Grace Monahan chases a Sugarplum dream in Berlin

Grace Monahan

Grace Monahan was 11 when the ballet bug bit.

Grace is the daughter of Ottawa Bluesfest executive director Mark Monahan. There is always music in the home. Her father plays the piano every night after work, she say. Grace took lessons and achieved her Grade 8 in piano but “I didn’t enjoy it at the time.”

She found ballet.

“When I was 11 my little cousin went to the National Ballet of Canada school. We travelled to Toronto to see her in The Nutcracker. She was a lamb, sitting on the stage.”

But Grace wasn’t looking at the lambs

“I was fascinated by the Sugarplum Fairy and The Waltz of the Flowers. I had never seen a ballet before and I didn’t know that humans could do that.”

Monahan is a self-confessed extrovert.

“I love being the centre of attention and I saw that there was about 1,000 people all staring at one girl on stage. She looked like a princess. She was  smiling and wearing a beautiful costume with diamonds on it and, I thought, ‘I want to be that person’.”

After the show, she told her mother ‘I want to do ballet’.”

Grace’s mother knew that at 11 Grace was starting late if she wanted to be a ballerina, so she told her daughter to figure it out for herself.

So Grace did. She discovered Ottawa’s The School of Dance and enrolled in an adult beginner class where she spent a year working at the bar doing tendues and pliés.

At the end of the year, her teacher suggested she might audition for the professional division in The School of Dance and she was allowed to join a Grade 3 class.

It was no picnic. Grace was training with girls who had been dancing in ballet since they were three.

“I cried every single night. I didn’t know what I was doing. If you tell me I can’t do something, well, you just watch me. That’s the reason I’m still doing it.”

She did progress and two years later she auditioned for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and was invited to Manitoba for the summer.

“I think I just got lucky. I’m really good at auditioning, I think, because I have a huge smile and a bubbly personality. A lot of dancers are more reserved.”

But being congenial doesn’t carry you very far.

“I was always confused, but I was also the happiest one” in the class.

At the end of the summer she was told she had a lot to work on and then she was sent home.

“Winnipeg scared the crap out of me. The thing that kept me going was my love for learning and challenging myself.

“Now I am addicted to being on stage. I love acting and expressing myself through movement. I think that it is the most pure form of emotional expression when you are on stage. You can’t use words to say how you are feeling and I love expressing myself through facial expression and movement.”

She also got a taste of what it was like to be on her own. And that was extra incentive. Grace soon started auditioning for more summer schools and got into a program in Texas and later in Atlanta, Georgia.

Everywhere she went she learned a different style of ballet, something that helps her today as she looks for work in Germany from her home base in Berlin.

By 15, Monahan was convinced. She was going to be a ballet dancer.

She tried to get into a dance school in North Carolina and that’s when her father put the brakes on. He told Grace that she had to graduate from her high school, Lisgar Collegiate. The following year, she went into overdrive.

She got enough credits to get her diploma at age 16. At the same time, she was dancing at The School of Dance and auditioning for summer schools in Montreal and Toronto.

In her final year at Lisgar, Grace got a job in the corps de ballet of a small Montreal company touring The Nutcracker in small towns and cities in Quebec.

“It was quite an experience. They only hired the right amount of people for the show and one girl had a kidney infection and another had pneumonia. One other girl dislocated her knee and did the tour anyway.”

The company promised a per diem but failed to deliver so the dancers lived on muffins from Costco and dinners prepared by local mothers.

Monahan didn’t care. “I loved it. I loved the struggle.”

After high school, Monahan was accepted into the Atlanta Ballet’s summer school and at the end of the summer, she was admitted into the school’s conservatory program where she once again got a taste of the stage in The Nutcracker.

After two years, though, Monahan started considering leaving North America. She enrolled in a youth mobility program, got a visa and headed to Berlin, Germany. ”

“I have an aunt and uncle who lived in Germany for 18 years.” They encouraged her to go to the German capital.

She booked a flight, rented an Airbnb and headed off.

The culture shock was overwhelming in part because she didn’t speak a word of German.

“I was overwhelmed, but I loved that.” So she went to school to learn the language and she started taking ballet classes with a legendary teacher named Yvonne Vendrig, who had once danced with Rudolf Nureyev.

The 75 year old Vendrig teaches a three hour open class in the morning for professionals Monday to Saturday. She never takes a day off.

“She has an aura about her. She pushes us so hard. All the dancers around Berlin … those who are freelancing, between jobs, on an audition tour …  everybody is in her class. They get beaten up by Yvonne. Everyone in Europe knows about her. That class has has kept me going.”

Like any struggling artist, Grace has picked up other work.

“I work in a craft beer brewery. We make our own beer. I serve beer, sell beer and give tours.”

Otherwise she auditions for ballet companies.

“It’s difficult because most companies are small, often five women and five men. There are big companies such as SemperOper Dresden, but I don’t think I will ever be in one of those. Still there are a lot of small, wonderful companies in Europe.”

She emails her CV and pictures to cpmpanies. If a director wants to meet her she will hop on a high speed train and take classes with the company. And then they tell her they have no work for her at the time.

“All of my friends are in the same boat.” Still she has made a lot of contacts and met a lot of influential dance people.

“I have had a lot of luck. A lot of directors have said they want to work with me. I know girls in companies who tell me when someone is hurt. I have friends dancing everywhere because of Yvonne’s class.”

Finally, though, a door opened.

She got a job with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.

Opera companies will occasionally need ballet dancers in an opera. One such is La Gioconda and the Berlin opera needed ballerinas.

“I had been emailing the company director about work. The dancers they hire are well paid and even though the work is not ballet, I would rather do that than waitress.

“I got an email from her this winter. She said she needed ballerinas for La Gioconda which opened in May.”

Grace went to an audition thinking she had a job only to find there were 75 other dancers competing for four spots.

“I knew all these girls, they are great dancers. It blows my mind how many great unemployed dancers there are in this world. That audition was the most intense thing I have ever done in my life.

“It was crazy. It was four hours long and the director was cutting throughout.” She would point to a dancer and they would leave. It was brutal, Grace said.

At the end of the day, there were 12 dancers left including Grace. But the director gave her some bad news. She told her she couldn’t hire her because she wasn’t German.

“I fought back. I was speaking to her in German the whole time.” After awhile it became apparent that the real reason Grace was denied was because she didn’t have the right visa.

“I told her I would get the visa.”

After some hemming and hawing, the director said she would consider Grace for the job if she could get the visa.

“The next day, she emailed me at 10 p.m. in the middle of my shift at the brewery” with a job offer. “I was crying. I could not believe it. The next day was my 22nd birthday and I picked up my contract.”

But she still needed the visa. She went to the visa office for three straight days before being told she didn’t qualify.

In the German system, the visa office doesn’t decide work visas, it just hands them out, Monahan said. An employment office official makes the call.

A friend told her how he obtained a visa quickly from the employment office. “He said, ‘Tell them you are starting work on Monday even though you don’t have visa. They hate anything under the table’, he said.”

Eventually, Grace prevailed. She got her visa and got her job and danced for two months.

“The job was amazing. I was in the corps de ballet in the opera, six days a week. It was the best thing ever. It renewed my love for dance. Two years without getting on a stage is devastating. But being on stage is the best feeling in the world.” She even had her own makeup person.

Next season the opera company is doing Onegin and ballet dancers will be used in that show, so Grace, who is back in Berlin, taking classes and looking for work, remains hopeful, if pragmatic.

“I’m a very positive person. I have a balanced life. I love beer and partying and spending time with friends. But my goal is to dance in Germany because I have invested so much time.”

Some dreams are hard to kill.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.