Photo credit: Kristian Schuller for ICON magazine

Please note that this article was originally published in Dec 2018. Chelsea is currently still working as a dancer at Friedrichstadtpalast Berlin, Germany. We watched her dance in ’Vivid’ and highly recommend this show if you’re in Berlin! Find her on social media: @chelseamariev_

Chelsea met us through social media and we were very touched by her story but especially the brutal honesty as she discusses her experiences with dance styles, body types and images, injuries and mental health!

In a first off, and in agreement with Chelsea, we have added ’The psychologist’s view’ and ’The endocrinologist’s view’ in order to better understand what struggles she had been facing, why, and how to overcome those. 

But let her tell her own story first: 

My name is Chelsea van den Berg, I’m 22 years old from Perth, Western Australia and am a professional dancer with Friedrichstadt Palast in Berlin, Germany. My journey to becoming a professional dancer wasn’t an easy one, like many other dancers wishing to pursue a career overseas. After training full-time in Perth, I decided the only way to officially start my career was to move to Europe to study with a professional dance institution or University in hopes to “make it” as a professional dancer. After auditioning all over Europe I decided to join the Bachelor Program of Dance with Palucca Hochschule für Tanz Dresden, under the direction of Jason Beechey and this is where my journey really began. Every dancer is unique and has an individual career path. Being a strong-minded and creative dancer I knew that some schools would simply not be suited to me. Palucca prides itself on helping young dancers become the artists they truly want to be, with creating an open environment for exploration and discovery. Based on the curriculum from its founder Gret Palucca, your training is based on the equality of emphasis on classical ballet, contemporary and improvisation. This was perfect for me as I wasn’t a strictly classical dancer and loved to express myself through other forms as dance, and I knew that with the demands on dancers in Europe these days your best asset is your versatility, so a school based on mastering your technique in both classical and contemporary would be the best fit for my goals. And in all honesty sometimes you just know a school is right for you. I knew Palucca was the perfect place for me because as soon as I walked through the doors, I felt accepted and distinctly remember saying after my audition “I don’t care what the result is, I learnt so much from being here and am so inspired!” Who doesn’t want to feel that way after an audition? So alongside my overwhelming feeling of belongingness and the three-pillared curriculum, these were my main reasons why I chose Palucca as my place. But like any journey, my road to moving to Dresden wasn’t a smooth one.

Auditioning Tour I, Europe

My 3-week audition tour throughout Europe in January 2014 was exhausting due to dancing on a then un-diagnosed injury. Upon my re-arrival in Australia in February I had excruciating knee pain and had to take time off. Wafting around for a month between various physiotherapists and seeing no improvement, I had to get an MRI. Unfortunately, the MRI showed that I had torn my meniscus over a year ago and consequently a huge cyst had formed. The only treatment was surgery with the recovery time unknown and the possibility of not being able to return to dance. Naturally, I was heartbroken after finding my dream school and wanting to take the next step towards my career, so I decided to have the surgery. April 2014, I had a Lateral Meniscus Arthroscopy, followed by a four-month road to recovery. For any dancer who has undergone a major surgery, you feel completely terrified as you feel your dreams slipping away. Isolated from my colleagues and unfortunately having had little to no support from my former dance teachers (due to a change of school direction) I spiralled down a slippery slope of depression. Thankfully seeking help, unlike many other dancers in similar situations I was able to reignite my passion and drive towards “wanting to recover”. But the process of wanting to recover wasn’t necessarily a conscious one. I was struggling to get out of the bed in the morning, I isolated myself from my friends and family, heavily relying on my boyfriend at the time to cheer me up (which was nearly impossible) and I was riddled with depressive thoughts. It wasn’t until my Mum set up a meeting with a family friend for a coffee date who was a psychologist, that I really realized I had a problem. I would love to say it was my decision to seek help, but like many people struggling with anxiety or depression (especially in your teenage years) it wasn’t until I got “the nudge” to acknowledge that I needed help. Alongside meeting with my psychologist weekly I found some inspiring souls that were willing to help me with my rehabilitation and to this day I am thankful, for without their help I possibly wouldn’t be the dancer that I am today. Only just feeling “better” and just managing to complete a ballet barre it was my time to move to Dresden, Germany to begin my studies at the Palucca Hochschule commencing in September 2014.

