Learning Ballet, Sparking Creativity, and Living Life: Ten Lessons Learned from The National Ballet of Canada's Residency Programme

Working with someone who WANTED to work with me, limiting space, and you bet the tone of this work did not include chit-chat.

Working with someone who WANTED to work with me, limiting space, and you bet the tone of this work did not include chit-chat.

What can you learn about ballet, creativity, and living a good life - from nine full back-to-back days spent in a spacious and beautiful ballet studio? When you are free to do anything you want?

It’s been a month since the first day of the Residency Programme. And while I am still happy and honored that my application got accepted and I got to spend time in this amazing environment, I also see it matter-of-factly as what it was to my body and brain: A lot of studio time – more than I have ever had since I took up ballet. No teacher telling me what to do, no combinations to follow – everything was completely up to me.

So looking back with a bit distance now, I realized that the impact of these nine days went far beyond choreographing two ballet solos. I learned so much about learning ballet, about my creative process, and about living life. So I thought I’d extract some of my major learnings – maybe you enjoy them, too!

1 - Have ONE goal, and cut everything else if needed

So I had a plan for every day, which included time for choreography, but also lots of technical work, stretching, pointe work etc - because I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to choreograph and rehearse all day. Which was good thinking, but once I got started, it turned out that I was able to choreograph and rehearse for much longer than thought. Moreover, I actually needed more time for it. So when it became clear that there was not enough time for everything, I reminded myself of my main goal: CREATING TWO SOLOS. This is the only thing that counted. This strong goal-focus made it clear (although not easy) to radically cut almost all the technical and pointe work that I had hoped to do, and only keep a warm-up routine and some end-of-day stretching and releases.

This nicely transfers to any worthwhile endeavour in life: Determine and laser-focus on your goal, and then cut the rest - even if it feels painful and despite an acute bout of FOMO. It will keep you on track and save you from overwhelm and burn-out.

2 - Choose people who WANT to support you (vs. those that you wish would support you)

I had pretty glorious ideas for who I wanted to be in this with me, to teach and mentor me as much as possible. Turned out that one of the people that I had particularly hoped to bring in couldn’t care less. I don’t blame them! Everyone is busy, especially the two weeks before Christmas. But still. I kept hoping.

The hope was, of course, pointless. On the other hand, someone I didn’t expect to be that interested in helping came in big time. And our sessions were not only helpful - they were simply mindblowing. I told that her that working with her was one of the best things I have done in a long time. She immediately “got” what I needed.

It’s like in real life, too. A friend of mine recently told me how she had started adopting the motto “Choose the people that choose you” a while ago. So true. All too easy we can get wrapped up in trying to get noticed/liked/supported by certain people and it’s hard to swallow that the interest might not be mutual. This can apply to friends, co-workers, potential partners, celebreties on Instagram etc. So sometimes it’s good to take a good, honest look: Who are we chasing without much return - and who, on the other hand, is genuinely interested in us, our success, our aspirations?

3 - Have a strict plan for the beginning of the day and “routinefy” as much as you can

Oh the empty space. All that time. The endlessness of creativity.

It can get so overwhelming. Especially when you do something for the first time and don’t really know what you are doing. And discover that you need to essentially scrap half of your plan.

What really kept me going and built my focus for the day was to stick to my warm-up plan first thing in the morning. So the first 1-1.5 hours were the same every day. Winning the morning sets the tone for the day.

Beyond the morning, I tried to create other little routines that would not change much from day to day. Like, preparing my bag the night before. Eating lunch at mostly the same time every day. Finish of with a long barre stretch. Take an Epsom salt bath every night. These were the small things that kept me grounded in a whirlwind of novelty and creativity.

I see that in my daily life, too: My morning routine is maybe small and unspectacular (getting up, showering with warm water, showering with cold water, having the same breakfast every day, preparing my son’s lunch and sending him off to school, cleaning the breakfast table, making the beds, light movement practice), but it’s huge for getting me into a particular mindset and energy for the day.

4 - You can overtax your body, but make sure you pay back

I think that the term “balance” is overrated and overused. I believe that worthwhile projects will always take you off balance - it’s in their nature, that is, if they’re truly worthwhile.

These nine days were tough on my body. At the same time, I did not expect to fully recover from one day to the next. It’s unrealistic to expect the body to adapt when spiking up physical load by this much from one day to the next. It will be taxing, and it will take more from the body than it can rebuild during that time.

But you don’t need to avoid it either! The point is to understand what it takes, and at what point you will be able to “pay back your dues” = getting rest and allowing your body to process the sudden spike in input.

5 - Fuel smartly

Nutrition has always come quite intuitive to me, I pretty much always ate what I felt like. When it came to training hard, I would just eat as much as I could.

Over the past years, this approach has changed for me to some extent. I added many new nutritional habits after a long stretch of severe virus and bacterial infections and a consequently weakened immune system a few years ago. Overall, I have come to value the quality of food much more than before. Also, I have started losely following The Plant Paradox’s nutritional recommendations.

These nine days required particularly smart eating, as I couldn’t “eat as much as I could” when I wanted to dance all day. Plus, I didn’t have any time to prepare food during the day.

