SPECIAL | Suvi Honkanen Ballet & the Emotional Demands

GUEST CONVERSATIONS

March 9, 2021

It is so rare to share a moment with such a beautiful person, with so much courage, passion, and love to pour back into the art form. Suvi Honkanen open’s up to how and what brought her to write her article that went viral in the ballet world.

 

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SPECIAL | Suvi Honkanen Ballet & the Emotional Demands

 

Hello, and welcome to another episode of my podcast. I am so happy to you our intro to today. I have Suvi Honkanen on the podcast. Yes. Suvi, who wrote the last big article in Pointe Magazine and blew up and went viral. So Suvi Honkanen was born originally in Helsinki, Finland, and she began her quality training at the age of five at the Helsinki Dance Institute. She went to train at Russia’s Vaganova Academy and then professionally with Finnish National Ballet for nine years before transitioning into writing and journalism in 2019. She is now working on her first book, exploring a bit more on the podcast. So, without any further ado, enjoy this episode. We are going to talk about all her experiences and where she is going to take them. And she’s going to use them to make a difference in today’s world. Hi. Suvi, thank you so much for being on the Pointe To Rise podcast today. I am so honored to have this conversation with you.

Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me. Wonderful. I wanted to share

How we connected for two reasons. I find that in the Ballet world, we’re very timid about making new connections with others. Because we’re afraid of I don’t know what hearing a no, or, maybe hearing No, because that is what we are accustomed to or what they do now. And I reached out to you after reading this article. I read it a week before it is appearing in the magazine, and I was like, I need to talk to her. How do I find her and I didn’t put much energy into it. And then, suddenly, there you were in my face again. And I thought, oh my gosh, I just want to congratulate you on your courage and your knowledge and thank you for speaking your truth.

Thank you. It was a significant article to write and something that I’ve been working on and thinking about for a long, long time. And I’m just super grateful for Pointe Magazine for giving me that opportunity. And that platform. I mean, had I published that, you know, just on my own, it wouldn’t have reached quite as many people. So I’m so grateful for them.

I thank you for bringing that up. We’re talking about Suvi, who wrote the article, Pointe Magazine, it completely went viral. I said that in the intro, but just in case you skipped over the intro. We’re talking to you today. You never know what’s on the other side. My point was like reaching out and asking the question, not even asking a question. But making a connection with somebody, you feel that has something outstanding, or you just want to encourage them not to stop regardless of what kind of responses may come. That was all my intentions. I didn’t expect you to write back to me. I just wanted you to know that I see you, I hear you, I’m so proud of you, and appreciate your courage. That was my entire intention. And this is how we’ve ended up here.

So it did lead to good things.

We will start with something we never talk about. Tell me one thing that you can’t stand in food. I love food. But I also have lots of foods that I can’t stand, and there are lots of stories behind them. What is one food that you can stand, can’t touch, and gives you like shivers and ui gooey when you even think of it?

Wait, wow. Well, okay, I haven’t eaten meat in a long, long time. So I think meat in general maybe would be something not taste-wise. I like the taste but like, you know, ethical reasons. So I’d probably say meats. I don’t think I could, there’s also this Finnish dish that we have during Christmas. And it’s like a type of fish. It’s a white fish, and you cook it in this like a weird cream sauce. And just the smell of it the texture. It’s like that’s, I made that I’ll choose that. Yeah. Oh, no. My dad is like every year to my mom like, No, we have to have it as a Christmas, and we’re like, no.

Wow. Some traditions are interesting. I’ll share mine today. It’s red beets. Like I can’t smell, I cannot stand what it does to my fingers when I touch them and send them in juice. When I was growing up, I grew up on a farm, and we only ate what was made on the farm. We had a lot of red beets. And oh, she made this awful salad with some sort of oil and vinegar and fennel seeds. And she made me eat it every winter. I dreaded the winters because of all the red beet salad and the tastes of earth, and I still can’t stand it.  Alright, let’s get to the good stuff. I’d like to start my interviews by really diving into why did you start dancing? Like, what was it that made you want to get up every morning to step into the studio? And to go through everything that we as dancers go through to learn, or whatever.

I think my primary motivation has always been to just experience that magical moment on stage. And it wasn’t something that I knew of when I was a child. And I began dancing. But once I got the first experience of that, I think I was like a mermaid or something the first time I was on stage. You know, I was six years old. And I felt just so happy on stage. And I felt like it was all I needed to, to feel fulfilled in life, to have that experience of performing. And I don’t know, every second every moment is just such fuel and alive. And that that feeling was my motivation. Always throughout the years, every time I felt like, you know, I don’t want to go to class today or I don’t want to, I don’t want to push today, I would just think of, you know, my favorite ballet and like have an image of what would it feel like to perform that? And that just always gave me strength?