Bachelor at Palucca School, Dresden, Germany

My three years at a professional dance school had many ups and downs, and for anyone who says it is easy are kidding themselves. Europe is an abundant market of insane talent, with dancers who have been training professionally since the age of 10. Competition is real and due to the near vicinity of so many different countries thus the fluidity between borders opens a mass collaboration and respect for the arts. It was during Palucca that I discovered and was encouraged to seek and explore all avenues in dance. With contemporary, ballet and improvisation all valued on equality, I was able to move away from my small-minded ideas and truly discover the artist that I wanted to be. From dreaming to join NDT to changing direction completely and wanting to become a classical dancer, my training allowed and was open to me doing so. I had many opportunities to travel and work with different companies during my degree. With a secondment in Royal Ballet of Flanders and the Semperoper Ballett Dresden, and winning a 6-week course with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle it opened many connections which helped me secure my first job as corps de ballet in the Semperoper Ballett Dresden. Thus being said auditioning in Europe is no easy task.

Final year and audition tour II, Europe

In my final year of school, I auditioned for around 8 companies whilst still having to attend a full schedule, complete exams and choreograph and write my Bachelor thesis. I auditioned from December 2016- April 2017 and I had nothing. I was one of the most promising students in my year and I was staring down an empty barrel, I was beginning to lose hope and at the time I didn’t really know why.  Auditioning is not only physically demanding but also mentally. It’s like Russian Roulette you could have all the right qualities and everything could be pointing in your favor but for some reason you’re facing rejection. It can be as simple as not being so technically strong to simply reminding the director of a dancer they recently let go. Height, artistic attributes, technicality even to hair colour can be a deciding factor into not securing a job; and this waiting and guessing game is so frustrating because you could be the perfect package for one director and then not for the next. Most of the time when I faced rejection I was given no real concrete feedback. So, I would then conjure up all possible reasons on why I wasn’t being accepted, constantly questioning my abilities, which isn’t productive. The most “logical” reason that I felt I wasn’t being accepted was perhaps because of my height (I’m 175cm tall!) or maybe not doing the appropriate research for the companies. Not exactly knowing what kind of dancers the company had, but only knowing that I liked the city or some of the repertoire, meant that sometimes maybe I wasn’t the perfect fit – but then again you wouldn’t be accepted to even come and audition if the direction wasn’t interested. Perhaps another reason why I didn’t originally succeed was because I was relying too heavily on the advice I was given by my school director. I was told that a particular director was really interested in me and there was a high possibility that I would make the apprenticeship. So, with most auditions that I went to in the back of my mind I had “It’s ok if you don’t succeed because you’ll probably get the apprenticeship so no need to stress”. But when I found out I wasn’t going to get the apprenticeship I was faced with instant regret and fear, because I felt like I wasted so many opportunities. Thus, if I was to give one piece of advice it would be to not take your superiors advice too seriously because at the end of the day, people’s minds change all the time and I believe you should only trust what’s written and signed on paper. The truth is there is no secret formula to auditioning or “succeeding”, it comes down to just staying positive and believing that one day if it’s meant to work out you will succeed. It becomes very philosophical and you’ve just got to believe in the incredibly frustrating but eventually rewarding process. That being said it wasn’t until I was asked to work as an apprentice/cover with the Semperoper Ballett for George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, that I sparked Aaron Watkin’s (the director of Semperoper Ballett) attention. I was offered a 10-week contract for the program of Symphony in C as a guest artist. I took it immediately as it allowed me to stay in Europe and work with my dream company. I graduated in July 2017 and the day of my graduation I was called by Aaron Watkin and he offered me a corps de ballet contract (a pregnancy cover with the opportunity for extension) for the Season 2017/18. I was thrilled, I didn’t have a 10-week contract but rather a more concrete position with the company of my dreams.

Photo credit: @pickledthoughts

First contract with a company

August 2017, I started officially working with the Semperoper Ballett and I was able to dance in ballet’s such as Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon”, George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C”, Aaron Watkin’s “Swan Lake” (which toured to Ottawa, Canada) and Aaron Watkin’s “The Nutcracker”. Dancing so many beautiful ballets in my first 4 months as a professional dancer you’d think I’d be living the dream, but I wasn’t. I was riddled with constant anxiety and feeling incredibly out of place, not by my colleagues but by other internal factors. Hiding in the back of the class, not feeling free to express within my dancing and in a perpetual fear of making mistakes or getting yelled at, I was a mess. My previous anxieties and depressions came back, but I was in a serious suppression of such emotions as I felt “this is where I thought I always wanted to be, so just make it work”. But feeling this way does not happen overnight. Although I felt socially accepted by my colleagues I still felt like I just wasn’t good enough. I felt that my technique maybe wasn’t as strong as it could be and I felt very misunderstood. Having come from such an open school that encouraged versatility I felt like I was never really taught the harsh realities of life as a corps de ballet member. You suddenly don’t have the freedom to talk and express yourself and you’ve just got to blend and fit the mould. I used to joke and say if you blend in and don’t stand out, you’re doing it right – now what’s the point of blending in, you’re an artist let it shine! I also felt I had this feeling that my ballet masters simply just “didn’t like me” and as a young professional a personal opinion of your worth (especially someone dealing with anxiety) can be your downfall. For example, getting aggressively yelled at in rehearsal for 5 minutes about an arabesque line alongside personal attacks, isn’t the best way to encourage your dancer to strive to be the best. These external factors contributed to knowing that deep down this wasn’t the place for me and I needed a wake-up call. I needed to find my fire back and the only way of doing that was being an adult and confronting my director, because I couldn’t live in such a heavy state of anxiety anymore. For anyone who has confronted a person of power, you’re terrified especially when you subconsciously know the real answer. Thus, I was given an ultimatum I could either stay with the company for the rest of the year as a cover and not exactly get cast in pieces and finish out the season with more-than-likely no job prospect at the end of it, or I could cancel my contract and leave. I chose to cancel my contract and not continue down a dead path. And in that moment of clarity and decisiveness, my inner fire returned. I organized CV photoshoots, worked on my CV constantly, filmed audition videos and sent around 60 E-Mails to companies all over Europe, little or big it didn’t matter I just wanted a job. Funnily enough, my ballet got better as I was able to push myself more in class, I was given more attention by my ballet direction (this time I was still dancing Nutcracker with Semperoper as I finished the year) and I began feeling more confident and ready for audition season.

