Laura Tisserand knows what you think of the Nutcracker—“Oh no, it’s here again,” she says with a laugh—but the Pacific Northwest Ballet principal still loves it. Tisserand has been dancing in one production or another since she was a kid in small-town Louisiana, where her mom would ferry Laura and her older sister two hours, round trip, every day to their classes in Baton Rouge. (“Except Sundays. We had Sundays off.”) She’s come a long way in the last 20 years, geographically and professionally, but her affection for the production hasn’t waned. So it’s only fitting that she’ll be there this December, center stage, as PNB retires its Kent Stowell–choreographed version after a three-decade run. It is, after all, a plum gig. —Matthew Halverson
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to dance as a career. When I was a kid they offered jazz and tap classes, which I liked fine. But I always loved my ballet class. And it’s funny because a lot of kids would say the opposite: They loved jazz and hip-hop and tap, but they were so bored with ballet. Not me. I loved the tutus, the tiaras, the pointe shoes—everything.
Luckily I always got into all the programs I ever auditioned for, so I didn’t have to deal with rejection early on. But then when I was 15 I moved to New York to study at School of American Ballet year round. Usually you do that with the hope that after a couple years you’ll get into New York City Ballet. But I didn’t get in, and that was the first time I really ever had to deal with that. When you’re 16, it is the most devastating thing ever.
It’s not an easy career. There have been, now, plenty of quote-unquote rejections, where you don’t get a part you think you’re suited for or, say, you’re third cast for something. One minute you’re elated because you’re dancing all of these wonderful parts, the next minute you’re brought back down because you’re not necessarily suited for another program. But that also makes it so wonderful, because you’re always reaching, always striving.
I’m tall for ballet. My mother is six feet, so she always had a fear that my sister and I would get too tall. Not a fear—don’t get me wrong, she would have been thrilled with whatever we did. I mean, you’re going to be whatever height you’re going to be. But she knew how much we wanted to go into dance. I didn’t grow past five-ten, but still, I’ve been very lucky. A lot of dancers that tall just wouldn’t have had a future at all.
Now that I’ve made it to the rank of principal, it definitely adds a level of comfort. It’s like, Okay, they have seen something in me, so obviously I must be doing something right. But that doesn’t make you stop questioning why someone else gets a part you hoped to get. There are always mind games.
Dance is on my mind a lot, especially because I’m married to another dancer in the company. I know for some people, they can’t even understand leaving the studio, going home, and still being in that world. But I think we strike a good balance of trying to leave all of the drama at work, coming home to the dog, and having a good time.
We have to dance through a lot of pain, but no one is making us. We just don’t like to sit on the sideline, so we push ourselves—probably a little harder than we should. Back in 2009 I could feel that something was weird in my shin, but I kept trying to convince myself it was okay: “Don’t go to the doctor. It’s fine.” So I kept dancing on it, which was stupid, and then I found out that it was a stress fracture in my tibia and had to stop dancing for six months. It was hard. And it never quite healed all the way, so I still have pain there every single day. I get out of bed, I plié—bend my knees—and I see how much my shin is going to hurt that day. It’s just a part of life now.
You have to have the strength of an athlete, but you have to make it look like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Football players are so athletic, and what they do is amazing. But they can grunt and make facial expressions when they’re hurting. We can’t do that! It would be horrible for the audience if we showed how tough it was. So I think we have an even harder job, trying to keep the audience in this magical world.
You have to work on how your facial expressions will read to those 3,000 people, how a specific arm movement or a hand gesture will convey what you’re trying to say. If you’re doing something that’s more slow and luxurious, the way you sort of present your foot to your audience can be very alluring. Or if it’s a sharper movement, it can be more playful.
A crying baby is always a funny distraction. It’s usually in those quiet moments when that is just not what you need, but it usually makes me crack a smile—because it’s real. That definitely pulls you back and makes you realize, Oh my gosh, there’s a kid out there. Everyone’s watching me. But you have that moment, and then it’s gone. If you’re in the moment, if you’re really concentrating on a part, it’s easy to get lost in the dance.
It can be very hard to do the same show and the same part—especially Nutcracker—over and over again. But I remember when I was in the corps I would just tell myself, “This is a new audience. They’ve never seen it before. So you need to go out there and give them the best show possible and not groan about having to do it again.”
Feet really can tell a story.
This article appeared in the December 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.