Principal Dancer with the Bayerisches Staatsballett
Kristina was born in San Jose, California. She trained locally at Dance Theatre International before joining the San Francisco Ballet trainee program in 2007, under the direction of Jean-Yves Esquerre. In 2009, she began her professional career as a corps de ballet member with the San Francisco Ballet. In 2015, Kristina joined the Dutch National Ballet, and in 2017, she was invited to join the Bayerisches Staatsballett as a first soloist. She was promoted to principal dancer at the beginning of the 2019/2020 season.
We asked Kristina about her journey.
Finding one's fit in the industry is often easier said than done. Having danced with the San Francisco Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, and now the Bavarian State Ballet, how easy/difficult was it to find your 'fit'?
Kristina Lind: It took me a while to distinguish between “fitting in” and finding my “fit.” Growing up in the Bay Area, San Francisco Ballet was always my dream company. I grew up idolizing the company members, went to multiple summer programs, spent two years in the trainee program, and then I joined the company. Thinking back on it, I can’t believe how incredible it is that my dreams manifested in this way. I look back on my time dancing at SFB as an absolute privilege to have danced in such a world-class company with incredible dancers. But much of the time during the six seasons I danced there was spent in frustration because I didn’t fit in. The majority of the company was small, and being 5’9” (175 cm) put me at a severe disadvantage for casting - especially in my first few seasons for corps roles. I couldn’t dance next to the smaller ladies, and tall men were in short supply, so I didn’t dance much at all. I ended up taking a lot of classes with the SF ballet school in those first couple of years and used my plentiful free time to keep developing on my own. Eventually, I started getting cast for more prominent parts, and I was able to find my niche within the company. In this sense, not “fitting in” worked to my advantage because I stood out of (and above!) the group.
After some time, I began to feel the frustration creep in again because my “niche” started feeling more like a box. I wanted to break free from that box and grow beyond my borders. Long story short, I ended up with an opportunity to join the Dutch National Ballet and made the journey over to Europe. Now that’s a company where I felt like I fit in. It was so refreshing and inspiring to be surrounded by long-limbed creatures who I could physically relate to. Even though my dancing has a lot of American influence, I feel very much at home in the European scene.
Companies are so dynamic and fluctuate significantly depending on the repertoire and the dancers that are there at any given time. After my first season in Amsterdam, I began questioning whether the company was actually a good fit for me. I began to feel the frustration again of having the desire to grow in certain ways, but not feeling like I had the circumstances to do so.
The opportunity to audition for the Bayerisches Staatsballett in Munich found me, through a friend who had just joined the company. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I auditioned. The circumstances this time were much different. There was a new director, bringing in new repertoire, looking for new dancers to fit his vision. I happened to fit the bill. If you asked me at the beginning of my career where I would be in ten years’ time, I would never have guessed it would be in Munich. Life is certainly full of surprises. I’m so grateful for the journey ballet has taken me on, providing me with so many obstacles and open doors towards self-discovery. I guess that’s what this whole journey has been about all along - where do I feel like ME? I don’t know if the “perfect fit” truly exists, but for me, as long as I’m evolving in the direction of the person I desire to become, then I’m satisfied.
How does dancing in the United States compare with that of Europe?
Kristina: The three companies I’ve danced for have all been large, classical companies, made up of diverse dancers with widely varied backgrounds. Each company has its unique distinctions, but for me in general, dancing in Europe versus the United States has not felt terribly foreign. Being a ballet dancer is kind of incredible in that way - you can join a company in a different country, and although there may be cultural differences, your skills as a dancer are completely transferable.
The most significant differences I have felt come down to the experience of being a ballet dancer living in America versus that of being a ballet dancer living in Europe. In the U.S., when you tell someone you are a ballet dancer unless they are a real ballet fan, they usually respond with something like, “Cool. But what’s your real job?” That’s not the case here in Europe, especially being a dancer who works for a state theatre. The theatre is an institution, and through employment, there is an opportunity for life-long support. I am building a pension, there is the potential for lifetime contracts, and there is funding for re-training upon retirement from dancing. The ballet as a state-funded institution gives a greater feeling of stability and security, whereas privately funded American companies, even if they are doing well financially, are much less secure. There are pros and cons to these aspects, of course. Security can often lead to complacency, whereas greater competition can yield higher quality. It’s interesting to me to see how these factors influence one another.
