I remember watching YouTube videos of Queensland Ballet’s Lou Spichtig performing at the Prix de Lausanne a few years ago. “What a beautiful dancer,” I thought. “I wonder if she knows about Cloud & Victory? Probably not. But it would be pretty cool if I got to interview her for the site one day!”
It turns out that Lou had heard of us – we’d been mutually admiring each others work for some time without knowing it! Several years of friendly comments on instagram and a Christmas card later, she stopped by Singapore to visit on her way home to Switzerland, and we hit it off terrifically. Ballet dancers move with such an otherworldly grace onstage that they can seem intimidating to people, but Lou is everything charming and kind and wonderfully level-headed.
That made it all the more of a privilege to have such a wonderful dance and person as the face of Cloud & Victory’s Spring/Summer 2018 dancewear collection. Collaborating with friends, seeing them wear C&V and watching them do what they’re good at is always such a fulfilling experience – I think the pictures speak for themselves. And now things come full circle, as Lou shares about her journey and experiences as a dancer in this C&V interview session.
C&V SESSIONS WITH LOU SPICHTIG
What do you have for breakfast?
So this morning I had a piece of toast with peanut butter and coconut oil on it and cinnamon and date syrup. It sounds very elaborate.
That’s fancy and healthy.
Fancy right? I’ve just decided I’m not eating any more animal products at all. Because I’ve watched a documentary that psyched me out. Don’t watch it. Anyways, I had that, a coffee and a small piece of banana bread that I made myself.
When did you start dancing? Obviously you started very young, but when did you start? And do you remember why you started? Was it just something for fun?
I started when I was about 3 and a half or 4. My mum always said I was a reactive child – when there was music I would move and sort of dance. She was looking for an after school activity, and she just kinda opened the phone book. She actually wanted to put me in acrobatics or something fun, but all those activities started too early. She was at work so she couldn’t take me there, but she kept going and then she found ballet. She had no idea what it really entails.
We walked into the first ballet school she saw and she was like “Oh, I have this 3 year old, would you take her for class?” And the woman was like “She’s a bit young, but why don’t you take her.” So my mum took me to my first lesson and I got stuck. I loved it so much.
You just enjoyed it from the first lesson?
Yeah, I can’t even remember what we did. Probably just running around with a piece of fabric in our hand to music, but it was fun.
Lou Spichtig in our Tulle Skirt in Orchid Purple/Grey
When did it become serious for you?
I guess pretty quickly, I told my parents I enjoyed it. I was dancing for 5 years. I also ice skated, but I was really bad at it.
I realised I got serious about it when I started going to ballet more and more while my friends who started with me started going less and less.
When I was 10, I had to choose whether I wanted to study full time or go to a school that has part-time sport/art and part-time academics.
I could’ve done the entry exam with violin or ballet, and for me it was a no-brainer. My mum was always having to force me to rehearse the violin, “Come on, practice!” and she never had to force me to go to ballet.
By all means, choosing to play the violin was always my decision. My parents never forced me to. I just thought it was a lot more fun than it actually turned out to be.
So yeah, at 10, I started going to school part time and dancing much more. That’s when I had to make a conscious decision. I actually can’t remember when I said I wanted to become a ballerina. I think I always wanted it, I didn’t intend to, but that’s what I enjoyed doing.
Your mum is not a ballet dancer right? She’s never done ballet before?
No one in my family did ballet before.
So when you decided to embark on this process, did you feel like you were flying blind?
I guess. I think it was a good thing I was flying blind. The way my mum is, if she had been a ballet dancer too, she would have shot me down everything possible to let me know how hard it was.
It wasn’t not allowing me to do it, but she would’ve not encouraged me. You could see how much I loved dancing and how how much I enjoyed it. I guess I just lit up whenever I’m on stage, so she just supported me wherever she could.
But honestly if I knew every good but also every bad side, I’m not sure if I would do it again. So, I think it was a good thing I was flying blind.
Why wouldn’t you have necessarily chosen that again? If you knew everything I guess you knew now?
You do sacrifice a lot for it, but it is also a career that gives a lot. You have to give a lot, but it will also give a lot back to you.
I was very fortunate that from a very young age I got to do competitions. I worked very hard but it was kind of a give and take – I put in a lot of effort but I was also able to more things than maybe some of my classmates.
