Neoclassical ballet

An Interview with Jillian Vanstone, Principal Dancer of The National Ballet of Canada

Jillian Vanstone (Photo: Karolina Kuras / Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

There were quite a few eyebrows raised when principal dancer Jillian Vanstone announced her retirement from the National Ballet of Canada this year after 22 years. For most Vanstone aficionados, there was still a lot of dancing left in her. However, his last appearance will be in the mixed program which begins this Wednesday, March 9 at the Four Seasons Center.

Vanstone, 40, from Nanaimo, British Columbia, started dance lessons when she was 6 years old. At age 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 her candid interview with Ludwig Van about her life in dance and what she hopes the future holds.

Was your decision to retire sudden? It was definitely a big surprise for your fans.

I had actually thought about it before the pandemic. I was going through a change on what ballet meant to me. I didn’t feel the same way about my connection to the stories of the tutu and tiara ballets. They made less sense to me. Although I love neoclassical and contemporary works, the classics are always at the heart of a ballet company, and they were misaligned for me. Then there was the physical part. I have to work really hard because my hip structure isn’t perfect for ballet, and that part of the workout was getting more frustrating.

You asked the company to get British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” for your farewell performance. Wheeldon has been very important to your career, hasn’t it?

He chose me to lead Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2011 led me directly to being promoted to principal dancer. The role was a gift because it gave me a great opportunity to show my qualities. He was also the kind of choreographer who allowed questions to be asked, and not all choreographers are open to that. He created a space for me where I could dive. His work also has meaning for my body. I always knew I wanted to retire playing a Wheeldon ballet.

How did you choose the Wheeldon Ballet to do?

I had several discussions with Christopher, and we agreed on After the rain, a ballet he created for the New York City Ballet in 2005. The second part of the work has a pas de deux real and raw, human and exposed. It is performed without pointed shoes. Specifically, I can dance the pas de deux with Harrison James, who has always been a special partner for me. The pas de deux is often played alone in galas, the first movement, which features three couples, being omitted, but I wanted the whole ballet, because I want to go and play with my colleagues. Ballet is the type of piece where dancers can put their personal stamp on it. After the rain is a very strong emotional journey.

It might be a tough question to ask, but your fans felt you were underappreciated at the National. Did you feel this?

It’s true. I felt underappreciated for a number of years, which was emotionally difficult and very frustrating. I doubted that one day I would be promoted to first dancer. that’s why Alice was such a gift. 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 many times that I wasn’t going to go. Eventually, artistic director Karen Kain told me she thought I had to come to the party, so I knew I was going to be promoted to first dancer.

How would you describe yourself as a dancer? I always like to ask this question to dancers who are retiring.

I have a clean technique and I’m a good jumper. I’m also a good storyteller because I like to dive into character beyond the surface. For example, we could look Alice like three hours of running, marveling, but for me, it was finding the nuances of what she was going through. Where to take Sleeping Beauty. For me, Aurore was not just a pretty princess. If you think the role is just about showing off perfect technique, it’s exciting for 30 minutes, but there’s the rest of the ballet to go through. You need more than that, and I think I was able to translate a deeper character into the role. Basically, what interests me is finding the human in a work, what the human bond is. I want the audience to connect with the character. It’s not just the skill involved in performing these older classical ballets. Still, it took me a long time to see where I fit in. I was considered a great classic, which eclipsed my contemporary work.

How do you see the impact of the arrival of new artistic director Hope Muir on the company?

I’m actually very optimistic. It will definitely be a culture shift leading to a new era. For starters, there are a lot of talented young dancers coming in, which will change the look of the company. Hope also has some interesting lineup ideas, and she certainly has a lot of connections in the ballet world because she’s danced in so many places. Her business class is excellent, as her instructions are direct and clear, meaning she displays firm standards, ideals, and boundaries. You don’t necessarily become a good leader just by being a good dancer. Hope actually ran a business. The National is in good hands.

What do you see yourself doing after the National Ballet?

I am not interested in being a ballet mistress or a ballet teacher. I want a different second career in other aspects of theater, like programming. I’m intrigued by the festival aspect, with a diverse lineup and exposure to artists from around the world. I actually just completed a three month internship with Fall for Dance North, where I worked on programming and performance projects.


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Paula Lemon
Latest posts by Paula Citron (see everything)
Paula Lemon
Latest posts by Paula Citron (see everything)