Ballet is an art form you choose to pursue because of love and passion alone. Ballet is a bargain you make with your body and mind, with little pay, endless aches and pains, and a small window of time within which you can pursue your dreams of artistic freedom and creativity. And when that window closes, that chance is gone, proving how fleeting youth and opportunity are.
The dancers at Louisville Ballet all share that same level of passion: forgoing countless hours that could be spent with family and friends while risking constant injury for the chance to dance on that stage.
Raise the Barre is Louisville Balletâ€™s annual fundraiser that helps supplement the income of company dancers and allow them to spend more time pursuing their love without financial stress hanging over them. The event is scheduled to be held at the Louisville Balletâ€™s own studio on September 12.
In order to get an idea of the hours of sacrifice required, we caught up with two of the Balletâ€™s dancers: Kateryna Sellers and Benjamin Wetzel, who each have a different perspective on their craft.
The Price of Passion: KaterynaÂ Sellers
If you sit across from Kateryna Sellers, you might think she was a track athlete. On a break from rehearsal â€“ which involves at least two grueling hours spent on her toes â€“ Sellers sits down in a chair. Sheâ€™s still on her toes â€“ legs bouncing, muscles twitching and full of energy. No, she didnâ€™t realize sheâ€™s still on her toes.
Sellers is a veteran of the Louisville Ballet, now entering her 11th season with the company this fall. She is getting ready for â€œCoppÃ©lia,â€ a classic ballet thatâ€™s being re-imagined by Robert Curran to be set in the city she has called home for over a decade â€“ Louisville. And because she has spent so many years here working on her craft, she knows better than most dancers what particularly grueling calibration her day must be in for her to be at the peak of her powers.
A typical day starts at 5:45 a.m., which quickly segues into a trip to the gym, with crossfit and cardio being the name of the game. An average day might be filled with rehearsals, but the morning is about making sure that the body is as precisely tuned as a race-car.
â€œThe mornings are geared towards fine-tuning muscles that are used more specifically in ballet,â€ explains Sellers, who likens her drive to tone to that of a bodybuilder who picks out small imperfections to work on. â€œSo instead of doing an entire quadricep, we target a certain muscle. Or instead of the whole glute, it will just be the rotator.â€
Ballet dancers are elite athletes â€“ every single one of them. In fact, in the same way that a professional football player may need to learn a playbook, be coached, train, improve mentally and physically and then go out and perform, the life of a ballerina is tremendously complex and layered, but each performance must seem effortless. For this reason, Sellers spends every minute of the day thinking about ballet â€“ her lifelong love â€“ and how she can go on and improve every single day.
â€œI really like the challenge of this job,â€ adds Sellers. â€œI wake up and Iâ€™m tired. But once I get going and Iâ€™m at the gym, I start thinking about what I need to work on. Itâ€™s a time to think and get ready for the day. Depending on the show, if youâ€™re learning multiple parts, itâ€™s also very mentally taxing. There is a lot of information, and on top of that, youâ€™re getting notes on how to get better and you have to process those and figure out how to put that into your body and make that happen. And then in a character-driven ballet, there is a lot of thought that goes into developing your character as well.â€
Like all art forms, the fuel to keep going is passion â€“ and having spent so many years with the company, Sellers knows that the dancers around her who share the same love of dance have become family. Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Sellers credits her Louisville Ballet family as being diverse and their environment as a place where one can constantly learn from colleagues.
â€œPeople here are from everywhere, so itâ€™s pretty neat that we create a family and a culture here. As a dancer, when you train, there are different syllabuses that you would train in. So itâ€™s interesting how other dancers have been taught differently. You learn something from everybody, depending on where theyâ€™ve been and danced.â€
Itâ€™s those same colleagues who will often end their day of dance at 6 p.m. only to then go and work elsewhere to earn extra money. Raise the Barre was in fact designed to benefit these very dancers so that they may continue their passion while making ends meet.
â€œSome people have jobs right after rehearsal, and I am always in awe of them. We have one dancer who is a pilates teacher. A lot of people wait tables or are hostesses.â€
But in the end, no matter how grueling her schedule is, Sellers knows she would not trade her job for the world. Like professional athletes, dancers have a finite number of years within which they can express themselves to the best of their physical capabilities. And itâ€™s this finite nature, as well as the daily physical and mental grind, that motivates Sellers to keep going. Every day is different, and thatâ€™s where the passion lies.
â€œEveryone who does this job really loves it,â€ she concludes. â€œI love my job. I get to do something that I am passionate about and where I am challenged every day. But you donâ€™t do this job unless you really love it because otherwise, itâ€™s just not worth it.â€
The Price of Passion:Â Benjamin Wetzel
For Benjamin Wetzel, a transplant from San Francisco and a third year dancer at Louisville Ballet, the day often opens up on a lackluster but necessary note. After rising at 7 a.m. and consuming his oatmeal, Wetzel slowly makes his way to the shower. This is his pain management.
