Life After Ballet
by Emily Landau
Six years ago, I teetered up to nosebleed seats to watch Giselle. If you haven’t seen it, Giselle is the BEST — the soapiest, sexiest ballet in the classical canon. It’s about a naïve village girl who falls in love with a duke in disguise, goes mad when he rejects her, and drops dead before the curtain falls on the first act. In the second, she’s indoctrinated by the Wilis, a witchy phalanx of spirits also jilted at the altar who seek violent valar morghulis revenge on their betrayers.
Dancing the title role that night was Chan Hon Goh, a principal dancer with the National Ballet. It was her last performance as a professional ballerina. Goh started dancing when she was nine and spent 20 years with the company. By the time she retired, she was 40 — young in real time, but practically geriatric ballet years. She’d sustained neck and spine injuries in a car accident a few years earlier, which meant that whenever she was on stage, she was in pain.
I watched Goh dance that night, her face morphing from giddiness to desperation to despair, her body an engine of airy agility as she bounced through teenage passion and glided as a wispy ghost. When she took her final curtain call, the audience leapt to their feet and festooned her with bouquets and long-stemmed roses. She looked beatific but apprehensive. This was both the peak of her career and the end of it. I clapped until my hands stung, all the while thinking: now what?
I can’t dance, but I’ve been obsessed with ballet since I was six, when my bubby started taking me to The Nutcracker and buying me sparkly Christmas tree ornaments shaped like pointe shoes, even though we were Jewish. Ballet and Christmas had a lot in common for me: both were shimmering ideals that I could observe but never experience.
As I grew older, the world of ballet took on a new texture. The delicate beauty, I realized, was the byproduct of something slightly gruesome. I noticed the pain in the prima ballerina’s face as she pirouetted her way through The Sleeping Beauty’s Rose Adagio. I once heard a dancer’s ankle snap as it buckled under her arabesque. From my seat, I occasionally saw dancers in the wings, massaging their mangled feet after their solos. And every so often, one of the dancers I’d loved would disappear from the stage, the clock having struck 40. I always wondered what happened to them.
In the past couple years, at least five of the world’s top ballerinas have retired, among them Wendy Whelan, the 48-year-old star of the New York City Ballet, and Julie Kent, the 46-year-old principal with the American Ballet Theatre (widely known for her role as the boss bitch prima ballerina in Center Stage). They’re anomalies; most dancers retire in their mid-30s, and most in the corps — they’ve realized they’ll never reach the rank of principal dancer or soloist, and decide to call it quits. Others, like Goh, suffer debilitating injuries that make it impossible for them to keep dancing. “They’re dealing with huge loss of identity and sadness,” says Amanda Hancox, the executive director of the Dancer Transition Resource Centre in Toronto. “It’s the death of their first career.”
Dancers spend their entire life spent coddled in the cocoon of ballet, training ten hours a day, beholden to a job that’s as much a calling as a career. Former ballerinas find themselves spit back into the real world, trying to figure out where to go and who they are.
The sweet spot for a child to begin ballet class is between the ages of four and eight, though some kids start as early as two to refine their posture, motor skills, and muscle memory. By the time they’re 11, the students who plan to pursue a dance career will log 20 to 30 hours per week of classical ballet technique plus other dance forms.
Carla Körbes, a former principal dancer with the Pacific Northwest Ballet who retired this spring at age 34, remembers her teen years at an intensive ballet school in Brazil. She would get her schoolwork out of the way in the morning, then dance from 2 p.m. until 9 at night. When she was 15, she moved to New York by herself and enrolled in the School for American Ballet, which led to a job in the corps of the New York City Ballet three years later. “It was crazy,” she says. “Nobody prepares you for the fact that you’re going to be dancing for 12 hours a day. But you love it anyway.”
More than most other careers, ballet is a social vacuum. Dancers seclude themselves within their company, like the cultish Wilis, relying on each other for emotional and professional support. When they’re done rehearsals, they go home and sew pointe shoes. They’ll often spend evenings watching video of themselves performing so they can refine their technique. They listen to the music and practice the counts. They even rehearse the repertoire they learned that day so they don’t pull the team down when they return in the morning. “Not everyone in the world is as dedicated to their job,” admits Chan Hon Goh. “Every day of my dance career, I had to think about what foods agreed with me so I didn’t get sick on stage. I had to consider how much rest I needed. When I was in another city, I couldn’t go sightseeing because I would tire out my legs. I had to curb the rest of my life to fit in with dance.”
