What is your current profession?
I am a classical ballet dancer with Vienna State Opera Ballet
What has your career path been so far?
I was born in South Africa, and began dance classes at 4 years of age. For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a ballerina, however, I began more serious training after my family moved to the UK. At 13 I was offered a place at the Royal Ballet School, where I spent the next 6 years. Those 6 years saw me go through many ups and downs, but I’m so grateful for everything that experience taught me. I was offered a contract with Vienna State ballet at 19 years of age, where I remain today. I absolutely love living in Vienna, as much I am usually drawn to warm climates such as the South African one of my childhood, there’s just something about Vienna. I did return to the UK for an extended period of time following my first season, in order to rehabilitate a serious injury, but after returning to Vienna post rehab it really has become my home. I have been here for almost 7 years now!
Do you have a favourite quote/poem/piece of art, if so could you share it?
“Trust the timing of your life”
After my surgery, I kept a notebook of inspiring quotes. The notebook really helped me through so many tough moments in both my return to ballet and beyond. This quote was in that book and is a great reminder to not stress so much and just trust that everything happens at the right time. If I look back, I realise everything has always kind of fallen into place; maybe not in the way that I expected things to, but it did in the end things worked out.
I also love “It always seems impossible until it’s done”- Nelson Mandela
What were your first 2 thoughts when you got injured?
At first I was in complete denial. To give some back story, I was in Swan Lake rehearsal sitting in the famous pose where you’re kneeling on your knee/ankle, and all of a sudden after standing back up, I couldn’t walk. I legitimately couldn’t put weight on my left leg. I was very lucky and had never been injured before, so this moment was seriously terrifying. After around 15 minutes the pain just went away, so I thought I was fine and started preparing for that night’s show. I didn’t end up dancing that night but was somehow convincing myself that it would all be fixed soon, I kept telling the company it would just be another week and so on. After scans and visits to two different doctors it became abundantly clear that this was bigger than I thought and surgery would be required. I barely remember my first thought when I was sitting in the doctor’s office and heard the word surgery, I was just in complete shock, it was that feeling when all the blood seems to drain from your head. I couldn’t really feel anything, I just started to cry. In some ways, no thoughts were the first thoughts, and then suddenly I went into panic mode. Then came autopilot of thinking, ‘Who do I know who can help? Obviously I need to go back home and for the surgery, who can I contact? What resources do I need? Etc’. I think having a good doctor who you trust is paramount, the one I had seen was a long time supporter of the ballet, and he was so helpful. He said ‘you’re young, and I want to see you on stage again, so this is my advice to you. This is your best option’. He also said, ‘usually dancers come back stronger’. That was a huge motivator for me, I just had in the back of my head the whole time, ‘I’m going to come back stronger’.
What is the biggest intention fueling your work as ‘not a bunhead’?
I simply want to hold space for open and honest conversations. In a way I also want to humanise dancers. Sometimes ballet dancers are seen as though they are in a special buble that normal rules don’t apply to, e.g athletes have a very different approach and support network for injury than what dancers are usually presented with. I’m not saying being a bunhead is a bad thing, I just feel like it’s been used to symbolize or describe some mentalities that aren’t always helpful. It can feel like we’re not human beings anymore. Being a ‘bunhead’ sometimes makes it feel like different rules apply to us. Like I said with my recovery, why are dancers not being given the same advice as the science for sports is showing? Why are we lacking support for the whole mental side of it? Why are dancers starving themselves to reach some kind of ‘ideal’ that does not actually exist. With my ‘not a bunhead’ page, I wanted to talk about the topics that are bothering people and that maybe are hindering dancers, and maybe cutting their career short or leaving them with lifelong psychological problems. I don’t want to put a negative spin on everything but I feel that there are a lot of things that should be talked about. We should also talk about how we can change those things. I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to change the current directors mentalities; for example we can talk about things as much as we want, we can say, ‘yeah but body positivity blah blah blah’, we could talk about better health care or whatever, but things may not change as much as we would like at the moment. We are the future though, we will become the directors or the ballet masters. We should start talking about it now, and if we’re creating a better energy now, hopefully that will spread out and improve things in the future.
What values have been the driving force in your career?
