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The Whole Crux of This: Susan Dromisky on People, Art, and Retirement

Susan Dromisky sitting on the stairs

Susan Dromisky,  rehearsal director, Trainee Program director, and English National Ballet and National Ballet of Canada soloist dancer, will be retiring from BalletMet at the end of this season after 25 years. We had the great privilege of sitting down with her to reflect on her experiences and how her approach to dance and people has developed over time. 

It’s kind of like climbing a mountain, you know? It’s like going on a long trek. My career feels like that. And you just plod along,  and you get to wherever you are at this moment and you look out and beyond. I feel I’m in this place of a…not lofty perspective, but one of 43 years of work experience. That’s a long time. And so it just gives you a different perspective on everything you do.  

My career began, I would say, as I was training, because I went to a private school, National Ballet School of Canada, at the age of 13, and lived, you know, 1000 miles away from my parents, and trained to be a dancer, and then joined the National Ballet of Canada. I danced there, English National Ballet, came back to National Ballet of Canada, retired, was asked to become a teacher at National Ballet School by Mavis Staines, who is still currently the director for the academy. And then from there, I was offered a rehearsal directorship position at National Ballet of Canada by James Kudelka, who was then the artistic director, and I had to decline because I came to Columbus, Ohio with my then-husband, because he got a job here at BalletMet. I taught here and then I was director of the Trainee Program and the Senior Performance Ensemble—which was really small back then—and then…with Edwaard as rehearsal director. 

Having performed extensively with National Ballet of Canada and English National Ballet, Susan remembers both joy and pain. 

[I enjoyed dancing] Teresina in Peter Schaufuss’ Napoli. Olga in Onegin, John Cranko’s Onegin. Swanhilda in Coppélia. Those would be my top [roles]. But I loved doing things like Neapolitan pas de deux and Eric Bruhns’ Swan Lake, and I loved being the Prince’s friend.  

There were some things that weren’t necessarily leading roles, I loved doing. I love doing Cygnets. I used to laugh my tuckus off doing Cygnets, when I had to do corps swans. Just because it was easy, and fun, and we would have a blast. So I have those memories, you know.  

Things I disliked? Ballets like Sleeping Beauty. I don’t want to ever have to be another fairy again in my life. And you know, I got to work with Rudolf Nureyev, and it was wonderful, but oy, oy. Yeah. [What makes the difference is] probably number one choreography? And also comfort zone. Classical ballet can be fabulous. But when it feels extremely restrictive, choreographically, like—so Old World or so ridiculously demanding in a non-organic way? I can’t quite explain it. You’re fighting it. I had natural facility and everything, but I always felt like this stick doing Sleeping Beauty. It’s just so restrictive, and it’s exhausting. I can remember going on in performances as a fairy bourréeing on in the Prologue. We had just started the show and I was crying because I hurt so bad…But also joyful and having fun with your colleagues. 

As her life changed, it became necessary to reevaluate her priorities and take new paths. 

When I was offered to be a teacher on staff at the National Ballet School, my son was five years old and we had no family in Toronto. To raise a child in a massive city just started to become impossible. So basically, I was, ‘Oh, okay, so maybe the performing aspect, I’m going to need to sacrifice in order to make this transition.’ I had been offered the job two years in a row, and I had refused. It was just a conversation, then the third time was the charm. I said, ‘Yes, I’m now ready. I’m ready to transfer over.’ It was a combination of where I was in life. I certainly could have danced longer. But I did it for my family life and for my emotional wellbeing, to not be struggling constantly between the two. And it was a great experience. I don’t regret when I left.  

The demands of every role—dancing, teaching, directing—differ. Susan learned and grew through each position she held, keeping the importance of art and the importance of people central. 

As a dancer, it’s solo focused. You train to be an artist, period. To get on stage. When you’re a performer, it is purely consume material, performance, consume material, rehearse, performance, consume—rinse and repeat. It becomes a very singular driven focus, as you see in the dancers you deal with.  

When I began teaching, I was fortunate enough to be at the National Ballet School with Mavis Staines, who’s a brilliant director. And there was a ton of professional development and staff meetings, so I’m working with this massive staff of people who were world class artists, and then those that were purely trained teachers, that have the very highest level. And just dialoguing with them and learning from them was the…For me, it was the biggest learning curve in my life. And, also, to understand that there’s more than one way to slice a tomato. That how you trained, and what your personal interpretation is of said step or ballet or movement…It’s not…It doesn’t matter. You have to take experience into account all the time. That was a huge learning curve for me. So those six years I spent there before I came here, really, I feel, was the bridge that made me a different person. I’m grateful that I got to experience it. I wouldn’t be where I am now, emotionally or mentally with the people that I work with, if I didn’t have that.  

And coming here, it was more of the same. Learning to adapt, dealing with people…You have to be a people person in this industry. It shouldn’t be your way or the highway. We’re talking about people’s psyches here. And their personalities, their traits, their behaviors, their mannerisms…You have to put yourself on the back burner and be thoughtful, mindful. And also—The whole crux of this is to create more art, right? So, it’s a huge responsibility. You are hoping that you’re going to be working all the time with people who are going to be in the same mindset. And that isn’t always the case. So, do you have to onload them? Do you have to try to persuade them to be there? Or are they already there, hook, line, and sinker? It’s complicated business in that regard. 

