Partway through my interview with English National Ballet’s Jeanette Kakareka, we got sidetracked with a conversation about the latest season Survivor (verdict: not so great, but addictive nonetheless) and the difficulties of foam rollers (#foamrollerproblems). If anything, that should tell you something about her personality: friendly, down-to-earth and easy to talk to. She also has a great sense of humour, occasionally documenting the lighter side of life with the ENB with series of instagram snaps entitled Dead Jem, which feature her friend and fellow dancer Jung ah Choi playing dead in an artfully arranged pose while clad in costumes from various ENB productions.
Don’t let that fool you though; beyond the humour lies a great dancer. Jeanette trained at the Rock School and the San Francisco Ballet before joining the English National Ballet, where she’s been dancing since 2013. It’s a cross-continental move that’s beginning to pay dividends – she was a finalist at the ENB Emerging Dancer competition this year, where she and her fellow nominees had a chance to show of their prowess in front of a live audience and a panel of judges that including Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin and Wayne Sleep. Her nomination is indicative not only of her talent as well as a great work ethic.
Jeanette recognizes that a dancer’s job is to dance and to keep getting better at it – she’ll be the first to tell you that she refuses to let herself plateau – but that a dancer exists within the larger worlds of the art form, the company he or she works in, the ballet community and the community beyond that. This level-headed perspective is another reflection on how grounded a person she is, and is one of the many reasons that she’s a dancer you should be watching.
C&V SESSIONS WITH JEANETTE KAKAREKA
What did you have for breakfast?
I had a coffee, toast and avocado, and an almond croissant that my flatmate bought for me. He works at the Royal Ballet.
So do you guys trade war stories?
It’s actually really nice having somebody who understands the dance world but who is not in the same company! So you’re not spending all day with them and can talk to them about other problems, but at the same time you can relate to each other.
In what ways does working for at the English National Ballet differ from somewhere like the Royal?
I’d say it’s pretty different! In ENB we have less dancers, so we’re almost like a family here. People are really supportive of each other. I’m quite lucky as I’m not sure if other companies have the same sort of feel.
And of course the shows are really different. For them, there’s a consistent amount of shows; they’re always rehearsing a couple of shows at a time. Whereas sometimes we have so many shows at one time we can barely breathe, and then a really quiet period of time with not much performing.
You used to be at San Francisco Ballet. How did you find your way from America to London?
I was at the San Francisco Ballet school for a year trainee at San Francisco Ballet for 3 years. I got offered a job there but I felt like I wanted to see something else. I auditioned at ENB because my teacher, Patrick Armand, used to dance at ENB. Tamara was coming in, so I thought it would be something different and new. I thought it would be a good fresh start. And London’s really nice as well, so that doesn’t hurt!
Was it easy to adjust to a new company?
Some of it was really different from San Francisco. At San Francisco Ballet, they have a really big budget and were the only big ballet company for quite a stretch. We had makeup artists and hair people, you would get your own tights and eyelashes. Here the budget is smaller, so you have to make adjustments. We have certain budget restrictions we have to deal with, but the quality of dancers in ENB is so amazing.
Anything you particularly enjoy about London – and what do you miss most from America?
One thing I love about London is that the museums are mostly free! I love museums and I love going into one and not feeling rushed or obligated to pay.
And this sounds like a complaint but it’s not – the customer service is a lot better in America! Americans really want to solve problems and help people. American servers live off their tips so they really try to work for them
One of the things I hear often from dancers is that being in school is a whole different ball game from joining a company. What have your 2 years in the corps been like for you?
I was well prepared as well as I could be, as I had done corps work in SFB and I was also doing principal roles and variations because as a trainee we had our own shows. So I could do the White Swan pas de deux and still feel challenged, but also learn how to do my job properly as a corps member at the same time.
I think a lot of young dancers really don’t understand what having a professional career is like. Especially in schools where they’re not shown what it’s like at a big company. They don’t understand that you will have to do corps de ballet work – you will have to be a merchant at the side and do character dance. And you can’t just muddle through it. You have to do it well, that’s your job. And if you’re lucky you get to do other stuff.