I am a perfectionist and real self critic, which has been both a help and hindrance. I do feel that when used in a healthy manner, these aspects of my personality have helped me alot. Something in my life that I place great value on is my private time and ability to sit with myself. Giving myself this time and space to soul search allows me to deliver my creative work to my best capacity. I’m still finding the balance with perfectionism in my life and not letting it push me past my limits, and that is really challenging but important work for me.
Do you have a morning routine?
I don’t have a super regimented routine, but I do recognise the importance of taking time to chill in the morning. After I’ve fed my dog and made my coffee, I love to spend time reading or listening to a podcast. In the summer I sit on my balcony and drink my coffee. I also love to put on music whilst I get ready and have a bit of a sing and boogie.
What is one thing you do when striving for a holistic approach to life?
I really struggled when I began meditating and had to force myself to stick with it, but I love it now. I look forward to my daily meditation and taking anywhere from 15-30 mins to check in with myself and see what I need in that moment.
What’s the biggest challenge you see facing the arts community today?
I think that in general, lack of funding is a huge issue. I also think the lack of education around the arts contributes to the lack of appreciation the artistic community sometimes comes up against. I’m not saying everyone needs to pursue artistic endeavours, but I do feel immersion in arts during childhood would be beneficial to everyone. I feel very lucky to be in Austria which still places huge cultural importance on the artistic landscape, however, I haven’t found that to be the case everywhere.
Can you speak to your experience of strength training?
I’ve always enjoyed going to the gym, but often felt like I had no idea what I was doing; that all changed during my surgery rehabilitation. Part of my rehab program was weight lifting based e.g deadlifts, squats, RDL’s etc. My trainers were amazing and really took the time to explain the science behind it all. I became addicted to that way of training! I could feel the benefits straight away, and quickly learnt that people saying weight lifting will make you bulk up is a complete myth. As long as you are training the right way then you are doing yourself a world of good with strength training. I was so surprised by how ready my muscles felt for ballet during my first class back after 10 months off where I had only been doing gym based movement. Continuing strength training after returning ballet has been such a great decision, my turns , jumps, strength, stability, ability to adapt to new movements, and so much more has truly improved thanks to my work in the gym.
What perceived ‘failure’ has turned into your most helpful lesson on your journey thus far?
When I was 15 I had to audition for the upper school of the Royal Ballet School. Due to already being in the lower school, I could either get a yes or a maybe. I ended up getting a maybe, which required me to go to a second audition. I remember being told it looked like I had lost my ‘spark’ and I wasn’t the same as they had seen in me in the past, which was why they weren’t sure about me anymore. I took some time to sit with myself and get some practice with other auditions. I realised that my complete anxiety and desire to be accepted was giving off the total wrong energy and taking away from my artistry which was something I had always been known for. I went into the second audition so much more relaxed than the first and ended up being accepted to upper school. This is a lesson I’ve had to remind myself over and over, but this experience really helped me see the desperation for the dream and anxiety surrounding that was only hindering me.
Have you ever experienced any fear around the vulnerability you show on IG? If so, what has proven ‘bigger’ than this fear?
I’m not that scared any more, but it definitely made me nervous at the beginning. Lockdown really gave me a chance to address my own mental patterns and doing so helped my dancing so much, I wanted to share these self findings because #sharingiscaring and that’s where ‘not a bunhead’ came in. I also find it quite therapeutic as often things I post are things I’m needing to hear in that moment myself. I believe vulnerability is such a brave thing to practice and I love that my blog and instagram give me space to cultivate this. There are so many social stigmas around topics such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, pre show nerves etc. and my want to open conversations around these things feels so much more important than my own fears surrounding vulnerability.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, so if you could scribe one word to use as your weapon in life what would it be?
I had this word engraved on a ring that I wear every day, it’s my favourite word! Sometimes the whirlwind of thoughts inside my head take over and in those times this word brings me back to my center.
In what ways would you like to see readers’ minds expand with this interview?
Remember to be curious about things outside the dance world, this will only expand your inspiration. I receive so much inspiration from friends in so many different fields such as lawyers and techno DJs; seeing their passion and how they relate to the world is so eye opening for me. I also encourage people to never underestimate the power of time in nature, it really can reboot your energy.
You can find Suzan on IG @not.a.bunhead or email her via email@example.com
Pic Credit: Petra Sittig