Soloist Dancer, Los Angeles Ballet
By Nicole Torres AB '11
Elizabeth C. Walker AB '11 was first exposed to ballet in the way many young girls are—she took ballet classes as one of the various activities her parents had her explore growing up. Her older sister was taking ballet, and like any younger sibling, she too begged to be placed in a ballet class. She recalls, “I started creative movement at three; it's what they put preschool-age kids in. You'll do some ballet, but it's not formal ballet class. It's skipping in a circle and pretending you're a fairy. So it was one of my activities that I did once or twice a week growing up.”
Although Elizabeth connected with and enjoyed ballet early on, it was not until she was thirteen that she really began to take the possibility of a professional career more seriously. The turning point was an experience she had with her mom.
“I remember going to see a New York City Ballet performance with my mom; that was the company she always took us to. We would [usually] go to The Nutcracker, but we went to see something that wasn't The Nutcracker—it was much more modern pieces. I had never seen dancers moving that way, and I really loved it and wondered, so how do you become one of those people?"
While to the rest of the world, turning thirteen marks just the beginning of one’s life and possibilities, in the ballet world, thirteen is considered late to begin considering a pre-professional dance career. Undeterred, Elizabeth was determined to get the training necessary to prepare her for a professional ballet career. At the time, her family was living in Connecticut, where she began a more rigorous foundational training program. She continued this program throughout middle school and her early high school years.
Then, during her final two years of high school, she attended what she calls “finishing school for ballet” at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theater. She explains, “You have all the basics, you're able to do everything, but you really refine what you're able to do and they prepare you for going into a company.” Some young ballet hopefuls will attend a school that combines ballet and academics into one, but for Elizabeth, they remained separate. Therefore, her final years of high school consisted of extensive commuting between Connecticut and New York, balancing her ballet training with her schoolwork; she often did her homework on the long train rides home.
By senior year, it was time to start going on auditions. “In the winter and spring, ballet companies usually do all of their auditions," explains Elizabeth. "Most of them come to New York, or at least they used to, and they do a big cattle call audition, so I did a lot of those. Most of them, I made it to the end. And others—I think, two or three—I was cut, but then nothing was panning out.”
Throughout this time, Elizabeth had also been applying to colleges. Her parents especially wanted her to attend college, as they were concerned about the stability of a ballet career and the risk of injury. Elizabeth was sure that she wanted a college education, but was not entirely sure that it would be a traditional one. Many dancers chip away at their degrees over the years during time off from dancing, and she envisioned that might also be her path.
Elizabeth applied early action to Harvard College and found out soon after that she had been accepted. It was an incredibly exciting and proud moment for both herself and her family, and an opportunity too great to pass up. However, Elizabeth was not yet ready to give up on ballet. She continued to attend auditions, and in June before what would be her freshman year at Harvard, the Los Angeles Ballet (LAB) came to New York.
This time, things felt different.
“Finally, I got a really good vibe," she recounts. "A couple days later, they called me and offered me a spot.”
This was fantastic news, but she had a bit of a dilemma: she had already accepted Harvard’s offer. Elizabeth did not want to turn either opportunity down, but ballet was her dream. She requested a deferral from Harvard, which the University granted, and that fall, she was off to Los Angeles (pictured to the left with the LAB Ensemble, photo by Reed Hutchinson/LAB).
Unfortunately, misfortune struck that summer when Elizabeth tore a ligament in her foot while performing in New York. She still started her year with the LAB, but her injury slowed her down. Over time, her injury improved and she was able to perform by the end of the year and conclude the season on a strong note.
With her summers off, and at her parents’ insistence, Elizabeth elected to use that first summer to take classes at Harvard summer school. She loved the experience, and while there, she learned some useful information.
“Someone told me that summer that if you just went for a semester, you could defer indefinitely. So I decided at the end of that summer, I'm going to [attend Harvard just] for the first semester and then go back [to Los Angeles]. I got permission from my [LAB] directors; they said, 'Great, we'll see you in the spring.' But then that same injury starting nagging me in December, and also it was freshman year—it was such an awesome time. So I ended up staying at Harvard.”