The arts are never a “given” in society, though - especially now, with the social and economic aftershocks from the pandemic. Ballet companies across the globe are looking for ways to adapt and survive given our current reality. The realities of being a ballet dancer anywhere in the world will surely undergo some significant changes in the near future. I hope that we can bring the magic and electricity of live performances back to the theatres soon.
Becoming a principal dancer is the epitome of the ballet world. Do you think this title defines you? Or would you argue a balanced life where ballet doesn't override your identity of more importance?
Kristina: I have to say that it’s both.
A balanced life is definitely essential. My identity is very much “ballerina”, but I am also a wife, dog mom, sister, daughter, college student, home cook, nature-lover, and much more. I am a happier person and a better performer when I am fulfilled by the other joys in my life outside of the studio. It has been really important for me to explore who I am outside the context of ballet. Who am I when I don’t have ballet to define me? This process of self-discovery takes time, but it’s vital for developing into a multi-dimensional human - in the studio, on stage, and beyond.
I feel passionate about this balance in my life as a whole. However, when it comes to the ballet world, I have always felt very defined by my title. It is the first thing that follows my name in a professional introduction. It carries a lot of weight in how artistic directors, choreographers, and other dancers view me.
I felt limited by my title for a long time because it defined me in a way that didn’t match my place in the company. I felt undervalued and couldn’t get past the limitations of that identity. I wasn’t looking to shoot to the top right away, but after spending eight years in the corps - six of them spent performing principal roles - I felt frustrated and confused as to why I wasn’t allowed a title that reflected the roles that I danced. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me. That I would never be good enough. I was looking for recognition from my director to prove to myself that I had value. I gave one person (with subjective artistic opinions) ultimate power over my self-worth. When I couldn’t find that validation, my self-esteem crumbled.
Eventually, I realized that getting promoted comes from so much more than just having talent and doing the work. That’s an enormous part of it, but there’s also politics and circumstances and timing and personal taste. Obsessing over why I was never going to be good enough in one person’s eyes only left me frustrated and worried about the future, and stopped me from enjoying the present moment.
After struggling to find external validation, I needed to put my energy into finding it within myself. That’s easier said than done when as dancers, our job requires us to look for and respond to feedback from teachers, ballet masters, and our audience. Instead of letting someone else tell me what my identity in the company was, I chose to focus on asserting the most honest and grounded version of myself. The worry began to fade away and I started enjoying myself so much more. Funny enough, it was shortly after this shift that things started to click for me. I have been dancing principal roles for most of my professional career, but it wasn’t until I believed in my own worth at my core that others believed it too.
I feel so fortunate to have achieved this level in my career. Now that I have this title, I feel a sense of responsibility to live up to it. How I act and what I do with the title will define me more than the title itself. I’m excited to see where life will take me moving forward in this new space.
What do you hope to achieve in this position and beyond?
Kristina: Well, I definitely see a lot more dancing in my future. I hope to keep developing as an artist, dance fulfilling ballets, and work with people who inspire me. I hope to continue to connect with audiences through worthy and authentic performances. I’d love to tackle some more full-lengths. I was preparing to debut in Swan Lake before the pandemic happened. That ballet is going to be a huge challenge when it happens, but I’m happy to use the extra time I have now to dive deeper into the role. I’d also love to explore some more dramatic roles. I got to dance Anna in Christian Spuck’s Anna Karenina at the beginning of last season. It was the first time I’ve gotten the chance to embody a character in that way, and I absolutely loved it.
I also hope to set a good example to inspire others. I certainly looked up to (and still do) the character, experience, and work ethic of many principal dancers. There’s a great responsibility that comes with holding a top position, and I don’t take this lightly. I hope to model authenticity in my life as a ballerina for anyone who may look up to me.
Beyond my dancing days, I hope to share my knowledge and experience with the next generation. I really enjoy teaching, and I definitely see myself staying in the ballet world in some capacity. Ballet has taken me on an incredible journey, and it’s not over yet! I would love to pass on the knowledge and insights that I have acquired in my life - in ballet and beyond - to help others grow into the best versions of themselves.
