Today we’re having a chat with the talented and bubbly Shelby Elsbree. Shelby is originally from Florida, USA. She started her training at the Florida Ballet Arts Academy before moving to New York at the age of 13 to train at the School of American Ballet. She was offered a job at Dresden Semperoper Ballet before her last year at SAB but eventually turned it down to join the Royal Danish Ballet where she still dances to this day.
In this interview, Shelby tells us more about her life as a dancer of the Royal Danish Ballet, her blog “The Offbeat Chronicles of a Tutu with Tea” and her best nutrition tips for dancers.
Hi Shelby, do you remember your first ballet lesson?
I remember entering the studio feeling both curious and excited... The girls in the class came right up to me and showed me how to start stretching to warm up... the rest is history!
It sounds like you were immediately “accepted” in the group. What was it that you immediately liked about ballet?
My favorite part of ballet has always, always been performing. I have grown to enjoy classes and the rehearsal process more and more as I've grown up, but performing, for me, is undoubtedly the highlight — the opportunity for me to give back and share what I enjoy with those I love. I couldn't ask for more. Oh! Costume fittings are always a thrill too!
Yes it’s always exciting and puts things in perspective! So tell us, who were your favourite dancers growing up?
I have always admired Julie Kent from ABT for her timelessness. She has always danced with grace, strength and contagious passion, which I can't get enough of... Lately Marianella Nunez and Alina Cojocaru from the Royal Ballet of London are among my favorites... There are just so many talented dancers out there.. I love finding new sources of enlightenment in this art form.
Can you tell us more about the kind of training you received?
I began training in the Vaganova style at the age of 9 at the Florida Ballet Arts Academy in Sarasota, Florida. I spent a year with the Sarasota Ballet before moving to New York City to train at the School of American Ballet at the age of 13, and moved to Copenhagen when I turned 18 to join the Royal Danish Ballet as a member of the corps.
Before we talk about your move to the Royal Danish Ballet, we’d like to know what the key lessons you learned during your training are: what is the best piece of advice you received?
Be true to your technique, and trust it...That way when you are performing, it is there for you, and you have more freedom, artistically, to just let go.
Shelby Elsbree in "The Sleeping Beauty". Photo: David Amzallag
Thank you. So, what about your move to Europe? How did it all happen?
My final year at the School of American Ballet was at the heart of the economic crisis, so I thought it wise to audition elsewhere so that I might have options in case there weren't any jobs available in New York. My mom, sister and I took a tour de force of 5 European companies in a total of 8 days during which I auditioned. This week of life changing perspective and exposure was probably the highlight of my entire dance career so far.
Was it a dream of yours to cross the ocean and perform with a European company?
Yes indeed! I always considered New York to be the closest thing America has to Europe, and given how much I love and truly cherish my time in the city, I couldn't wait to see all that Europe had to offer.
Tell us about your move to Copenhagen more specifically and your first few months there. It must have been a little bit of a culture shock!
Wow... I didn't even stop to think about it until a few months in, now that you mention it... Everything was so new and nonstop, I packed up about 6 of (my brother's) hockey bags and my mom and I moved not a week after I decided to take the job. We found an apartment in less than a week and I was thrown into an all Balanchine program - much to my excitement - right away... It wasn't until I had my bank account set up, a working cell phone and internet, finished unpacking and had my first 'real' day off about 3 months in, that I remember sitting on my balcony eating a Danish (how fitting :) and thinking to myself, "...did I really move to Europe?!" It seemed impossible, surreal, thrilling and terrifying all at once. The culture shock hits me every time I go back and forth... no less exciting to discover new foods in the market, shows on tv or movies in the theaters... It has given me such a new perspective of both America and Europe and has truly defined the dance world for me as I know it.
Speaking of the dance world, can you tell us about the differences you have found between ballet in America and Europe?
I have had so much fun both discovering and experiencing the differences of ballet in America and Europe. I find that there are far different mentalities approached with different styles...My Balanchine training from SAB, for example could not be more opposite than the Bournonville style I've become more familiar with. I enjoy seeing how they play off of each other in keeping me a well rounded and versatile dancer. The strengths of my technique for example (from Balanchine training) give me the freedom to explore more artistically, which is a specialty of Bournonville dancers.
I also find that pressures are different with European audiences versus American (namely New York) audiences. Where Americans have more competitive tendencies in the dance world, I am seeing that Europeans (at least in Denmark) seem a little less 'cut throat'.
One more thing I've grown to appreciate is tradition. Because European companies are so much older than those in America, I find that there are more traditions passed on from generations of past dancers and ancient theaters...little things like "good luck gifts" which we call 'Pøj Pøj's' or the customary "Thank you for tonight" or "Thank you for last night" (re: performances), daily exchanged between my teachers, director and colleagues, alike. I love hearing about the superstitions of old Opera houses and being let in on secrets of history.
These are lovely traditions! Why did you choose the Royal Danish Ballet in particular?
I chose Royal Danish Ballet for several reasons. I love that it has many ties to New York City; My director is a former NYCB principal, and the director of NYCB is originally from the Royal Danish Ballet. I was enticed by the mix of repertoire, one that would allow me to perform the likes of Balanchine & Bournonville on the same stage, on the same night even, and the opportunity to expand my styles of dancing. I find the city of Copenhagen to be perfectly quaint, yet progressive. It's not too big, not too small, eco friendly and inspiring. It helped, of course, that everyone speaks perfect English and the airport is lovely.
