Dana Stephensen is a senior artist with the Australian Ballet who compliments her onstage life with a very busy offstage life – being a mum to her four year old son, Jasper. In this interview, Dana talks us through a typical day dancing day, and gives us some beautiful insight into what keeps her, and the dancers around her, inspired.
What is the first thing you do every dancing day?
My eyes pop open as soon as I hear my 4 year old’s little running footsteps coming into my room and jumping on the bed for a big cuddle. It’s an energetic start to the morning and so begins the morning routine of getting us both ready for the day. We sit down and have a good breakfast together, I know this is an important start to my day and for my energy levels. I bundle Jasper into the car and drop him at daycare and drive to work and I still really haven’t thought about dancing, it’s been too busy and I think this is a real blessing of parenthood. You don’t have the time to luxuriate in your thoughts or obsess about ballet every waking moment and this is part of a healthy balance for me. When I enter The Australian Ballet Centre or the theatre we are performing in, I try to switch my mindset to my day ahead and what I would like to achieve. It’s different every day. I might fit in 5 minutes in the Pilates studio or just run straight in to class, then I spend the time on the barre refocusing to my ballet day. It usually takes the whole barre for me to settle into my body and my ballet mind.
Who is your biggest source of inspiration?
I feel very inspired by the people I work with every day – my fellow dancers, teachers and pianists are a constant source of inspiration. There are pearls of wisdom in all of these people and I have always really enjoyed watching other dancers and how they work, their process but also their unique spark that makes them “them.”
I am really inspired by dancers who truly commit to what they’re doing and invest themselves so wholeheartedly in what they’re doing – whether it’s a walk on role or a principal role, watching incredible stagecraft in action is so inspiring. You can learn something from everyone – a Principal Artist, a first year corps de baller member, a particular piece played by our pianists in class – I find so many sources of inspiration each day and more often than not, they are the kickstart for me to try something new or just enjoy my dancing more.
On a personal note my family is my greatest inspiration – their constant love, support and guidance is what truly has kept me dancing for so long.
What is your favourite ballet?
So, so many ballets are my favourites! Being decisive is not one of my strong points! I really just love dancing and the freedom of being on stage, becoming a character and feeling how their body breathes and how their body tells their story and feels what they feel is one of the most precious parts of being part of the ballet world. Two really special classical ballet highlights will always be dancing the role of Giselle and Swanhilda in “Coppelia” – Giselle is such an iconic ballerina role that never leaves you and each show felt like a heavenly gift to experience. Dancing Swanhilda was a dream since I was 4 years old and each show was such a joyous time and a real thrill. In the contemporary repertoire, I have so many highlights – I have been very fortunate to dance many works by Wayne McGregor, Alice Topp, Tim Harbour etc and these continue to challenge and excite me. The Australian Ballet’s recent season of “Volt,” our triple bill of contemporary works at the Arts Centre Melbourne was a real highlight for me.
What is your number one challenge as a professional dancer?
I’ve definitely had my challenges over my career and one of the physical challenges that pushes me every day is the line of my lower legs and feet. I’m very lucky that I have natural strength in my legs and feet and these are real positives but my natural line of my lower legs is something I’m constantly thinking about and often frustrated about. It’s about working smart and making the most of what I have and remembering that the shape of my legs and feet allow me to have such a dynamic jump and to move quickly. But across my training and 16 year career, this is very much an everyday work in progress! I have to remember that there is a LOT more to dancing than your anatomy and really focus on what I CAN do.
I also find Barre really challenging. My body loves to move and more instinctively knows what to do once we are in the Centre but at the Barre I find it much harder to make everything fit. Some days it still baffles me that I still feel like such a novice not knowing what I’m doing!
If you could give one piece of advice to an elite dancer, embarking on their final year of training, what would it be?
Learning to be self-sufficient is such an empowering tool to have as a dancer and one that really sets you up the career ahead. While we might have people to help us in the company, being self-motivated is a really important part of enjoying your dancing and riding the ups and downs of the career too. Practicing this in your final year of training is an excellent time! Hopefully you feel well supported by your teachers and are able to start thinking for yourself, learn how to be a really good coach and mentor for yourself, and most importantly amongst all the hard work, being your own best friend and support crew is paramount! You need to learn when to keep pushing and when to step back and reassess, or perhaps leave that tricky step for tomorrow. Learning how to look after yourself physically, nutritionally, mentally and emotionally is the soundest base from which you can leap from and enjoy the amazing career ahead.
Watch, listen, learn all around you! Enjoy watching as many rehearsals and performances as you can, you never stop learning and we pass the art and stage craft of ballet on to one another. Try to work out what it is that you like about certain performers or someone’s artistry and start thinking about how you could put that in to your class work, not just your performances. Then it becomes second nature on stage.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were a student thinking about a career in ballet?
Not to worry so much! Stop for a moment every day to realise how far you have come, the fruits of all your hard work, and to enjoy your dancing. Working smart is so important but when you watch someone on stage totally enthralled in what they’re doing, it’s so exciting and such a revelation sometimes that dancing is to be enjoyed by us and our audiences! Try to keep cultivating your love of the art form through all the striving to be better and how much you love how it feels to dance, as much as what you’re looking at in the mirror. It’s hard not to watch someone beaming from within when they are dancing.
The professional ballet career is such a rollercoaster of phases, opportunities, setbacks, highs and lows and all the emotions that come with them. It is often a shock that company life can be more mundane, slow, frustrating, and exhausting than what you have imagined. Patience is so important, no phase lasts forever and there will be something wonderful in the next season to look forward to so make sure you’re ready for it! Dancing with your friends and colleagues on stage is also such a special experience and something to really treasure.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
People seem to think I’m quite extroverted by nature (I don’t necessarily agree!) and I am quite a positive person day to day so it’s often a misconception that I’m really confident in what I do. I think a lot of it has to do with having quite a strong, athletic build and the sorts of roles that lends to are often the strong, robust characters or the really fast soubrette sorts of roles. Every day, I have to work on my mental chatter or dialogue in my head to overcome these doubts and insecurities. Often, I have to go back to remembering what makes me “me” and that I can bring something unique to each role that is just as valuable as another dancer. Being brave enough to just give something a go is usually a great jumping off point (sometimes literally!) and at many times in my career, has opened up and led to far more opportunities then being scared to do something wrong. Be brave enough to take a risk, you will always learn from the experience.
What are your aspirations for your post dancing life?
Dancing has given me so much joy since I started when I was 3 years old and so very naturally I would like to give back in my own way to the art form and the community that has given me so much. I’m still meandering through ideas of what that might look like – I have a keen interest in nutrition and well-being in dancers and that is an area I might pursue further study or involvement in the future. I think it’s so wonderful that dancers are looking much more holistically at how to achieve their goals and enjoy this incredible career and I would always welcome a chance to be a part of that cultural shift. Whenever I do hang up my ballet shoes, after so many years performing and touring, I do look forward to spending more time with my family. There’s nothing like it.