There were quite a few raised eyebrows when principal dancer Jillian Vanstone announced her retirement this year from the National Ballet of Canada after 22 years. For most Vanstone aficionados, there was a lot of dance still left in her. Nonetheless, her final appearance will be in the mixed program that begins this Wednesday, Mar. 9 at the Four Seasons Centre.
Vanstone, 40, who is from Nanaimo BC, began dance lessons at age 6. When she was 13, she moved to Toronto to study at Canada’s National Ballet School. She joined the National Ballet in 1999, and was promoted to principal dancer in 2011.
What follows is the candid interview she gave Ludwig Van about her life in dance and what she hopes the future holds for her.
Was your decision to retire a sudden one? It certainly came as a big surprise to your fans.
I had actually been thinking about it before the pandemic. I was going through a shift about what ballet meant to me. I wasn’t feeling the same about my connection to the stories in the tutu and tiara ballets. They were making less sense to me. Although I love the neoclassical and contemporary works, the classics are still at the core of a ballet company, and they were falling out of alignment to me. Then there was the physical part. I have to work extra hard at it because my hip structure is not perfect for ballet, and that part of the training was becoming more frustrating.
You asked the company to get British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘After the Rain’ for your farewell performance. Wheeldon was very important for your career, wasn’t he?
His choosing me for the lead in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2011 led directly to my being promoted to principal dancer. The role was a gift because it gave me a beautiful opportunity to show my strengths. He was also the kind of choreographer that allowed you to ask questions, and not every choreographer is open to that. He created a space for me where I could dive in. His work also makes sense for my body. I always knew I wanted to retire performing a Wheeldon ballet.
How did you choose which Wheeldon ballet to do?
I had several discussions with Christopher, and we settled on After the Rain, a ballet he created for New York City Ballet in 2005. The second part of the work has a pas de deux that is real and raw, human and exposed. It’s performed without point shoes. More to the point, I get to dance the pas de deux with Harrison James, who has always been a special partner for me. The pas de deux is often performed at galas alone, with the first movement, that features three couples, being left out, but I wanted the whole ballet, because I want to leave performing with my colleagues. The ballet is the type of piece where dancers can put their own personal stamp on it. After the Rain is a very strong emotional journey.
This might be a difficult question to ask, but your admirers felt that you were underappreciated at the National. Did you feel that?
It’s true. I did feel underappreciated for a number of years, which was emotionally difficult and very frustrating. I doubted that I’d ever be promoted to principal dancer. That’s why Alice was such a gift. The ballet freed me artistically. I just relaxed into the role and loved the experience. There is always an end of season party where promotions are announced. I had been disappointed so often that I wasn’t going to go. Finally, artistic director Karen Kain said to me that she thought I should come to the party, so I knew I was going to be promoted to principal dancer.
How would you describe yourself as a dancer? I always like asking retiring dancers this question.
I have clean technique, and I’m a strong jumper. I’m also a good storyteller because I love to delve into character beyond the surface. For example, one could look at Alice as three hours of running around, being amazed, but for me, it was finding the nuances of what she was experiencing. Or take Sleeping Beauty. For me, Aurora was not just a pretty princess. If you think of the role as just showing off a perfect technique, that’s exciting for 30 minutes, but there is the whole rest of the ballet to get through. You need more than that, and I feel I was able to translate a deeper character into the role. Basically, I’m interested in finding the human in a work, what the human connection is. I want the audience to connect with the character. It’s not just skill involved in performing these older classic ballets. Yet, it took a long time to see where I fit in. I was seen as a strong classicist, which overshadowed my contemporary work.
How do you see the coming of new artistic director Hope Muir impacting on the company?
I’m actually very optimistic. It will certainly be a change in culture leading to a new era. For starters, there are a lot of talented young dancers coming up, which will change the look of the company. Hope also has interesting programming ideas, and she certainly has a lot of connections throughout the ballet world because she danced in a lot of places. Her company class is great, because her instructions are direct and clear, which means she exhibits firm standards, ideals and boundaries. You don’t necessarily become a good leader by being just a good dancer. Hope has actually led a company. The National is in good hands going forward.
What do you see yourself doing after the National Ballet?
I am not interested in being a ballet mistress or ballet teacher. I want a different second career in other aspects of theatre, like programming. I’m intrigued by the festival aspect, with diverse programming and exposure to artists from all over the world. In fact, I just did a three-month internship with Fall for Dance North, where I worked in programming and performance projects.
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