Welcome back to Pointe of view. For today’s post/episode, I’m excited to sit down with one of our company dancers Grace Anli. This is Grace’s seventh season with the Alabama Ballet, and you’ve seen her on stage in principal roles in Giselle, Coppelia, and Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® as well as roles including Twyla Tharp’s In The Upper Room, Jiri Kylian’s Sechs Tanze and Don Quixote. Join me as we chat with Grace and get to know her and her pointe of view.
Ashlyn: Hi Grace, thanks for joining me today. I appreciate you taking time out of your busy Nutcracker rehearsal schedule to sit down with me. I know Nutcracker season’s here, so that keeps you awfully busy.
Grace: It does. Definitely it does.
Ashlyn: Let’s start by giving everyone a brief background on your training and how you came to be here at the Alabama Ballet.
Grace: Okay. So I actually started ballet when I was three. My mom at the time had my older sister at some dance school and she took me to that dance school for a class, and after the class, she asked me, “How did you like it?” I said, “It’s terrible.” I said, “The kids were running around, they were laughing, they were having way too much fun. This is not the real thing.” So she was like, “Oh, okay.” She said, “Well, I heard that there’s this dance school on the other side of town that’s supposed to be super, super straight and makes people cry all the time.” She said, “Do you want to go over there?” I said, “Yes.”
So I went there and took a class, fell in love. So I trained at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet from the age of three until I was 17. It was intense for sure.
Ashlyn: You liked the structure then.
Grace: I did. I just responded really well to the structure, the discipline and the schedule.
Ashlyn: So on any given day, if someone were to go through your dance bag, what would they find?
Grace: It changes a lot. Right now they would find obviously pointe shoes, toe pads, the normal things you’d find in a dancers’ bag. I have some heating pads, because I’m getting older and everything is starting to hurt. I have an extra hard tennis ball and lacrosse ball to try to roll out my muscles, and I’ve also been carrying some compression socks and some compression cast leaves to try to help with my muscles, and just trying to be smart and survive through the Nutcracker season.
Ashlyn: What is a day in the life like for you as a professional dancer?
Grace: That changes. It depends on what we’re doing and how much I’m doing within the production. Right now obviously with it being Nutcracker, it’s a lot longer. So, I will come here around 9 o’clock, 9:30, put my hair up. I’ll start using my heat pad and rolling out, trying to get my body warm, I’ll take class from about 10:00 to 11:45, then I’ll have rehearsals with the company from 12:00 to 5:00, and then usually I’ll have rehearsals with the community cast from about 5:00 to 8:00, and then also I have rehearsals on Saturday with the community cast from about 11:00 to 4:00 or 5:00.
Ashlyn: That’s a long day.
Grace: It’s a lot of Nutcracker, you know…
Ashlyn: Do you have any favorite snacks or foods to keep with you throughout the day while you’re in the studio or outside of the studio?
Grace: Right now, I’ve really been loving– so I’ll go to fresh market and, I get their fresh ground peanut butter but then I discovered these dehydrated cinnamon apple chips.
Ashlyn: Oh, yum.
Grace: Yes. It’s just like sliced apples that exclude dehydrated new added sugar or anything and have put cinnamon on it. So I just love dipping those chips in a little bit of peanut butter. It’s like a perfect but a small amount for my stomach.
Ashlyn: Do you more like to eat, like, a good hearty breakfast before class or do you just like to kind of nibble?
Grace: So, this is not great, but lately– I get really, really nervous. So, especially if I’m doing a role like partnering and stuff, I won’t eat. So I don’t eat breakfast, I never do. But lately, I won’t even eat anything until like 3:00 or 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon.
Ashlyn: But you’ve got to stay fueled though, how do you do that?
Grace: I don’t know. I think my body just like, it just gets it done.
Ashlyn: So, I mentioned in our intro some of the roles that you’ve performed since you’ve been with the Alabama Ballet. Do you have a favorite role that you’ve ever performed with us?
