Interviews With People Who Have Interesting or Unusual Jobs
We’re always looking for people with interesting or unusual jobs. If you fall into one of these categories, or know someone who does, please e-mail us at email@example.com.
Ellen Bar, Ballerina.
Q: How did you become a ballerina?
A: My mom was a dancer and a teacher. First she put my sister in ballet, but my sister was very outspoken and bratty. So then they tried me, and I guess I am quieter and more willing to take direction. I did it for a few years before I realized I liked it, though.
Q: At what age did you start?
A: I was 8 years old. I would leave elementary school early, around noon, and my parents would drive me to New York. Eventually, I had no social life at home and my whole world was in New York, so loving dancing might have come last.
Q: Where did you learn ballet?
A: At the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center.
Q: How hard is it to get into?
A: When you’re young it’s easy, because they’re just looking for bodies. I auditioned when I was 8 with an old legendary Russian teacher, Madame Tumkovsky, who actually just died this spring.
I remember it vividly. I could understand Russian—I was born in America but my family came from Russia. She picked up my leg and I heard her say, “No arch!”—which is like death to a dancer. She didn’t know that I understood what she said. After that I cried … But, needless to say, I got in.
Q: Do you remember when you first started taking classes?
A: Yes. I was deathly scared. The teacher was like a watchful grandmother. It was the kind of thing where you had to work hard to earn her praise.
Q: When do you start wearing the special shoes?
A: You’re 11 or 12 before you’re en pointe.
Q: How many pairs do you have now?
A: As a pro, I go through one or two pairs a day. Our company provides them. They’re about $60 a pair and you go through them fast. Our company has the biggest endowment of any company—we have a budget of something like half a million dollars a year for shoes.
Q: So what did they teach you when you first started learning?
A: The old Russian teachers taught standard, classical ballet. You start doing very basic stuff. There are lots of different styles: American, Italian, Russian. At Lincoln Center we do Balanchine. Balanchine was the founder of the New York City Ballet—he revolutionized American dance.
Q: So you started taking classes when you were 8. When does it get more serious?
A: In high school, we had classes in the middle of the day. By 14 or 15 you have to make a choice. Am I serious about this? And I was full steam ahead by that point. I moved into dorms above Juilliard; we shared dorms with them. I went to an alternative public high school in New York. A lot of kids were from around the nation.
I graduated from high school when I was 16. That was just a couple of months before I went into the company.
Q: How old are you now?
Q: How do you get into the company?
A: From each class, only a couple of people get in. The others go on to other companies or they just don’t get a job. My year, only three got in.
The director comes and tells you, “Congratulations, you’re an apprentice.” The first year is tough—you get paid by the hour and they can fire you easily, you only perform in the worst parts of the ballets, they scrutinize your attitude, see if you’re lazy … So I did that for a year.
Now I’m a soloist. I do on average two or three performances a week. You get paid even if you’re injured, which is really important for a dancer.
The company does seven performances a week November through March. Six weeks of The Nutcracker and eight weeks repertory, which is 25 different ballets that are rearranged so that we’re doing four new ballets each week. We have the biggest repertory in the world.
Q: How many people are in the company?
A: Ninety dancers, a whole lot of staff, and the orchestra.
Q: Are you sick of The Nutcracker?
A: Who isn’t? I was actually in the Nutcracker movie as a kid performer.
Q: Did you meet Macaulay Culkin?
A: Yeah, I had actually known him before the film, from performing with him in the stage Nutcracker. He brought Michael Jackson backstage once, so I got to meet him.
Q: How did Michael Jackson look?
A: It was 1989—so Michael looked a little more like Michael back then.
Q: How do you know what your work hours will be each week?
A: We get the schedule the night before, get casting a week before. Generally, we have class from 10:30 to 12 and rehearsal from 12 to 6. You could have five hours of rehearsal or half an hour or none—it just depends.
Q: Have you fallen?
A: So many times.
My biggest mistake was probably during Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was a night fog scene and I was supposed to do these hard turns for 30 counts. We rehearsed with the piano and not with the orchestra, and I came out 30 counts early. I leapt off the stage when I realized I was supposed to be going on at that moment. The stage was empty. I stood in the wing and someone said, “Get out there!” So I went out and started jumping in the least-used area of the stage. I was so mortified. I was crying but my bosses were laughing so hard.
Q: Would anyone in the audience have known you messed up?
A: A certain amount of the audience would know. There are people out there who blog about the shows.
I’ve kicked my shoe off. It was in Swan Lake and I had to do a Spanish dance in heels and I ended up doing the dance with one heel on and one heel off. The whole shoe flew off and sailed into the wing. A couple people walked off the stage they were laughing so hard.
Q: It sounds like it’s not as scary as people might think, if your bosses were laughing? A: We’re all serious, but a lot of the people I’ve known since I was 15, so they’ve been my closest friends for 10 years. You get to be very comfortable with people. My best friends are in the company with me.
Q: How long do you think you’ll do this?
A: Our career is shot by 35 or 40. And these days people quit younger than they used to.
Q: Do you have plans for when you retire?
A: I think I’d like to do something involved with the arts. I like writing and talking about dance. It feels like our audience is disappearing, and I’d like to do something to get new audiences.
SUGGESTED READSList: My Ballet Teacher’s Increasingly Threatening Metaphors for Lifting the Pelvic Floor
by Amy Schleunes (10/21/2011)
Dispatches From the Wings at the Ballet: Dispatch 1: I Lie Down and Dream a Dream: Joining the Sylphs and Dryads in American Ballet Theatre’s Wooded Glade
by Rob Jacklosky (5/4/2009)
Dispatches From the Wings at the Ballet: Dispatch 2: Watching My Steps
by Rob Jacklosky (5/11/2009)
RECENTLYFundraising Ideas Rejected by McSweeney’s in Favor of Kickstarter
by Mike Lacher (5/4/2015)
List: Crowdfunding Pages of Famous Musical Theater Characters
by Tyler Gillespie (5/4/2015)
Teddy Wayne’s Unpopular Proverbs: Philanthropy
by Teddy Wayne (5/4/2015)