PointePeople's co-founder, Paige, was lucky to meet Natalie Varnum years ago while training at Ellison Ballet! Fast forward about 12 years and now Natalie is a Demi Soloist with one of the best ballet companies in America.
Natalie took some time away from her busy schedule to chat with us here at PointePeople about life as a professional dancer in Houston. We're glad to see that she is still just as lovely as we remember.
Take us back to when you enrolled at Kirov full time. Do you remember what it was like to move to a new place and pursue your dreams full time?
I grew up at jazz studios and was a total competition kid. At some point we had a guest teacher come in for ballet (which I barely did once a week at the time) and she told me and my mom to consider a summer program at Kirov Academy in DC. Well I did and through that they offered a year round program and I begged my mom to let me go! My mom had a hard time letting her 12 year old kid go off to a boarding school in DC but I just had to go study ballet. I fell in love with the intense Russian training.
Before that, you were at Dothan School of Dance. How did you first get into dancing?
Funny story.. I was a small town girl.. I did a few pageants here and there and one of the only pageants that I won came with free dance lessons. So I started jazz class right away and loved it. After trying a few studios around Dothan, AL I ended up at the Dothan School of Dance.
What was the first moment that you realized—I might be amazing at this, and I want to pursue it?
I don’t know if I ever really thought I was good at it - I just loved it so much. The costumes and performing on stage and then getting feedback from competitions and guest teachers and things made me want to push more and get better.
During your time at Kirov, who was one of your most influential instructors?
I had a few instructors at Kirov over the years and I owe everything to all of them for different things. Jacqueline Akhmedova and Ludmila Morkovina were my last two teachers at the school!
What was one of the biggest challenges you faced as a young dancer?
The ballet world is tough. Let alone moving away from family when you're just a kid learning how to do such a serious Russian technique. You go through your first injuries, grow up a bit on your own...
When you were growing up, how did you balance ballet with friends, work, etc?
I had to leave school a bit early sometimes for dance related things so eventually in 7th grade I did one year of homeschooling because it was almost too much. Then off to boarding school where everything was in the same building and you could focus on both. These days with ballet being my job I can balance things a lot easier and have some free time with such a set schedule.
You have amazing flexibility! How did you work to maintain and increase it at a young age?
I don’t really know how or where the flexibility came from. As a baby I was very flexible so my sister would get me to do splits. I guess she’s the one I should thank for the high legs!
How did it feel when you first got into Houston Ballet II?
HB2 was an awakening for me because it was my first experience in a company world. I had no clue going into it that standing in the main company rehearsals is nerve-racking and hard to pick up 5 different company girl spots in Swan Lake corps and then going back to your HB2 rehearsal and rehearsing until 9:30 at night sometimes! It was hard! On the other hand, I had some of those best times performing with a mini company full of such young talent and getting the opportunity to travel and work with guest choreographers.
What were some of the hurdles of company life?
Company life can be difficult in many different ways. As an apprentice you can have many hours off and have to find ways to practice on your own and keep up with Pilates or whatever exercises you need. These days I get so exhausted but I wouldn’t change it! Other struggles are working through certain injuries or not getting to learn your favorite pieces ya know... the list goes on.
How did Kirov help you prepare for company life?
We did have a class my senior year on how to prepare for company life but hearing about it was a bit different than actually going through it. I was pretty shocked at first but thankful for HB2 to kind of mold me into how it works.
You’ve had a lot of proud moments in your career. What would you pick as your proudest one?
My favorite moment was probably this season. I got the opportunity to perform Empress Elisabeth in the ballet 'Mayerling'. It was one of my first big acting moments so I had a lot to work on! It still helps me come out of my acting comfort zones in other roles now.
Who has been one of your biggest inspirations to date?
Natalia Osipova and Sylvie Guillem for ballet! What idols! Just to name the ones I had when first starting ballet until this day.
What has been your favorite role as a soloist so far?
Empress Elisabeth in Mayerling or dancing in Grosse Fuge for the woman power!
Do you have any pre-performance rituals that you stick to?
If I have time, I eat a little pasta and take a quick power nap before a night show.
What’s your favorite part about being a full-time dancer?
Well it’s my dream job and as hard as it is you still get to get glam and put on a gorgeous tutu sometimes. Also, I’m always surrounded my such creative people so it keeps a constant inspiration alive even on the hardest days. Traveling and seeing theaters around the world isn’t so bad either!
When you were younger, did you envision yourself having any other careers?
I kind of always said I was going to be a dancer when I was little. Maybe even before I really knew what that meant. And here we are now.
You mention in your interview with Pointe Magazine that fashion is kind of a second passion for you. How did you get into collecting clothes?
I always had fun with clothes. Shopping and thrifting was always a fun thing for me, my mom and my sister to do. I really started getting into clothes at boarding school. It was almost a fun outlet to have.
Do you have a favorite piece of clothing in your collection? What about a favorite leotard?
That’s hard! I have so many. Right now I’m really loving this see through Kenzo shirt I found at a vintage store. As for leotards, I’m really enjoying the Sara Mearns for SoDanca line! Very elegant.
How do you decide what leotard you’re going to wear each day? Is it spontaneous, or do you plan in advance?
I kind of just walk in and pick one on how I feel and what kind of rehearsal I have. Sometimes it can help me get into a certain character.
How do you unwind after a long day of rehearsing?
Picking up some nice food (I rarely want to cook after a long day of rehearsals) and go relax with my dog and cat. Sometimes a glass of wine or two! Haha
Do you have a favorite meal to eat before a long day of dancing? What about after?
I’m such a pasta person. Classic spaghetti always “helps”... I probably am making that up just because I like pasta so much. I’m also into a poke bowl right now!
I know that you still enjoy tap and jazz—do you still take classes from time to time?
I love tap and jazz and miss it so much... it has been a minute since I’ve had a class though!
What’s your favorite thing about being a dancer with Houston Ballet?
We do great rep here but mainly it’s probably my fellow company members. What a family!
Do you have any advice for young dancers hoping to pursue their dreams?
My advice to younger dancers is to just do you. Take what you can from your idols but don’t be afraid to be yourself and go for it. It’s ok to fall down. Just work smart!
Finally—besides clothes and shoes, what are some essentials that you keep in your dance bag?
Notebook, massage balls, water bottle, lip gloss!!, warm up boots and most importantly snacks!
We know, we know. Natalie is awesome. Want to keep up with her? Be sure to follow her on Instagram: @natisacoolkid
P.S. - Natalie gave PointePeople's "Buttermilk" PointePaint two thumbs up recently! Want to check it out yourself? Shop here!