Ilona Wall Nambisan, The Dancer’s Life
Dances Patrelle recently caught up with Dances Patrelle Alum and current dP Yorkville Nutcracker Rehearsal Mistress, Ilona Wall Nambisan. Please see below to read this wonderful interview with Francis and Ilona, where she discusses her experiences being a dancer, navigating challenges and finding individuality within the dance world.
dP: What is it like being in a studio with a teacher/ballet master/choreographer who is great, as opposed to having one that is not up to “your” personal expectations. How do you handle each scenario? Do you swallow your ideals? Do you speak up and challenge?
Ilona: It is such an incredible thing to be in the studio working with someone who challenges, and inspires you. There really is no feeling like it. Those are the moments you dream about as an artist and a performer, and the ones that make it all worthwhile. That kind of trust is so liberating. My greatest challenge as a freelancer was to find directors and work that I believed in. Once you get going, there can be a lot of opportunities out there. But there is such a huge difference between rewarding work, and the jobs you take just to pay rent and keep in shape in-between.
When you have to work with someone that you're not thrilled about, I think it's important to remain positive and open-minded. Being negative affects your ability to do your job. You run the risk of exacerbating your frustration and making it an unpleasant experience for your fellow dancers. You certainly don't want your frustration to make you the one who is difficult to work with. Whatever the process is like, the dancers have to be a cohesive team, so you might as well make the experience as positive as possible for everyone (including yourself).
Of course, staying positive is not always easy, and negativity can be contagious. It's always helpful to remind yourself that you're lucky to be dancing and that this is just one chapter in your career. Any experience, however difficult, has the potential to be a great learning experience. Sometimes learning to perform well in a work that you're not excited about is just as important as performing well in a piece you love. I remember Nikolai Hubbe talking about how with each experience you have as a dancer, you learn something and you take it with you to the next thing. Sometimes the most negative professional or performance experiences are the ones that hold the best lessons for you as an artist.
dP: Do you swallow your ideals? Do you speak up and challenge?
Ilona: Fortunately, I've never been in a situation where I had to swallow my ideals in order to do my job as a dancer. If you are freelancing you have a little more control, in that you have the ability to say no to future work with particular people, if the environment is not right for you. In terms of a company contract, where you have to work continuously or repeatedly with people that you don't respect, it's a little bit harder. Keeping the bigger picture in mind is helpful. If you are dancing various types of work, then you have to see it as one small experience in your career, like having one bad professor while getting a degree that you're passionate about. Direct confrontation has been rare in my experience and isn't really effective in the ballet world. Personally, I like to ask a lot of questions. Usually, if someone isn't clear or doesn't really know what they want, I find that I have to ask questions. If a teacher/director/choreographer feels challenged, it's usually a sign of insecurity and suggests he or she doesn't have answers! But if I need certain answers to do my job, then I have to ask the questions. It's really about finding a way to get the information you need to do your work to the best of your ability.
dP: How, in today's world, does one deal with the experience of being at the entrance level of ballet, the corps de ballet? There are still so many old fashioned attitudes. Corp members can feel like they are only a member of a group, no longer an individual.
Ilona: If you have chosen classical ballet--and classical ballet has chosen you--then you must believe in the miracle that is the corps de ballet. As someone who was trained in the Balanchine technique, and has danced more of his work than that of any other choreographer, this does not mean erasing individuality. It does, of course, mean learning to work in unison and holding your spacing! I think there are different mentalities and different traditions in various companies, but wherever you are, you must believe that you are critical to the production and the work. There is no point in being on stage if you think you don't matter. Working as a group doesn't mean you stop being a person. It just means that for this moment in this production, your role is to be part of a whole. That said, the whole doesn't work without all of its parts doing what they are supposed to do. The process is a different one from soloist work and requires a lot of patience. Working in a corps is its own skill, but it is one without which classical ballet would not exist.
All of this said I think the healthiest thing for any dancer is to make breathing room for oneself outside of the dance world. Having other hobbies and interests helps put into perspective all that happens in the studio. It's amazing how much life outside the studio contributes to what happens onstage. The more you take in, the more you have to give. The more images and emotions and moments of truth you have to draw from, the more you can share. And that's what people want to experience when they take their seats.
Photo © 2017 Tom Caravaglia