For me, I was pretty well prepared, but it’s something I want young dancers to be aware of. Otherwise they’re not prepared for it.
Jeanette Kakareka performing with the ENB corps in Nutcracker.
Photo by: Photography by Ash
I guess for many young dancers who do become professionals, they’re probably used to being the top students in their class, going to competitions like YAGP where they train and perform Giselle or Kitri or Odette. They’re not used to Swan number 17 in the back row.
I agree. For me there was so much positivity from doing competitions like that. It taught me determination, and how to push yourself and be alone on stage. But I also understood that this was not going to be my life.
Even if you’re a principal dancer or a soloist, you’re still doing things like pantomime and all these acting-type things in between. You’re not just doing solos. Nobody just does solos. But it’s kind of hard to break that train of thought.
You can learn a lot of good things from competitions, but you need to know it’s not all that.
It must be hard for a corps dancer to go from doing all these variations as a student to holding a pose onstage for 10 minutes trying not to cramp up.
Sometimes there are hard days.
But what keeps me humble is that I look around the room and see people who have been doing this for 10 years. This is our job!
Even if you do feel like you can do more you should not say it, because for many people, being in the corps is their job. And they’re very good at it, they take it seriously and have so much wisdom to give you. And if you ignore that and think you’re too good for it then you’re missing out.
Even so, I’m sure you worry that you might be doing corps work your whole life. I mean, that’s the reality for many professional ballet dancers.
I get a bit scared about that sometimes. But I’m not scared of moving or doing what I have to do to feel satisfied with my career. I’m not one who will wait around and hope that someday I’ll get to do something. I try to push myself into positions where I’m not doing character or 10 years.
But I will do my corps work first, and then go into a soloist rehearsal and do it in the back, and hope that maybe I’ll get the position – if not here then somewhere else.
Do you remember your first ballet at ENB?
Yes, we did Le Corsaire!
What was the experience like?
Corsaire is the epitome of the corps de ballet not doing a lot, but it’s such a beautiful ballet. The sets are amazing and we got all these new costumes because the ENB was mounting the ballet for the first time. It was really exciting to be part of a ballet that they had never done – I was new but the ballet was new to them as well.
We did it for the entire fall tour. I was one of the slaves hanging out in the back and the, you know, 16th flower girl in line.
But I was also working really hard to do the Odalisque variation. They kept telling me later, later…and then I finally got to do it!
It was so weird because it’s not like doing it at the YAGP. There’s so many people on stage and you can see them all looking at you. My heart was pounding! It was really cool. I had a lot of fun.
What other solos have you had the chance to do with the ENB?
I got to do Odalisque twice. I also got to do Prayer from Coppelia – it was adagio so that was really different. Mostly I’m doing corps work – but I’m working at it!.
What has the company been like under Tamara Rojo’s leadership? She has been quite outspoken about what she wants to see in the company and in the ballet world in general – a broader scope of repertoire beyond the classics, healthy dancers who have individuality in their artistry and so forth.
She’s a lot more involved than other directors are. She still dances so she takes class everyday with us. She’s always there and she knows what we dance like.
She’s in the rehearsals so she sees how we take on corrections and how we deal with everything. Although she obviously has to concentrate on her own dancing, she is the director and she makes sure to pay attention to the company.
She wants to make ballet feel like it’s real. She doesn’t want us to be in the back doing really awkward pantomiming, she wants to makes us to feel really involved. Like with Corsaire, she wants it to feel like it’s an actual marketplace, and people are trying to sell things and they have their own stories . She wants to see that everyone is involved in the ballet, not just the principal dancers and main characters. I think that’s really cool.
People sometimes dismiss that; they don’t understand how important it is. But when you see the whole ballet, it’s really exciting, there’s always something going on and it makes you feel more involved as an audience member.
Was it intimidating at first to take class with dancers like Tamara and Alinia Cojocaru?
Tamara’s so famous. I had seen videos of her youtube and I had seen her perform with the Royal before so it was a little intimidating to see her in class. I was a little starstruck but I got over it pretty fast. I respect her as a dancer and a director.
Alina joined us a little later. I wasn’t sure what to expect when she came, but she’s so nice.
