Jillian Vanstone has only been a Principal Dancer with the National Ballet of Canada for four years but in that time she’s delivered countless memorable performances from her signature role as Alice (the one who has Adventures in Wonderland) to short pieces like the recent Carousel (A Dance) to epic narrative dramas like the devastating Manon. Jillian danced the title role in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s tragic love story in the fall of 2014 opposite her new partner, young corps member Harrison James, checking her signature sweetness at the door to reach new dramatic heights and earn a Best Ballet Performance nomination in the newly designated “Leading” category.
What is it about ballet specifically that made you want to pursue it professionally?
You know, it’s funny because this is what I wanted to do before I’d even been to a live ballet, so I didn’t have that common experience that a lot of people have that they saw a show and decided they wanted to do that. I think I just enjoyed the lessons and the moving, the music. It was how it felt to me that made me decide that that’s what I wanted to do.
What performers have always inspired you?
There’s a few. I’m very fortunate to work with people that actually inspire me every day. There’s some remarkably talented people at the company. One particular person that I really look up to is Xiao Nan Yu, not only as a dancer but as a person as well. I find that she is kind and generous and wise and she’s a beautiful artist and person. So she would definitely be one of my colleagues that I most look up to. And there’s so many dancers that internationally you just see a ridiculous skill level. Florence Cuthbertson at the Royal Ballet is somebody that I look up to. Alina Cojocaru is such a beautiful dancer. Let’s see, Alessandra Ferri- she’s retired now but certainly somebody I admire. Those would be the names that I suppose, off the top of my head, jump out at me.
Tell us about moving from Nanaimo, BC to attend Canada’s National Ballet School.
You know, a lot of people ask me, ‘was it really hard to do’ and I think because I was so young, people think that must have been really, really hard. But I was 13 at the time and you don’t think about the same kind of concerns you might have when you’re older. So I never thought, ‘oh I won’t know anybody’ or ‘I won’t know the city’; I didn’t have that fear, I suppose, that can set in when you’re older. I had somewhere to live. I just thought, ‘this is great, I’m going to ballet school’. So I was really excited about the whole thing. Having said that, of course, when it would get close to vacation time, I would get home sick and be looking forward to that. I’m very close with my family, so it was, of course, hard to be away, but it was an experience there that was so unique and so gratifying. It was very challenging, it was a unique childhood experience. I mean, a lot of people say ‘oh, you have to give up so much’, but I feel like I gained so much.
Was there a moment in your early training when you felt ballet move from something you do for fun as an extra-curricular to something that really is a career goal?
I was really young when I decided it was what I wanted to do. I remember I was 8 years old. And I didn’t even know what it really meant. I just knew I wanted to do it. And I remember telling my mom and, if she thought it was funny because a lot of little girls say that, she didn’t show it to me. I hadn’t even seen a full-length ballet before and I didn’t know at all about companies or professional schools or anything like that. But I do remember very distinctly at 8 years old knowing what I wanted to do. Which is kind of odd, because I don’t know exactly why it was so strong of an opinion for me.
What would you say is the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to make it as a professional ballerina?
I think the biggest obstacle that most people have to overcome is just the sheer amount of work and determination that it takes. It’s one of those things that the path has some really amazing highs, but it’s still a lot of disappointments and frustrations, falling down and picking yourself up again and I think that’s really the hardest part- every time you get knocked back, you wake up the next day and you try again and you try again. I think with most professionals, that’s going to be the determining factor; you have to want it enough to keep going back in the face of the difficulty and the exhaustion and injury and just striving for an unattainable perfection.
You’ve been with the National Ballet since 1999. In that time, what have been some of your favorite moments or favorite performances?
There’s a few. Certainly, a very fond memory is my very first full-length ballet. I had such a wonderful opportunity of doing Kate in Taming of the Shrew and so, of course, it being my very first time to carry a full-length ballet, that was such an exciting time for me. The very first time I did Sleeping Beauty was also huge just because it is this epitome of classical ballet and such a challenge, but also such a beautiful thing to dance and so rewarding. We’re doing that in June and I always actually look forward to it despite its high level of difficulty.
And I guess certainly Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You know, it’s the role that, soon after I premiered it, I was give my promotion to principal dancer. So the entire experience of that- the rehearsal process was something really great for me. I had a good relationship with Christopher Wheeldon, who is a fantastic teacher. And so the whole process leading up to it was really special and I loved doing the role. And then, shortly after, I was given my promotion so that whole experience for that month and a half or so that we were doing that was particularly special for me.
Having said that, there’s so many that will stick out. Just this past fall with Manon, that was a really beautiful experience for me, establishing a partnership with Harrison James. He’s still young in the company now but we’ve found a really great partnership with each other and a good friendship as well. So it’s kind of exciting to feel the beginnings of hopefully what’s going to be a really long lasting partnership.
Your My Theatre Award nomination this year is for your performance in Manon, which is incredibly dark and emotional. What are some unique challenges of a ballet like that?
Certainly, artistically, this was something that was more challenging than I’ve encountered before, just because of how rare the character is and how many transformations she goes through. And MacMillan was always striving for realism, and in a really big theatre, it’s always a challenge to be real but then to also reach the back of the house. So in some ways it’s very difficult to find the balance between over-acting or under-acting and it’s not presentational in the same way that something like Sleeping Beauty would be like. A lot of the ingrained habits I would have as a performer had to be stripped away and I had to find a new way to express things. So that was a huge challenge and it took a lot of work and a lot of guidance to find that.
As far as touching on the darker aspects of the ballet, there were certainly times it took a while after rehearsal to come out of a certain emotional state. The rehearsals, once we got to running through things, it took a few hours after work to sort of feel like myself again because the subject matter is very powerful and, like you say, quite dark.