That’s very beautiful. Can you talk about the magical moment? As dancers? We know what that magical moment is; we feel it?  Most of us actually have a hard time describing the what? In other words, what’s that?  Since you’re a writer! Would you take a stab at it for us?

Or I’ll try, I’ll try. well, the feeling I have in my body is, you know, a tingling sensation, you feel ready for anything, you feel alive, you feel excited, and you feel like, you know, you can do anything at this moment. And especially when you’re in that flow state, of course, there are performances when you’re, you know, not but for talking. The perfect moment here. Perfect, magical moments. And you are just you, almost feel like you are in a dialogue with either whoever you’re dancing with onstage. Or with the audience, you feel like they feel what you feel, or they see what you see. And you feel like you’re embodying this character that you’re playing, or, or performing and, and I don’t know, it’s a combination of sort of like, you know, you see the bright lights you see the dark, vague audience. I don’t know; you smell the hairspray, and it’s all just like a combination of all those things. Just your you just feel like this is this is the moment that I do this for. I don’t know if I did it any justice.

Great. I’m going to add one thing to it. It’s precisely what it always was for me, then this feeling of being connected to something higher to something intangible that nobody else has. Standing in the warm lights, the smell of rosin, pointe shoes, sweat, perfume, and sensing the energy from the audience and the people in the wings. I think that’s, like an energetic level, the female energy does with the divine through movement and through dancing. That, for me, was always the higher level why I was drawn so much to being on stage.

I definitely agree. There’s, there’s an element of something that you can’t like touch. You know, it’s something you can’t get with money or, you know, with success. It’s just a feeling that that comes there on the stage.  I think I agree.

You started dancing when you were five. And that was in Helsinki. Walk us through your career at a high level.

So I started dancing in my mom’s dance school. And from there, I went to Helsinki dance Institute. They had a unique training program that you had to sort of audition for. And then, actually, when I was 12, my family moved to Colorado for two years for my dad’s job. So I danced in Boulder Valley School, which is, I think, Isabella Boylston is from there. I think she’s from she’s definitely from Boulder, right? Then we move back to Finland, and I went to the Finnish National Opera ballet school. When I was, I believe, 16, then Vaganova school for one year, and after that, I was offered an apprentice contract and from Finnish National Ballet and started working. And then I danced until the fall of 2019.

And that’s when you stopped? I want to talk about the article that you put out. Let’s dive in there. We know because it is so much of what so many people are feeling and not talking about? Many dancers think, assume, are being taught that the suffering, the abuse, the mental or physical abuse, is just what it takes nowadays? To that point. My mother always said, well, just so you know, there will always be the casting couch that you have to be aware of. And I refuse that belief so much. However, it did exist. And it did exist because everybody was speaking about it. Everybody believed in it, and everybody gave it power. And the more and more we’re actually talking about other options and other opportunities and lifting the curtain, there are so many other possibilities. Like the job as a dancer to dream doesn’t have to be art. It doesn’t have to hurt. I would love to know how did this come about? Like what was? How did you get from stopping dancing 2019 to writing such a beautiful piece of content?

A lot of things happened.  I experienced a lot during my years at Finnish National Ballet and during my years dancing, many moments when I just thought this is wrong, what why is this happening? But like most of us, I was just too scared to say anything, you know, there’s always that fear of, they’re not going to cast me, or I’m not going to get a contract for next year. And so I just remained silent. And I think I was thinking about stopping dancing for quite a while just because I felt like I can’t connect to this type of behavior anymore. Like, I can’t just be quiet and watch this and then proudly say that I’m a dancer and not that there’s anything not you shouldn’t, of course, be like you can be proud to be a dancer. That’s not my point. But I just didn’t feel that that connection anymore. And so I stopped when in 2019 and, you know, of course, I miss ballet a lot. I love ballet. And it was my life; it was everything to me. And I guess my motivation was to find something that I can come out from the other end of the tunnel. Better than those who have hurt my friends or me, I wanted to, in some way, do anything as little as possible that this would maybe someday stop. And that, you know, if I had a daughter one day that I wouldn’t have to tell her by the way, there’s the casting couch, you know, that shouldn’t be, shouldn’t be a thing. So I just felt a powerful urge to speak up and not be afraid anymore. And yeah, I think that’s why I started thinking about these things more and more and sort of analyzing the situation. And wondering, you know, where does all this come from?  So when you felt the dis alignment, let’s say, between who you started to become and what kind of environment you were in. Talk to us about where those questions were coming from because I’m seeing so much. I was guilty of it or not that we just surrendered the path given to us without ever questioning it. That’s the problem. Not thinking like being completely powerless, thinking that this is the only way.

So, where did that courage? Where did that come from? Because so many people just don’t find that on their own.

