“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”
~ Shannon Adler
What is the legacy of a life spent in dance? Until very recently dance has stubbornly remained an ephemeral performance craft, prompting me to ask; what is left behind at the end of an artist’s performance career, what is carried forward and what has been built for those following to build upon?
With more and more dance and dance moments, both in the rehearsal room and on stage being filmed, captured and stored for all of digital eternity; how might technology now be re-shaping how we understand, appreciate and even value dance and the dancers craft?
In this series we spoke with three prominent Australian dance artists to discuss the legacy left behind in the minds of the audience, in the choreographic language grounded in the dancers body and spirit, the toll that the professional dancers life can take on the body, and what is left to pass on to others that they can build upon the experiences of the past.
“Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people.”
~ Peter Stropl
In PART 1 we speak with
former Principal Artist with the Australian Ballet.
How old are you/or how old would you like to tell us you are?
Kirsty : I’m 43 years of age! And I’m happy to be at this age and to be beginning new adventures and embarking on new learning pathways.
How many years did your performance career span?
Kirsty : I was first employed as a professional dancer in 1996, so that was the start of my professional performing career. However, I guess my performing experience began long before as a child, and in my teenage years especially, being one of those “competition girls”!
My performing career as a professional spanned over 15 years, with a couple of hiatuses in there having two beautiful children during that time. I did come out of retirement in 2018, to perform with The Australian Ballet in The Merry Widow, which was an absolutely crazy, yet empowering experience. Looking back I think I must have been out of my mind!
Why do you think you were “out of your mind?”
Kirsty : At the time I didn’t think I was out of my mind at all. It was a decision from the heart. It was calling me. When the suggestion arose from David McAllister in a casual conversation one day, I laughed it off. But then I found myself thinking about it a lot. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and then this possibility started to manifest, and I found myself absolutely committed to the idea. The challenge of it appealed to me, and I guess there was still a little light there in my heart and bones needing to be let out of the dark.
It was actually very liberating for me to dance again. I felt very different than before – physically and emotionally. I guess its maturity and perspective. It was totally awesome because I just danced how I felt at that time in my life. I also believe I wanted to re-track and conquer my fears and anxiety that were there years before. I needed to dance for enjoyment again and leave it all behind, having felt I could feel content and satisfied that I could dance the way I knew how, and not worry about being good enough.
Dance consumed me for so long, in a way that I didn’t allow myself to learn other things in life. (It goes way back and I sometimes regret that I didn’t open my mind to other things). So now I’ve left the dance world for a bit and have immersed myself in my Yoga studies and currently learning how to manage a Yoga studio; administration, marketing and teaching.
Now retired from the physical demands of performing multiple shows per week, what residual strengths and vulnerabilities; physical, emotional and psychological, do you feel dance has left you with?
Kirsty : Retiring from dance is a very unique experience for everyone. Personally, the initial phase after leaving dance was of pure bliss and relief! In my last years of performing I suffered from quite debilitating performance anxiety at times, although mixed in there were some of my most memorable and loved moments on stage. Although I’ve always been a very disciplined and resilient person, those times challenged me in ways that pushed me to grow in many other aspects. Learning how to manage my perfectionism is a continuous exercise for me to this day, and I definitely know that having to have worked with that quality as a dancer, has helped me to observe myself and regulate my behaviours and thoughts in my daily life.
I understand myself a lot more now than I did in those dark moments during my career. What we learn through hindsight! Having experienced the pressures and demands of performing at an elite level, both physically and psychologically, has enabled me to recognise it in others and to do my best to help the students I have taught, my own children and the personalities I’ve worked with over the years.
Being and artist/performer can be very vulnerable, and it that seems to be more so the older and more experienced you become. The more we know, the more we know what can go wrong … Or perhaps it’s that we perceive that we are falling short of our expectations all the time. This was my mind set anyway, which was the catalyst for my anxiety towards performing.
This aspect of myself, my experiences and the way I managed them – or didn’t – has allowed me to recognise similar qualities in the students I’ve taught over the years. I’ve found I can relate, especially to adolescent students that are feeling the pressure, that are in the midst of a highly intense competitive environment and are experiencing other challenges during those vulnerable teenage years as well.
A life in dance has helped me develop great inner strength and autonomy. To be able to stand on my own and get things done. It’s taught me to persist with the things that are challenging and have the resilience to try again if I fall. To be compassionate of others, because I’ve been there.
It’s taught me authenticity, because when you are true to yourself, being yourself and expressing your real self, everything aligns and unfolds how it’s meant to. You can’t compare or try and be like anyone else as an artist, performer or human being for that matter, because it just doesn’t work. Trusting yourself, having self-belief … I’ve learnt this on stage and through my own creative process as an artist, and I try to apply this to every aspect of my daily life. Physically, I cannot go a day without connecting to my body! My mind and body are one and the same. The body-mind right! I need movement to think. Dance is so powerful in that way!
Retiring from dance made me realise that I need a daily practice of some kind to feel the details and intricacies of my body. It centres, calms and focuses, helping me remain in the present. To do a ballet class now is bitter sweet, because although I love the opportunity to ‘go in’ connect and move my body, I cannot achieve the refinement I felt in the past. This then totally triggers my anxiety and stress because it doesn’t feel the way I want it too. Perfectionism!
Going full circle, I can see this in students and other dancers at times. Being attached to how things felt yesterday. Trying to chase something that’s now in the past and not being in the moment. Dance has taught to be in the moment. When you’re in the moment you are only experiencing that moment and your mind can relax. This is why I now practice yoga! Yoga also helps me to develop un-attachment to what was and accept and be content with what is.