How do you keep yourself in a healthy headspace during something like that? Especially when the choreography itself can be so disturbing, particularly in the partnering.
I tend to be very sort of Type-A and keep working, keep working, keep working. I’ve been really trying to find ways to take some time for myself, whether that’s just some quiet time or playing around a bit with meditation, that sort of thing. Even just when I was walking to work, I tried to do some deep breathing, and things like that. I’ve been finding that’s helping me quite a bit because I’m so demanding on myself. I’m finding that carving out even five minutes to have some quiet time is helping me a lot and also helping me recharge physically a bit better. So I’m sort of playing around with that and it kind of coincided with rehearsing Manon, and I think it really helped me during that time.
What’s the balance like in your life between work and ballet?
It sort of depends on the season. During Manon I was very busy so I didn’t have a lot of time outside of work. It sort of ebbs and flows. There’s maybe some weeks I won’t be as busy and then some weeks and months that I’ll be completely focused on work. So what I try to do is really make sure that during the times that I don’t have such a heavy work load, I’m contacting those friends I haven’t seen for a while and making sure I have time just dedicated to me and my husband and I guess loosening the structure a little bit in my week. I go through times that are really entirely focused on my job and then after work I’ll make sure that I make the time for the other things and my friends [laughs] outside of the studio. Sometimes I’ll see friends at work and, because I see them every day, I feel like I spend time with them but I haven’t really carved out actual one on one time. So I try to make sure that, when the schedule is a little lighter, I do that as well.
You mentioned Harrison and Nan, who else are you close with in the company?
Tiffany Mosher, she was actually the very first person I met at ballet school. We joined the company together. We grew up together. I gave a speech at her wedding last summer, so we’re really close. Keiichi Hirano is also somebody- we joined together so, again, kind of grew up together. Jonathan Renna was also a good friend all through school, has been like an older brother to me since I saw 14 years old. Robert Stephen I consider a very good friend. Alejandra Perez Gomez, we’re also very close. I’ll probably hang up with you and think “oh my god, I forgot somebody!” [laughs]. I mean, generally as a whole, we do have a nice atmosphere in the company and I’ve made some very close friendships there which is really nice. And, like I said, some people I’ve known since I was 12 years old, and we really did grow up together and go through a lot. They sort of know my best and my worst and are the type of friends who will be there for me, will also always be honest with me, whether for good or bad. Which is, I think, the best kind of friend to have.
What would you say separates your performance style from some of the other women in the company?
That’s kind of a hard question. Certainly I think my strengths play more to the classical side of things. I tend to be cast much more often in more classical type ballets rather than the strongly contemporary work. I think that I have probably a knack for storytelling. I really love doing the story ballets and the full-length, something that has some acting and some meat to it. I don’t know that that is absolutely different from anybody else but I think I have perhaps a unique energy and a certain way of moving that is not the same as other people. That was a hard question! [laughs]. Technically I can do some challenging things and I think I have a strong coordination and a strong musicality and I really strive to be a strong actress. Those are the things I really aim for.
Beyond your new partnership with Harrison, who are some of your favourite partners to work with?
Well, Piotr Stanczyk and I started out doing a lot of work together. It’s been a while since we’ve been partnered together, but he’s somebody that I can kind of do anything and know that he’s got me, which is really nice. Very similar to Harrison in that way, that I can just go ahead and really be free, which is quite a gift. Keiichi is a fantastic partner. We actually did our very first Nutcracker together [in December] so again, we’ve grown up together in that way. And, let’s see, Naoya [Ebe], I’ve been partnered with him quite a bit and we’ve developed quite a strong partnership, which is really nice, over many things. We did Giselle and we did La Fille Mal Gardée, and we’re doing Alice together [on stage now]. We’ve done quite a bit together- Blue Bird, Cinderella last June- I’ve developed quite a strong partnership with him.
You mentioned earlier some of the hardest parts of being a ballet dancer. What would you say is the best?
I think the best are the times that there’s a role that is really, really fulfilling. And the times when you have a coach that you really resonate with- somebody that you look forward to going into the studio with- those certain special teachers and coaches that you come across in your career, that’s such a gift. And also, some of the best parts are actually people I work with, like having this fantastic partnership with Harrison and going into the studio every day and looking forward to working with him.
Then there’s those moments on stage. Like I said, our company is really supportive of each other, so if I’m out there doing something challenging, I feel my friends there with me and I try to make connections with them. And those times that the music is right on and the energy from the audience is great and you have a connection with your partner. There are really special moments that can happen on stage and those are the things that we’re always working [towards]. Those are the reasons why we’re working so hard, really, to find those moments that are really unique and special.
Do you have any dream roles you haven’t gotten to dance yet, or someone you’d like to work with?
I’ve never done any Kylián ballets and I’d really like to do that. But it’s funny because I used to have a list of things like that but I found, for instance with Alice, I never even knew that was a possibility- it didn’t exist. So I sort of now think that some of the best things that could come my way, I have no idea about. I sort of now feel that I just want to leave myself open to whatever will come down the pipe, because something like that was such an unexpected, amazing time in my life.
Do you have a favourite ballet or choreographer?
I guess I have a few favourites to do, like I love doing James Kudelka’s Four Seasons. I do Spring and I love doing that ballet. I love doing Sleeping Beauty and Alice is something really special. It’s hard to pick a favourite because at this point I’ve done so many that have kind of a special place in my heart. I really love doing Theme & Variations, the Balanchine work. There’s quite a few that I’ll think, ‘oh yeah, that was a really special time’ or something like that. So I couldn’t necessarily pick one favourite.