A serious injury

January came, I had a refreshing trip back home to Perth and returned to Dresden with the first auditions beginning to start. I was training at my old school and I had an accident. A soutenu at the barre and some odd placement caused me to dislocate 3 bones in my ankle/foot. Not exactly knowing what I did, I idiotically completed class (in pointe shoes…) and I woke up the next morning with an unbelievably swollen ankle and in tears. My first audition was that weekend and I could barely walk. Desperate times call for desperate measures so I went to a physiotherapist in Dresden to see what I had done, but without an MRI they could only massage my foot and try to unblock my ankle. I went to the audition that weekend dosed up on so many painkillers (a dangerous amount) and still in unbelievable pain, that it was no wonder I was cut after the first stage. Not the greatest start to an audition season. Returning from the audition, heartbroken I sought comfort and guidance from my boyfriend and he helped me make a decision to really take rest and get on top of this injury. I went to his hometown and was around family and this is when the healing began. I was able to email my physiotherapist back in Australia and seek support and guidance, and she guided me to actually crack back the dislocated bones in my foot. The reason I sought guidance from my physiotherapist in Australia, was because I feel the industry standard between physiotherapists in Germany versus Australia are very different. In Australia, a physiotherapist is linked more closely to a doctor or a specialist and has a more in-depth knowledge about treatment, whereas in Germany I feel a physiotherapist is more like a sports massage (I’ve found it very hard to find a good physiotherapist in Germany). Thus, without her guidance, I’m unsure if I would’ve made such a speedy recovery. I rested completely for two weeks and worked with my Gyrotonics teacher in Dresden to somewhat help me get into shape. I gained weight, I was again unhappy and anxious and I had 30 already planned auditions in front of me. With little to no training, I began on my insane audition journey, I think between February to April I was in Dresden for 7 days. I had no consistent training and in all honesty, I was still injured. I travelled to Magdeburg, Nice, Geneva, Eisenach, Bordeaux, Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Würzburg, Berlin, Oldenburg, Munich, Vienna, Graz, Innsbruck, Copenhagen staying a few days in each city. I was exhausted and I still had no job prospects and I was utterly confused. I knew I wasn’t a terrible dancer and I knew there was a position out there for me and I was sick of getting to the end of an audition (even to an interview) and then missing out on a contract. I swore something was out there to get me! I then made a conscious and mental health decision to cancel the rest of my auditions (in honesty, they weren’t companies I was truly interested in, I was just clutching at straws). I took some classes at Palucca, and again felt incredibly out of place and judged immensely (which is unfortunate but quite common for alumni when they are returning to their previous schools.) so I decided to work every day with my Gyrontonics teacher who was the only person I felt truly believed in me. I took a break from social media, began to explore non-dance pathways and universities, and began to focus on myself and it wasn’t until he said: “Chelsea you’ve got a gorgeous body and such long legs why don’t you look at the Friedrichstadt Palast in Berlin?” Initially, I kinda laughed, here I was a classical dancer who had worked with one of the best ballet companies in Europe and was seriously considering auditioning for a revue. A revue is a type of multi-act theatrical entertainment that combines music, dance and sketches. I had heard many things about Friedrichstadt Palast (both good and bad) and there was actually quite a few dancers who had left Semperoper Ballett to work there. I used my contacts and reached out to them to find out a little bit more about the company and how they liked working there. Intrigued with what I heard I decided to contact Friedrichstadt Palast and secured an audition. They were beginning to learn the new show “Vivid” and were looking for new dancers. I went to audition in April and it was unlike any other audition that I have ever had. I took a ballet class and then had to learn choreography in 10 minutes and then perform it alone in front of the direction and the company. It was an ok audition, I was left with no concrete answer and I was allowed to take class for a few days. On my third day of taking class, the ballet mistress approached me and said that they were really interested in me but if I wanted to join the company I would need to lose weight. You would think I would be shocked by this but I knew I wasn’t my fittest and I knew I wanted to work there, so I took on the advice and returned to re-audition in May (only 3.5 weeks later) and 5 kgs lighter. Now in no means what I did here to lose weight is sustainable, I repeat non-sustainable! I fasted, exercised seldomly, ate a limited 1200 calories a day; but during this time I was not dancing at all I had barely enough energy to complete normal daily tasks. I also was dealing with hormonal problems due to coming off birth control so I had a lot of residual water weight, that I lost dramatically whilst fasting. As soon as it came closer to auditioning and training properly again I increased my calorie intake to a recommended amount, I had more energy and was able to train harder which enabled the weight loss. This complete ’detox’ including the rest time reignited my metabolism which was struggling due to a hormonal imbalance and assisted my weight loss. In no means if I was training and dancing everyday would I have undergone such a dramatic regime, it was only because I had freedom of time and the correct guidance to achieve such results. That being said, it’s amazing what a healthy mindset, healthy actions and determination can do. I re-auditioned, had an interview with the director and a week later moved to Berlin to start dancing with the Friedrichstadt Palast.