â€œMost of the time, my feet hurt in the mornings,â€ explains Wetzel. â€œSo in the mornings, I go into the shower and just run my feet under hot water to relax them and warm them up so they are not as creaky.â€
For Wetzel, and every other dancer, daily life is a physical and mental task. Long hours are spent tirelessly honing their craft. But those hours spent that culminate in physical pain are actually the best of his and his colleaguesâ€™ lives. Itâ€™s hours spent perfecting the object of their love and focal point of their passion. In the same way a concert-level pianist still has to practice his scales, so Wetzel has to keep honing his own technique.
â€œWhat I love about this career is the consistency of it,â€ he explains. â€œEvery day you go into the studio and you work on your technique. In theatre, at least, you had maybe one performance every two weeks. In ballet, no matter what role you are doing, no matter what company you are in, the core of classical ballet technique is the same.â€
A relative late-comer to ballet, Wetzel has spent the past few years absorbing as much ballet as possible, perhaps even relishing it more given his late start.
â€œI had an unconventional path to ballet because I started out much later than most people,â€ explains Wetzel. â€œI started when I was 16. Before that, I was doing musical theatre and thought that thatâ€™s where I wanted my career to go for the rest of my life. I thought I needed to take dance glasses to be competitive with other people, and in college at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, I took more dance classes. Thatâ€™s where I found great teachers and found ballet and fell more and more in love with it â€“ and fell out of love with musical theatre.â€
Like a lot of dancers, Wetzel needs to supplement his income with outside work, and itâ€™s something that Raise the Barre, Louisville Balletâ€™s annual fundraiser seeks to help. But for Wetzel, who teaches ballet after his own studies are complete each day, still finds room to improve and grow. Even if it means his work days usually extend late into the night.
â€œSometimes when youâ€™re teaching, you notice little things,â€ he explains. â€œYou think to yourself, â€˜Maybe I should be thinking about this, or be doing that.â€™ I really believe, for example, that even if youâ€™re injured and you may have to sit out for a month, you watch other dancers and you learn so much.â€
Teaching ballet in Louisville has also brought him closer to his adopted city.
â€œWhat I really love about Louisville is that it feels like a small town. Itâ€™s a city for sure, but I find people here appreciate art so much more than other cities I have traveled to. I feel so fortunate that the dancers here also care so much for one another, and it really does feel like a tight-knit family.â€
In the end, like everyone else around him, Wetzel is more than happy to keep going each day. He gets to do what he loves every single day, something that not everyone can lay claim to. But ironically, itâ€™s the short and finite nature of the life of a dancer that adds extra motivation.
â€œI think I just love it so much,â€ explains Wetzel. â€œI think itâ€™s really important and I donâ€™t know any different. Even though there is pain and sacrifices and my salary is not great, I canâ€™t imagine doing anything else.â€
He pauses and then corrects himself.
â€œActually, I can imagine doing something else,â€ he adds. â€œI imagine when I finish dancing of going back to school, but I figure I only have one opportunity to dance and thatâ€™s now. The idea that itâ€™s now or never might seem dramatic, but it does mean itâ€™s precious and pressing. I donâ€™t want to have any regrets. There are so many other careers I can pursue later on, but if I did not dance, I would forever regret not going for it.â€
For Wetzel and other dancers at Louisville Ballet, Raise the Barre means the view through that narrow window of time is that much brighter.
Glue, knifeÂ and dentalÂ floss
Aside from the grueling task of having to master complex routines both mentally and physically on a daily basis, essentially, ballet boils down to spending a lot of time on your feet. And on those feet are the artâ€™s famous shoes. In fact, in the way a professional boxer has spent years developing his own way of wrapping his hands, just so, every dancer will spend a lot of time customizing the shoes to fit his or her tools of the trade â€“ the feet. That means dancers are often spending a lot of time slicing, sewing, gluing and more.
â€œWhen I get my brand new pair I take them out of the pack and then get an exacto knife and start shaving down the front,â€ explains Sellers. â€œIâ€™ll then sew on my ribbons. We do all the stitching ourselves because everyone likes to tie their shoes differently. In fact, we spend a lot of our time sewing by hand. It takes me 20 minutes to sew a pair of shoes.
And one must-have accessory, according to Sellers, is dental floss. â€œThis may sound funny, but a lot of people use dental floss instead of thread. Itâ€™s stronger.â€
But even the best stitching wonâ€™t hold up to the intensity of dance. Shoes fall like flies in the daily grind of ballet.
â€œIâ€™d say I would go through 40 of these a year, and thatâ€™s not a lot,â€ adds Sellers. â€œSome people would even sometimes go through a pair a day. Theyâ€™re handmade, using layers of satin, and glue. One pair, I may be able to wear for three or four days in a row. But another pair I may wear for one day and they might just fall apart.â€ VT
To purchase tickets to Raise the Barre, visit louisvilleballet.org