Shelby Elsbree began her dance training at the Florida Ballet Arts Academy and the Sarasota Ballet Academy before moving to New York City to attend the School of American Ballet in 2004. After five years of study under Kay Mazzo, Jock Soto and Peter Martins, Elsbree moved to Copenhagen to join the Royal Danish Ballet in 2009. Through her four years dancing under the artistic direction of Nikolaj Hübbe, she received two merit scholarships and represented the company in the Erik Bruhn Prize competition in Toronto, Canada, where she danced August Bournonville’s Flower Festival in Genzano. Currently, Elsbree dances with the Boston Ballet.
Q. What does a ballerina who is into eating have for Thanksgiving?
I think it depends on where I am in the world… This Thanksgiving I got to spend with some very good friends of mine because we only had Thanksgiving day off. My friend’s family is from North Carolina, and her mother made an incredibly delicious, traditional southern spread of all the favorites!
Q. When did your passion for ballet start? Do you remember when it became something you wanted to do for your life?
I don’t think there was a particular moment. I was nine years old when I started ballet, and thirteen years old when I moved to New York City to train at the School of American Ballet – that was certainly a turning point for me, when ballet became a more serious pursuit than an after-school sport. I would go to watch the New York City Ballet as much as I possibly could. I worked very hard to pursue a career in dance by exposing myself to as much inspiration as I could find.
Q. You’re from Sarasota, Florida. In New York were you living in a dorm?
SAB has dorms that they provide for their students, which they share with the Julliard students. In my year, there were about 60-64 students and we all lived together in the Rose Building which is right in Lincoln Center. Ultimately, we ate, slept and danced all within a city block, and then we went back and forth to high school to continue our academics. I attended both Professional Children’s School (PCS) and Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS) – which are performing arts high schools that allow flexibility in academic deadlines for students who are already pursuing (artistic) professional careers.
Q. Are you roommates with someone your own age?
All the girls are together; all the boys are together. If you knew someone you preferred to room with, you could certainly request to, but since I didn’t know anyone, I was paired with a new friend. My first roommate was about 16 I think when I was thirteen. The ages in the dorm range from 14 to 18, but they made an exception for me my first year because I was a little bit younger.
Q. Was rooming with a 16 year old difficult? Isn’t she in a different place than you?
A little bit, but I’m actually one of four children and I’m very close to my older sister – I’ve never really been intimidated by age.
Q. What were some of the main differences between ballet classes in Sarasota and ballet classes at SAB?
In Sarasota my training was primarily Vaganova, very Russian Classical. I then had the honor of working with a woman named Shir Lee Wu who now teaches at the Joffrey Ballet School in Chicago. Shir Lee was the person who introduced me to the Balanchine technique, and encouraged me to audition for SAB, thinking I would be a good fit for their style. So I went up to SAB with my mother for an audition. At SAB the technique is completely Balanchine which is a very sporty, athletic, neo-classical style which was very different from my training in Florida. It was a welcome challenge and I loved it. I felt that I really connected with that type of technique.
Q. Was it a dramatic learning experience when you went to SAB?
Well, Balanchine is filled with very fast footwork. It is very precise and clean, and is definitely a sportier style. There are certain aspects of the technique that Balanchine is known for–the port de bras is very different than classical. The fingers are placed very differently and the way the hands are held is approached differently. When you take off for a pirouette, your leg in the back is straight and that is always a very distinguishing technique of a Balanchine dancer – He didn’t want his dancers to be telling the audience they were going to turn. He wanted it to be a surprise. Overall SAB was a very serious training ground and, while my training in Florida was serious as well, I was at a different age point and I was surrounded by a different caliber of dancers. At SAB in New York, you are in a huge pool of talent and it’s very inspiring but you have to work very hard.
Q. What was your audition for SAB like?
I flew up to New York to take class and my mom came with me. This audition was for the summer program and they ended up inviting me to stay for the summer on scholarship. During the program, about the last week, they asked the students to let them know if they’d like to be considered for their year-round program. The program was for 14-18 year olds and I was thirteen but I was definitely interested so I told them anyway and they ended up offering me a year round place at their school.
Q. New York has lots of different restaurants. Were you into food at that time?
strong>Unfortunately, no. I was quite young. And I didn’t have a wallet for New York restaurants at that time. But I have so much fun now exploring and rediscovering the New York food scene since I became a food enthusiast. My passion for food really began when I moved abroad and I started my food blog, Tutus & Tea.