When I was in Zurich, I did a competition every year, which always gave me a goal. Some of my classmates didn’t have that, so they were working without knowing where they were they were headed.
I think the main reason why I wouldn’t necessarily choose it again is because it’s a very, very hard industry to find a job in. And it’s a lot of sacrifice for not only for you, but your family as well.
I was lucky to find a company here in Queensland that suits me and I really worked hard, but it’s so hard to find a job. I mean you see people who audition for a year. Every weekend they are somewhere and they still don’t find something – and they’re great dancers!
You in put in so much effort and so much of your life into this career, but it can sometimes be really hard to even find a job.
Lou Spichtig in ourBlood Sweat and Pirouettes Tee in Heather Grey
It’s hard to quantify what ‘good’ is, yes? Because art is so subjective.
Absolutely. Or company after company won’t accept your CV because you’re not 165cm, and you’re like “how does my height influence my dancing?”. You just don’t fit the company profile.
That’s the side that’s not fun. I guess you have to deal with that in every profession. It’s just that in ballet it hits a whole lot harder because it’s not just your job, it’s your life.
You can be a talented dancer, work hard and dance professionally, but you may not get into the workplace you want due to reasons that are completely out of your control no matter how hard you work.
Yeah, there’s just a lot of things that you can’t influence. You can’t influence casting. You can work as hard as you want, you can be the best dancer that you are, work to the top of your abilities everyday, but if they decide they’re not gonna love you, they’re not gonna cast you, they decide you’re not gonna perform; it’s not gonna happen.
It’s not that you can’t do it, and I think it’s frustrating to look at other people your age at other places and think “why them and not me?”.
But you know, it’s the same everywhere.
I was just thinking about that because of the Commonwealth Games, I was watching the men sports teams the other night, and I thought we are pretty lucky. Because they’ve got 10 seconds to prove what they can do, how stressful! That would not be a life for me, I couldn’t handle that!
So how do you make sure you still enjoy it? What keeps you going?
You know, everyday, I’m grateful that I get to do what I love. Yes, you’re gonna have shitty days, you’re gonna have days when you can’t do anything. I mean, that was me the other night. Some days I’m just like, “I can’t do this, but I’m a professional ballet dancer. I’m not good enough.”
Those Prix de Lausanne and Varna trophies would say otherwise, just so you know.
Yes, but how do I have those trophies and not hold a freaking developpe? You know what I mean? Some days it feels like, why can’t I do this?
But to answer your question, we don’t have to wait until we sign out to work in order to do what we love.
Just the fact that you’re in a team of really motivated people everyday, and that you’re creating magic everyday. Yes, sometimes it’s hard. Yes, you’ll have days where you don’t feel productive or don’t feel appreciated but you’re still doing something very special.
Also, when you tell people outside of this world, “oh, I’m a ballet dancer” they think you’re something kind of special. Like a different species? It’s really weird and fascinating, and I think that’s pretty cool. So that’s something very special.
And I mean the costumes too, and the music! There’s so many things that are so beautiful and I think when you’re having a bad day, you need to remind yourself on how, actually, really special this profession is. It’s a lot of work but there are so many really nice moments – when you can just step out on stage and you just dance, when you feel free.
It’s the small moments that make it worth it, right? Little pockets of joy.
Yeah! And also, the teamwork! When you’ve done, I don’t know, 30 runs of Bayadere within a short space of time.
And you’re in the corps, but you’ve got that support amongst each other and it builds as a team that understands each other unlike anybody else and that’s pretty cool too.It was a new version that got choreographed on us.
We had 7 weeks to get a brand new production of La Bayadere on stage and we did the whole Kingdom of Shades in like 2 days after coming back from 5 weeks of break. It was incredible to see the company pull it together so fast. It’s insane.
Your Academy in Zurich emphasised both contemporary as well as classical techniques, but did you always know you wanted to be a classical dancer?
Yeah! My first love is ballet. It’s what my heart beats for. Just because it’s something that’s so tied to tradition.
It’s transcended through time – it’s been around for 300 hundred years and it hasn’t changed, it’s a living museum, you know.
There have been so many great dancers that come before you, and now, you’re making that tradition live on.
I’m not saying I don’t like contemporary dance, I just find that I can’t express myself as well through it. However, with contemporary dance, you get to work a lot more with the choreographer and you get to put in a lot more of yourself, so I’m very much into it regarding that.
