by Jessika Anspach McEliece
The early autumn light flooded through my window as if to smile “Hello”, warming my toes as I sat on the couch scrolling through my Facebook feed. And the babble of the river rushing underneath our flat (because that’s what they call them over here in England), at first sounding almost fake like one of those sleep machines, had a soothing, hypnotic effect.
How in the world did I get here?
Life couldn’t have looked more different than it did four months ago…
A ball of nerves, emotions and adrenaline, and I was rolling down that hill fast.
Time seemed to snowball, slipping through my fingers. Each second I tried to savor, only to have it fade silently, softly away. Endlessly counting the lasts: last rehearsal, last dress rehearsal, last pair of pointe shoes sewn, last quick change, last class. The process of retiring was exhausting.
A few nights before that fateful day I just broke down. The pressure I’d been putting on myself to be present, to enjoy every moment seemed to be sucking away what I sought to save like a high-powered vacuum.
I was a dichotomous mess. My heart and soul literally felt like they were ripping in two. On the one hand I didn’t want to let go – I didn’t want it to end. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to this life – the only one I knew for the past 26 years: ballet. That seed, planted at such an early age within my heart, had grown and matured intertwining itself through the very fiber of my being like an old-growth tree. To extricate it, well, seemed to threaten my entire existence.
And yet something had to give. I couldn’t continue in this state of limbo… I just needed it to be over. The anticipation of this inevitable death (because that’s exactly what it was) was torturous.
The thing is, we can’t slow or speed up time no matter how hard we try. It ticks on constantly and steadily. Just as it should. And the day came whether I was ready or not.
I stood on stage one final time. And as the red velvet curtain rose, everything all hushed and still, somehow, miraculously the weight of it all lifted too. To describe to you all that transpired within the following four minutes is impossible, for no words exist to adequately express the fullness of an experience so overflowing with gratitude and joy seasoned only slightly with sadness.
And then it was over. Just like that. In the blink of an eye. Done.
I woke up the next morning and felt like I’d been hit by a train. Thankful to be freed of the burden I’d been carrying, but still, a bit disoriented. Okay a lot disoriented…
Questions welled up and I just pushed them back down. I wasn’t ready to answer them. Wasn’t ready to not have an answer.
So what did I do? I ran away.
Strategically I’d planned a five week European trip (half of which was completely on my own) as a “retirement gift” to myself – a.k.a a happy distraction. And yet I couldn’t escape myself. Especially when I was by myself.
Those same questions bubbled up every time a stranger asked me the inevitable, “So… What do you do?”
Great question! What do I do?
For so many years I’d fought against being simply known as a “ballet dancer,” wanting people to see there was more to me than pink tights and pointe shoes. And now I was free to be just me – free from the expectations and once-overs that came with being a ballerina. But with ties now severed, I strangely found myself wanting to paste parts of them back together. If I’m not a dancer, what am I? Who am I?
The curtain had closed. No more lasts… My dancing days (professionally speaking) were over. And it seemed like the only way forward was to not look back. Separation felt like a necessity for my healing heart. But would it be forever? Did it have to be forever?
Walking the picture-perfect streets of Prague, the city teemed with vibrancy and artistic expression. People were passing out pamphlets, not for the next sporting event or newly-opened pizza place, but for opera, classical concerts and yes, for ballet.
A grapefruit-sized lump filled my throat as I looked down at the flyer in my hand. They were performing Swan Lake. Immediately I knew it was too much. To hear that music, and feel the chasm that separated me from the movement… to be on the other side of the stage… I wasn’t ready. Instead I went to a chamber music concert and bawled my eyes out as I heard Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings performed.
They say time heals all wounds… and I was still waiting.
So fast forward a couple months.
A hasty move to England. Now it really looked like I was running away… but this time not from ballet. Not from myself.
With my career out of the way, my husband and I were free to pursue other dreams. Of grad school. Abroad. And so I found myself a world away – on a couch in a flat above a river in the middle of Winchester, England. Separated from all that I had known not just by circumstance but by land and sea. A new city. A new country. A new beginning.