Where I am now

Now here we are, I’ve been working for the Friedrichstadt Palast for 6 months and I honestly haven’t been happier. I am performing 8 shows a week of our amazing Grand Show Vivid, I feel valued in my work environment and I have achieved such a clarity in my vision of myself as an artist. I have been praised from my director, ballet mistress and choreographers on my professionalism and more importantly my positivity. A spark that looking back 12 months ago I certainly did not possess. I’m happy and excited to belong to the “Palast Family” and am looking forward to what my future holds here, which is a true attest to just “believe in the process”.

THE PSYCHOLOGIST’S VIEW

Chelsea certainly has a strong personality, having a very clear idea of how to define success within a dance career. This is usually combined with a strong achievement motive and the capacity to recruit a lot of willpower and energy (physical and emotional energy) in order to pursue her dreams. These traits of character are a very precious treasure, certainly more often helpful in life than not. However, life’s circumstances cannot be fully controlled and with the dance circuit being very competitive and non-predictable, it is absolutely possible that even with a very high achievement motive such circumstances, or the environment one dances in, can drain this person of energy completely. An injury kept Chelsea from being successful for a long time, and more than once, and, additionally, not being able to compete evoked an emotional state of helplessness – which is a very common – and human – reaction. This state is often a pre-condition for a depressive reaction, and can also be a condition that ultimately leads to anxiety. In this situation, social support and self-disclosure (contrary to withdrawal which many people feel they would prefer – and often do), is of utmost importance. Additionally, psychotherapeutic interventions can act as reinforcement of positive character traits and encouragement to continue fighting the way back to a better state, and also help aid a quicker recovery by empowering and building up resilience. Furthermore, during those interventions a dancer may learn that the career path he/she once wanted to follow is not the one being the best for them. A reassuring environment (family, friends, teachers, therapists) is crucial in helping the dancer accept a change in plans/dreams in order to continue to strive and thrive in life. 

Chelsea mastered a deep crisis and succeeded with a noticeable and remarkable change in her self-concept as a dancer by not withdrawing, speaking up, seeking help, being self-reflective and, above all, being courageous.  (Dr. F. Potreck, Germany)

THE ENDOCRINOLOGISTS’S VIEW

Thank you to Chelsea for an uplifting and honest account of the resilience needed to be a professional dancer. What have hormones got to do with this you may be asking? Hormones are internal chemical messengers that keep the body healthy. These messages change in response to external factors to reset internal functioning. So the external inputs of dance training, nutrition and recovery subtly change hormone networks to support positive adaptations. Conversely any imbalances in these external inputs, including psychological stress will disrupt hormone networks. This is why injury can be such a challenging time for dancers, because in addition to change in physical factors, psychological stress combines to contribute to hormone changes. This can become a vicious circle. Although it is every woman’s individual choice what form of contraception to use, there is evidence that hormonal contraception can have adverse effects in some women on bone health, soft tissue and interaction with other hormones. So this could be contributing factor in Chelsea’s description of re-booting her hormones by stopping hormonal contraception. Certainly hormonal contraception should not be given to anyone without periods, because this simply masks why the woman is not having periods in the first place. So although you cannot see your hormones, remember that essential for your health and dance performance. Kudos to Chelsea for harnessing her hormones to become the dancer she wants to be. (Dr. N. Keay, United Kingdom)

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