In Zurich we had a lot more contemporary repertoire, and I just realised I’m not… I haven’t lived enough yet to properly enjoy the contemporary choreographies. Like I rather be Swan No. 8 than be in a contemporary piece that I can’t fully indulge in.
I guess it also depends on when the right choreographer comes along, and then it clicks and the most magical thing is born.
And in that situation where you have to dance to a piece where you don’t necessarily feel connected with, how do you find ways to execute it?
Well, I guess there’s different reasons why you don’t feel connected to it. It could be something as stupid like the costumes being annoying. You can’t move in it, it weighs a ton and you’re wearing this thing and no one can feel the effort you’re putting into it. You’re thinking “what the hell am I doing?” sometimes.
I think sometimes the choreographies that you start off feeling uncomfortable with can become the ones being most interesting to work with. Because you actually have to take it apart, and sometimes you learn a lot more from it.
If we always dance what we feel right dancing, then you get into a rut.
Sometimes even the partner you’re dancing with could be a reason why something feels not as nice.
If all else fails, you can always look at it as “it’s my job. This is what I do.”
But I’ve never been in a situation like that. I’ve danced some choreography where I thought, “oh, it wasn’t very interesting.”
But it’s weird because once you’ve gone onto that stage, that just kind of fades away. It’s like the stage has this magical beast that makes everything right. It could be the most painstaking rehearsal process but it’s gone once you come on stage.
So what’s is it about the stage? Is it the knowledge that there’s an audience there and the music and the lights? What is it for you?
I honestly don’t know. It’s this feeling of incredible freedom, but at the same time you know that people are looking at you.
Of course it depends, there are some times if you’re in the corps then all you’re thinking about is the counts so you’re not the one who sticks out like a sore thumb. I’m good at that.
But when you’re doing the solos, you’re on stage and you’re sharing a moment with your partner and it’s just you know how many people have worked so hard for that moment to happen – the orchestra’s playing and the tech team has put in so much work.
And you can just enjoy it. No one’s gonna be yelling at you on a microphone. It’s unbelievable – provided you don’t have stage fright!
Was that ever an issue for you – stage fright?
It was. I actually thought that I would give up dancing at one point because I think it reached its highest point back at the Youth American Grand Prix.
I think a big part of my stage fright was everytime I went on stage it was for a competition, or it was a gala, where I had a minute and half to prove myself and it was like getting shot out of a cannon.
There’s so much pressure, like the Olympics.
Whereas if you’re in the corps, building up a ballet, there’s so much happening, there’s so many things that you just ease into it.
My stage fright only went away at the Prix de Lausanne because I knew that was my last competition. And I thought you know what, I have a job, I’m doing Prix which was my dream since I was a kid and I am going to enjoy it.
I was doing Sleeping Beauty Act III, which was a variation that was still challenging, but it doesn’t really have anything in there that you would really fail at, like there are no turns or jumps that could go terribly wrong. It’s all about technique and pristine clarity, so I was just going to focus on that. And I’m just gonna enjoy it. It’s like a switch flipped.
Until now, I still get nervous. I thought I was going to throw up in the first maybe 5 shows of Bayadere this season. You hear the music and you go “oh my gosh, here comes the rep”.
But it’s not a stage fright, it’s just knowing that this bit is challenging and I can’t mess it up because this is my job.
But it’s not this fear of going on stage and thinking that I can’t do it anymore. It’s more of, “I don’t wanna let the team down. I don’t wanna be that one that one Shade that falls over.”
Well as long as you finish in a beautiful pose you can be like, “I meant to do that.”
If only! I’m part of the corps, I can’t just “save myself”! It may be a new version of the ballet, but that doesn’t mean I can put my leg down a full 4 counts earlier – any girl who has done shades can relate!
That’s interesting because I did want to talk about competitions. Despite the fact that you had massive stage fright, your competitive career turned out pretty well. How did you manage it? You still pull these performances out of your hat, and the judges agreed you were very good.
Yeah and every time on stage, I was always very frustrated because I didn’t dance as well as in the studio. A good example of that is Giselle. I won YAGP with that variation when I was 15. It was the competition that sort of opened doors for me and gave me a bit of a name, I guess, or just exposed me a bit more.
But with that exposure came a lot of pressure.