And as I scrolled through my Facebook feed something caught my attention. A preview for Akram Khan’s brand-new Giselle, premiered by the English National Ballet. And as I watched it, no grapefruit-sized lump filled my throat. No dread. No sorrow. Only a slight pitter-patter in my heart. A glimmer of excitement in my eyes. Was I ready?
They were sold out in London, but Southampton (where my husband Ryan was going to school) still had tickets. Convenient…
Nervously, I took his hand as we entered the Mayflower Theater. He just smiled back at me. He was excited. We bought a program and found our seats. And as the lights dimmed a drum beat pounded out the initial sound. How did they know the rhythm of my heart so perfectly?
And from the darkness a panel of light appeared revealing a company of dancers pushing a wall with all their might. Trying to get in. Trying to get back. On the other side. And I could relate.
But in the cool blue light something fiery erupted. I leaned forward completely captivated by the movement: the surge and swell of the corps flawlessly set to Vincenzo Lamagna’s hypnotic score; the formations and patterns that seemed to swallow, then spit out Giselle, Albrecht and Hilarion like outliers in this tragic equation; the energy – so raw, so vulnerable, so real. There was something so familiar, and yet not… Giselle was a ballet I knew, a ballet I’d danced, but this was something so new, so different that it wasn’t until I heard one of Adam’s musical motifs float to the forefront that I remembered what I was actually watching.
My muscles, on the other hand, ached and twitched in the seat longing desperately to do what they knew. They had not forgotten. They missed the burn, the sweat, the total emptying of everything – leaving it all on stage. Left only with the satisfaction, the exhaustion that remained. But my eyes were entranced – like I was seeing ballet again for the very first time. My heart? So full. So happy. So whole. Time had done it’s work.
And as the curtain closed, I on the other side of it, hot tears welled up. Not of sorrow. Not of grief. Of gratitude. Thankful that I once called that my life. Thankful that it’s still part of my life.
Who am I? I’d found my answer. I am a dancer. And I always will be.
Contributor Jessika Anspach McEliece, a native of Bellevue, Washington, began her ballet training at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School under the direction of Francia Russell. She progressed through all levels of the school, beginning with Creative Movement, and was invited to be a part of PNBS’s Professional Division program where she was privileged to perform frequently with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. She also attended summer intensive programs at the San Francisco Ballet School, the National Ballet School of Canada and Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell.
She danced for the Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company in 2002 as an apprentice. And in 2004, her dream came true when she was invited by Kent Stowell and Francia Russell to join Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice, promoted the following year to corps de ballet under current director Peter Boal.
Over her 12-year career, she was blessed to dance leading and featured roles in such ballets as Kent Stowell’s Cinderella, Nutcracker and Swan Lake, George Balanchine’s Agon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Coppelia, Diamonds, Divertimento from “Baiser de la Fee,” and Symphony in C, Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement, Ulysses’ Dove’s Vespers, Jiri Kylian’s Sechs Tanza (Six Dances), Marco Goecke’s Place a Chill, William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing Reproduced, Benjamin Millepied’s 3 Movements, Mark Morris’s Kammermusik No. 3, Susan Stroman’s TAKE FIVE…More or Less, Ronald Hynd’s The Sleeping Beauty and Andrew Bartee’s Arms that Work.
But what she delighted in most was her role as a senior corps woman, upholding the integrity and caliber of the company with every performance, be it as a villager, a flower or a swan. “As a principle or soloist you maybe get a few shows, but in the corps I got to be in every show. Being on stage is what I worked so hard for. It’s the sprinkles on the sundae. And I got a lot of sprinkles.”
Now retired from her ballet career, Jessika is a freelance writer, having written featured articles for Dance Magazine. Along with contributing to 4dancers and PNB’s blog, she also keeps her own, justJessika, chronicling her life’s adventures, pursuits and passions: travel, faith and of course ballet.