Probably the people around me in one sense. You know, my mother is a dance pedagogue herself and a professor at the Theater Academy in Helsinki. She has done a lot of work with children on dance education and dance educators. And so I think from here, I got a lot of strength and supports, you know, the question of who am I if I don’t dance didn’t seem quite as scary when I got to sort of go through it with someone and not alone. And I also had wonderful friends, and you know, and my boyfriend and everything, so I credit the people around me a lot for that. I also guess that some sort of ability to have hope for the future, even if dance is not in it the way it used to be.

You mentioned in your article something that I repeat over and over again. We keep putting broken dancers into leadership roles into teaching roles, and even ballet director roles, and we keep repeating the cycle without even thinking of looking at the possibility that a great dancer doesn’t necessarily mean they’re also great dance. Great teachers, we’re looking for names to attract more donors for the companies.  We’re making it about survival, not about the product that would sustain a company’s thriving. How did you get there? To that thought process?

I mean, I guess I’ve always been someone who just thinks a lot. I have a strong need to analyze things and understand why things work the way they work. I guess if I, if I see something that I noticed, like, there’s not something is not really working here. I want to go back and find out what you know, what has happened in the past? Why are we here now? And I totally agree with what you said. I mean, it’s crazy to think that there can be a person who’s in charge of 40, 50, 60, even 100 dancers in some companies without any training and leadership, or psychology, or pedagogy. It’s quite incredible. Not even good away. I’m not saying there aren’t some great directors because there are, but unfortunately, there are many who just do not understand how to motivate or get the best out of a person.

Because they’re making it about them and not about the other person. So let me ask you this. I, what I’ve seen, and I had my fair bit of ego-driven artistic directors in front of me that told me all the knowledge of excuses or think about your thought’s kind of statements. And I feel that ballet in itself, like the art form, has forgotten where, why they’re doing, what they’re doing, who they’re serving. And I was coached recently by my coach that you know, Susi, all of your fears that you’re experiencing right now are about you. If you want to do something bigger, it’s not about you. It’s about everybody else. Like, you need to look at the bigger vision. And it made me think. Wait for a second, that making it about me is still a trait that I have as a dancer. And I’m not putting any judgment on it because it’s just what it is, right? This is how we grew up. I don’t want to apologize for it, either. It’s just who I was or who I am. And it’s so easy, I’m fearful; therefore, I’m not doing it without going like levels deeper. So he challenged me to look at it from a different perspective. And when we look at ballet companies in terms of who are they serving? Why are they doing what they’re doing? I would love to know your perspective on that topic.

Around why are directors the way that they are?

When are we looking at the current situation in the companies, why we’re seeing so much abuse? Why? Why do dancers leave? Broken? Thinking they’re unworthy? Where is this actually coming from? Like, what is the deepest of the root?

That’s a good question. And I can only speculate, but I’m sure that cycle of broken dancers become broken, teachers become broken directors, and so on, I’m sure that has, you know, a lot to do with it. I think people who feel that they have not fulfilled their own career or achieved what they wanted to achieve. They get some sort of weird satisfaction from not making it possible for someone else. Which is not a healthy way to go about it. I mean, ballet companies aren’t the only profession where there’s, you know, especially this male-female hierarchy that comes from social structures from decades and decades ago. And it’s going to be very hard to fix that. Like you said before, I feel that many people have forgotten what this is actually about. As well, many of them are looking at, you know, I want to have the best names, I want to be the best company, I want to have the best choreographers, I want to have the largest ticket sales. While all that is important, you know, to keep everything going and get donors and money and all of that to pay your dancers. Dancing is about freedom and joy, and love and pain and all of those things. It’s not about, you know, putting some, as you can see there, healing and arabesque. Were so far from the point, if that’s what we’re focusing on, it should be about, you know, I mean, what a wonderful profession where all of these people in the studio creating something with our bodies and with music, what is the point to yell and scream and shout? You know,

It has nothing to do with love. That’s the point they do not act from a place of love or respect. When we’re talking about leaders in the front seat. I consciously don’t want to call them leaders because I don’t see them as leaders. I see them as broken souls who have yet to overcome their own struggles during their careers. And without the awareness. They’re just, you know, bring it on to the next generation. How important to you. Let me go back. I’ve seen in my training years, and I still see that we’re concentrating so much on the body. Like everything we concentrate on is our body’s ability. And we’re missing the big point here is that body’s ability actually coming from? Like, we’re assuming it’s coming through training and repetitive strength training or straining and breaking through that pain threshold and raising the ceiling and whatever. However, you want to call it. And we’re missing one point, which is how powerful our mind actually is. And I’d love to get into that a little bit because it has all, all the abuse, everything that we’re seeing is because we’re running in one highway, and we’re not looking at diverse ways of teaching. To get where you are today, you had to had, you had to have, like the epiphany of Okay, I need to work on myself as a human being. I’m helping me with that, what that looks like for you. And oh, you got there. I’m sure there is a story there.