Every time I do those double double en dedan turns and attitude turns in the studio they would be fine, but the minute I went on stage it was just a mess. And I think that the only thing that saved me is that the variation is very expressive: you tell a story, and in my head I would just try to give every step a meaning and try not to think about those turns.
I think a big part of it is maturity. You learn to just get over it. If the turn doesn’t work, whatever, you move on.
But I wasn’t able to do that and I can’t really say I enjoyed a lot of the competitions I did because I wanted to do well. I knew that if I didn’t win, I wouldn’t go to another competition. Like that would be it, every time. I wouldn’t per se enjoy competing.
I find ballet competitions a bit of a tricky thing actually, because ballet is so subjective. Personal opinions, I think. It’s not something you can just put a score on and just be like, ‘that’s a 9.’
That’s the controversy with ballet competitions.
Absolutely. So I thought of it as a opportunity for you to perform and I think that’s how it should be seen by other people.
I don’t really watch ballet competitions anymore, I think after Varna I was like “I’ve done my dream, it’s enough”.
And I never competed to win for myself. When I did it, it was for my school. Winning those medals was just a nice reward for me. But what was most important to me was my work, with my coach, with my teacher at school. Till this day, I still think that’s the most important part of the process. It’s in the studio that you really improve.
What did you focus on during performances that helps you keep it together, despite the fact that you might want to projectile vomit on stage or something?
I think the one thing that kept me from going “you know what, screw this, I’m just gonna mess up and get kicked out” was my pride. I just didn’t want to give up too much.
I hate giving up. I was like, “I just have to hang in there right until the end.” I have to get there somehow. That being said, I can’t tell you the amount of times that I went off stage after competing and I would just sit in the stairwell and cry on the phone with my mum. You know, I guess that’s how I dealt with it.
I’d pull it together on stage, and then I go off stage and it’s just the end of the world.
So why did you keep competing and dancing if it made you so upset?
Sometimes I asked myself that too but, you know, you grow under pressure.
I went to a state school so the government paid for my education and if you were selected to do a competition you would just do it because you were chosen to represent the school. If you turned it down they could have told you “oh you don’t want to? Then thank you very much, we don’t need a student who turns down opportunities.”
Like I said before, I think what really kept me going was I knew that the lead up to the competition, I had 1, 2, 3 months of intense work with my teacher. 1 on 1. Which was so helpful, because my parents could never afford private lessons. That’s what kept me going. And even though my teacher and I had a few fair shares of blowouts in the studio and a lot of tears on my part, I would not be the dancer I am today without those hours with her.
Those hours were a precious gift that no money in the world could pay so I think that’s what made me wanting to compete. And you know, you get to wear these really nice costumes and get all of it for free so!
So the expenses for the competition, were sponsored by the school and state?
Yup, it was all expenses paid. We didn’t have to pay costumes, we didn’t have to pay travel. We got a small stipend to be able to eat out and buy groceries abroad. So it was a privilege. And you just had to make the best out of it.
I think that’s why I got so stressed because I felt like I had to do well.
After competitions are done, when did you start building your confidence again?
I think my first year of work in Zurich was very very helpful for that. We had the privilege of having Alexei Ratmansky come in to do Swan Lake. He choreographed a reconstruction of Swan Lake for our company.
Whenever that there was a little room for me to have a slightly more important role within the corps de ballet, he gave me those opportunities to do so, and that proved to me that my classical dancing was still up to scratch. I was in the first year in the junior company, I wasn’t even a member of the company but I was chosen to do the 4 little cygnets. In his version, there are also 2 solo swans of the ballet in the 4th Act, and I was one of them.
It was important to me because we didn’t do a lot of classical ballet in Zurich, and for my first 6 months there, I was in a state of despair the whole time because I had injured my foot during my graduation performance. So I had missed the whole bit of the first year. I wasn’t doing much classical ballet and I felt like I sucked. And then in comes Ratmansky, this massive renowned choreographer and he tries to give me roles!
That made me go, “oh, you know what, maybe I actually am able to do this.”
And second,I did Varna during the summer holidays. I thought you know what, I might as well try – I’ve always wanted to dance on that stage. I ended up winning the gold medal which… I was mind blown!
You know, a medal’s a medal; maybe if different people had been in the jury, I wouldn’t have gotten that medal. It’s subjective. But it did prove to me that I could pull it together in big competitions – I could put all the pieces together myself.
