beyond the barre with mahallia ward

My friendship with Mahallia is one of the most unique I’ve ever encountered.  This is likely due to the fact that we have never actually met.  Well, not in the conventional shake-hands-and-how-do-you-do way, at least.  Shared passions and the vast interwebs introduced us in that marvelous and strange mathematical way I’d rather pretend was serendipity.  Cyber-sations be damned, we’ve taken to exchanging actual, real life letters, and it turns out what snail mail lacks in speed of interaction it makes up for in depth.  It’s been so fun getting to peek into her world, I thought you might like to do the same…Snow Queen.jpeg

K: Let’s start from the very beginning.  What is your earliest dance-related memory?

M: My mom was my ballet teacher when I was really little. I remember our class performance when I was about five years old. My mom was on stage with us and she wore these huge butterfly wings. We all followed her around doing our best “butterfly arms”. I also remember she wore her huge plastic frame glasses on stage, the hipstery kind that are popular now (but weren’t then). I thought she was great.

That’s adorable!  So in high school you trained at the Harid Conservatory for 3 years.  What was it like being at a ballet boarding school?  Do you ever feel like you missed out on “normal people high school experiences”? 

I definitely didn’t have a “normal” high school experience, but I feel like I had a very rich one. I became close with girls who understood my desire to dance and the dedication that it took. I also gained an early sense of independence and responsibility. While some students felt caged in by the boarding school rules and curfews, I felt like I had plenty of freedom. All I wanted to do on the weekends at that age was go to Whole Foods, grab a bag of trail mix, and eat it in the cookbook section of Barnes & Noble with my girlfriends. I was pretty satisfied, haha.

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Definitely living the dream, haha.  After graduating from Harid you were a given a traineeship with the Joffrey Ballet for one year, before receiving a company contract the following year.  Was it difficult to transition into company life? 

My first year with Joffrey was so much fun. I loved living in the city and wearing whatever I wanted in class. I felt very welcome in the company and of course it was awesome to get paid. I met my best friend that year and my future husband. I just soaked it all up. The rep, the touring, the newness. The challenge of the transition from student to professional came later for me. I had to learn how to motivate myself without a teacher and how to manage jealously and unhealthy comparison. In school I was always amongst the top in my class and I benefited from those opportunities. It was difficult to adjust to the very high level of competition in a professional company, and to start near the bottom again.

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What has been the most personally significant onstage moment or role in your career thus far?

I’ve been fortunate to dance many fulfilling roles in my time at Joffrey. But what comes to mind now is the role of Lady Capulet which I performed for the first time last week and will perform again this weekend. I am three months pregnant, and dancing this role has been gratifying beyond my expectations. Prokofiev is gorgeous and Lady Capulet’s character is complex and heartbreaking. But most significant for me is the confidence and enjoyment with which I am able to perform this role. My path in ballet has been riddled with insecurities and it feels incredible to have reached a level of maturity at which I can fully appreciate what I am doing, especially since (or perhaps because) my life is about to change so drastically.

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Okay, let’s talk life changes.  You are married to a non-dancer.  Is it difficult to explain certain aspects of the ballet world to someone who is not directly involved, or do you find it refreshing?

The only time I find it difficult to explain the ballet world to my husband is when I’m in the middle of the extreme highs and lows that can come with it. Sometimes after a great show, when I’m still hyped up on endorphins, I wish he could be up in that place with me. And other times, when I’ve felt absolutely crushed, I feel like he can’t truly understand the emotional toll that a disappointment can take after investing in something since childhood. But mostly my husband is a steady source of comfort and encouragement. Because he’s not in the ballet world with me, he offers clarity and perspective that is extremely helpful to me in navigating this profession. He has also developed a pretty good eye for a non-dancer. He’s always ready to talk to me about a performance with thoughtful comments and critiques.

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So it’s all about balance, it seems?  How fitting!  As you already know, I am such a fan of your blog, on ballence.  You are such a talented writer and photographer, where do you find the time to cultivate these passions?

Thank you! I like blogging because writing and photography serve as a reflection on my life as it happens. Material for a post or photograph is everywhere, and I love the exercise of noticing an experience and turning it into a beautifully documented memory. The more frequently I post, the easier it is to find the time for it. When I write a lot I write more easily. For me, the challenge is to find consistency in something I’m doing as a hobby.

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I completely relate to that.  It’s difficult for dancers to find the time for hobbies, but I think it’s so important!  How has blogging and pursuing other “extracurricular activities” shifted your perspective inside the ballet studio?

I saw the sweetest kid’s book the other day called “What to do with a problem” by Kobi Yamada. In the book a little boy discovers an uncomfortable problem. He tries to ignore it but it grows and grows. When he finally confronts the problem he realizes that inside of it lies and opportunity! The nice thing about writing is that in any situation; be it wonderful, challenging, or even mundane…there is an opportunity to turn it into something thoughtful and beautiful by writing about it. If I have a bad day at work, well at least I have post material.

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On a lighter note, you are expecting your first child, CONGRATULATIONS!  This kind of life change certainly spawns reflection, I’m sure.  Do you ever contemplate life beyond the barre? 

Yes all the time. Especially right now. At the moment my career seems to be simultaneously shrinking and growing in significance. With the anticipation of a child I feel less attached to my identity as a dancer and also more grateful for it. I am surprised and delighted to find myself in this state. I feel at peace with how far I’ve come in my career and whatever unknowns lie ahead.

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Lightning Round:

Breakfast this morning was…French toast with honey

Favorite ballet? Lar Lubovitch’s Othello

Favorite place in Chicago? I really like the coffee shop Dollop in the South Loop. It’s near our theater and has the best chicken pot pie ever. Whenever my family comes to town for a show we hang out there all the time.

Current pointe shoe brand/style? Capezios. I copied the specs from another dancer’s special order and I’m loving them.

Thank you so much for sharing, Mahallia!

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photos 1, 4, 6, 9 by Cheryl Mann ; photos 2 & 3courtesy of The Joffrey Ballet ; photo 7 by Alejandro Mallado, all others via Mahallia Ward

2 thoughts on “beyond the barre with mahallia ward

  1. I absolutely love these q&a’s. Thank you for sharing! It’s so refreshing for me to read these & relate to women who work in the same field, yet be so inspired by all of the elements that make each of your lives whole beyond the walls of the studio. xxx

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