So you’re totally tight with them now right? Grabbing Starbucks with Tamara after class, Alina probably saves your spot at the barre…
Yeah, me and Alina, we totally share leotards all the time. No!
But we all do play with Alina’s adorable dog, Charlie. He is just the cutest dog, so sweet. Some people have to leave their dogs in the dressing room, but Charlie can just stay in the class on his little mat and not move. He’ll just sit quietly in the corner. It’s impressive.
I feel like he’s Alina in dog form – just super sweet, so excited, loves people!
You were recently nominated for the ENB emerging dancer award. What was the experience like preparing and performing for the Emerging Dancer showcase?
I was announced to us when we were doing Swan Lake in the Coliseum, after which we had a 2 week holiday. So we were only preparing for it when we came back in February, which meant there was quite short rehearsal period for it.
Everyone was coached by someone else in the company. I learnt a lot from my fellow dancers. There are so many people who are knowledgeable and have so many good things to say.
Rehearsals were mostly at the end of the day after work, or you have to wait for hours to get to do it after everyone else has finished with their work, because it’s a privilege to do this. It was a lot of commitment to want to suddenly run a pas de deux at 6.30 at night!
But it was so great to get to work on something like this. I’m doing corps stuff, so it was nice to do a pas de deux, variation and a coda, which I hadn’t done before. I’ve always been doing slow pas de deux – white swan type things. I think I learnt a lot from it and I’m so appreciative of everyone’s time and effort. I hope they know it, I’ve thanked them so many times!
My coaches were so committed and would stay back whenever I needed them.
Jeanette performing her contemporary solo at the ENB Emerging Dancer Competition
Photo by: Dave Morgan
Did you get to choose what to perform?
They gave us 2 options – Raymonda or La Bayadere, and we chose Bayadere. I like Bayadere, but it is really hard for a first time! Especially since for a long time, I was practicing my pas de deux, variation and coda back to back – going offstage and come straight back on again – as my partner wasn’t sure he wanted to do his variation. So I built up a lot of stamina for that! He was doing the entrance and coda, but he did decide to do his variation at the end.
Nikiya a very hard character to be doing out of context – it’s after she dies and [her lover] Solor going to marry someone else. I can’t smile through that!
And the variation is so slow with so many tricky moments that if something goes wrong you can’t cover it up! Having to dance with the scarf and do those pirouettes – it was kind of scary for me. And you’re in this ghostly but kind of loving state so there’s not a whole lot to do if something happens! But it was challenging, which was fun for me. I love challenging myself.
How did you feel about your performance?
It could have gone better. The conditions are never perfect. I think everybody who performed that night – we all felt we could have done better. You just do what you can.
But that’s not really the big point. The point was to learn from it and see how much you can gain for yourself. It’s not really about this one winner.
I got a bit stressed because of how difficult about how Bayadere is, and the stage and the situation we were in. It wasn’t perfect. But it was such a positive environment.
So it wasn’t like the sort of atmosphere that you get with traditional ballet competitions.
Oh no, not at all. We all wanted each other to do well. All our colleagues were in the audience cheering for us. Even if you had fallen on your face they would have cheered for you. It was really positive.
It’s stressful because you know it’s your one time to show off because you don’t get to do it very often. But you realise it’s not about that.
I was competing again some of my closest friends, but it wasn’t a competition. If anything I was disappointed that I couldn’t watch everybody’s performance because I had to get ready for mine. It was like, dangit! I missed their pas de deux or their variation.
Dancers constantly have to deal with fatigue and injury. What are your tips for recovery and dealing with soreness?
We have these compression ice boots that I really like. I can’t do ice baths. I’m too much of a wuss to get in neck-deep in ice water. I can’t do it! Mostly I put my feet up and put on the compression ice sock things. They’re called ‘Game Ready.’
I’ve learnt that I need to keep moving when I’m standing or stand on something soft, because when you’re in pointe shoes your feet get so sore from standing! And your knees hurt.
Using those foam rollers are really good as well.
I have a foam roller, and that thing takes a lot of effort to use!
It is a lot of effort! So I use it when I have to and I know it will get me a result. But I think it’s really difficult and my arms get tired for a bit. It’s a lot of effort to try and relax your muscles!
