballet. We need a really well rounded physicality and nutrition is so important."
How do you stay grounded?
“During our last program, I was having a lot of nerves, fear and emotions around performing. It’s funny because it can still be very challenging, even after many years of doing this professionally. I think it’s something that everyone deals with differently. I try and stay really strict about a schedule and routine when I’m in performance mode. So having time to myself, to either do a yoga practice by myself or meditate or do some writing – building little things into my routine so I feel like they’re helping me cope with it all. Taking everything moment by moment.”
Your partner is also a dancer with the company. Do you find that having someone going through the same thing also helps?
“Absolutely. He has a different perspective on it. He has very easy-going, calming energy and I tend to be a bit more high energy. He’s always good at letting me know to take things in stride. At times I don’t even have to explain why I’m feeling a certain way about something because usually he’s going through the same thing. I think there’s something really nice about that. But we also have a different way of working and a different method about it, so we can learn from each other in that way. I feel really grateful to have that support by my side all the time.”
Do you think you’ll eventually go on to do something else besides ballet?
“I want to dance for as long as my body will let me, but I’ve already been planting seeds towards choreography. For years I’ve been dabbling in projects outside the company and creating my own work. I hope to do that while I continue dancing so that the moment when I feel like maybe my body’s not able to go on like I want it to, I’ll hopefully be able to make that transition towards choreographing at that time. I hope that it’s a long ways away but you never know right.”
When do you see that happening? Your ‘retirement’ from dancing?
It’s a very all-consuming lifestyle, it’s not a leisurely kind of job. It’s really intense, it’s every day and it’s exhausting. But it’s very fulfilling and you think as long as it is, you keep going. I hope to dance into my thirties and then we’ll see (laughs).”
What would you tell your sixteen-year old self?
“I would tell myself to slow down, just a little bit. I think regardless of how much I worried when I was young about where I was going and how I was going to get there, it all was going to lead me down the same road. So I would just tell myself to worry less and enjoy more.”
What do you do to escape?
“I try to spend time with my family because that’s the thing that gets neglected with my busy schedule. That’s something I do to reset. I like to get outdoors when I can. Go on hikes or get somewhere where I can be outside the city and turn my phone off. But the biggest thing for me when I’m taking breaks is letting my body have the time it needs to repair. It doesn’t happen as often as it probably needs to but when it does it’s really important and really enjoyable.”
What are your sources of inspiration? Places/People/Art/Music?
"So many things. Reading and literature really inspire me. I try and gather information from different sources and that usually leads me to create something. I get a lot of inspiration from doing small projects with friends or collaborators. My mom is a photographer so often times we’ll go out and bring a bunch of stuff in her car and do a photo shoot. We have so much fun doing that. My partner sometimes works on film so sometimes we’ll work on little projects together. Things where I get to collaborate with different artists, musicians or visual artists. Working with different fields within the arts gives me a new take on what I do.”
Do you have any mentors?
“The person I always go to for advice or inspiration or clarity is always my mom, just because she’s the closest person in my life. But other huge mentors for me are my colleagues at Ballet BC and people in the dance community. My peers around me – I’m dancing with those people every day. We’re around each other all the time, sharing ideas, sharing ourselves with each other. That’s who I build the closest bond with.”
What’s a stereotype about ballet dancers that you would love to smash?
“The one thing that people often say when they ask me what I do and I tell them I’m a dancer is, ‘Well, what’s your job?’ I think a lot of people don’t connect to the fact that being a dance artist is a full-time career. Basically since the age of 13 I’ve dedicated myself to this and been doing it professionally since I was seventeen – and that’s a lot of dedication to a job. So when people are like, ‘Oh what do you do for work I’m always like, Oh my god! I don’t even know what to say to them because it’s hard to explain it to someone who thinks of dance as a hobby. I would love for people to think of it as a profession.”
Ballet BC's program of Romeo + Juliet opens next Thursday, February 22 and plays nightly at 8pm through February 24, with a special preview performance on February 21. For more info or to purchase tickets, visit their website.