The reality was, Elizabeth's foot was not healing and she needed to give herself time to recover. Furthermore, she had begun her undergraduate life at Harvard and truly enjoyed her time on campus. She concentrated in History of Art and Architecture and was very involved in the Harvard Ballet Company (HBC). Her involvement in HBC was a great opportunity not only to continue dancing, but also to experience another side of the ballet world.
Elizabeth states, “During my sophomore and junior years, I was co-president of the HBC. We ran all aspects of putting on a production: casting, auditions, loading into the theater, hanging the lights, fundraising—it was very involved.”
By the fall of her junior year, Elizabeth's foot had healed and she began to think about giving full-time ballet another go. Someone had informed her the LAB needed additional dancers for an upcoming repertory, and she reached out to her old bosses. They did in fact need her within the month, so she took junior spring off to return to Los Angeles. The LAB loved her work and asked her to stay on for the following season. However, Elizabeth was so close to completing her AB that she chose instead to return to Harvard and finish out her senior year. In doing so, she gave up any guarantee that she could return to the LAB upon graduation.
Senior year, Elizabeth dedicated herself to preparing to re-enter the ballet world. In addition to HBC, throughout college, Elizabeth took courses at the Jose Mateo Ballet Theater in Harvard Square. She fondly recalls, “It's in the old Cambridge Baptist Church, a beautiful stone church with huge ceilings and stained glass windows. They set up studios in there.” At first, she would only attend class from time to time as she healed, but by senior year, Elizabeth was taking courses every day. “Every morning, [Jose Mateo] would have a 10:30 AM class, so I would take that, and then my academic classes had to start from 12:00 PM onwards.”
Since there was no guarantee she would be able to return to the LAB, Elizabeth spent her senior spring attending numerous auditions. She states, “There were some months I was in New York almost every weekend.” Fortunately, LAB extended her an offer and she was back to dancing professionally on the west coast that fall.
Then, almost as if fate wanted the last laugh, Elizabeth injured herself again in February 2012. It was the same injury as before—but much worse this time, requiring surgery. The ligament she tore was essentially the ACL of the foot, and her surgeon informed her that in many cases, this could be a career-ending injury.
Elizabeth remembers how challenging the recovery process was: “I had a ton of doubts because I had to basically learn how to walk again. My whole right leg was shriveled up, totally atrophied. So it was like, 'How am I going to put shoes on and jump when I can barely put one foot in front of the other?' I was definitely depressed and knew that I had to wait it out and go through the whole process of seeing if I could [dance again]. But it felt like a 20 percent chance of success. It was really touch and go.
"When I first performed on pointe again, it was during The Nutcracker of the following December. The curtain was about to rise in the second act, and my [dance] partner turned to me and held my hands, and I just started tearing up. Now, looking back from where I've been able to climb from there, I would have never guessed when I was crutching around in that cast that I would be able to do some of the things I've done since.”
It was a nine-month road from the time Elizabeth was injured until she was able to perform again, and then another two years before she was able to return to her complete pre-injury strength. But her recovery and continued success since then is truly inspirational. This year marks Elizabeth's seventh season with the Los Angeles Ballet, and just last year, she was promoted to the rank of soloist dancer (photo by Reed Hutchinson/LAB).
So what is a day like in the life of a soloist? On a typical week, rehearsals run from 9 AM to 4 PM with a break for lunch, Monday through Friday, and sometimes Saturday. Show weeks are even more intensive, with rehearsals Sunday through Saturday. On top of it all, Elizabeth will then head to her second job teaching ballet classes or gyrotonics after rehearsals, since many dancers find it necessary to supplement their salaries, particularly during the off-season, or layoff, weeks.
It is grueling work, but what motivates her day after day is her passion for performing and the rehearsal process. Elizabeth explains, “I love performing, but the more I'm in my career, just the process of going in every day and working and getting those small improvements, things that you weren't able to do as well the day before, even now twelve years into my career. I think the process of always having something new and fresh that you're working on is my favorite.”
The life of a ballerina is no easy feat, but Elizabeth's passion and love for her art are apparent in her performances. As for the rest of us, when we attend a ballet performance, we can sit back and enjoy the fruits of the dancers' labor, made all the more special by the knowledge of what it takes for them to get to that stage.
Since the writing of this article, Elizabeth is no longer with the Los Angeles Ballet. Stay tuned to find out what she’ll be up to next!