Like on the legs. Everything’s tight and you’re sore, but to get it all relaxed again you have to prop up your body with your arms and push yourself back and forth. That’s not relaxing!
Yeah I totally agree! But I have to use it for my legs and my back. The back is easy to do though, that doesn’t take any effort. It’s just the legs that are tiring to do.
Which have been your personal favourite pieces to perform in the ENB repetoire?
The one I enjoyed the most was getting to do Prayer in Coppelia. There’s nothing to really save yourself. You do maybe 10 penchees in the variation, so people will see if you can do it more than once. So it’s a bit stressful but the music is so beautiful and it’s adagio, which is more of my strength.
I also felt quite supported. I got so many little toi toi toi gifts! I had gotten to know people in the company by then and they were were genuinely happy that I got to do it, because I’d wanted to do it from the beginning but they are so many casts ahead of you.
Which ballets do you find the most challenging?
Swan Lake! There is no question. I haven’t done it yet when it’s in the round, where it’s a huge stage. I heard that’s much harder because there’s so much running – you know, since there’s so much more stage to cover.
But Swan Lake is so difficult for the girls. There’s waltz, there’s pas de trois, there’s peasants in First Act. There’s swans. In the Third Act there’s a million things to do – character dance, princesses, and then the Fourth Act.
And when you do a double show – I’ve done 8 acts in one day! By the end you’re wondering how, how did I do it? It’s amazing! It’s so painful.
We have teams – team stage left and team tall people, because you see the same people over and over and you try to support each other.
Doing all those stands – you’re standing on stage in a coupe , and sweat is going down your face or gets in your eye. Your entire leg is cramping up and you can’t move. And then all of a sudden you have to get up and dance, and do the coda. Your muscles have contracted and you have to start dancing again. It’s so hard.
Corps de ballet is the heart of Swan Lake. I think it’s very important for a dancer’s ballet to have done corps de ballet in Swan Lake in order appreciate it.
Photo by: Photography by Ash
What do you feel are your strengths and weaknesses as a dancer?
I think my biggest weakness is my own mindset, and how I can get negative about myself. I sometimes I feel frustrated at how many years I’ve spent trying to get stronger, more coordinated, and keep myself classical. I get impatient with myself and it’s not a good way to work. People can tell when you get frustrated with yourself, and sometimes they don’t understand that it’s about you and not that you’re being disrespectful.
Also my petite allegro because that’s a lot of coordination and quick strength. Slow strength is better for me than quick strength. Things are always getting better, but some things get better more quickly than others.
Running in ballet is not a good for me either! When I’m running in a line it’s hard for me because I have to hold as my legs are longer. I’m supposed to run and look nice, but I can’t run at everyone’s speed because if I’d just trample over everyone. I would rather just dance across the whole stage than run.
As for strengths, I think I’m quite flexible and I’m good at understanding my lines and using what I have to my advantage. I was not born with a perfect arabesque. I had to work really hard to get it. That’s something that’s get overlooked. People think that flexibility is something you have or you don’t, which isn’t true.
Another strength of mine is how hard I want to work and how hard I want to push myself. Although that can be a weakness sometimes. I can get mad at myself because I always want get better. I don’t want to plateau or do keep doing something without having improved. I want to get better and to see results. I have no interest in staying the same.
What’s one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you were younger?
To not compare yourself to other people. Everyone is so different and other people will sometimes progress in ways much faster than you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t surpass that one day. It’s not a race. You have to be patient. Some people need to be polished and it takes a longer for them, but it’s worth it.
For a long time I would see people doing all these things I couldn’t do because I was still growing. Of course I couldn’t jump really high when I was 14 and I just grew two inches! I wish I had accepted that a lot earlier. I think I’m better at that now.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
In 5 years time, I hope to be doing the more emotional roles I want to do. I hope that I’m happy and settled and a bit more used to my height. And I want to be able to run well in 5 years time
My life goals are to do more emotional roles, be happy and learn to run!
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Graphics, text by Min, Cloud & Victory.
Header picture originally shot by: Laurent Liotardo.