You’ve been with the RDB for a few years now and you've had the opportunity to dance several roles. Which one has been your favorite?
It's truly hard to say... I've enjoyed so many of the opportunities I've been given to challenge myself both as a dancer and as an artist. It might have to be a tie between Blue Girl in Jerome Robbin's Dances at a Gathering and more recently as Olympia in John Neumeier's Lady of the Camellias. The former was so thoroughly exhausting and fulfilling in every manor... I would push myself so hard, savoring every second on stage and then during the divertissements I wasn't in, I would lay on the floor, put my legs up, close my eyes and enjoy the beauty of the music. Olympia definitely pushed me to explore my artistic/creative side of expression. I LOVED the costumes, hats, jewellery, veils, etc that we got to wear and enjoyed becoming more and more of my character with each additional glove and gem. I could lose myself daily to Chopin's melodies and I think that Neumeier's ballet version of the story could not have been done any better. It was a true honor to bring that character to life.
What about your most challenging role?
My most challenging role was probably the Student in Flemming Flindt's The Lesson. I absolutely LOVED the challenge of this ballet. I read the play twice to prepare myself and watched several different versions of dancer's past. I found it harder artistically than technically, having to take the audience on this emotional roller coaster with not more than a minute off stage during the entire 28 minute piece. Having to live in the moment, beginning as a fearless, peppy young student, not able to anticipate the fear or pain that would soon be inflicted, it was unnerving in the best way. I would go home after these performances feeling drained emotionally, physically and mentally, and always entirely fulfilled.
Shelby Elsbree. Photo: David Amzallag
The last performance of the season was early June. I suppose you are now enjoying some quality time off?!
I sure am!!! This summer was long anticipated after a very long winter in Copenhagen... Time for family, friends, sleeping and sunlight... I love to think of it as fueling up for another great season.
What are your plans for the summer holidays then?
I always go home to spend time with my family for the summer. We just took a big family cruise to Alaska which was breathtaking in every sense, and later this summer a trip to Paris and Greece with my best friend. In the mean time, I will teach a few classes here and there, take a few classes here and there, but mostly just soak up the sun...letting my body and mind rest and recover...
A rest much deserved after all the hard work! Now we'd love to talk about your blog The Offbeat Chronicles of a Tutu with Tea. What a great name! What inspired you to create the blog?
Two summers ago my sister claimed that I needed a carefree hobby. One that didn't involve ballet or working out... Well photography is what came of this and after my first few 'shoots' I found it too much fun to keep to myself. I thought of Tutus&Tea while I was lying in bed one night, and that was the beginning of an ongoing outlet of creativity for me...One that would help me balance my life as a dancer, foodie enthusiast and lover of travel and exploration...I love looking at my 'Stats' to see which countries my readers come from..It's so thrilling to think just how far we can reach out to share and inspire others with our opportunities, experiences and passions.
Can you tell us more about your favourite topics to blog about?
I love blogging about new combinations. Unexpected flavor pairings of food and presentation... I love finding new nooks of the theater too, like the costume or textile room and giving my readers a 'sneak peak' into my daily life at the theater, it helps me to appreciate it more as well.
You seem to be an excellent cook, what is your specialty?
OOooooo I love to cook! I have to say that as much as I enjoy (and truly, truly enjoy) baking, I like getting experimental with everyday meals...Probably breakfast is my favorite. There is not one food in this menu that I would not enjoy at any time of the day :)
Does your love for food sometimes get in the way of your diet as a dancer?
Never Ever ever! I've been brought up with the mindset of everything in moderation. It is so important to keep your diet balanced, just like every other element of life. I enjoy a big salad, brimful of fresh market veggies and topped with grilled salmon for Omega's & protein! Just as enthusiastically and appreciatively as I would savor a chocolate milkshake on a hot summer afternoon. I believe if you deprive yourself, you will only want it more ~ I read something recently that said "I take everything in moderation...even moderation." This is brilliant. I also consider myself (and all dancers) to be elite athletes, and in so being, we have to fuel our bodies with ample nutrients to hold such high expectations for ourselves. If you put premium gas into a car, you know it will run better...It's the same idea with food and the body. I believe that a healthy relationship with food is probably the most important element of being a successful, long-term athlete.
What are your best diet and nutrition tips for dancers?
The better quality ingredients and substance that you put into your body, the better quality you will get coming out of it - energy, endurance, strength, injury prevention... these are all key elements of being a successful, healthy dancer and these are all DIRECTLY related to the food you fuel yourself with. Try to have a balanced diet, eat seasonally and change up your meals....You know how boring it is to do the exact same combinations every single day in class? Well imagine how your body feels when it knows exactly what to expect for breakfast, lunch and dinner! Snack often to keep your metabolism revved up, and enjoy getting to eat ample amounts of protein and carbohydrates because you've earned it and because your body needs it to recover, repair, rejuvenate, and answer strongly and healthfully to all that you ask of it. Bon Appetite!
Thank you Shelby for your time and for sharing your nutrition tips with us!
Royal Danish Ballet