I’m always trying to squeeze in more time for writing, but it’s hard when doing something else is paying the rent. But I keep doing it. I keep writing. It’s as if I have no choice. We all have that impulse to express ourselves, whether through writing, dancing, painting, or – in a weird way – even doing absolutely nothing.
Anyway, Elisa Toro Franky agrees to meet me in midtown since that’s where Port Authority is located. She takes a bus from there every day to and from Livingston, New Jersey where she rehearses with the New Jersey Ballet Company. She’s just been granted an immigration visa as recognition for being “a performer of brilliance.” It’s the equivalent of the U.S. claiming that if she were to return to her home country of Columbia, our own country would be culturally poorer for it. I wholeheartedly agree. Elisa has also performed with the Miami City Ballet, the Washington D.C. Ballet, and the Harlem Ballet Company.
We speak while seated in one of those part-bodega part-cafes that seem to hold up every corner of midtown. By the end of my interview with Elisa - under these too-bright fluorescents in this godless rest shelter for overtired tourists and the mumbling homeless - I will come to more fully understand the reason behind why I keep writing.
So why ballet as opposed to any other form of dance?
I just gradually fell into it as I got older. My mother would always encourage my brother and me to explore extracurricular activities outside of regular school and she always wanted us to explore artistic activities like music and painting and then she would notice that I was more flexible physically than the average girl. So Mom suggested what don’t we try ballet? I was originally taking music lessons with my brother. Some singing and we were learning how to read music, you know, the notes and the scales, but I wasn’t really drawn into it. Into that learning process. And my Mom, she could notice that and she said, “Elisa, this is not an obligation. Do you want to try something else?” And then that’s when she suggested what she suggested. “If you want to try ballet, we can look at some schools.” I said yes to that suggestion. And the first minute, from the very first class, it caught my attention.
When you’re eight, you’re not thinking about expressing yourself through your body. Or maybe you’re able to do it, but you’re not very conscious. Because that comes with age, with experience. But at that time it’s just a manifestation of yourself, of your innocence, of your joy. It was fun. It was simply fun.
What’s the hardest thing about ballet?
The sacrifices. That means you choose to be away from family. To be away from your closest friends. To be away from your country. I left home when I was seventeen. The minute I arrived in Miami to pursue dance, it was a massive change for me. A change in culture, a change in social environment- it was massive. And it was very difficult. The culture shock. The homesickness. And stepping away from people whom you have been with your entire life. The first year that I was away, I felt an emptiness within me constantly. Somehow as time passed I was able to build up strength, build up autonomy, and I became partially independent. You adapt. I questioned sometimes whether it was worth it, to be away from the people who I love the most. I was wondering if this was going to take me somewhere, but how? When you’re first starting out, you have so many questions in your head because you don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the road. You’re just starting and you’re seeing that it’s not easy. You’re wondering if you made the right decision. It’s uncomfortable. But I stayed.
Talk about what it was like when you first came to New York.
I found it fascinating. It wasn’t hard for me. I didn’t find it aggressive. I found it as being full of opportunities. Just found it massive in the sense that there’s so much to see, so much to explore, so much to learn. So much to look at in this city. I felt I could find a place for myself in New York, that I had something to bring to the table, that I was unique. I was inspired. I was able to attend many different performances from many different companies. I could see for myself how high the artistic activity is.
A lot has been written on what it takes to be a dancer. Much has been especially made of the body issues that the profession can carry. Are the concerns valid?
Thank God that has never been an issue with me. Thank God. But I have seen dancers around me who are very aware of their body condition. Or very insecure over their body condition or they become obsessed with getting thinner. Why? Because ballet is a physical form. It’s a physical activity. It’s visual. Also, you have to stay small so you can be lifted and it’s a specific aesthetic that needs a slender body. It needs a beautiful appearance. Because that’s the way you present yourself on stage. There’s a number of physical communications, so it’s all about image. It’s all about physical expression. And your body is the one instrument that you have. So you have to take care of it and you have to polish it. That’s what we (dancers) do our whole lives is polish our bodies. You have to pay attention to how you look and you have to pay attention to how you feel. I especially make sure to pay attention to how I feel.
When I was in Washington D.C., since I wasn’t used to that huge amount of performances, my left achilles was seriously swollen. I needed a session like with a physical therapist. They needed to apply some anti-inflammatory procedure that works through electricity. They have a device and they have two electrodes that attached on two spots along the achilles. It was a serious matter. But the minute you have an injury, that’s a restriction for you. Another time, I landed wrong from a jump and my knee was irritated. The knee is essential. I mean, everything in your body is essential, but the lower limbs are very important.
Apart from pain, dancers also have to deal with a lot of criticism from peers, from teachers…how do you deal with that?
As I said, dance is physical expression, so you’re constantly exposed. You’re communicating through your body. You are using this as your instrument and you cannot hide anything. And you’re very vulnerable because everyone is observing. Your peers, teachers, faculty,…and we understand that if someone corrects you it is because that person wants you to look better. That person is doing this for your own good. If a teacher tells you that you should do something another way, it looks better. Maybe this posture you need to take…They have this experience that they know what you need to do in order to be better. That’s constructive criticism. But you also need encouragement. You cannot fall in one extreme or another. You cannot be only criticized. You need to have a balance. This is what you’re doing good. This is what looks beautiful. And this is off. This is what you need to fix.
Describe your typical day.
I wake up at 6:45am. I leave at 7:30 to Port Authority. Catch the bus at 8:15 to New Jersey. Takes me an hour to get to Livingston. Then there’s a training session that starts at ten. At 11:30 rehearsal starts and we go until three. Right now I’m working on soloist parts, which is a new experience for me definitely. Demanding. Challenging. The artistic faculty are demanding so much from me. They’re expecting me to perform at a higher level of artistry and technique. And I’m ready for that. I’ve never been given this kind of chance. And I was waiting for this door to open and finally it’s open and I’m stepping into new land. I worked for this for a long time and now that it’s happening, I also need the courage to cross that door, the courage to take it like it’s mine.
Have you experienced any jealousy against your success?
The truth of the matter is that dancing is extremely competitive. How many dancers would like to have a job like the one I have right now? Lots. But people who get to know me, dancers who I have danced with and my friends outside of dance, they know me. They know that I have worked so hard for this. So hard. It’s not given to me for free. I know this. And I can tell you that I have remained humble. I cannot walk away from humility. It’s not natural for me. I think that’s one of those values that were fostered at home. And also I do appreciate what’s given to me. So two things: You need to be grateful and you need to work hard for what you get. It’s very important for me to keep working so hard on something I love. Something that makes me happy.