Her most recent role, BalletMet’s rehearsal director, came with many responsibilities. 

A rehearsal director is—basically—directs the rehearsals. Literally and figuratively [laughs]. There are many rehearsals that go on all day. It depends on what you’re doing. But you need to come in and either stage existing material, or review with dancers who have already done it, but it might have been a year, it might have been two years. Once that material is staged—And it might be staged by a stager who comes in externally, and then our job as rehearsal director would be to help facilitate that process. We would be helping with the music, and we would be documenting as much as we can in order to assist the dancers once the stager is no longer with us, so…There’s always a lot to do within the studio with the dancers. And it can be anything from the entire company that you’re rehearsing to a solo. And your responsibility is to get those dancers onstage and performing beautifully. Tweaking steps, coaching, working, trying to figure out patterns, spacing, where they go on stage, at what time, who do you go with, who are you following, how do you hold your head, when it’s something like classical ballet. But even contemporary, it can be something as little as, ‘No, that arm isn’t right. It’s not here. It’s here.’ Yeah? So it can be minutiae. Or it can be big scale stuff, like, ‘You need to hit that quarter mark on the third eight. On two of the third eight of music.’ 

Outside of studio, the work continues. Rehearsal directors must remember vast amounts of detailed information. To be effective, they prepare extensively for each rehearsal using video and “books” of collected written documentation. 

[I am constantly] reviewing material, going over counts, and steps, and how I set it—maybe last time, how it was set on the video that I’m viewing—to keep it refreshed because there’s just so much information. It’s difficult to disseminate every single detail. I’m also not a computer. So, you have to constantly know what the dancers are doing.  But if it’s been a moment since they’ve done it, they need to go back and review. 

[As for] books, every rehearsal director is different…I think I’ve gotten over most of my perfectionism over the years, because that can be a curse. For me, documentation is crucial. Because, whatever we’re working on, if I can’t go back and review all my notes, patterns, casting, little odd notes I’ll write myself during the course of that production, I am starting from scratch every time. And that would be ridiculous. There’s not enough hours in the day. The documentation books are crucial for staging, restaging, reviewing. And it’s a lot of work. It’s copious amounts of hours outside of the studio. 

Susan has been a key part of BalletMet’s growth and change through her work to develop the Trainee Program and her coaching of the professional dancers to reach deeper levels of artistry. But at the beginning, she was rather discouraged. 

[Over time I’ve seen] huge change, huge change. But as with anything in the arts, or anywhere, 25 years, two and a half decades, is a long time. So there’s been a trajectory for BalletMet as well. And, you know, I’ve been very fortunate. I do realize….I’ve seen huge progress over all of this time, and Edwaard definitely has a vision. So, there’s been a big transition and period of growth. And the dancers are incredible!! They’re very ambidextrous. That really is the type of dancer that BalletMet needs, dancers who can step into any kind of role, contemporary to classical. And that makes it unique. 

Throughout the years she has developed her own leadership style. Informed by her upbringing and her professional experiences, Susan’s choice of conduct is foundational to her artistic approach and the onstage success of the dancers. 

There’s two parts to this, right? Out of the studio and in the studio. I do not socialize with the dancers. It doesn’t work in my mind. And I’m old school, so I have a different perspective. I try to be very open and current, but you are who you are. And then, when dealing with administration, production or marketing, my belief is that when you are open, and friendly, and giving, and help create a positive atmosphere, people feed you back. So, I always go with that. And people will let me moan and […] complain, because I don’t do it to them on a personal basis. And if I bring sunshine most of the time, and then throw a little shade now and again, people seem to be forgiving. You have to be a good person at heart to be in this industry and have people respect you. Because it has a way of exposing your personality traits.  

[In the studio, I am] true to classical ballet tradition, in the sense that I’m insistent on a lot of things. It doesn’t mean it will be eaten or digested by the dancers that I work with [laughs]. But I strongly, highly suggest that they listen to me. I am too loud [laughs]. And there’s something about that, my tone of voice? I’m a very small person. Short in stature. But people listen to me. And I don’t know if it’s because they’re afraid of me, or if it is that they’re just being respectful, I can’t honestly answer that question. All I know is that people do listen. And so, when I’ve been in training circumstances, especially with students, there’s been huge growth. And as well as coaching the dancers. For me, it’s the one on one, or the pas de deuxs, or the small groups, where you really can get into their mind—as much as they will allow you. And you need that peace and quiet, you need that time to delve in, and to peel away all their guarded layers in order for them to dialogue with you and to experiment. Because basically, they have to trust what you are saying or suggesting. And that is very difficult. When you’re the artist going onstage—I’m not the one putting myself forward. They are. So, if the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, if you enjoy what you see, then that’s been nurtured and coached by those of us who are in these positions during that time. 

As a rehearsal director, Susan especially enjoys developing characters. In an art form where genuine emotion is essential, she finds the delicate balance between rehearsing a role and protecting an artist’s wellbeing. 