Q. Are you a cooker or eater or both?
Absolutely both! Both processes bring me so much joy and fulfillment. It’s really calming for me to cook. It’s rewarding for me to cook for others. Every element of it brings me happiness. I love for people to sit down and to appreciate a meal where I was part of the whole process. It’s such a humbling thing.
Q. When you think of ballet dancers and food you usually think of eating problems. But at the same time I’ve learned that a lot of dancers love food and have food blogs. Why do you think that is?
That’s something I’m trying to change. I think it’s an unfortunate stigma that dancers don’t eat. Dancers are elite athletes! You’re not going to see Michael Phelps succeed without eating. No one could spend all the time we do training our bodies to do these incredible things if we didn’t fuel them properly. I’m trying to change the reaction of people when they hear that dancers have food blogs. We’re people like anyone else who have to eat, yet more so given the demands we’re asking of our bodies. My dad once told me you wouldn’t buy a really nice sports car and give it cheap gas. I like to use that analogy for our bodies. We work way too hard to weaken our bones and minds by starving ourselves. The dancers I’ve heard of who have suffered eating disorders also suffer injuries, and are far less likely to sustain successful, long careers as ballet dancers.
Q. College students always say they learn as much from their fellow students as from their professors. As a ballet student, do you learn from fellow students?
Absolutely. And that’s a great point. There’s so much talent in the ballet world! In my own company, the Boston Ballet, there’s so much talent and we’re always watching each other all day long. That’s all you do when you’re not dancing: watching other dancers on stage, at rehearsals, putting on make-up, preparing their pointe shoes. It’s constant. It just depends upon how much you want to absorb from your surroundings. I like to feel that I’m constantly learning from everyone.
Q. Do you have any advice for standing out at auditions and class?
The most important thing is your self-confidence. When you walk in to a studio, you want to walk in as if you’ve already gotten the job. You have to have that kind of confidence. There’s so much talent out there, you have to be assertive from the very beginning to let that casting director or artistic director know they want you. That’s a big thing: standing in your spot and making yourself be seen as (tastefully) assertive in combinations. Presenting yourself well and professionally. All these things can really make a difference. You’re making a very important first impression as are all the other people at the audition, so you really have to go for it.
Q. From SAB, you went to dance with the Royal Danish Ballet. How did that come about?
My final year at SAB occurred during a national financial crisis and a company financial squeeze. They told my entire graduating class at SAB, which is a feeder school of NYCB, that they couldn’t guarantee any apprentice contracts that year and they encouraged everyone to audition for other companies. That was a crushing thing to hear when you’ve dreamed for years that NYCB would be your future company. But I decided that if I couldn’t dance in New York, I wanted to dance in Europe. I had a very close friend who had auditioned the year before for European companies and she helped me put together a European audition tour. I organized a tour of 5 cities and 5 companies in 8 days, and I took my mom and my sister. The three of us went and we had the time of our lives – it was probably the highlight of my dance career because it was so eye opening. It was so perspective shifting. It was an unreal experience. I was very blessed to be able to do that.
Q. Was it the dancers, the different theaters, eating a lot, seeing the different cities?
There wasn’t much time for sightseeing in Europe because we were in each city for such a short time. It was seeing the different companies and the beautiful old theaters that they performed in that was really eye opening, as well as seeing the different dance styles. That kind of exposure was incredible when you grow up thinking there’s only one company that’s right for you. Then all of a sudden you see there’s so much more and there’s talent everywhere and it’s such an exciting thing, so it was a really enriching experience.
Q. What decided you on Denmark as opposed to another company?
It was a really hard decision but there were several factors that helped me to decide. My decision was strongly influenced by the ties that the Royal Danish Ballet had with the New York City Ballet. Nikolaj Hübbe, the director of the Royal Danish Ballet, was formerly a principal dancer with the NYCB and Peter Martins, the current Director of the NYCB, is Danish. So Nikolaj was the new director when I went over there and he brought a lot of Balanchine and Jerome Robbins repertoire which I was interested in doing, and what I had trained for. Nikolaj was fresh out of New York, and he had the New York energy, excitement and work ethic – I thought that paired very well with me, and of course it helped that everyone in Denmark speaks English. In reality, there were a plethora of factors that I had to sift through but those were probably the main ones. I was only 18 when I moved to Copenhagen. It was a hard decision to make because I had a lot of options, but I was really excited about it, and to this day, I have no regrets. It was an incredible life experience.
Q. Was this when you started getting into food?
Yes! I bought a camera, a DSLR. It was my sister’s idea. She said I should have a hobby that didn’t have to do with working out or dancing, so from that suggestion I bought myself a camera and got into photography. I began photographing food and started having so much fun, researching food blogs and getting into culinary arts and food styling, and it just changed my entire appreciation of food and of preparing meals. There are so many great stories behind our sustenance!
