Many young girls dream of being a principal dancer in a major ballet company, but the road to get there is filled with triumphs and tribulations. That’s the premise of a 2010 documentary called TuTuMUCH.
The film focuses on nine young dancers who are attending a four-week summer intensive at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School (RWB) They are hoping to get an invite into the year-round professional program to begin their dreams of being a professional dancer.
The documentary originally started as a television series called Ballet Girls in Canada in 2006 and was eventually edited into a full-length documentary four years later. Dance Dish was able to catch up with three of the stars and find out what they are doing over a decade later.
This is the final article in a three-part series featuring Melissa Johnston.
Melissa Johnston was one of the primary subjects in TuTuMUCH. She was a free spirit who loved ballet almost as much as she loved her equestrian pursuits. She was great at both and her heart was often torn between the two interests — or was it clever editing?
When Johnston was cast as one of four Claras in RWB’s production of The Nutcracker — along with the invitation to the professional division — she seemed slightly detached from all of the excitement. While the documentary made it look like she chose equestrian over dance, the story was far different in reality.
“The tuition with living expenses [at the school] came to almost $30,000,” she explains. “My parents filled out the financial aid forms, but we only received about $1,000. It just was not going to happen that year.”
That wasn’t the end of her dancing career though. Johnston continued to pursue her dance studies in Canada and then in the U.S. at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre before returning to Vancouver to perform professionally.
When the company folded, Johnston followed one of her mentors back to the U.S. and found herself at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB) and at the summer program at Boston Ballet. The second summer at Boston Ballet proved to be difficult and she was sent home for being underweight.
“I was really stressed out when I there,” she explains. “That was tragic and I had to deal with that. I was under a lot of pressure and I went back to CPYB for the two-week summer program. I calmed down and drank a few milkshakes.”
At CPYB, she found her zen and her zone. She was auditioning regularly in New York City to get into a professional company when she twisted her pelvis that spring. She had to quit dancing altogether at the age of 21.
Johnston pursued teaching for a few years after her injury until the school she was employed by suddenly closed in 2015. She’s ready to start assessing what her next steps in life will be.
“I would like to keep teaching. I started teaching for a reason, not only did I want to teach, but the teachers at CPYB changed my perspective on teaching,” she says. “There’s so much more to dance than just performing.”
She’s also kept up with her equestrian pursuits as an adult.
“My horses got me through it. Even though I’ve always danced, my horses kept me fed,” she shares. “When I went away to all of the dance schools, I found a lot of live-in barn managing opportunities in the U.S., where you live there and get a stipend. I did it through my time at CPYB.”
If Johnston had to make a choice between her two childhood passions, the decision is a fairly easy one. She knows exactly what she would choose.
“At the end of the day — even though I love dancing — it was an awful lifestyle. Your days with horses are going to be long, but it’s doing something that you love, with people you love,” she laughs. “I’d rather do this than work my ass off to not eat.”
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