Grace: It’ll probably be a toss-up between two. So, I think doing Swanilda from Coppelia was a really fun role for me because, she’s very mischievous and feisty and sassy. It was really easy for me to relate to, and I’d also done it previously with Central Pennsylvania, but I was much younger so it was a very easy role for me to revisit. So I loved doing that one but then I also loved doing Allegro Brillante and that was an amazing experience for me, because I was– I just came and joined the company, and on my second day, Tracy was like, “Why don’t you come and learn the corp because someone had gotten injured and she wasn’t going to be able to do it.” I was like, “Okay.” The corp– there is only four couples in the corp. So it feels more like a soloist role because there aren’t that many people, and so I learned it, and then I got to do it, like, two weeks later and that was an amazing process.
Ashlyn: So did you come into the company as an apprentice first? Then–
Grace: I did. So, yes, I joined as an apprentice. I was 17 and I was scared, out of my mind.
Ashlyn: I can imagine.
Grace: Yes. Then one year later I got promoted to the company
Ashlyn: Is there a dream role that you’d like to perform one day that you haven’t been able to do yet?
Grace: It’s hard. I would love to do Tatiana and Eugene Onegin. I mean it’s hard, I love it but obviously, I would love to do that MacMillan ballet, or Romeo and Juliet or Manon but I also– I’ve always had a small obsession with John Cranko’s Onegin. The more I see of it, the more I want to do that role.
Ashlyn: When you’re in the theater for whatever performance it may be, do you have any pre-show rituals that you like to do?
Grace: I don’t have any pre-show rituals, but I am extremely superstitious. I’m also a very, like, logical person. So I know there’s no logic, but you know, but I do get really bad anxiety and stuff. So I try to just kind of have a system and a schedule that I make sure I go through. So, I will take class obviously and I will try to work as hard and get as warm as possible, especially with something like Nutcracker if– because it’ll be a while before you get back on stage. You know, bundle up and all my warm ups and go and I usually like, wash my face and do my hair about three times, and then do my makeup.
Ashlyn: Aside from Nutcracker music, what kind of music is on your playlist right now?
Grace: So, I listen to almost every genre of music except heavy metal and hip hop. I just can’t get into those things, but, I rotate and I’ll get really fixed on what I want sort of genre. So for example, a couple of weeks ago, I was really into Motown because I’d watch his documentary about Motown music. So that’s all I wanted to listen to for about two or three weeks. But right now I’m on this like, huge classical music phase and so I love violin and cello music. I think that, if I could have played a musical instrument I wouldn’t have ended up dancing.
Grace: Yes, I just– I love that. So I’ve been listening to part of like, Tchaikovsky concerto in D, Bach’s Cello Concerto
Ashlyn: So then that must be exciting for you when we perform with the symphony every year then.
Grace: Yes, yes. I love it. I just– I don’t know. Something about the strings, it just got to pull something inside of me and I just love it.
Ashlyn: Going back to talking about roles. Is there a role that you’ve done, that you would say was your most challenging, that was really hard for you?
Grace: Probably– I mean, yes. It’s probably a toss-up between two. I think that, doing Twyla Tharp Bomb Squad was difficult because, it was very similar to ballet in terms that the steps were there, but it was absolutely nothing like ballet, you’re kind of throwing yourself around a lot, and that was challenging for me because I’m someone who obviously likes structure. That’s one of the reasons I love ballet so much because things are so black and white, and doing something like bomb squad where there was so much more freedom. I liked it, but it took me a long time to get there. So sometimes I wish almost, I could do it again now so I could take like a deeper dive into that. Then the other role was doing Giselle. Giselle is one of my favorite ballets to watch but I think it is the hardest ballet to do, because the character– you know, having all of those emotions they’re so raw, and finding a way to not only find that in yourself but then to project that towards the audience. It takes a lot of energy but I just think it’s something that doesn’t come easily to me. Being the feisty, sassy what else like, it’s easier for me.
Ashlyn: I know you mentioned that you tend to get a little bit nervous. So, before a show or before any type of performance when you do get nervous, is there a way that you like to channel those nerves?
