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Reaching for her dreams

Jillian Vanstone, principal dancer for National Ballet of Canada, earned the Excellence in Culture Award from her hometown
Jillian Vanstone’s portrait will hang with previous award winners in the Port Theatre.

Jillian Vanstone achieved the dream of millions of little girls across the globe.

She is a principal dancer in a national ballet, performing leading roles in classic works like Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

For her hard work and dedication to her craft, the City of Nanaimo awarded Vanstone the Excellence in Culture Award at a ceremony at the Port Theatre Wednesday.

Also receiving an award was Marian Smith, a long-time vocal teacher, who won the Honour in Culture Award. Portraits of Vanstone and Smith, taken by Gary Peters, will hang in the Margaret Strongitharm Gallery in the Port Theatre.

Vanstone said she was touched and honoured by the award, given annually to a person or group who made a significant contribution to the cultural fabric of the city.

“I thought of myself as a young child still dreaming of it,” Vanstone said.

“It felt kind of surreal, really.”

Vanstone grew up in Nanaimo, taking ballet and dance lessons at Kirkwood Academy of Performing Arts beginning at age six. In 1994, the National Ballet School accepted her into its program.

After graduation, she joined the National Ballet of Canada, working her way up to first soloist before appointment as a principal dancer last year and achieving her childhood dream.

“It was what I’d been striving for since I was eight,” she said.

The promotion was the start of a hectic and interesting year, which saw Vanstone dance lead roles in three major works, including Sleeping Beauty, one of the most challenging classical works next to Swan Lake; La Fille mal gardée, a love story in the English pantomime tradition; and The Seagull, based on an Antov Chekov play of the same name.

“This season has been particularly exciting,” Vanstone said. “I spent the last few days just taking a lot of naps.”

Days are often long, with rehearsals lasting anywhere from three to seven hours. To stay in shape, and ward off repetitive strain injuries, Vanstone cross-trains in yoga and pilates. Physiotherapists and other sports medicine professionals are on hand for the dancers’ health.

Vanstone bounced back from injury twice in her career, beginning with ankle surgery in 2006. She injured an ankle again in September when she collided with her dance partner, bruising a bone and putting her out of commission for three to four months.

“It was his knee versus my ankle,” she said.

But stepping back and watching other dancers gave her a new perspective to evaluate her goals. Going forward, her focus is on providing a genuine performance and reaching the audience on an emotional level.

She said dancers often become obsessed with technique, while audiences are seeking to escape in the magic of ballet.

“It’s a matter of putting energy in the right place,” she said.

Vanstone is putting some of her energy toward ArtBound, a charity in partnership with Free the Children, to bring performance art to developing countries. She and other volunteers travelled to an all-girls high school in Kenya last Feburary to teach self-expression, confidence and gain a source of income through art.

Elementary school in Kenya is free, but high school is not. Graduating from high school is about our equivalent to earning a degree from university, she said.

“Many girls really aren’t able to go to high school,” Vanstone said.

Invited to teach a lesson to the students, Vanstone encountered an obstacle she didn’t expect.

“They’d never heard the word ‘ballet’,” she said. “It’s really a Western art form.”

Using a dodgy Internet connection, her husband was able to send photos and YouTube videos of Vanstone’s performances. She demonstrated and then taught some basic steps and jumps, showing the students her pointe shoes.

The girls’ teacher caught them later practising what Vanstone taught. She said their movements and interpretation was much more organic compared to Westerners who grew up with images of fairies and swans.

“They didn’t have this preconceived idea about what a ballerina was,” she said.

Vanstone and ArtBound plan a new mission in 2013, to India. Until then, she’ll take a walk on the seawall in Nanaimo and catch up with friends and family before getting back to work with the National Ballet of Canada.