Sure. Well, I started noticing, maybe five years into my career, that I’m dancing, and life, in general, didn’t really feel the way I wanted it to feel. I often felt very anxious and nervous. And, you know, I had an eating disorder and all this stuff. And then, at some point, I had a hip injury, and I went into surgery. So I had, you know, a good four months off. And it started very, you know, I talked more with my friends, and I talked more with my mom and me. I noticed that there were a lot of thoughts that were in my mind that I needed to address. And I can’t say that it was necessarily just one thing that made me realize that I can control the way I feel or that my thoughts control the way I feel. It was sort of a slow process. I tried just for fun. Affirmations, you know, I was like, um, let me just try what it feels like to, to read some affirmations for myself. And there was one exercise where you had to say to the mirror something like, you know, you’re beautiful, or I love you or something like this to yourself. And I just couldn’t say it. I was like, No, I can’t. I don’t love myself. I’m not, you know. And I was like, Oh my gosh, that’s like, That’s not good. And then there was one affirmation in general, which was a critical one for me. It said I deserve empathy and understanding. And that was for me, like, you know what, I’ve made a lot of mistakes and ballet. I did stuff that I should not have. But I deserve empathy. Everybody deserves empathy. I don’t deserve to be yelled at. And I think that was a very empowering feeling to realize, like, you know, what, it’s not on me, it’s on them. And sort of life where, you know, again, we get to do this beautiful profession, and there are, you know, adult people who yell at adults as if we were children.

I was just like, No, what? This is not how I want to live. This is not how it should be. Ballet is about art and is not about this. So I think probably around that time, after my hip surgery, I became more and more aware of my own thoughts and negative thought patterns. And you know how I was talking to myself, we blabber on stuff about ourselves all the time, you know, daily, whatever it is related to ballet or not. And it’s hazardous if you’re not aware of what you’re telling yourself. Sorry, that was a really long answer.

Yes, I’ve been there. You know what, and I have to say even after like three years of like, really consistent affirmations and self-development. I still look in the mirror some days. It’s like, no, today I don’t love myself. Like I can’t; where’s that little left ball coming from? Why do I have a muffin top? I have breasts now? No. Yeah, it’s kind of feeling and thought. Breaking through that every day. That’s the work. And that result of not doing it earlier and not listening to my intuition, and staying in the box that I thought I can be in. So good for you all, because they know what the earlier you can do that I think this I actually I genuinely believe that this kind of work is actually your fundamental essential, or be the very best dancer that you can be.

Totally Yeah. And I think a great example of how important your mindset is, is when you think about a performance where you were sort of in a weird space mentally, you know, I don’t know if I can do this, I feel fat today, or whatever it is, and you perform poorly. Whereas when you feel confident and happy, and you’re excited to go on stage, you do a good performance. Yeah, so your mind really is. I mean, there’s, there’s a reason why there’s, you know, mental coaching, sports psychology, all this stuff.

Exactly. What’s the formula? Tony Robbins uses it all the time? That equals 80%. Mindset and 20% skills?

I actually tried an enjoyable exercise from Tony Robbins. I think back in must have been 2017, which was also a fundamental part of becoming more aware of what I tell myself. I read it in a bookstore, and I just grabbed the book. And I was like, What is this? And I just saw this exercise that said, for 10 days. Try not to say anything wrong about yourself to yourself. And when you start, just stop, don’t think have no, you know, the reasons or anything, just stop. Just don’t even go there. And I tried that. And after 10 days, I honestly felt like a different person.

So much lighter, it is so much easier. There’s so much more freedom on that other side of self-doubt, and fear, and unworthiness. It is unbelievable. Oh, that’s beautiful. Tony’s the best! What other books do you read?

I read quite a lot of books. I prefer fiction or nonfiction and haven’t read that many self-help books. I guess I’m kind of, you know, wary about them. Just because if you’re, if you’re reading them just like, like this, then maybe you will get advice. That’s not the best, you know, there’s a lot out there. But I recently read, I can’t remember the author’s name, but it’s called a bet. Personality isn’t permanent. It’s a great book. It’s about a sort of identity and, and how you can, you know, change the course of your life if you so choose. That was a great book.

You know, just the concept of you always have a choice. Like it is always at the end of the day, at the beginning of the day, every single moment, it is your choice on either how you react, how you want to feel, how you present yourself. And for me, that finding that aha moment changed everything for me, or I felt other people have you No, charge me. Like they determine whether or not I can do or I cannot do? And that dramatically correlates to my experience, during my professional career, where we all felt like puppets. And if we didn’t obey, we just didn’t get the role. And I believe that with this mentality of you always have a choice. If you were to go into your professional career with that kind of mindset, your career would end up completely different.

I’m sure your rights. And I mean, I think it’s a lot about your own mindsets, and you know, your self-esteem and how you present yourself. And another part of it is how the ones in power treat their employees, and answers in this. In this case, um, when I think of my career, I think if I had been allowed to make mistakes and be well and learn, my career would have been very different. And that’s the same for a lot of young dancers.