Looking back, can you describe a couple of the challenges you've had to overcome?
Kristina: From the beginning, one of my biggest challenges has been my body. Every athlete experiences physical challenges, so I recognize that I'm not alone in this. I have been given a crazy amount of facility for ballet… but learning how to develop that potential has been, and still is, a continuous challenge.
I grew a lot very quickly in my teens, so coordination was something that came MUCH later in my development. My joints are loose, and I often don’t feel secure in my body. Being prone to instability and injury, I’m always searching for new ways to balance strength with stability. I have pretty significant scoliosis in my upper back, which leads to a lot of rigidity in some places, and too much mobility in others. This causes a lot of compensation throughout my body. I basically feel like I have a different body all the time because my alignment shifts constantly, especially when I’m under mental stress. Discovering how mental stress can manifest in a physical way in the body has been an especially eye-opening process. Most of the work I do now to “fix” my physical problems involves getting my mind and nervous system into a more balanced state.
Another challenge that goes along with my body is the immense amount of pressure that I feel to live up to my physical potential. Teachers would always tell me, “You have that body - use it!” It’s frustrating when people imply that I may take my facility for granted. I am so grateful to have been granted this instrument for ballet, but also endlessly disappointed in myself when I don’t meet the expectations that I, or others, have for the potential of my body. To combat this pressure, I am learning how to love my body, and to be okay with what it is capable of doing in the present moment.
A challenge of a different sort that I am currently working to overcome is the fact that I am a better student than anything else. I am eager to grow, but this eagerness makes me vulnerable. I recognize that I have more to learn, but to the point where it inhibits my confidence. At a certain point in every professional’s life, they must shift out of that student mode. I’ve been a professional for eleven years, so I think it’s about time! I guess I’ve “made it”, but in a lot of ways, I feel like I’m just getting started. I am coming to the point where I need to recognize that I do know enough. I am capable. Any other critique or insights just add depth to the skills that I already bring to the table.
How has adversity enriched your career?
Kristina: Without adversity, I wouldn’t be where I am, or even the person that I am today.
In my career, every injury has resulted in returning stronger and with more knowledge about my body. The lack of nourishment from my environment sent me on a journey to find an environment where I could truly thrive. Feeling discouraged handed me the opportunity to cultivate my inner strength. Disappointments challenged me to broaden my perspectives and release the pressure I place on expectations. Trying to turn every situation into an opportunity reminds me that I have the power to respond to life in a positive way, even when it feels like everything is going wrong.
I can see the good in the past now, but navigating those tough times as they happened was not easy. So many doubts and so many tears. I cherish the high points in my career even more because they are a bright contrast to the lows. Adversity has certainly shaped my character and given me depth to draw upon when I get to bring my story to the stage.
What are the changes you hope to see from the dance community in paving the way for more Kristina Linds to come?
Kristina: Seeing the dance community respond to the coronavirus crisis with such generosity and inclusivity has been incredibly inspiring. It makes me feel proud to be part of such an amazing network of resourceful, passionate people who come together in times of crisis. This industry may be self-driven, but we can’t make it alone. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help and generosity of other people. I hope to see this spirit of community-mindedness continue into the future.
I think that adding sports psychologists to ballet companies and schools would be a great thing. I have yet to work with one, but my friends at Dutch National have been telling me about their new sports psychologist, and their reviews are very positive. They were, as I would be, skeptical of how a person who has never been in ballet would be able to advise ballet dancers. It’s one thing to hire somebody who looks good on paper, but whether or not they can be a true resource is another matter entirely. It sounds like their new team member is very good at offering tools to bridge the gap between what goes on at the ballet and what goes on in our minds. I think professionals and students alike could really benefit from being able to talk to someone who can help put the complicated and confusing parts of the ballet world into perspective.
And finally, I’d love to see more women in leadership. I have never worked for a female director or choreographer. I know that more and more doors are opening for women, and I would like to believe that the playing field is equal. The fact that I have not yet crossed paths with female leaders tells me that we need to keep working to encourage young girls and women in dance to develop their voices.
Q: Can you describe a pivotal point in your career?
Kristina: A pivotal point in my career was when I realized how much influence one person's subjective opinions can have over your opportunities, and ultimately, over your career path.
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