Grace: I get so nervous. So for me, I honestly I’ve learned that I kind of can’t think about what I’m about to do. If I think about it, I psych myself. So, I’ll just kind of listen to music, try to relax. I might just go through whatever I’m about to do, just kind of think of any last corrections, or really just think of anything that I need to remind myself about. But then I’ll just try to go out and just remind myself, like, “Look, I’ve put all the work into it. I know me. I know my technique. I know that’ll get me through it so don’t allow the scare, and scared part of myself and the doubt to override that.” You’ll still see me walking around like a crazy person pacing back and forth backstage. I guarantee you.
Ashlyn: Where do you pull your inspiration from? Like what do you find in your every day that inspires you?
Grace: So, a lot of things– you know, I was so blessed to have so many great teachers growing up. Obviously, Marcia, she taught me everything about ballet, the fundamentals and I think about that every single time I’m doing barre. I know what’s right and wrong because of her but, doing Nutcracker I think a lot about Darla and the things that she has taught me about the Balanchine technique. Even like Laszlo, a teacher also I’ve had. He was such a great teacher too and I think about his corrections all the time. So I pull a lot from my past, and the corrections I can remember being given in school, and then also, what I love to do is, you know, just go on social media and find those dancers that just put you in complete all. So use those dancers to inspire you to keep reaching. I think one of– so one of my teacher’s love I remember being very young and I remember him saying, “The day that you think that you’re perfect, is the day you should quit.” He was like complacency, is such a bad thing to have. The minute you become complacent, you now stop improving. So I think about that a lot. So I definitely use social media, to follow the like, mega ballet stars and to try to let them inspire me to keep me motivated, to keep reaching for that next level of perfection.
Ashlyn: Ballet requires so much both of mental and physical strength, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that. So how do you stay strong both in the studio and outside?
Grace: Yes. I would definitely say ballet is like 80% mental and 20% physical. Physically, you know, I’m lucky because I did train for so long and doing this at CPYB. By the time I was six, I was doing 30 plus hours technique of ballet. So the technique at this point is kind of ingrained in me. There’s always more effort to finesse certain steps. So I love doing more cross-training because I think that it helps you get stronger physically and mentally in a different way. So like for example, I hate running. I’ve always hated running. I remember a couple of months ago, I tried to run, I got on the treadmill, I thought–
Ashlyn: So you’re one of those who doesn’t run unless they’re being chased…
Grace: Exactly. I remember telling someone that I have accepted that if there’s going to be some apocalyptic event, I’m going to be one of those people that die in the first second because I cannot outrun whatever. But I’m going to an orange theory fitness and joining them, and it is become so good for me because things I thought I would never be able to do. I’m doing it, and it is developing a sense of mental strength. It’s helping me with the ballet.
Ashlyn: I can imagine that also helps on stage with your stamina.
Grace: Oh, absolutely. My stamina is so much better than it used to be.
Ashlyn: I mean, we’re doing 90 minute to two hour or longer ballets and you’re on stage almost the whole time.
Grace: Well, that’s a very deceiving thing about ballet is you think– you know, about dancers, they’re so strong in terms of stamina but just ballet is not, because there’s a lot of stopping and starting. So you don’t get a great cardio workout so doing something with cross-training really helps that. So a lot of times while I’m running and doing workouts, I think to myself, “This is for ballet.”
Ashlyn: So you are also our community cast director and coach for the Nutcracker. So explain to everyone a little bit more about our community cast and what it’s like to work with them. Both– you know, as an opportunity for the children to work with the professionals and then for you guys as professionals to work with the children.
Grace: So, yes. So I– this is probably my sixth year, yes, being the community cast director. So what that means is that because our Nutcracker production does use a lot of children, we hold an open audition. So anyone within certain, the correct age requirements and height requirements can audition. Then it’s my job with the help of Tracey and Darla to look at them, look at their talents, figure out which roles they’re best suited for, and then teach them their roles and then make sure that they are prepared enough to perform on stage with the company. The auditions are usually in mid to late August and I usually start teaching them their roles probably like the end/beginning of October depending on the year. It’s a wonderful experience for me because growing up at CPYB we did Balanchine’s Nutcracker, we were the one school that gets to do Balanchine’s Nutcracker, so my childhood is marked by Nutcrackers. Most people were like, “Oh, when I was in sixth grade I did this nicely. No, no, no.” When I did, you know, party scene and bunny, you know, that’s how I remember how old I was, and so it’s a great experience for me because teaching the children, it’s kind of like me giving a part of myself to them and I get to kind of relive part of my childhood watching them do it. But also, to see how much ballet changes them, and it is affecting their life and to know that I could help give them that. That’s a really rewarding experience. I think for the children, it’s great because they don’t get a lot of performance opportunities usually. So to get a performance opportunity on stage, in costume, with the professional dancers that’s just amazing.