Q. What are some of your favorite dance experiences from Copenhagen?
I have a lot actually. I got to dance so many incredible roles there, but probably the ones that are on top of my mind would include Blue Girl in Jerome Robbins Dances at a Gathering. It was the first principal role that I danced and it was a great experience. I got to dance the Student in Flemming Flindt’s, The Lesson, which is a very famous Danish ballet, involving three people. It’s very sacred to them and the fact that they could trust a foreigner with a very different technique, a very different style than the Bournonville style which is the “mother tongue” of the Royal Danish Ballet was a very high honor. I also got to dance Olympia in John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias which was also an incredible experience, especially since I had the opportunity to work with John for that masterpiece of a ballet.
Q. What are some of your favorite food memories?
Most of them come from this very precious woman who I considered my “Danish mother”. She was a very good friend of mine and would have me over to her family’s house for dinner and cook very traditional Danish recipes some nights, and other nights she might do a spin on American recipes for me. She was a great chef and a great baker as well and she taught me a lot, so most of my favorite meals come right from their house.
Q, Do you have a special eating regimen before or after performances?
I like to change things up actually. I love a good bowl of oatmeal with spices and fruits and nuts on it. I love peanut butter on absolutely anything. Fruit and nuts are great because they provide a lot of energy and protein without weighing you down before you dance. I love to decorate my food. My sister always laughs at me for it. The more things I can sprinkle on things the better.
Q. The Royal Danish Ballet is rooted in the Bournonville style. At the SAB you were trained in Balanchine. What was it like suddenly having to learn a different style?
That was a challenge but one I had done before when I went from Florida to SAB. It helps to be diversified and with the Royal Danish Ballet I could round out my own technique and my own artistry. As I said, Nikolaj had brought over a lot of Balanchine and Jerome Robbins which I was already familiar with, so it wasn’t too drastic but it was definitely something I had to work on when I was over there.
Q. Boston Ballet where you are now is more Balanchine.
Actually, we have a very diverse repertoire. Since I’ve been here, we’ve done Balanchine, Forsythe, Ashton, Petipa among others… We’ve just done a lot of different things and that’s very challenging but so fun. Boston is a place where I can apply all the different styles that I’ve learned and been trained in over the years, so it’s very exciting, very challenging, very inspiring.
Q. What advice would you have for a dancer who wants to dance in Europe?
Go for it! For me, it was a life changing experience that I think of and reflect on every single day of my life and I’m so thankful for it. I would say really try to embrace whatever city you’re in: the people, the culture. You should go beyond the ballet company, even though that’s obviously the reason you’re over there. Take advantage of the ease of travel and country hopping while you’re over there. Meet people and establish relationships you’ll hold for the rest of your life that will give you beautiful excuses to keep traveling far beyond your dance career.
Q. What made you decide to come to Boston?
Several factors but mainly the repertoire. My final year, the Royal Danish Ballet was going in a direction of more Bournonville and I was missing my Balanchine exposure and I was also very much missing my family so it just felt right. I had put in four incredible years with the Royal Danish Ballet, and had grown in so many ways but I was ready for the next chapter in my career. Boston is so much closer to my home. My parents and family can come up and see me much more easily and I can share more performance experiences with them and that’s really special. I love that the pool of talent in Boston is so large and I’m inspired on a daily basis by the other dancers. As I said, I love the diversity of the repertoire and the different stagers who come through and the facilities here are absolutely top of the line. The city of Boston is an innovative, young, thriving city and it’s a beautiful culture to be a part of, especially at my age.
Q. Did you have to try out again or did they know you?
I did have to come to Boston and audition. It was actually Nutcracker season almost exactly two years ago from today. I came in and took class with the company on stage and was offered a contract just after.
Q. Have you ever met Bruce Marks?
I’m not sure.
Q. He’s a former director of the Boston Ballet and he danced for a very long time with the Royal Danish Ballet. One of the stories he told was that after dancing in Denmark for quite a few years he finally was able to purchase a summer house which everyone likes to do. But he said it was very funny because the country is so small, his summer house was only forty-five minutes away from his winter house.
Right. Exactly. It’s a very traditional Danish thing. The woman I mentioned earlier who I thought of as my Danish mother took me several times to her family’s summer house and it was a very special experience.
Q. Have you ever seen the movie Hans Christian Andersen?
No I have not.
