Arts·Off Kilter

Ballet looks perfect — but Off Kilter's Sarah Murphy-Dyson reveals the struggle behind the illusion

In preparation for her character Anna, Murphy-Dyson had to revisit the wounds of her past as a professional ballet dancer.

In preparation for her character, dancer turned actress Murphy-Dyson had to revisit the wounds of her past

Sarah Murphy-Dyson in Off Kilter. (CBC Arts)

In ballet, we work everyday to get our bodies — our instruments — as close to perfection as possible. The training is rigorous, almost militaristic in nature, to develop both athleticism and grace. Our teachers and coaches help us to achieve this physical artistry and hone what they also felt was important: our individual dance "voices." (As legendary Russian choreographer George Balanchine says: "See the music, hear the dance.") It is our job to tell stories onstage with our bodies while maintaining an illusion of perfection and effortlessness.

From backstage, my parents used to love watching me perform. They would see these glorious, effortless, ethereal creatures onstage who would collapse into fallible humans when they hit the wings. We'd spit into garbage cans, fall onto the floor, double over, swear, cry, laugh, and hopefully celebrate.

(CBC Arts)

The elite level of strength and technique required for this job is tempered by the vulnerability and emotional nakedness necessary to convey the artistry. But both could not be present at the same time. Tears and weakness had no place in the studio, and as one teacher told me when I was 20 years old: "There are hundreds of girls waiting to take your place." Consciously or not, this strong and perfect façade I worked to create onstage came to define me offstage as well.

When we deny our feelings and fears, they don't disappear. Instead, they fester and harden. The constant state of denial I lived in fed my anxiety and self-loathing. It turned my body into my worst enemy. I turned against my body. It was clear to me, as well, that I never would have fit their ideal description of perfection: I was tall and had muscles, so I was deemed a "big girl." In this mental state of fatigue and anxiety, it was increasingly harder for me to remain a physically healthy person. And during my career, I had a few serious injuries because of my hypermobile joints: ankle sprains, whiplash and a major kneecap subluxation (which joyously occurred two days before my premiere as the lead in Mozart's Requiem with Alberta Ballet).

Off Kilter: Holding Your Bones Together

5 years ago
Duration 2:13
Off Kilter's Sarah Murphy-Dyson on how she cares for her bones while dancing.

I see how I was always drawn to the character roles in ballet. When I was cast as a movie extra in Capote, I knew right away that it was what I wanted to do all the time. The next day I told my director that the next season would be my last, and I retired to study acting full time. For Off Kilter, the struggle was: how do we make Anna, my character, look good dancing next to three of the ballet world's best dancers, more than a decade after I retired? I had planned to prep and train, to get in shape, but, suddenly, I was on my way to Montreal with my co-star and series creator Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla and choreographer Shawn Hounsell to rehearse for the show. I no longer had the muscles to support the crazy physicality of ballet, so my left fibula sliding out of place (as it has done too many times before, when I was doing this professionally) was a very real possibility.

When we deny our feelings and fears, they don't disappear. Instead, they fester and harden. The constant state of denial I lived in fed my anxiety and self-loathing. It turned my body into my worst enemy.- Sarah Murphy-Dyson, actress and retired ballet dancer

When it came time to shoot the show, I did some preventative taping of my knee but surrendered to the universe (and my body) with my fingers crossed, hoping for the best. Alejandro knew about the injury and — being an experienced dancer himself — wrote the potential injury into my character, Anna's, storyline. (Graçias, Abuelo Alejandro.) It was nice to be open about it, because in the past I would have hidden the knee pain and any fear behind a smiling mask. As I transitioned from dancing into acting, maintaining a shiny veneer of perfection was no longer an option. You can't convey emotions honestly if you don't even know how you feel yourself.

As a ballet dancer, no matter how honest and deep your performance is, everything must be exaggerated or heightened to effectively communicate your story to thousands of people in a concert hall with a full orchestra. Being on camera is a much more intimate medium; so much of my work was to figure out how to make it smaller without making it smaller and how to do nothing while doing everything.

What I have been trying to do as an actor is tap into this vulnerability — an honesty that I didn't work in before — and tear down my protective layers, my walls. Our bodies are resilient — astoundingly so, even after years of pushing my physical and emotional limits.

I wish I was kinder to my body; it's one of my biggest regrets. I'm still mourning the years that I took it for granted and abused it. Seven years ago, I had a baby, which changed my entire life and perception of my body. It connected me to myself again and helped me find that place of joy and freedom that comes from being fully present and fearless. It feels good to dance again because you just can't help yourself.

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Sarah Murphy-Dyson is an actress, a Gemini Award winner, and a ballet dancer. She was a First Soloist with The Royal Winnipeg Ballet Company. She currently plays Anna on CBC Arts' Off Kilter. She recently choreographed Cabaret for the Lower Ossington Theatre.