Carlos Gonzalez, a dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, shares his experience during the pandemic of finding meaning after his all-consuming career comes to a screeching halt.
Ginger: Hi and welcome! Tell me, where are you from and how long have you been with ABT?
Carlos Gonzalez: I’m from Madrid, Spain. I'm 24 years old and I've been with American Ballet Theatre for five years now. I was an apprentice for one year, and this is my fourth year in the corps de ballet.
Ginger: When did you start dancing?
CG: I started dancing when I was six. I actually didn't start doing ballet right away. Being from Spain, the more typical thing to do is flamenco and other traditional Spanish dances so that's what I did for about three years. Then at some point my teacher saw that I have some talent and so she talked to my mom and my mom signed me up for a professional ballet school. For four years, I did both ballet and flamenco. After those four years, I had to choose one to specialize in, so I chose ballet. I did another six years of ballet before I graduated and I moved to New York.
Ginger: How old were you when you moved to New York and what was that experience like?
CG: I was 19 already. That was like the first time that I left home. I had never traveled abroad before, so that was like a big big change in my life. I remember the first year was a little hard. The first four months were definitely an adjustment. I was just really homesick and I really wanted to go back home, so it was quite the journey that year, but it taught me a lot, having to be on my own and to start building relationships. The different culture here affected me and it took a while before I felt like I could build my new life here.
Ginger: Let's talk about the pandemic a little bit. What was your routine like before the pandemic in terms of dancing?
CG: Before the pandemic, for a rehearsal schedule, we wake up, get ready, eat breakfast, then we have class, and then we have rehearsals from 12PM to 7PM. We might have some breaks in between depending on the schedule of the day. After 7PM, you're basically exhausted and you don't really feel like doing that much activity. Maybe you get together with a friend or two, you have dinner, and then you go to bed because you're exhausted, and you have to recover.
For a performance schedule—we usually have a long season at the Metropolitan Opera House for two months—it’s a little bit different. In the morning, we have rehearsal, and then we have a couple of hours, and then we have a show usually at 7:30 until about 10, so it's basically a whole day. For two whole months, you're living in that theater, which is awesome but very, very exhausting.
Ginger: What was it like when everything shut down at the start of the pandemic?
CG: When everything shut down, none of us knew what was going on. The first notice that we had was that we had three weeks off. So for those few weeks, we were still trying to stay in shape, taking classes at home and doing as much as we could. We had hope that we were going to go back to performing eventually in the summer for a long season at the Metropolitan Opera. But things kept getting cancelled.
I remembered that by the time we realized that we're not going to be on stage for another six months, that was when it hit me the most because then I thought, “What am I doing with my life? I don't have any backup plan. I don't have any school classes. I don't have anything else to do.”
I'm also stuck in a country that's not mine, even though I've been here for five years. The idea of going back home was a problem, too. If I went back home I wouldn’t easily be able to come back to the U.S. and that was scary. I wanted to be here in case performances were going to happen again.
There were some little projects I was involved in over the summer. There was an outdoor stage with a live audience that I performed on in August of 2020. That was the first time that I got back on stage. After six months, it was the greatest feeling having the audience there. I was like “Oh my god, I forgot how to do this.” But it was the best.
Ginger: What did you do for those six months? How did you stay in shape physically and emotionally? What did you do to keep yourself together?
CG: I live with two roommates and they both went back home to be with their families, so I basically found myself alone in New York in this basement place with no light. I knew I couldn’t do that for so long. And a friend of mine in the company invited me to stay with her mom and her family. I was just going to stay there for a couple of weeks. I ended up staying for six months.
It was great in the sense that I was with a family. I was with a friend and we basically built a routine of morning classes, and walking around and hiking in upstate New York. But, my life completely changed. I didn’t have the same routine of seven hours of dance a day. Emotionally, having my friend and her family—they became my support system, especially with my family far away worried about me.
I feel like I’m still struggling trying to find other passions and other things that could fulfill me as much as dancing does.
Ginger: While you haven’t found anything that fulfills you as much as dance, have you explored other creative outlets during the pandemic?
CG: So everytime I say it, it sounds a little bit silly, but I started coloring. It’s really soothing and it takes my mind off everything else. I just focus on what color to use next. I was telling my therapist and she thinks it’s a wonderful idea. I like to do sudoku, play games on my phone, and then obviously watch TV.
I love working out too, so I try to work out every day to try to keep some sort of routine. And I take classes from my living room. When everything shut down I never knew when we were going to be back, so I just wanted to be as ready physically as possible for that moment.
Ginger: How do you feel like you've changed over the past year, not being able to dance and then reflecting on who you are if you're not dancing?
CG: I think what I've learned the most is to put things into perspective. It’s been a serious roller coaster. One day you wake up in a good mood and one day you don’t and you think about why you were in a good mood the day before. At times it just seemed like a flat line, too. Overall, this experience has taught me to try to think about all the good things that I have in my life. And I can lean on those moments and appreciate the things I have and my friends and family, and the family that brought me into their home for six months. Who does that? This random guy from Spain. I was just very grateful. It was humanity at its best. It’s those moments of people coming together and sharing ideas.
Ginger: Last question: What's your favorite dance movie?
CG: Definitely Billy Elliot. That movie would play once a year in Spain, and I would always gather with my parents and sister to watch it. As I got older, I got more and more emotional watching it.
That feeling when he finally gets into the Royal ballet. And he sees his family in the audience after 10 or 15 years. And all that hard work and all that money that they put into him paid off. It reminds me a lot of my journey, coming from a really humble background. We couldn’t really afford much, so all the effort my parents put into me, for my dream, and now that I'm able to sustain myself, and pay for everything myself, I'm completely independent... That feeling is just amazing, but I could have not made it here without that support system from my family and my parents.