Q. It’s a must see for you. It stars Danny Kaye and in the movie he falls in love with a dancer from the Royal Danish Ballet. The dancer is Zizi Jeanmaire, a famous French ballerina, and the choreographer is Roland Petite who in real life was Zizi Jeanmaire’s husband. But I mention it because Erik Bruhn, who was a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, is also in the movie and I think you were once in an Erik Bruhn competition.
Erick Bruhn danced with the Royal Danish Ballet and several other very large companies: ABT, the Hamburg Ballet and the Royal Ballet of London, so when he retired he created this wonderful event where each of the companies he danced for would send two of its promising dancers to compete in the event. Basically it’s more of a gala experience because we performed together and trained together. One year, I was asked by Nikolaj to represent the Royal Danish which was a very high honor. I didn’t win but I had the time of my life and it was an incredible experience.
Q. Where do you go to eat in Boston?
I definitely have a few favorite restaurants. For breakfast and lunch there’s this place called Flour. It’s a delicious (mostly) bakery but also offers real food. My favorite place for breakfast is a little place called The Wholy Grain. It’s super cozy and all their food items are delicious. It just makes you want to stay in there and read books all day. I love a restaurant called Coppa. It’s Italian and it has a sister restaurant called Toro that’s Spanish and both are delicious. Another favorite is called Metropolis in the South End with a Rigatoni that won’t quit, but those are just the beginning… There are so many great restaurants I’m having a lot of fun exploring them.
Q. What have you enjoyed dancing in Boston?
I would have to say two highlights would be when we did Serenade and Symphony in Three Movements on the Boston Common stage in front of 25,000 people. That was a very, very epic experience. Really emotional and incredible. We also danced Jewels last spring and I loved that. I got to dance in Rubies and Diamonds and I had the honor of doing the pas de trois in Emeralds and I really connected with that experience. It was very special for me.
Q. On your blog you also write poetry.
I do. It’s sort of a new undertaking. I’ve enjoyed writing poetry since I was little but I did it for myself. Sometimes when we’re in runs of lots of performances I don’t sleep very well. I think it’s hard for my body to wind down and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and I’ll just kind of lay there and write poetry in my head, so it’s become kind of a new thing.
Q. What are your dance goals?
I have had a lot of really strong moments in my dance career so far which I’m very grateful for. My goal is to continually expand my repertoire and travel with dance. I love getting to tour and experiencing different cultures through our art form. I see myself being promoted. I see myself dancing more challenging roles but truly as long as I’m healthy and happy I’ll continue to dance.
Q. What are your goals for your food blog?
Eventually, I want to go to into some sort of combination of food styling, photography and writing. I don’t know if that means a future in food journalism, involving my own photography or what, but it brings me a lot of joy. I look forward to seeing how my blog helps me evolve into some sort of career when that time comes. I’m thinking a potential cookbook of well-traveled recipes.
Q. Ballet dancers particularly when they’re students have inspirational quotes. Do you have any?
Absolutely. I love quotes as well. I find them so inspiring. My father has always said, If you’re green, you’re growing. If you’re ripe, you rot. I’ve always found this idea of continuing to learn and grow to be so motivating… My mother always reminds me to Let Go and Let God which comforts me if I’m nervous or anxious about something. The power of faith!
Q. Any favorite books or movies?
I really enjoyed a book called Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet written by Jennifer Ringer, a former principal with the New York City Ballet. This summer I read The Master’s Muse: A Novelwhich is a fictional story based on the true story of Tanaquil Le Clercq that was beautifully written. For food books, I would have to recommend Julia Child’s My Life in Franceand Molly Wizenberg’sA Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table which I recently just finished and that was really sweet as well. I also just finished All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel by Anthony Doer which was riveting. For movies, my favorite right now is probably The Hundred-Foot Journey – it is so touching and inspiring. I loved it!!
Q. What’s your advice for young dancers?
The best advice I can give is that as easy and tempting as it is to compare yourself to the careers of your friends or colleagues or other dancers, remember that we are all on our own path and there’s a lot of struggle on the way up, and that’s not what people are going to show you on the outside. What people show others are their successes, but it is the moments of obstacles that we all have to overcome that make success that much sweeter. So keep on fighting and working hard, and never narrow your scope of hope or the dreams that you have for yourself (…be it an injury or being turned down for something or because of a comment or critique that you’ve heard from someone.) Dancing is so personal and it is something that, while we have this blessing of sharing it with the audience, it is something we do for ourselves and it’s easy to forget that when we’re trying so hard to please other people. So continue to dance from your heart and remember what a special contribution to culture and art that you’re giving to the world every single day.
Follow Shelby on her adventures from the Studio to the Stage, from the Plate to the Palate!