Whatever there, you just said something exciting. If I had been allowed to make mistakes and learn, your career would have been different. I can relate to that 100%. I actually, in fact, just talked about that a few days ago. And I had this aha moment about not having the permission to learn. Go a little deeper and what that meant for you.

Sure. I remember my first year, you know, I was straight fresh from Ballet School, and I was covering something and Don Q I think, and I didn’t realize that you have to check the capitalists every day to see if somebody got injured. And if you weren’t put in their place, I somehow assume that somebody will come and tell me. ‘

If they had no communication going on?

Times there is one time; in this case, there was not. So I didn’t realize that I have to go into the cast list and check that. Okay. And so then there came a day when somebody had gotten sick. And I had no idea that I had to do their part. And I was like, completely lost, you know, and not in the right place and stuff. And I got sort of, like, this look like, Oh, no, she can’t handle it. And I was like, Yes, I can. I just didn’t know. I’m sorry. You know, like, it was just the learning curve. It was just the Oh, okay, I need to check it every day. I got it now. And then, in the next, you know, position, I would have been that much more knowledgeable. Instead of getting this sort of, like, disappointed, you know? She’s not really on top of it. It felt like, Ah, you know, that’s not me. That’s not, that’s not fair. And it’s not just me who happened to. I mean, several apprentices and youth company members just don’t know the rules. And they just need a chance to adapt and learn and understand how it works. Okay, a massive leap from the school to the professional world.

Riffing right now, because that is not leadership that has nothing to do with leadership, that is punishment or something that the leadership team, and I’m putting this into air quotes here, actually didn’t do their job had nothing to do with you. Because if they are not clearly stating the expectation, how on earth are you supposed to rule? And I think, yeah, that is one of the problems that we’re seeing that the first fundamentals of leadership are not being established, like communicating with people in your companies like 101. And leadership. That’s one on one in business. If you’re not having an open line of communication, you don’t have a business.

And back to that empathy thing. You know, for years and years, I would beat myself up like, Oh, they gave me a chance, and I blew it. Why didn’t I know the counts? And why not? Why wasn’t I in the right place? And, and then, after many, many years, I realized, you know what, I tried my best. I learned the choreography. And I just didn’t know, and nobody told me, and that’s not my fault. And I think, yeah, that’s, you know, situations like these happened during those nine years, which are just unnecessary. They just don’t have to be like that.

It’s unnecessary. It doesn’t have to be that way. Exactly. Like it doesn’t have to be hard, right?  Does not have to be hard. It does not need to be disrespectful. It doesn’t need to make you feel like you’re unworthy. Like, I don’t know, when that started and where that came from. I don’t understand either.

 Nobody benefits from, you know, that atmosphere of fear and anxiety in the studio. Nobody benefits from that are somebody who thrives in a place like that. And there are individual choreographers, certainly not everyone, absolutely not everyone, there are lovely choreographers, and you know, repetiteur is out there. But some of them create, when they step in, they come in with this, like, this plan. This, I’m better than you. I’m above you. You do want to move, and I’m going to scream at you. Nobody benefits from that, and they’re not above anyone. We’re all people. We’re all on the same level, dancer, repetiteur. Everybody’s on the same level, and everybody should be respected. Just because you are repetiteur doesn’t mean that you get to shout. That’s just common humanity. You don’t shout at the people; that’s not how the world works.

You know, who benefits from instilling fear and from being in all of these negative emotions?  It’s that other person’s ego they are power playing. It all goes to the ego because they’re repeating like we’re looking at like the circle of life as a dancer if Yeah, we have the trainee. We have the apprentice. We have the dancer two solos, blah, blah, blah. And then you turn into Bali masters, choreographers, directors, whatever. And when we’re seeing the directors out there, like bead Rhett screaming and Yeah, your people. They do that because that’s what they’ve been taught. This is what they’re used to. This is all they know. And they’ve never looked outside of their little bubble ever how the everyday world interacts?

It’s interesting. I think. Not everyone realizes that fear doesn’t equal respect that just because you’re fear doesn’t mean that you are respected. Usually, dancers respect the ones who are kind the most. And I think, like, respect or whatever it is, that the ego is craving. That’s not how you get it.

They keep repeating the pattern of broken ego that is searching for love or have reversed attention by hating like that. Whoever is standing in front of you and yells at you. It has nothing to do with your adequacy or who you are and what you’re doing, nothing, and everything about yourself. It has everything to do with them. It basically showcases all their weaknesses and showcases that they have to do some work on their own story or own hurt. It’s just pain coming out and speaking. And until we can change, you know, all of these people in the companies I make for myself, I found some relief in that. I still find relief in that in business and always have been when somebody blew up in my face. The only reason why I could stay calm and not break down and cry and whine at myself and feel like a victim is because it wasn’t about me.

