I've known Wilma for many years now and without hesitation I would name her as one of the most inspiring artists I personally know. Currently in the corps de ballet of the Royal Danish Ballet, Wilma has been in the company for four seasons and having watched her grow from the dancer I remember her being at 16, it truly is incredible to hear of the opportunities and success she's achieving already in the sprouts of her career.
Wilma is from Cordoba, Argentina. She moved to Canada when she was 16 years old to attend Canada's National Ballet School, which is where my friendship with Wilma began. She started dancing when she was 5 and says she had always done many different styles of dance but started to take ballet more seriously when she entered the official ballet school in her community.
I'll never forget our years at school together where Wilma and I grew quite close while both being injured. In her 12th grade year, she was dealing with tendonitis in the arch of her foot.
"I was off for a year.... but to be back fully it took me two years. I thought it was hell when I went through it. Everyday I just wanted to be dancing, even though I couldn't because of the pain. But the wish to get through it was stronger than the pain. Of course, there was always the doubt that I wouldn't be able to do it again. Everyday, I woke up and there was pain. Everything was pain. But my injury was my blessing. I learned how to listen to my body and how to take care of it. It's so important, especially when you're young. I had to focus on the quality of my work, instead of the quantity of it, and with my injury, I understood it. That feeling of always wanting to try again has never gone away, since my injury. And now when I have pain, I know how to listen to my body and how to prevent it."
I recall sharing these feelings while being injured with Wilma. Knowing about this hurdle from her past she's overcome, I'm in awe at the perseverance she's had through it all.
Now, Wilma is careful, but not apprehensive. Her passion and determination for ballet is stronger than ever, and most recently, has been showcased in her first principal role. I speak to Wilma a little bit about her experiences being the Sugarplum Fairy in this last Nutcracker season:
"I had four days to learn it and I was shocked. It was during double show days and in between the shows I would be rehearsing with my partner. It was exhausting but also the adrenaline kept me going.
"I got to perform the role twice and it was very different each time. In the corps de ballet, it's all about the teamwork, but being the solo role was very different. I was the only one in the spotlight. It felt almost like taking on the leader role of the troupe. It was very intimidating but also still felt somehow natural. It was a dream come true and in this profession I've wanted to be able to do both - to follow and to lead."
Wilma is very honest about her answer. She glows with appreciation and humility in taking what she calls a 'leadership role'.
"It required a lot of mental preparation as well. I had always dreamed of this, and although it happened so quickly, I wanted to enjoy it. Because you never know when it's going to be your last time doing something like this. I pretended to be the ballerina I always dreamed of. It was magical.
"The second time dancing it, it felt more calm. A bit less adrenaline, but it felt real. I could see people's eyes. I could remember the details of everything I was doing. I was very present. I knew I was moving my arm. I knew I was becoming a Sugar Plum. I actually felt a little empty after the first show."
I intervene, a little surprised at this choice of adjective, and ask her to elaborate:
"Okay...how do I put this? It's not a bad emptiness, but a peaceful emptiness. Where you've achieved something you've always wanted. It's the aftermath."
I ask her if now it's created a void she's eager to fill again:
"I want to experience that happiness again. I want to be alone on stage but not to feel alone. And when it's a difficult role, I want to make it about the story. You have movement, but you have to give a story to it. That makes it real, and connects it to the audience.
"There are so many technical dancers, and it's amazing. They can do so much. But for me, ballet is something more than that... I don't know how to explain it. But there's a deeper layer to dance. Everyone can dance, but not everyone can be a storyteller."
I find Wilma's comparison of being a dancer to a storyteller very compelling. It's so accurate. A person can have all the talent in the world, but if they can't communicate with their audience, they'll fall flat.
"Being in the corps de ballet is so important," Wilma stresses again, "You can play so much with it. If you take it in the right way, it will prepare you for these soloist roles. I have a great respect for it. You need to be patient and have stamina - it's hard work, but if you do it for you, take it as if you were dancing alone, you're already practicing for that soloist role."
Wilma continues to speak of the support she's had along the way from the other dancers, speaking very affectionately about her close bond with principal dancer, J'amie Crandall:
"She's been a great support and mentor. She taught me how to breathe in between my movement, how to take care of my body, how to prepare for a show, how to sew my pointe shoes, and all of these little 'in between' things that a teacher doesn't tell you. She's inspired me, so I hope one day I can do the same for another young dancer."
Merely days before speaking with Wilma, casting had gone up for the next ballet that the company would be rehearsing - Swan Lake. I was delighted to hear that Wilma had been cast as Odette/Odile, her next solo debut as the leading role. It's known universally to dancers as an incredibly challenging role, yet one of the most classically quintessential within the ballet realm. I ask Wilma how she feels about getting another opportunity to feel that on-stage magic she so eloquently described:
"Automatically hearing the news, I had so many feelings. I've always loved this story. Just by thinking about it, I get sparkly eyes. I was an understudy for the role last year, and witnessing the rehearsals I realized there's such a beautiful story to it.
"I recall listening to Sorella explain the character," (Here she speaks of Sorella Englund, character artist and ballet mistress at the Royal Danish Ballet - and also one of the greatest actresses I've ever met), "It's this girl who is turning into a swan and she's ashamed of her body, she's shy of it. And I guess we all experience that. We don't turn into an animal but we all experience some kind of a transformation that makes us insecure.
"It's my dream ballet. She's a delicate animal and a delicate heart. And then suddenly she has to switch into the Black Swan. I love this challenge of playing two characters in one ballet. People tell you this is the hardest ballet and that's intimidating. But I'm hoping I can go beyond that. I'm hoping I can reach the authenticity of it and become the swan.
"In the rehearsals I'd always be in the corner, because I don't want to disturb other people as they rehearse. But still in that corner, I can practice.
"I can't really describe why I get so emotional about it. It just touches me, this ballet, beyond what I can explain or be aware of."
Our conversation shifts to a broader subject matter, circling around dance, the role of the dancer, and their positioning. It's something I constantly debated while in the profession and continue to do now that I'm out of it. Ballet is something very much on the cusp of being a sport and being an art. Conclusively, it must be both. The athleticism in dancing is a commitment that's comparable to olympic athletes. But meanwhile, bringing us back to the point of the storyteller, it's cultural value would be intangible if the dancer themselves is not artist.
We often get taken advantage of as artists, we'll do so many things for free just because we're passionate about it, and that's fundamentally the beauty of being an artist. The willingness to be a martyr for it. But the physicality of ballet speaks to me when considering the fractionally small salaries of most dancers compared to, let's say, a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey player. But perhaps, I'm going on too political a tangent. Let's hear Wilma's place on the matter, because she's much more poetic than I am:
"I used to think ballet was a sport, because it is that weird place in between a sport and art. But when I came here to the Royal Danish, I realized it is very much an art, and that's what separates it. When ballet is done right, and I don't mean in the technical way, it looks like someone is taking a knife and opening themselves up to the stage.
"As much as I love this job, it's also so important not to be in this ballet bubble too much. We devote so much personal time to this career, but you need the balance and have an outside life. I value my conversations with friends and who is 'Wilma outside of ballet'. But the outside world and its many experiences translate onto stage. Things like sadness, hardships, heartbreaks - all personal experiences - they complete you as a person and make you that much more interesting on stage.
"But at the end of the day, it is like a relationship. You have to nurture it everyday. It can be so frustrating, especially since ballet dancers are such perfectionists, but sometimes it can be so special. You have to find the love and let it grow. Love gives you all the emotions and not everyday will be pink, but you have to take care of it, no matter what, because it's so very necessary to take care of a pure love."