Post:It with Vanessa Thiessen


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What is your earliest memory of dance?

My earliest memory is of me jumping over a cone in a small dance studio in Astoria, Oregon. I also remember dancing around the living room around age 3 or 4 and being lifted into the air by my dad.

How did dance become your career?

I tried all sorts of diverse activities as a kid, but I just kept coming back to dance. For me dance is the perfect combination of expression, music, emotion, movement, and athleticism. I love it.

With ballet, I was drawn to the challenge of forming my body into shapes that are physically challenging. At first it was about perfecting the steps and positions, advancing through the levels the way younger dancers do — then it was about being in a company, performing great parts and working with many different choreographers.

With modern dance, the challenge was different: I began to learn a whole new language. I was free to explore movement, be creative, and let go of the classical form.

How did you become part of a ballet company?

I’ve danced with two ballet companies. The first was Oregon Ballet Theater, where I went to school, became an apprentice, and then a company member. When I was 22 I decided I wanted a different experience, so I left home to explore companies around the US. I auditioned for seven ballet companies in total, and mostly I got the response: “you’re too short.” I’m five feet tall, which is unusual, but there are benefits to being different, always. It’s more interesting to watch dancers who are different. At that time, I was auditioning for companies with a corps de ballet, where they prefer a certain height, but I was also auditioning for companies that celebrate diversity.  Smuin Ballet (of San Francisco) is one of them. Michael Smuin hired me in 2003, and I danced for him up until his passing in 2007. He really appreciated having dancers who were very different, who had a lot of personality, and could bring technique and inspiration to his work.

PB6_2530_ed_webWhat does your professional life look like?

I officially retired from dance three years ago, but the day I retired, I got a call from Robert asking me if I could be in his project Do Be. I accepted, and now I’m a freelance dancer who’s recently transitioned to also being a teacher. I teach ballet, modern, and everything in between. Teaching takes practice just like dancing, and it’s a skill I want to improve on. I want to share the knowledge and experiences I’ve accumulated to my students. It takes many years to understand how to fluidly transition between different styles of dance, how to teach in different cities and to different age groups. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to consider all those aspects while discovering new facets of my craft.

Are you based in San Francisco?

I live in Portland, but I’ve been traveling back and forth. I dance and teach here in San Francisco, and I teach in Oregon; I’m starting to feel like I teach everywhere now! This summer I’m teaching at Post:Ballet, ODC, and Imagery in San Francisco.

What is one aspect of Post:Ballet that inspires you?

Many things! Haha. The one that comes to mind is Robert [Dekkers]. His willingness to explore and his involvement with many different types of artists (including live musicians and painters) is unique. I relate to him well because his background is very similar to mine (the basics of ballet transitioned into modern dance), but I’m also drawn to his vibrant energy. He is such a beautiful, giving person inside and out. It is rare to find a director who takes on so many diverse responsibilities, executes them with such precision, and is still welcoming all the time. It’s inspiring.


What has been your favorite performance?

There was one really rare performance I did in 2001 of James Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet where everything seemed to align perfectly. Juliet’s character is immensely satisfying to dance because she encompasses every possible emotion, giving the dancer an opportunity to express a full and deep character. On top of that, my body body felt just right, I had the perfect pair of pointe shoes, and the orchestra’s tempos were exactly what I wanted, and the partnering felt so smooth. It was luxurious because I didn’t have to worry about the technicalities so my mind could go directly to embodying this person. I felt tears of joy, tears of sadness, vulnerability, her longing, and death; I felt I was her.

My favorite modern dance experience occurred while I was on tour with ODC during a cultural dance exchange in Burma through the State Department and Brooklyn Academy of Music. The performance took place on a stage built on the front lawn of the the US Embassy, and even as we were getting ready, we could already sense the political tension in that area. When we were finally ready to perform, we noticed thatthere were almost no people in the audience. Nobody wanted to be seen coming into the US embassy. A few minutes before the show started, a flood of people rushed in, filling in the entire lawn and even the space beyond the fence, so we began. During the first piece, the music went out. We froze, then began to dance as the music stuttered back on, and then froze again as it stopped. All the dancers soon realized the music was not going to come back on again and that we were going to have to figure something out very quickly. Then in the audience, one person started clapping a rhythm of “one, two, one two three,” until more people joined in and the clapping swelled to envelop the entire audience. We finished the 20-minute piece with the clapping. I still get chills thinking about that performance because it was about people supporting people and humans coming together through art, even when there was hostility allaround.

Do you have any advice for dancers who want to make dance their profession?

 Be able to do everything, but start somewhere specific. Decide which path you want to follow in dance and really excel at it. Dancers today are expected to have many skills, but it’s important to go beyond mediocrity. Be the best, work the hardest, listen and collect all the information you can. Keep building on that knowledge so you will always grow and improve as an artist.Ms Thiessen

Photo credits:

  1. Headshot by Natalia Perez
  2. Vanessa with Christian Squires in Do Be: Family Sing-a-Long and Game Night, photo by Natalia Perez
  3. Vanessa with Christian Squires in Do Be: Family Sing-a-Long and Game Night, photo by Natalia Perez
  4. Vanessa with Christian Squires and Aidan DeYoung in Do Be: The Bell, The Ball, The Bow-Tie, & The Boot, photo by Alexander Reneff-Olson

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