A ballet career, earned through college and cattle-calls
“It’s so brutal,” Elizabeth Claire Walker ’11 says of ballet, the art form she loves. The dancer isn’t just talking about the daily classes and rehearsals, the aches and pains, and the wrenching pursuit of impossible physical ideals. She’s talking about the daunting, ever-replenishing ranks of young talent competing for limited jobs. “You have to be really lucky,” she says, “and you have to never stop working, and never give up, and not get hurt, and also develop your personality as a dancer. There’s always someone to replace you, so you have to have no ego but also be very confident. It’s a tricky thing.”
Still, during a recent rehearsal, Walker radiated contentment. In a warm, sunny studio, she and the rest of Los Angeles Ballet’s corps de ballet were learning the finale to George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Its tempo was quick, the counts long and complex, but Walker remained unruffled. In ballets like this one, dependent on an impeccable corps, she dances for herself and her own commitment to her art, but also for the sake of the whole: for the other dancers who move with her in precise, shifting formations across the stage, to realize the choreographer’s vision and dazzle the audience. During breaks, other dancers sought her out for help, counting and gesturing through the phrases they’d just learned, double-checking the movements. Like almost all ballet dancers, she is slight but very strong, with spectacular posture. Her technique is crisp, her presence alert yet serene. She smiles as she dances. “I feel like I’ve had it almost taken away so many times that I’m just astounded with the fact that I’m still able to keep going,” she says.
Walker’s path has been uncertain, and unusual for a professional dancer. A native of New York City, she studied at American Ballet Theatre’s elite Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School as a teenager. Her senior year of high school—even after she’d been accepted to Harvard—was spent attending massive cattle-call auditions for professional companies. Just when she was about to give up, she spotted a notice for Los Angeles Ballet, a new company with impressively pedigreed artistic directors. The audition happened on a rainy day, she remembers; her mother encouraged her to go. “She said I’d regret it if I didn’t. I was sewing pointe shoes in the car.” A week later, she got the call.
Walker deferred college and headed west. Both city and company proved to be good fits, but an experimental summer-school stint in Cambridge in 2007 made Walker fall in love with Harvard, too. She decided to put her career on hold. While earning her degree in the history of art and architecture, she squeezed in classes at José Mateo Ballet Theatre in Harvard Square and kept up a heavy involvement in the Harvard Ballet Company, even though she was plagued by a ligament she’d torn in her foot back in her JKO School days. Though she always felt the pull of ballet, she says, “I wasn’t sure if it was a possibility for me. I wasn’t sure if my body was going to be able to handle it.”
In her junior spring, mostly healed, she took a leave to dance a two-month contract with Los Angeles Ballet. After graduation she endured yet another cattle-call audition before being taken back into the company full time. During her second season, in class on Valentine’s Day 2012, disaster struck. “I was doing soutenus, the simplest step you could do,” she says, of a turn performed by extending one leg and bringing the other to meet it, “and somehow my foot slipped, and all my weight was on it in a twisted way over the pointe shoe, and I felt it go.” She had torn the same ligament as before, this time severely enough to require surgery. For four months, she couldn’t put any weight on the foot. Her recovery was grueling: “I had to teach myself to dance again, basically,” she says. “That was a really, really low point for me.”
Even for the luckiest dancers, careers are relatively fleeting; the fragility of the body, pushed to extremes, is part of ballet’s allure and its heartbreak. As the curtain rose for the following year’s Nutcracker, Walker found herself tearing up, overwhelmed. “I wasn’t sure it was going to happen,” she says.
Now in her sixth season with Los Angeles Ballet, Walker has danced a wide range of roles; her favorites include the Dark Angel in Balanchine’s Serenade, Desdemona in Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane, and Arabian in The Nutcracker. She has also avoided major injury since her surgery, although, at 28, she has begun considering what she will do after she retires. She used to think she would seek out an entirely distinct second career, but now she is increasingly intrigued by the prospect of contributing to the survival of American ballet. “The longer I’m in this world, the more I realize what a special thing ballet is and how much it’s struggling,” she says. “The business model is not ideal. It’s just so hard for these incredible companies to keep going. I’d love to somehow make an impact.”
For now, she dances. “I’m going to keep doing it until I can’t anymore or until it doesn’t make sense to anymore,” she says. Back in the studio, Stravinsky Violin Concerto took shape with amazing quickness. Walker, in black tights and diaphanous green skirt, darted and turned and leapt. After an hour, the dancers had mastered Balanchine’s clockwork choreography. The company would not revisit the piece for six months, until final rehearsals for the performance, but when the time came, Walker would remember the steps.
Is she glad she took time away from ballet? Walker’s characteristic gratitude is tempered by what-ifs. “Some days I’m frustrated, because you never know if you’d be farther along in your career if this or that hadn’t happened,” she says. But she wouldn’t give up what she learned, or the people she met, while at Harvard. “With time lost from that and time lost from the injury, I think I appreciate everything I get to do a lot more,” she continues. “I feel like I’ve earned the things that I do.”
Maggie Shipstead ’05 is the author of Seating Arrangements and a second novel, Astonish Me, about ballet.