Nanaimo-born ballerina and 20-year veteran of the National Ballet of Canada Jillian Vanstone is back for her first hometown show in nearly a decade and she’ll be performing some hand-picked pieces by one of her favourite choreographers.
Vanstone was 13 years old when she moved to Toronto to study at Canada’s National Ballet School, and while she stuck around after joining the national ballet in 1999, Vanstone said Nanaimo still feels like home.
“It’s been a while,” she said. “I’ve been there now a lot longer than I was here but it’s funny how you still consider where you grew up home.”
On Dec. 12 Vanstone is presenting her first curated performance featuring the works of renowned British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. Vanstone said a “pivotal moment” in her career was being cast in the lead role in his ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Vanstone will share the stage with national ballet soloist Joe Chapman and the duo will be accompanied by violinist James Mark and pianist Andrea Lahmer of the Vancouver Island Symphony.
Vanstone said she always enjoys playing to a hometown crowd.
“The very first time I performed here I was kind of nervous thinking these people knew me growing up and feeling like maybe I had something to prove,” she said. “And within short order I felt so comfortable and so welcome and it completely flipped in my mind realizing, no, these are the people that know me and whom I love.”
Vanstone said she’ll be performing a diverse program, starting with Wheeldon’s classical, “very tutu ballet” version of Act 2 from Swan Lake. Next she’ll be doing excepts from Carousel, a ballet inspired by the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the same name, and Polyphonia, one of Wheeldon’s earlier works that Vanstone describes as “stark and contemporary.” The performance concludes with the ending from After the Rain, which Vanstone calls “probably one of his absolute best works.”
Over the years Vanstone has performed across North America and Europe but she took her first dance steps at a Nanaimo Parks and Recreation program at Beban Park at the age of three. She started leaning ballet when she was six, drawn in by the storytelling, music and learning new skills.
“A lot of people have an experience where they see a performance and that does it for them and I think for me it was how it felt,” Vanstone said. “It was the expressiveness of it and the music and how it felt to move that I always enjoyed. It wasn’t until way later that I saw a professional performance and realized that that was something that I could do.”
Vanstone last performed in Nanaimo at the Port Theatre with the national ballet in 2011, the year she became a principal dancer in the company. The following year she was awarded the City of Nanaimo’s Excellence in Culture Award.
Vanstone recently received her 20-year pin from the National Ballet of Canada and said it’s “super weird” to think that she’s been with the company for so long. She said she’s proud to have been able to stay in Canada to pursue high-level ballet and work with world-class coaches and choreographers. She finds it funny that younger national ballet dancers might look up to her the way she looked up to those in the principal ranks when she was their age.
“I remember, I think I was in my first or second year in the company, and one of the principal women was getting her 20-year pin and I thought that must feel like forever, that’s so far away,” Vanstone said. “And now I feel like I don’t understand where the time went.”
WHAT’S ON … Jillian Vanstone performs at the Port Theatre, 125 Front St., on Dec. 12 at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. In-person tickets are $80, $75 for members, $25 for live-steam. Tickets on sale for members starting Nov. 13 at 11 a.m., Nov. 18 at 11 a.m. for general public. Available online or at 250-754-8550.