What I did was to cook in advance the day before my Residency started, and same thing on my off-day half-way through. This way both myself and my son had a good dinner in no time every night. For lunch, I was fortunate enough to have access to the National Ballet’s cafeteria - which was certainly not the cheapest choice, but this was I was sure to get excellent and obviously dance-compatible food.

6 - Expect fails and set-backs

You can plan for everything - and you should plan for failing, too. In my case: I didn’t sleep too well during my Residency, although I needed sleep badly for proper recovery. To me, the most important thing was to not get derailed by it. Yes, time was pretty tight for creating and sufficiently rehearsing two solos, and being tired was a major roadblock. But getting all stressed out about being tired would not help. So on one particularly exhausted day, I decided to go with it and use the fatigue to guide me to new places. And it did - it inspired me to look for simplicity, which led to a beautiful beginning and end of one of my choreographies (simple port de bras, standing in fifth position).

Every worthwhile project has its desasters (or moments that subjectively feel like it). You can either get all frustrated and discouraged - or you can simply run with it!

7 - Set limits and boundaries and self-impose accountability

This was a biggie.

It’s fun to think of creative project as free-flow, limitless fireworks. Anthing goes, the sky is the limit.

But if I have learned one thing - ironically, the best things happen within well-confined boundaries. Not despite, but because of lack of resources. Limited time, money, space - all of which lets your creative mind go above and beyond.

Here are some examples from my Residency: Even before my first day, I imposed a strong limit on my available time for creating my choreographies - by scheduling a showing for family and friends. This way, I would not get lost in endless perfectionizing. I wanted to make myself “ship early”, meaning having a working version of the two solos on the last day of the Residency.

Another limit was something my mentor Sarah suggested: Confine the studio space to a size that I would most likely have for a street performance. She was so right. Otherwise the huge studio would have lured me into using all of it - and then get all shocked by the little space I would have on the street!

Often, money is a limited resource and it’s so easy to give in into the “I can’t do this because I don’t have the money”. One of the biggest fallacies of all. NO. Do it BECAUSE you don’t have the money. Take a first step. Find ways. It will probably be very surprising to see what you come up with!

8 -Do at least one thing that goes against your grain

True creativity goes beyond. But it won’t happen if you keep doing what is familiar to you. I think it’s crucial to strategically create small, uncomfortable moments in order to unlock novelty and innovation from your nervous system.

I have already mentioned one - to me, it was to go simple in certain parts of my choreographies. Even simpler than simple. Simple to the point of “Is this really enough? Or will people turn away because it’s so boring?” (We will see in the spring, haha.)

One other thing I did: I made myself meet NBC staff members during lunch, in the cafeteria. I went to their table and asked if I could join them, even though I didn’t know anyone. Highly uncomfortable for me, but so worthwhile, even just for getting over the discomfort. If I could do this, then I could do anything else I wanted to get done that day.

9 - Set the tone for your work

This was an interesting one, something I hadn’t necessarily considered conciously before - it slowly dawned on me over the nine days. When you work on your own, you may not think much about a “work culture”/values like a big company would have, but you still have it. It is essentially the question: How do you approach and act when you are in your creative space?

For me, one of the main things was: Eliminate or reduce distractions.

In practice, that meant: Not being aimlessly on my phone, no social media browsing, and no chit-chatting in the studio. It was sacred space. It’s funny - there was one situation where two people were engaged in a conversation while I didn’t think much of it. Suddenly I felt I surge of impatience and annoyance - not because I didn’t want them to have a nice, casual conversation, but because I felt like the energy of it didn’t match what I was trying to get done during the precious time that I had in the studio. So I cut the conversation short. At first I was a bit afraid to say something, it felt like I was being rude, but then I clearly felt good. As weird as it may sound, I was protecting the sacred space.

10 - Plan for lots of rest afterwards and celebrate the magic

Finally! This may sound obvious, but how often do we fall from one project to the next, from one responsibility to the other, with only little or no downtime in between. I like to think of over-exaggerating this part - plan for more rest than you think you need. I knew that I would have a 2.5 week Christmas vacation after the intense and taxing day at the studio. I made sure to have Prosecco with my friends after the showing. Anything that lets you enjoy what you have just accomplished. And it can be smaller than that. Maybe it’s taking a few minutes to stop at your favorite coffee place between work and returning to your family. Or just take a day off to sit on the sofa. I keep reminding myself of something I read in a book on women’s health a long time ago - pretend that you are sick occasionally, even though you aren’t. But take the rest as if. It could very likely be one of the most healthy habits ever!

With that, my Christmas break full of travelling, reconnecting with family and friends in Europe, and much less ballet than usual (5 classes in a 2.5 week span, with ten days off in between) – is coming to an end! I am excited to be back in Canada and go back to the usual routine of everyday life and ballet – and to reconnect with you guys, too!

Does any of this resonate with you? What in particular? Or do you disagree with some points? What kind of habits for learning/getting creative/living do you have? Would you share them with us in the comments? I love hearing from you and enjoy any conversation we get going!