I love anything where I get to work one on one. It can be any principal role, it can be a solo, but I love delving into characters. I trust my instinct. And that’s a nice place to be. It is about dialoguing and working, like an acting coach, with those dancers that are doing those principal roles. Trying to figure out, for them, what is genuine emotion? What is genuine reaction? In my mind, because all we have is our opinion. That would be my absolute favorite. So, I can’t say one specific, but definitely roles where there needs to be some dramatic input, they’d have to be characters. 

It’s always a discussion between the dancers and myself. I always preface it by saying, ‘This is what I thought you were meaning. This is what I understood you to say. That look made me think “this”. It’s about the very little, little details. But also grand scoping big movements. It just depends on what it is they’re doing. And I will just say, ‘Try.’ ‘This is an idea. What do you think? What does that mean to you? How would you turn your head there, with that idea in your mind?’ Because the audience, for me, the audience needs to know what you’re thinking. It’s like watching a movie, and you’re like, ‘[gasps dramatically]. No, don’t do it!’ [laughs] ‘This is going to happen!’ Even if you know the story. Yeah? So, it has to feel live at that moment, that you’re actually seeing them think about it and live it. Yeah, that’s my favorite. Yeah. And it’s an exciting process. And I will say this, it’s taken me years and years, even teaching young adults, like teaching the Trainee level and that…I’m confident now, in my own skin and my experience, and whatever degree of knowledge and expertise I have. Because that’s ever evolving. But you only have what you have to share. And if you are reticent to put forth that information or idea because you are fearful of how you’re going to be perceived, then this is not the job for you. Because not everyone’s going to like you. It’s just not going to happen. And you have to do the work regardless of that fact.  

Moving moments? They tend to be very personal…Artists put up walls to protect themselves. Everything comes to them seemingly on a personal level. And I know from experience when you work with a dancer one on one, the greatest gift and experiences have been when somebody lets go and relinquishes control. And this might sound odd, but when they do, it is often very emotional. And then, you move forward from that moment. And trust me, I do not berate these people into tears. It is a conversation, dancer to dancer, and discussing and dialoguing, and then you just ask questions and you go forward. The mental process, the expectations that are placed on them, the fear of the performance, the fear of not being successful, the fear of failure—that, when you create a bridge of conversation over all of that tumultuous waterway…It hits a nerve, but in the best way, and allows them to proceed forward with less fear. It is a beautiful moment. Yeah, for me, a beautiful moment.  

Working with professional and pre-professional dancers, Susan has guided many artists’ growth. Watching dancers evolve over the years is quite an experience—even when they choose other paths. 

Oh, it’s always wonderful to watch growth. As time goes by, you watch dancers and you’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see them in five years.’ [laughs] You just know. You know that, if they’re nurtured properly and they have the chance to gain experience, they’re going to blossom. That’s exciting. The prospect, and then watching it come to fruition.  

Dancers tend not to be at peace with watching other dancers leave the stage. But as you age, and as you yourself have left, you realize that, if it’s what they want, then I’m happy for them, because I fully am aware how intense this industry can be. And if you need to move on, you need to move on. Because it is more important to be in a place where you feel you can continue forward. It gets stressful, let’s face it. And a lot of dancers get to a place where they’re like, ‘Okay, you know, I’m no longer willing to meet all the demands. So, it is time to move on. It’s difficult to see them leave. I’m always happy if they find happiness in another company. You go do your thing. There’s a world out there, go experience more. That makes me happy. Even though we don’t get to enjoy them here. 

Now, after a long career in a demanding industry, Susan has more time to dedicate to other priorities. 

I love to socialize with my best friends. I have a great group of women that I love dearly. So that’s definitely a lovely aspect of my private life. I love cooking. I am not stellar. But I love, I love the process of cheffing, of sauces and searing and timing everything out perfectly, that the roasted asparagus comes out exactly when the chicken piccata’s done. You know? It is absolutely choreographed and you have to have experience to time these things. And that is the art of hosting. So I love that. In the warmer months I do enjoy puttering around in my garden. Then the other thing, believe it or not…Doing this job is so stressful and all-encompassing that I have not read a novel in nine years. Because my brain is always so fried, that every time I started to read, I can’t retain any of it. I have a stack of novels that I need to delve into. What I’m looking forward to the most is spending time with family, being able to go see my grandbabies more often.  

Yet dance remains in her life. She is excited to step back from BalletMet studios and become an audience member. 

There’s a huge part of me that is, ‘whoo!’, to relinquish that responsibility. I so look forward to coming to Swan Lake. I’m going to be there as an observer. I don’t know anything about the final version. It’s going to be, just go and enjoy. And whatever happens, happens, and how fabulous. I don’t have any backstory; I don’t know whatever struggles or joys there have been in the studio. It’s going to be wonderful to just watch with a fresh perspective. Oh [laughs], I could have bells on. Yeah, I’m going to love every second of it. 

Thank you, Susan, for giving 25 years to BalletMet. We are so grateful for all that you have done for the organization over the years and wish you all the best in this next phase of life. Congratulations! 

Minor edits for clarity have been made to responses.