So I think that it just gave me some confidence. Especially because I probably doubt myself more than anyone else and the things I say to myself, I would never say to anybody else. So yeah, those were the 2 things that helped.
I know when you started in Queensland Ballet, you had a rough patch as well because of your injury. Tell me how’s it like dealing with it, obviously the physical rehab is hard, but I think the hardest part for dancers is the mental aspect.
That’s one thing that’s always been brushed over. Not a lot of dancers talk about that.
In fact, when the dancer’s off, they kind of tend to not really share much on social media. I think they just brush it aside, and not make a big fuss out of it publicly. But it feels like – for me at least – it felt like I had lost my identity. You don’t realise how much ballet is a part of your life until you physically cannot do it.
Lou Spichtig in our Lament for Allegro Tee
I have heard a lot of dancers say that as well about their injuries.
It just feels like you’re missing a limb. It feels like you’re not yourself and the uncertainty that comes with it, there’s no words to describe it. And I still now don’t like talking about that time. I felt so much anxiety and so much… I mean, it was a depression. And I’m just so fearful of even going back to that time.
I had just moved to Queensland, I didn’t have family there, I haven’t made friends yet because I haven’t worked with the company much. People were lovely to me but they weren’t close friends so I just felt so alone. There’s no words to describe how that felt.
And I hadn’t experience that before because I always had been dancing at home in Switzerland. I had my mum or at least somebody there. And here I was halfway across the world. And I was like, “I can’t do my job. I don’t know who I am. I’ve left a safe position in Zurich to come here, and I can’t even do my job.” So that was really hard.
How did you find your balance during that time, if you did?
Honestly I don’t think I did. I started journaling. It was getting to the point where the voices in my head would just drive me so crazy that I’d reach in such a state of absolute despair and I just had to write it down. And honestly haven’t really completely read through those journals again because it makes me wanna throw up. I had felt like I ruined my life.
Yeah, I’m sure it’s hard to revisit something like that.
So hard! Last year I got myself, one of these diaries where you have this space to write a small paragraph everyday, and then on the same day the next year you go back to that page and then you write it underneath that paragraph. It’s really great!
It’s so interesting to go back and read it. When I was injured I went home between February and April to have treatment and I came back literally about a week ago last year. So now every evening when I write my little paragraphs, I’d read what I had written the year before. It still makes me sick to my stomach to read it, but I’m kind of glad in a way that I have it written down. It reminds me how much I have to be grateful for.
Yes, it does keep things in perspective.
It absolutely does. I read things from last year like, “did some barre today.” I didn’t think I would ever be able to dance again – I didn’t know if it would ever happen and nobody could tell me. And then 1 year later, I am able to dance as a soloist Shade in Bayadere. I don’t take anything for granted anymore. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise, maybe not. It’s still made me very fearful of certain things, there’s a fear that will always be there.
Lou Spichtig in our Deader Than My Pointe Shoes tee
Yeah, it’s a trauma.
Yeah, you just have to learn to live with it. But it’s part of life.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget how I felt. But it has definitely given me a lot more empathy for other people, and it’s also made me learn things about my body and treat it a lot more fairly, unlike what I did in the past, I think. I hope!
It’s a life experience.
Yeah, I think everyone in life has that and I can just be grateful that I couldn’t do my job only for a little while. For dancers, our jobs are still a big part of our identity that it hurts you so badly to not do it. But you know, some people have issues with life and death and you just have to put it in perspective. Even though for us it feels like we’ve died a little bit inside, we still have to remember that we’ve got 2 legs and 2 arms. We can see, hear, and have a functioning brain. You know what I mean?
I’m glad that you’re back on stage now and you’re dancing again. Smarter and wiser about it, and healthy!
Yeah, you learn to appreciate every minute, y’know sometimes, you’re standing in rehearsal and you’re like “I can’t go through this, am I really gonna do it?” But then you realise that you’re actually lucky to even be there.
We’ll finish with one last question which is what piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
If it was me still in that school, I would say to treasure the time with your teacher a lot more. She gave me hell for 4 years at school, but meant it in a good way.
She just wanted to teach us to the best of her abilities. She was sometimes pretty tough on us, very tough. And I always took it very personally, I wasn’t mature enough to see the professional side of it.
And, if I could, I’d try to leave all of those emotions and personal feelings aside and just focus on the work, and and enjoy my time with it more.
Lou and I!
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Pics: Jovian Lim for Cloud & Victory