Canadian Built: Clare Peterson & Calley Skalnik

Written by Amanda Schroeder

Toronto is a city full of creatives, all dedicated to their art and how it can impact the community. Ballet is an art form that has dominated the performing arts world for centuries, allowing the precision and fluidity in each movement to capture the spectator from first step to last. The National Ballet of Canada was established in 1951 and has been a pivotal centre for the arts. I had the opportunity to sit down with two talented ballerinas to discuss their passion for dance and art. After being introduced to dance at a young age, they have both refined their skills and dedicated their careers to their art. Having trained at Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto prior to pursuing full-time careers with the company. Clare Peterson is an Apprentice and Calley Skalnik is Corps de Ballet at the National Ballet of Canada. 

What does passion/chasing your passion mean to you?

CP: Passion to me means that you want to work hard at something and feel a responsibility to share that with other people. By sharing your passion you are expressing that what you feel is important and could be applicable to someone else's life.  Pursuing ballet fulfills me and I want to share that with other people because I think it would touch them and have an impact on their lives.

CS: I think it’s how you translate your passion practically; it's about how you channel it into your work. It's about discovering and deciding what to do with your love for the art form, because you can be passionate about dance but never take it anywhere. Depending on what roles you're given throughout your career, there will be certain ones which you are more passionate about because you can identify with it and you’ll take it and run with it. There are other times that you’re given choreography that may not suit you or be your style you’re like blah. It's about knowing that you love dance and finding how you can put your passion into those roles that you don’t identify with or relate to so well. Once you can do that you’re fulfilled in your role as a dancer. Being passionate about ballet means it is an art form I can’t keep to myself, I can't contain it or be still without knowing that my art is having an impact.

What does the lifecycle of a ballerina look like from when you start to when you finish?

CP: It really depends on the dancer, it can be a really personal journey as far as what you do and how long you dance for. Some people can dance until their mid forties and others will get injured or pursue another career earlier on.  The timeline for dancers is an individual one. Most people start dancing ballet around ages 5-10 and it gets serious between ages 12-14.

CS: Once you’re 12 to 14 the girls are in pointe shoes. Once you start doing pointe work you are putting in more hours and it's hard and it hurts and you know you’re serious when you start going into that. Up until that point dance, can be more of a hobby.

CP: Usually from 18 to early 20’s people audition for professional companies all over the world. Once you are accepted into a company you’re considered a professional ballet dancer. Some people will dance with one company and move up the ranks; whereas others will work at various companies depending on where they want to live, who they want to work with or what repertoire they are interested in.

How do you measure your success in the arts?

CP: I think it is difficult in the arts to measure success because art is subjective.  You could perform for someone and they might think it’s the best thing they've ever seen but someone else in the audience may not like it at all.  I think your success has to come from within because you can’t always rely on other people to validate that you’re doing well. Personally, working hard and doing what I love everyday is satisfying and to me that’s success. I relish in seeing improvement in my dancing and giving everything I have to an audience in a performance.  If I have done that then it was a success in my eyes.

CS: You can’t be waiting for affirmations. For me it’s the understanding the reasoning behind what you’re doing, why you’re dedicating so much of your life and your time and your energy to your art, because not everyone will appreciate it. It's not for everyone but once you realize and understand that what you’re doing is making a difference in some way, that’s success. You are successful if you channel your passion into your art and use it to communicate effectively. Changing, influencing, or impacting even a single person's ideas by sharing a piece of yourself is success. Being able to relate to people through something you love so much and work so hard at is fulfilling for both yourself and the audience.   

Have you ever second-guessed the path you chose?

CP: I think everyone goes through phases where they are unsure if the path they have chosen is the right one. I’ve struggled a lot with injury and sometimes people take injury as a sign that they should stop dancing. That’s happened a few times to me but I’ve kept going because its my passion. When I first started auditioning for ballet companies I came back after a month of traveling with no job offers, everyone had said I was too weak and needed more time.  A few months later out of the blue I was approached by the National Ballet of Canada.  They had seen my improvement since my initial audition and wanted to offer me a contract as a apprentice. Its easy to second guess the path you have chosen when your timeline of how you think your career should go is not lining up with reality. I learnt from this experience that you cant always focus on your timeline, that if you keep working at your passion opportunities will come your way in their own time.

CS: You have to put yourself out there to be seen, you can't give up on yourself. You have to make connections and prove to yourself and other people that what you want is achievable. There isn't an ultimate goal or specific position that you are aiming to achieve. I'm passionate about ballet because it is a continual journey. As a dancer, you're getting new roles and doing new things but you’re not necessarily moving up the corporate ladder. You’re not becoming CEO and then you’ve made it, you have to love everyday. You have to love the constant work and the change and the struggle. I've definitely entertained the idea of doing something else, pondered other paths and thought about what my life would have been like if I hadn't sacrificed so much time and energy to ballet, but as soon as I'm dancing onstage or in the studio there’s nothing else I would rather do. I can't imagine my life without dance, it just fulfills me. 

What advice would you give to someone looking to chase their passion but worried they aren’t able to because it doesn’t follow a traditional path?

CP: I think that they should just go for it because in the end if its something that you want and you are passionate about it’ll happen if you work hard.

CS: I think you have to come at things from different angles and know that even if someone else has done it one way does not mean it will work out the same for you. But keep going for it in different ways. Say dance for example, you might try to become a ballerina but that’s not right for you or your body or you’re not entirely passionate about it. There are so many other genres of dance or things that you can use your talents for that still contribute to ballet. Be creative and don't give up on yourself.

CP: Also just keep trying, everyone’s timeline is different and you cannot compare other peoples journey to your own.  Every time I've set myself up with a timeline and said if I check all these boxes I will achieve this it hasn’t worked out the way I planned. Instead something else has happened but it actually opened another door to make me happier. It's good to take a step back when things aren’t working out the way you wanted. Give yourself time and have patience and it will work itself out, just not in the way you thought.

CS: If its what you love you’ll find another way or another time to make it possible. Because Clare’s right, there is no timeline that you go along and check the boxes and then reach your end goal. It doesn’t work like that because everyone’s different. You just have to be patient and persistent in your own path. Just keep working at it because there will be many barriers along the way.

CP: A lot of it is luck and timing. I’ve seen amazing dancers not succeed because they’ve given up early. Some of the most successful dancers were the ones who were underestimated, but they kept working hard and pursuing their passion and went further than anyone ever expected.

CS: You can’t hold yourself to someone else’s timeline or standards or what they’ve done. There’s no “once I’m 16 and can turn 5 times or jump this high by the time I’m 20 or do this role...” it doesn’t work like that. You have to keep at it in your own timing.

Identifying your passion can sometimes be a difficult task, for Clare and Calley it is a question that is easily answered. Most people don’t get to chase their passion on a daily basis, often hindered by busy schedules, with only small windows to enjoy what they truly love. These girls have created a life where they are able to do the opposite, filling their days with innovation through dance. Ballet is a demanding art that is not easily mastered; however through dedication, practice, and refining your craft the rewards are incomparable. Their passion for their art is all consuming, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Images 1,2,4 by Karolina Kuras