This extreme devotion makes it that much harder to give up. After being consumed by ballet for 30 years, Goh struggled with her self-image after retiring in 2009. “I lived for those moments on stage. Who was I if not a dancer?” she said. “Even when I was filling out a customs form and they asked for my profession, I was like, what do I write here?”
For most dancers, it’s even worse — they often endure mental illness and poverty after they retire, lacking the requisite life skills transferable life skills that would help them find jobs in other fields. In her book Ballerina, writer Deirdre Kelly describes how Evelyn Hart, considered by many to be the most dazzling dancer in Canadian history, couldn’t even get a position at a bridal salon after she retired. British ballerina Darcey Bussell suffered from a punishing depression following her retirement. Even ballet A-lister Wendy Whelan has publicly worried about how she’ll make her rent now that she no longer has the income of a prima ballerina.
Joysanne Sidimus, a muse of George Balanchine, saw this problem in the 1970s when she retired from the New York City Ballet and plummeted into depression. Sidimus, Kelly writes, moved back in with her mother and didn’t get out of bed for six months. She also discovered that 15 of her colleagues who’d also retired had committed suicide. So she created the Dancer Transition Resource Centre in Toronto, an organization devoted to helping retired performers figure out what to do next. The place operates as a kind of ballerina halfway house — it offers personal and career counseling for dancers who find themselves at a loss. “The fear is that they won’t find anything they’re as passionate about as dance,” explains Amanda Hancox, the current director. “That might be true, but we can give them assistance to see what else can turn their crank.”
The DTRC focuses as much on working dancers as retirees: they recruit members early in their careers and offer basic courses to round out their life skills, including communications, bookkeeping, budgeting, basic web design and languages. Once they retire, members usually complete the kind of career-seeking exercises the rest of us endure in high school: journaling, question-and-answer sessions, even the occasional aptitude tests. Their alumni have gone on to pursue careers in landscape gardening, architecture, medicine, and the Anglican ministry.
One successful graduate of the DTRC is Kevin Bowles, who retired from the National Ballet of Canada last year at age 37. “I feel like I’d gone as far as I was going to go in ballet, and I was afraid of getting to the point where I couldn’t start over,” he says. He decided to pursue nursing — he came from a family of doctors, but knew that if he went to med school, he wouldn’t be able start practicing until he was 50. This was more manageable. The DTRC helped him retake all his grade 12 classes so he’d be on par with his classmates and, by the time he performed his last show in June 2014, he’d already been accepted to Ryerson University’s nursing program.
About half the people that come through the DTRC end up back in dance, in some form. Many dancers choose to pursue other physical fields, like as a chiropractor, or physiotherapy or osteopathy. Carla Körbes has taken a position as associate art director of the L.A. Dance Project, working with superstar choreographer (and Natalie Portman’s husband) Benjamin Millipied, and Chan Gon Hoh is the artistic director of her parents’ dance school in Vancouver, British Columbia. “I miss performing. You can’t replace that,” she says. “When you get out there with the music, the lights, your relationship with the other dancers. You’re someone other than a normal human being.”
Giselle, like any great ballet, ends on a note of melancholy. After a grisly, painful death, the heroine becomes a ghost. She sacrifices her corporeal form, and forgives the boyfriend who broke her heart. That second act mirrors the one most retired dancers experience. They lose their bodies, but continue to love and exalt ballet. But Giselle’s physical death triggers an emotional rebirth: she trades her body for wisdom, her life for insight.
Most retired ballerinas make that same tradeoff: what they lose in agility and strength, they make up for in experience, stamina, and drive. For all its existential angst, retirement is as much an opportunity as it is an obstacle. Dancers spend their whole careers crushed under the weight of being special: the isolation that comes from floating on a higher plane of tulle and toe shoes. Given the right resources and preparation, they have the ability to apply that supernatural sparkle to something new, to learn and evolve and screw up with the kind of fresh perspectives tinted with wistful regret. Like Giselle, they’re reborn.
Emily Landau is a writer and editor in Toronto.