An American in Paris: One Dancer's Growth at the Paris Opéra Ballet
Reuniting with Chelsea Adomaitis in Paris was like a little taste of home. Old friends and former corps members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, we had both moved to Europe last summer. Over brunch she’ d share the story that brought her abroad.
As a little girl, Chelsea Adomaitis dreamed of dancing for the Paris Opéra Ballet, but as most do, she dismissed it as just that: a dream. Beginning her training in Boston with her mom, a former dancer, she later enrolled at the Harid Conservatory. It wasn’t until she attended Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s summer program, at age 16, that she discovered Balanchine, and it was love at first step. After two years in the school she was hired as an apprentice.
Her first few years in the company were full of growing pains. Her technique and confidence flourished as she gained opportunities to perform leading roles. Yet juggling these with a very heavy corps load began to wear on her. Confusion, frustration and injuries mounted as one season of this juggling act turned into four. Yet she persevered, hoping her work would soon be recognized and rewarded.
The author and Adomaitis outside Versailles. Photo by Jessika Anspach McEliece, Courtesy McEliece.
“By the end of the 2014–15 season I felt invincible!” she said, having danced her most grueling yet accomplished season to date. But her upward momentum seemed to halt the following season.
“I’d learned to work hard, but not to advocate for myself,” she says. “I realized that I wasn’t on ‘the list,’ that my work hadn’t spoken for itself. And that was tough to swallow.”
Strangely, a freak ankle sprain during a performance in spring of 2016 became the catalyst to alter the course of her career. Pushing through the pain, against her better judgment, Adomaitis hoped to prove herself worthy of a promotion only to find it had gone to someone else. Injured and depressed, she retreated to her family home for healing and perspective. And it was there that childhood dreams of the Paris Opéra Ballet resurfaced.
Nearly 26, she surveyed her options. In her mind POB certainly wasn’t among them. But something compelled her to investigate. The company website read: “July auditions—ages 16–26.” This was her last chance.
Fast-forward a couple of months: an intimidating open audition in Paris, where she knew no one and didn’t speak or understand a word of French. Her approach: zero expectations.
“I was chasing my dream while I still could, seeing it as an icebreaker for future auditions,” she says. “Get the scariest one over first, right? But I returned to Seattle changed, feeling so free. I’d needed to burst my own bubble.”
A week later she received an email from POB offering her a temporary contract: a seven-month trial with potential to extend. Risking everything, she resigned from PNB and packed for Paris.
Former Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chelsea Adomaitis in Susan Stroman’s TAKE FIVE…More or Less. Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
But there’s nothing like going from “rising-through-the-ranks” to “bottom-of-the- ladder” to wake one up from the fairy tale. With tradition and hierarchy paramount at POB, Adomaitis found herself always in the back, paid to understudy, rarely to dance. Doubts rose as old feelings of unworthiness returned.
Yet she realized something: “It’s not that I’m unworthy, I’m new. Trust takes time to build, especially in an institution of this caliber. It’s not personal, it’s business. Besides, it gives me time to adapt and assimilate.”
And time it’s taken. She’s had to stylistically retrain, focusing on balance, control, fluidity and port de bras while ridding herself of certain Balanchine affectations. She’s had to learn a new language, as all classes and corrections are given in French. And she’s had to adjust to the raked stage and studios, and to an intense yet slower rehearsal pace. With more downtime, she’s put her wisdom gained at PNB to good use, recognizing that self-care and decompression are key, especially when her constantly translating brain gets as much of a workout as her body.
As a result, she’s experiencing all-new growing pains. Growth, personally, in learning to advocate for herself—being bold, bluntly expressing her needs because, in her words, “no one else will, and I can’t sugarcoat in French.”
Growth, professionally, in mental nimbleness, emotional fortitude and focus. Knowing all the swans in Swan Lake versus just one, for example. Being flexible and prepared to dance whichever part she is thrown into (she’s performed four separate swan spots). Not allowing mistakes or emotions to overwhelm and derail her, or others’ opinions sway her—easily accomplished since she literally can’t understand them.
She’s also learned to let go of ego, a lesson that took her by surprise. “I never saw myself as defensive,” she admits. “But letting it all go has freed me to change. To accept corrections. To dance whatever part they give me with joy and gratitude.”
Former Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chelsea Adomaitis. Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
With time, trust has been gained. Twice in November during POB’s all-Balanchine program, artistic staff told her at intermission to get ready—”her girl was not okay”—only to change their minds in the wings. But the third time, they let her step in for Brahms- Schoenberg Quartet’s second movement, and it was a turning point. By March, she’d progressed from “understudy-only” to having her very own part in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—dancing every show, with her name in the program.
Though her temporary contract was extended to a full season, ending in June 2017, her future is still unknown. It rests on her performance at the concours, POB’s annual audition for both permanent and temporary contracts. But she doesn’t dwell on that, choosing instead to focus on each day—challenges, triumphs and all.
Cafés and croissants devoured, I smiled and asked, “So, was it worth it?”
“To have gone in older, unknown and differently trained, but as 100 percent Chelsea, and have that affirmed, has been the greatest gift,” she told me. “Every day I get to live this dream, and that has been worth everything!”
Editor’s note: On July 6th, 2017, Adomaitis came in third place at the Paris Opéra Ballet’s annual concours, and earned a temporary contract for the 2017/18 season, but was not offered a permanent position. While this season will be her last at POB, she plans to audition for other companies next year.