On a recent late afternoon, the studios at in Chesterfield were quiet and empty. The faint brushing sound of a single ballet dancer could be heard coming from the main studio. Inside, Vanessa Woods—one of the newest members of the company—ran through her basic floor exercises.
“Nobody makes us come in and practice,” Woods said. “We come in and do it on our own. Everyone wants to be in tip-top shape for our audience next season.”
The story of her dedication is told with the grace and fluidity of her movements as she runs through her floor exercises. It's the same routine she has been doing since she was a young girl. Dancers must have the stamina and strength of Olympic athletes. From here, Woods will head to the gym.
That kind of drive can only come from within.
“I've been interested in ballet since I was five years old,” Woods said. “I never lost that interest.”
Her interest brought her to Clayton, where she recently took up residence to dance with the Saint Louis Ballet. But that didn't happen overnight, either. First, there were years of training at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase, Miami City Ballet School, Princeton Ballet and the prestigious STEPS Ballet Studio on Broadway.
Training gave way to professional gigs with Colorado Ballet II and professional ballet companies in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and renowned The Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center.
“It was really a life-changing experience,” Woods said. “Suzanne Farrell was George Balanchine's muse.” Balanchine is one of the world's top ballet choreographers.
Woods' break into Saint Louis Ballet came last year when she was brought in mid-season to perform in Swan Lake and then was asked to stay and dance in Sleeping Beauty. But she still was not a permanent member of the company.
Before she returned to New York, she asked artistic director Gen Horiuchi if it would be worth her time to return to audition. She already had flown in at her own expense to audition twice before. Did she have a chance of being hired?
Horiuchi offered her a position on the spot based on her work in the two ballets. Woods returned to New York to tie up loose ends and prepare for her move to the St. Louis area. Previously, she had been hosted by a family in Ballwin, but she was looking for something different.
“I wanted to be in an area that slightly resembled New York, with tall buildings,” Woods said. “Clayton looks like a city. Plus, I've met so many great people who live there. And it has great restaurants.”
Until the ballet season begins, Woods models for a group of painters whose art depicts ballerinas in ballet costumes. She also works as a babysitter.
“Little boys don't really care that I'm a ballet dancer, but with little girls, it's a crowd pleaser,” Woods said. “I teach them little steps.”
As with everything she does, Woods is only motivated by one thing.
“Dancing is my life,” Woods said. “The amount of sacrificing I've done—I'd do them all again. Everything I do is to allow me to continue dancing.”
For a complete 2011-12 schedule of performances, please go to the Saint Louis Ballet website.