Life after dance has brought so much to the surface for me. I’ve realised I never liked performing at all … I just liked to feel! I enjoyed being completely immersed in my own sensations and imagination. If I “performed” for an audience, I couldn’t dance. Yet if I was totally connected to my body-mind, all was sweet.
Staying close to myself at all costs is what dance has taught me … eventually!
The dancer’s art is traditionally an ephemeral one. What do you feel you’ve left behind in others, in the culture, from your time in dance?
Kirsty : I think, or hope, that the people who witnessed my work, performances and my creative process, recognised my passion and care for the art form, my total respect for the art form and my-self. Integrity.
Working in the studio was a very personal process and one that I took very seriously; too seriously at times. But it was that I feel you absolutely need to do the work and go deep within yourself to be able to create something that is unique to you. Every single detail is super important. The way you link a movement to another needs to be creative and special. The movement and stories you tell with your body are like written poems coming to life.
To express the thoughts and emotions that you are thinking/feeling is what I loved to focus on. But not to indulge emotionally, yet rather to feel the emotion in your own body. To feel what lies beneath every cell in your body … that’s where the art is. That’s where your own personal stories are! Then your dance is only yours … no one else can replicate your art. It’s yours because you did the work and went in and created it.
Artistry is not just emoting and pulling intense facial expressions. It’s in your bones, flesh, tissue, skin. It’s your energy!
This to me is what I hoped dancers and audiences would see … the art! The self-investment and the attention to detail I put into my work. This is what I still hope is being cultivated in the profession.
You mentioned the word, “authenticity” earlier. What do you mean by your “authentic” or “real” self? Can you unpack that a little more?
Kirsty : Well I do mean being true to yourself in a way that you are just being you. Not trying to perform in a way that you perceive as the ‘right way’, or what you think people want to see. Doing what you know you can do best, to work with the qualities you have and being brave enough to go there.
Learning is a process, so I have learnt this lesson through dance, through trial and error. But it’s not then ‘fixed’ or ‘set’ and then you’re all good to go on with no more battles. The demons are always there. And so it’s a constant work in progress to come back to self-evaluate and work on those demons.To this day I still doubt myself, and I’m still finding my authenticity in many aspects of my life.
For me, dance brought out obsessive compulsive qualities, where I just got stuck in my head and over analysed each and every movement. I spoke before about the ‘attention to detail’ in my dancing, and how finding refinement in my work was the so important because that’s where the magic and art is, in those deeper layers. But there is a line where you can go too far … over think and the body doesn’t respond any more. Energy stops and movement stops.
So, this was kind of my mission when I went back to the stage recently, to work on this aspect of myself. It’s my strength and weakness, so to find the balance is like walking a tight rope.
Still, I acknowledge that I have these demons, but it’s what keeps me striving and pushing myself to grow and learn. I don’t know if that makes sense.I’m still working stuff out!
Are you able to discern any specific qualities in your dancing, crafted over time, that you’ve been able to pass on to others?
Kirsty : As above really.
Teaching this aspect is hard. I can teach technique, although to me technique is wrapped up and closely tied in with artistry. To me, they are the same. You can’t just ‘think’ to achieve a lovely arabesque. You also need to ‘feel’ the arabesque; then movement happens differently. Each ballet movement and step are expressions of a feeling to me. Otherwise there’s just over-thinking, the movement quality gets lost and it becomes boring!
When I teach, I try as hard as I can in many ways possible to teach like this. It’s really important to keep the balance of refining and dissecting technique, but also allowing the brain to rest and the body to tell the brain what to do. Overthinking causes tension in the body, so I teach this approach as I know from my own experience, you can strip the joy away if you try and be perfect!
Feel and relax.
In what ways do you feel dance has changed or is changing due to the increased presence and access of digital video? In your experience, what might we gain by access to this technology and what might we lose?
Kirsty : We’ve gained exposure to the wider community of dance throughout the world, I guess. It’s so amazing that we now have access to watching some of the most beautiful and spectacular artists on our screens in an instant. It’s great for dancers and choreographers to be inspired by the progression of dance and to remain current with what’s going on in the industry. Footage of the past that has been protected and shared is invaluable for young dancers to learn from too.
Yet I guess there’s also a lot of rubbish out there too that I think young dancers can be possibly influenced by. For example, the competitive realm of dance which encourages more of the physical aspects rather than artistic integrity. Through technology, I think it’s possible that our kids can lose sight of their own vision of what they have in mind for themselves as artists and people. There is almost too much to look at that there is no space left for self-reflection and originality.
You know, just not having something to compare oneself with can be freeing. The innocence and humility can be lost in young dancers because there is so much stimulus and over sharing.
Having had time to reflect; what is the one piece of advice — general or specific — you’d like to share with dancers starting upon their paths?
Kirsty : I think honestly, it’s to really take the time to nurture your craft. To be patient. Enjoy the process of learning, learning and more learning. Learning from teachers, peers and yourself.
Also, practice alone and practice a lot. I don’t mean that in a psychotic way. I mean it’s just the only way to learn about your own body, to explore what you have. Practicing alone develops autonomy, resilience and humility. One needs to be consistently persistent! A phrase my yoga teacher uses, which I love.
To be yourself, but also accepting that sometimes we need to drop the ego and listen to advice that may not sit well. To be open minded.
“I don’t think anything about a personal legacy. I mean, those words would never come out of my mouth unless I just repeated them. Those things have never been important to me.”
~ Tom Brady