That’s a great mindset to have. I know, many dancers are so used to being in that position of I’m the one below who have that they don’t even realize, but that’s a mindset that they could have. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s, you know, years and years of training to be conditioned to just shut up and not.

That mentality is fear-based. When dancers actually realize their power, gosh, everything will turn around like this would stop chasing and understanding that nothing will happen without them; there’s no performance. There’s no show, there is no product, there is no revenue, there is no company. And when you get to that point in yourself, you’re the most critical part of the puzzle piece. Right. And you will find the power to say no, no, to us. No to the yelling. No to everything that is not right. In the industry right now.

It’s, it’s crazy to think that, you know, the most essential part of a ballet company, which is the dancers are the most, you know, abused, I guess the word would be, are not taking care of

Let me run something by you.  In business, the product is the reason why a company exists. Right? Every great, even good business owner does everything possible to take care of the product to make it better every day? Yeah, to put every resource that the founder of this entity has into the product. Now let’s take this into the arts, like the whole concept of business entity arts, where we’re looking at Bali companies, it’s the other way around like we’re, we are, I’m going to move away from that we are because I am not that anymore. The industry puts all in their attention on how to raise more money. And they’re giving their products The most important thing, the least attention. Yeah, the contrary that actually not feeding them anything. They’re some companies not giving them the right training or the right rehearsal time. They just let’s take Katherine Morgan as an example. And her story blew my mind like, Oh, my gosh, this is what I experienced 20 years ago, are you kidding me to still exist? I’m expecting deep on possible of their team or all their product members and then firing the product? Because it’s not upholding the standards. Now that is so backward. It even makes sense to me anymore. And to get back to your article. I don’t know how much longer that is actually sustainable.

I agree. I often think the marketing team or the directors of a company look at ticket sales as a sort of measure of how well a company is doing. You can’t really measure, you know, a dancer’s value in ticket sales. That’s not how it, how it should work and how it can work. So I think a good company is one that shore sells tickets and gets to do great performances, but one that takes care of its dancers and meaningful, fulfilling careers for its dancers. It’s not just about the audience. It can’t be just about the audience. The dancer’s experience also matters. They are also people; you cannot just, at the expense of selling tickets, treats people like they’re not people.

Right, and then not being authentic and truthful about how you’re running your business. I see the cycle, I believe that. So in one on one entrepreneurship, okay. You don’t start a business until you know your why. Your why is not to make money; you’re why is because you want to help others. When we’re looking at ballet and dance in togetherness, it is about survival, and survival is bred from fear and, say, fight or flight. And remember, in that survival mode, where we’re just chasing something, but chasing the money, and we don’t care how we get there, we just gonna and some people get there. But it’s not sustainable. It is not. It won’t evolve; there is no other step. Like it’s like perfectionism, right? It’s like if you need to break out of that. The industry would actually have the courage to remove all of the anxiety, the survival fear, and really get back to the core of what it’s about. We would see more people in the seats because they can relate to what is actually learning on stage.

I totally agree. I think you know, there are so many significant issues in the world today, like, you know, racism, white supremacy, climate crisis, all these things. Top of that, if ballet never sorts out the issues of today and doesn’t even evolve with the work atmosphere that we are evolving to, which is a more empathetic inclusive work atmosphere, nobody will want to be a part of it anymore. And that’s a massive shame because there’s nothing wrong with ballet in itself. Ballet is beautiful. I think I saw what someone commented that you know, in the above my article that she just dislikes ballet or something, but no, I don’t dislike ballet. I love ballet. That’s why I wrote the article. I wrote the article because I don’t want anyone to have to stop ballet. Because they are not strong enough. It is right for everyone; ballet is everyone, firm, rigid, and sensitive for the people after all.

That is so beautiful. Yeah, there were quite some comments in there. We talked before we started recording about some of the comments. I think you stated that we shouldn’t be talking about this because it will paint the wrong picture for the next generation. After all, they already have to deal with so much more. And we both and I’m sure most of the audience will agree that we have to talk about it and these kinds of comments are precisely why. I think in the place where we are at right now. Sorry, go ahead.

Simply not talking. About It will not help anyone you know. And I think the more we talk about it, and the more we tackle these issues, the more you know, children can dance and will dance and will continue to dance and will continue to have long careers. It’s you know, it has the opposite effect in, in my opinion, I don’t see any harm in shining light to these issues that have not been addressed for so many years.

Isn’t that the core issue? Why has it been going on for so long? Because everybody and you said it earlier? We’re just afraid of speaking up. The State Ballet School in Berlin, for example, the school that I went to from 1984 to 1992. The issues rising-up are the same ones I went through when I was there, only to take 30 years for people to feel strong enough. Actually, speak up and say, Hey, no, let’s not do that.

