Abbi Johnson, is a renowned ballerina who has captivated audiences worldwide with her mesmerising performances. Her skill, dedication, and artistic expression has become a true inspiration for aspiring dancers and a beacon of excellence in the world of ballet.
You grew up in North London and got the bug for ballet here, so what prompted your move to New York City?
It’s funny to think back. For the majority of my childhood – 12 years! – I was in ballet schools in London and around the UK alongside an academic school in London’s West End. You’d think I’d have hung around! My parents always wanted me to have a strong academic grounding, so I was at Queens College London by day and either at Highgate Ballet School training under Julie Cronshaw, or Central School of Ballet in London after school every evening. I won awards in the competitive Cecchetti Ballet Society competitions,
I was a member of their Associates scheme for years and performed alongside some of the best young dancers in the UK in the National Youth Ballet several times. I had the thrill of being on the Sadlers Wells stage and many others – any chance I could get in London, I grasped. It did make my decision to leave the UK a difficult one, especially as I was only 16 years old when the decision point arose.
I knew I wanted to amp up my training to have a better chance of pursuing a career in the highly competitive ballet world. I didn’t have family connections or any other advantages to help me into the UK ballet world and with Brexit, the chances of dancing professionally in European cities were going to be more limited. I’d heard a lot about the Joffrey Ballet School in New York, a city where some of the ballerinas I admire most reside and perform, so I decided just to go for it and sent in an audition video, without thinking too hard about it.
Receiving an acceptance letter including a scholarship award built my confidence and really put everything into perspective. I realised my future story was entirely mine to write. Although I was slightly apprehensive about being all alone in a big city without my family at first, I quickly discovered that New York City is a place that accepts differences, originality and encourages artistic freedom. I felt at home within weeks of arriving and I guess I grew up fast.
What sacrifices have you found necessary to pursue a career in Ballet?
Ballet is a lifelong passion, but one’s performing years are limited so it’s a relatively short career, like a professional athlete’s is. So acquiring technical skills early and then beginning professional training before you’re an adult is essential. That makes it hard to have a childhood the same as your siblings or school friends do.
When you’re passionate about something from a young age, it can be difficult for others around you to understand your priorities if they aren’t into the same thing that drives you. I have lifelong friendships from childhood, but being in the dance studio every night, all weekend and at summer schools meant my social life growing up looked very different compared to my peers at school. I wasn’t at the parties or the cinema or the summer festivals my friends went to, nor did I have time for dating in my teens, or for many other interests at all.
Then at 16 years of age, moving to the United States by myself meant that I had to leave all those friends and the comforts of my parents’ home behind and rebuild my life from scratch. It came to be a great opportunity for me to push forward in the direction I wanted for my life as an artist and a young woman, but it took a lot of resolve. The path certainly came with its own hiccups, having to accelerate my journey to adulthood in a new country.
What inspired you to start going to ballet school as a young child?
Where I grew up in North London, many little girls are sent to ballet classes by their parents as a way to encourage creativity and stay active. My parents didn’t push their ideas too much, letting my brothers and I explore things we showed an interest in. When I was 4 years old, like a lot of girls, I loved the popular cartoon tv show “Angelina Ballerina”, a series about a young mouse who loves dancing and dreams of becoming a famous prima ballerina.
I was a super shy little girl, so something about the character resonated with me. I pleaded with my parents to take me to our local ballet school and once they did, I knew straight away that I’d found my happy place. I could finally express myself in my own way through dance. I loved the structure of learning ballet as a tool to take control of my body and what it could do. The strive for perfection and virtuosity really set my imagination alight.
How do you take care of your health and body with such a physically demanding career?
I thought I was used to the athleticism required for classical ballet but when I arrived in New York City to attend full time ballet training, I fully realised just how physically demanding it is to train for 6 hours a day, 6 days a week. It was a whole new level of exhaustion at first!
Whilst it never gets easier, my body is now equipped to handle the physical intensity. To avoid muscle soreness, injury, fainting and all the other side effects that come with a full-time ballet career, fuelling my body is the most important factor. Dancers need to eat a lot more than some might think, so being well educated on nutrition is imperative to the physical and mental health of a dancer, leading to a long career.
Injuries are inevitable and come with the territory. Behind every successful ballerina is an amazing physical therapist. I attend physical therapy once a week and I have also taken up pilates training to help with balancing my body’s wellbeing and building core strength while maintaining maximum flexibility.
How did you transition from student to professional?
I don’t think I could have imagined how different it is dancing with a professional company compared to training within a ballet school. It’s something you really have to learn as you progress to your first contract with a company. The most important factor is to focus on your own journey as it can be distracting to fixate on the journeys or perceived successes of your peers.
In my senior year at the Joffrey school I took part in as many auditions as possible for as many ballet companies as I could find. Bear in mind that lots of graduating ballet dancers are competing for a limited number of professional spots, so it’s important to get the audition experience to ensure you show up when it really counts. School focuses on technique and training and you feel very much an individual who is accepted in the studio.
Auditioning is a very different environment to be in – you don’t get feedback during an audition, you just have to strive and make sure you are at your best. Working as a member of a company is entirely different again. Honestly, the biggest part of the transition is learning how to not be a student, but instead to be an artist with the ability to think independently and contribute creatively and energy-wise to the company.
I secured a role as an apprentice into a company I had admired for a long time called Ajkun Ballet Theater. We perform both the renowned classical ballets and newer choreographies in the contemporary ballet style, all around the state of New York and in Manhattan. Rehearsing daily and performing on stages in New York is a dream come true for me. The whole experience has been so refreshing. I’m encouraged to collaborate artistically, to make decisions and I get to have my personal opinions valued by those I work with.
Abbi is performing as a company artist and soloist with Ajkun Ballet Theater this summer in Sleeping Beauty, August 12th and 13th in New York City.
Follow her journey at https://www.instagram.com/abbi_ej/?hl=en