Ashlyn: Yes. Not many of them can say they’ve been able to do that before.
Grace: Exactly and I think it’s a great experience for them too, because a lot of the times they come and they don’t realize how hard the choreography is going to be. They get so excited, they’re like, “Oh, I’m going to be part of this season.” They’re so excited. Then within the first week or two for rehearsals, you see this huge discouragement and they realize, “Oh, there’s so much work. I didn’t realize, it looked so easy but there’s so much work and everything so specific.” Then, usually about a week or two of the show, you see them realize like, “Hey, I’m getting it.” Then when they actually get to the show seeing just the joy and they’re just loving every moment of it. That’s what’s really rewarding.
Ashlyn: They work so hard.
Grace: They do.
Interviewer: Then to see them in costume, take the stage when we open…
Grace: Just their smiles, just like glowing…makes it all worth it.
Ashlyn: Darla Hoover, our Balanchine Trust répétiteur who comes to work with us every year, and you actually have a past at CPYB. So how is that getting to work with her, like through Alabama Ballet and now not just from your past? Is that pretty cool that it crossed paths again?
Grace: It is. Yes I do. I love it. So obviously, growing up with Darla. So she has such a special place in my heart and I just feel so lucky that always, I’m able to still see her all the time. It’s great. It’s interesting sometimes, because it’s kind of like, in my mind, she’s still my teacher. So it’s sometimes it’s—I have a hard time transitioning to the positions we are today, but I love it and I, you know, it’s interesting too because I– as I’ve gotten older I have come to love and appreciate her expertise in a much different way.
Ashlyn: Last but not least, I wanted to get you to touch on what it’s like preparing for The Nutcracker roles that you perform every year?
Grace: Exhausting. I think it’s the first word that comes. It’s hard just because it’s a lot and, one of the things about doing Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, the pace is much higher, the energy level is much higher. But, I mean, I love it. It’s just part of Christmas to me. But I think that the thing is that often the hardest is because I have been doing Balanchine’s Nutcracker for so long. Actually Tracey and I had a conversation, we thought I’ve been doing Balanchine’s Nutcracker one year or longer than Alabama Ballet. Yes. Which is really funny, but, because I’ve been doing it for so long and I have been doing some of these role for so long. For me it goes back to complacency. I don’t want to be so predictable of how I do my role, so trying to keep it new and fresh and trying to improve every single year and not become other things like, “Oh yes, we know what Grace looks like doing this.” So that’s been the struggle for me and so, every year I kind of give myself certain little goals or things that I want to think about. Like when I do sugar plum this year, I want to think about approaching it, this certain way and so I’m trying to constantly add new elements to it. But it’s hard for sure.
Ashlyn: When most every company member has like two, three sometimes four roles throughout, you know, act one and act two. I can imagine that’s also difficult to transition from one role to the next and keep that energy.
Grace: It definitely is. But I will say, I actually had it harder in school. So the interesting thing here is that, we do a lot of cast and I feel like more roles are very consistent from year to year. So a lot of times I even do the same, like exact same spot in snow or marzi that I’ve been doing for years. Whereas in school it’s constantly changing because, when you’re in school people are constantly changing heights. Also I don’t know why, but in school as well they love to make you do more than one role in act two. So for example, one of my memories is being one of the hardest moments in the Nutcracker was one year I had to do lead Marzi. I ran offstage, changed my costume, during Poly’s and came back on in flower corp. I remember doing it and I think I said, “I am going to die.” So that was like one the hardest things I ever had to do.
Ashlyn: Well, I’m looking forward to Nutcracker season. I know you are, too. So hang in there!
Grace, thank you so much for joining me and letting everyone learn more about you.
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