And you can deny that these issues exist. You know, there are several examples in the professional world of abuse and harassment, Peter Martin’s Kenneth Graf, Leigh Scarlets, and, you know, the list goes on. And, you know, the poll from Paris Opera ballet in 2018, I think, revealed that 77% had either witnessed or experienced harassment. The ballet school kids as young as 11. were kicked, scratched, and told to smoke to stay skinny. You know, it’s not that this is a problem for the few people out there, you know, me and a couple others no, this affects if you think 77% of a big company, one of the best companies in this world. That’s a significant percentage. And if you think about just one director, how many careers have been danced under that one director? How many lives? So it is a big problem, and only not talking about it will? It’s not that’s not a good thing for the next generation, but quite the opposite.

Well, it’s the reason why we’re in it. We’re in it right now because of that kind of mindset. Right? I think three-quarters of a company actually feel like they’ve been or witness harassment at one point in his career. That’s absolutely insane.

It also shows that it doesn’t have anything to do with how good or prestigious a company is. It doesn’t have anything to do with what ballets you get to dance or what choreographers, teachers come to your, to your company. It’s, it’s everywhere. And it’s, it’s a tradition, it’s something that just has always been like this. But we can’t, we can’t, you know, just continue doing things. Because they have always been like this. If we did like that, then, you know, there would still be huge issues today, you know, women wouldn’t be able to vote, you know, we would never evolve if we always just took an example of how things used to be.

I think this is a good, okay, so let’s, let’s give our let’s give the audience something to dream about, or perhaps to even look for. We’re talking about problems. We’re talking about the state of the union right now. And I’m a big believer at, yeah, let’s look for the problems and concentrate on the solutions more than just looking for the problem. Yeah, or that’s a stupid idea time I actually, let’s call a brilliant idea time. What do you think, and I’ll share mine would make a difference. Like what could we all do as a collective or individually? To make a change, like even an even if it’s not for the current generation? Maybe for the next generation, like every single thought, every single ID counts? I think. Yeah, you think you would make it a better place.

It definitely starts from teachers of young children, you know, children are so impressionable still and still developing their sense of self, and that like, building of self-esteem starts from a very young age. And for that reason, ballet teachers have a lot, a lot of responsibility. And I think I mentioned in the article that teachers need to recognize that every dancer is an individual. And for some children being tough might push them to be their best. But for some teachers that for some students, it might break them. And that’s not okay. One step is for teachers to become a bit more inclusive in who is meant for ballet. You can look at a seven-year-old and decide, this girl will be a, you know, a prima ballerina because kids develop in different stages. So I think that’s an essential part of it, you know, starting from a young age, and then in terms of a professional career. I mean, I don’t see any other option except those in those leadership positions to become more empathetic, and fairer and more, you know, honest. There was an incident in Finnish National Ballet, which I will share something that relates to a significant social issue today, racism. A choreographer didn’t let a black dancer dance because he was standing out too much. And I think the right thing in that position would have been for the director to say, no, this is not how we do things here. If, if that’s the reason why you don’t want to put him on stage, then we don’t go on stage. I think there has to be some sort of zero tolerance for this kind of stuff. But instead, it was, you know, hush, hush, we put it under the carpet. We say sorry, zero tolerance here, but we let it happen anyway. That’s not the way things are gonna change. There has to be a point where somebody stands up and says that even to the prestigious choreographers and the prestigious leaders who know just because you are in power doesn’t mean you get to mistreat people.

I was once told that I will not ever dance a solos role at the company ever again if I keep dating the guy I was dating.  There is so much fear in the industry around, you know, rising and falling and being in and being loved or not, it is horrendous, and I believe that the more work everybody can do on themselves. The better chances we actually have in creating something more significant.

People who are happy with themselves and can, you know, analyze their feelings and actions are more likely to be kind to others and give empathy to others. And I think I once heard someone say that’s the best way to better your self-esteem is to do esteemable things to yourself. And I think that’s a great quote. And an esteemable thing to yourself is not yelling at someone is not putting someone down is not bullying someone. You’re not doing estimable self-esteem to yourself when you act like that, and the esteemable thing is to help someone rise up and help someone reach their best to motivate someone to inspire someone. That’s how you do something estimable for yourself. That’s how you get self-esteem sustainable self-esteem.

When the tide rises, all the ships rise. For that, do you have to have an abundant mindset? Yeah. Let’s talk about the book that you’re writing. I want to hear all about that.

Okay, well, it’s actually in Finnish, which is my native tongue. So English is my second language. And this is, you know, the first book that I’m writing, which is super exciting, but it felt more natural to write it in Finnish. So it’s, it’s sort of an autofiction, which is, you know, a mixture of fiction and a mixture of personal experiences and personal thoughts. So, it’s, the theme of it is sort of what happens when dreams don’t come true. That’s something that is a, you know, a personal topic for me because my dream was to become a ballet dancer. And sure, I became one.

I danced professionally for nine years, but I didn’t reach and achieve my personal goals in ballet that I wanted to. I got to dance in some significant roles, and I had beautiful experiences by never getting to dance Aurora, for example, which was always a childhood dream of mine, and I was thinking of, you know, I didn’t get the dream that I wanted. But how can I move on? How can I be happy in life? I don’t want to spend my whole life thinking, it doesn’t matter because I didn’t dance Aurora and I was like, how do you, you know, how do you move on after? After you have a dream? And you realize, no, it’s not gonna happen. Because dreams are such an essential part of life. Dreaming gives you no purpose and hope. So that’s sort of the theme of it travels through like three different times when you say there’s like, the present time, and then there’s a past, and then there’s a third-person past. So it’s sort of like a puzzle.

Beautiful. Oh, so do you have let me ask you these business questions? Do you have a publisher? And do you have a timeline? On when? When do you want it? Out in the world?

Yes. So I have editors helping me.  And it’s definitely not at, you know, a finished stage by any point. Any means, you know, it’s still a work in progress. But it is getting there. I’m hoping in, you know, 2021 I could have a date for publishing, but we’ll see.

Awesome.

I’ve been working on it for a very long time. So it’s been long overdue.

Well, yeah, you know, what, with this kind of giving birth, like the process of growing, it has everything to do with what is going on in here. Right. It’s like not completely surrendering and letting go of all the shame and the old stories and make it about you, but really, getting into that higher self and writing from that kind of a place without any judgment.

We own the stories in our head, we narrate our life story, we narrate, you know, I’m a failure, I didn’t achieve this, blah, blah, or we narrow it, you know, what, I tried my best, and I’m gonna move forward and achieve something else.

Awesome. Oh, that’s such a beautiful last question. Okay,  I can talk for hours. With what you know today, what would you tell your 16-year-old self?

I would tell my 16-year-old self. You’re enough. And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Always treasure, your, your sense of empathy and your vulnerability. Because in the end, those are good traits, I believe.

Great traits.

I think the world needs a bit more empathy, honesty, vulnerability.

Everything that we think is and we’re not in control of or that that would maybe embarrass ourselves. And we think, Yeah, I have all of these jackets and layers on to hide behind who we indeed are. And yeah, get that we truly are is the most beautiful thing that makes us so unique.

Everybody’s unique. Yeah. And that’s what the ballet world needs to realize. You need to foster everyone’s uniqueness instead of tempered down.

You’re not shining too bright. No, because so let me just throw this in here. I had this epiphany. The other morning, when I was walking with my husband. I was asked to be bolder around asking questions and asking for help. And I might have had to struggle for my entire life that I don’t want to burden anybody by asking questions or asking for help.  And I’m like, Oh, my God. I was actually told as a little guy, as a little girl. You’re too loud. Don’t put yourself in center stage all the time. And nobody needs to know about you.

And that’s a perfect example of how vulnerable kids are with, you know, sort of taking on what they’re told. When you’re told, you’re too loud. A child will be like, oh, I’m too loud. It’s a huge responsibility to teach a child. I don’t think he will have it all. I think you’re lovely.

Thank you, honey. All right, you guys, thank you so much. So before we’re, I’m saying that one more time for a shining bright, and I encourage you to shine even brighter. Like, blow out all the light bulbs out there. I so appreciate your vulnerability and your honesty, and go follow her. That’s all I can say.

 

Today, thank you so much.

So much love💖

 

Suvi Honkanen was born in Helsinki, Finland, and began her ballet training at age five at Helsinki Dance Institute. She went on to train at Russia’s Vaganova Academy and danced professionally with Finnish National Ballet for nine years before transitioning into writing and journalism in 2019.

 

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About Susanne Puerschel

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Susanne, Founder of Pointe To Rise, an Empowerment society for dancers and other artist, Wellness Entrepreneur, podcast host, former international ballerina and experienced principal chief executive officer had the privilege to grow up behind the iron curtain in Berlin, Germany.
She’s dedicating her time now, after working in cooperate America and running her own businesses, to building community among dancers and artist, providing mindset and high performance coaching and building a media company that will be the springboard to revitalizing the Arts.

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  — Susanne shares a quick thought that came to her after hearing a quote. Who told you that you are not deserving of what you want? She remembers how this feeling showed up in her life and how other people’s limiting thoughts would so easily be accepted as hers. Watch the episode here: Listen to the podcast here:   Who told you that you are not deserving of what you want? And I’m back. […]

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Past Episodes 

There is a better way to pursue ballet at the professional level. Instead of dancers pushing beyond their body’s limits, there is a healthier way to train your body, your mind and your spirit to soar. To become the best at your craft, you must be healthy. The mentality of surviving to make a performance perfect is an old paradigm that needs to change. As athletes, dancers must thrive in order to shine and connect with their audience. This new approach, leads to fulfillment, strength and longevity. It allows you to give more of your heart and soul on stage, creating an unforgettable experience that moves your audience. And that’s the whole pointe. 

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