Ballerina Emma Lister – Dance Magazine Editor’s grand-daughter

Emma Lister, Photography by ASH

“I would give anything to go back and do one more year with my fifteen-year-old bendy body and be able to work ten times as hard.”

Ballet is in the blood of dancer Emma Lister, grand-daughter of American dance critic and Dance Magazine’s Editor, Olga Maynard.  Emma was born into the world of arts and trained at the acclaimed Royal Winnipeg Ballet School in Canada, before moving to London to dance with the English National Ballet, Ballet Ireland and English Youth Ballet.

Ballerina dreaming

Emma was inspired by her grandmother to become a dancer after a night at the ballet.  Emma’s grand-mother took her to see the National Ballet of Canada’s Romeo and Juliet where she got to go backstage and meet Juliet, “I saw her blackened point shoes and I felt the costumes – it was that little peek backstage that sealed the deal. That night I told my parents ‘I’m going to be a ballerina’.”

Starting late

Emma was already nine when her parents enrolled her in several ballet classes a week, where she had to literally start at the beginning after coming to ballet some years later than her classmates.  However, she had the physique and the desire which propelled her to succeed and she went on to train at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. At that time she studied under the school’s Russian tutelage, which prepared her well for her move to London.

Principal Dancer

When she arrived in London, Emma joined the English Youth Ballet as Principal Dancer.  At that time she had little experience of dancing principal roles, but she was nurtured by the company’s founder and director Janet Lewis, who helped her graduate from the matinees to dancing opening nights.

Emma Lister
Emma Lister with English Youth Ballet

Emma continued to dance with the company on and off for the next ten years, dancing all the lead roles and working with the younger students in the school.  After taking a two year break to focus on freelance projects, Emma was offered the opportunity to dance with the company again in the Nutcracker and Giselle – you can read our review of Emma’s wonderful performance in Giselle here.

Dancing Giselle

Approaching Giselle this time was different for Emma, “I decided to think of it more in terms of a story and a character, because when I was younger I would often get caught up in the technical aspect – I was quite obsessed with the pirouettes I would have to do that night and I would judge whether my performance was good on how they went.” She thought that perhaps in retrospect she might have forgotten about the story, which is the most important thing, “so this time I really came at it more from the character and I enjoyed it more.”

Emma Lister 'Giselle'
Emma Lister ‘Giselle’

Freelance dancer

During her two year break from the company, Emma has danced in many full length ballets and independent contemporary dance projects. The life of a freelance dancer is both rich in its variety and opportunity but also there’s a sense of exploration and pressure to take roles, “When you start out as a freelance you have to say ‘yes’ to as much as you can, and hope that it all works together. But I’ve been very fortunate the last two years, I’ve danced a lot and done more contemporary dance which is exciting.” 

Emma danced with the English National Ballet in Swan Lake, Ballet Ireland and Anchorage Classical Ballet, “When I was with Ballet Ireland we did an original production of Carmen, which was choreographed by Morgann Runacle-Temple which I really enjoyed, that was much more contemporary than I was used to.”  You can watch Creating Ballet Ireland’s Carmen, which features Emma below:

Several of Emma’s contemporary dance projects have been with Icon Dance, including workshops for the development of some exciting corporate ventures and an Arts Council England funded project at The Royal Ballet School. Her classical roles included the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker also with Ballet Ireland, a role that is famously challenging for any dancer.  Ballet Ireland created a documentary about Emma becoming the Sugar Plum Fairy, which you can watch below:

Classical or contemporary?

And while Emma enjoys her contemporary work, she acknowledges that she may not be able to re-train as a hard core contemporary dancer at this stage, “I think that takes as much skill and effort and time as training to be a classical dancer, and I probably don’t have the years in my body, but there’s definitely a grey area between classical ballet and contemporary and that’s definitely the way I’m going as my back doesn’t want to do too many more arabesques!”

With her EYB days behind Emma, she has many exciting projects to look forward to, “I’m really interested in being involved in new work. I enjoy the creative process, and I enjoy being in the room when something is being made, and in contemporary work you have more of an influence, as far as what steps are being done, you can offer suggestions. There’s bit more of a dialogue there.”

Words of advice

With all this insight and experience, what advice does Emma have for today’s young aspiring dancers? “You only get to train once, so work as hard as you can, because the training will last you your entire life, will get you a job, will get you a role, will keep you in a company, and will stave off injuries. I had the best schooling in Canada, and even though I worked really hard, in retrospect, I would give anything to go back and do one more year with my fifteen-year-old bendy body and be able to work ten times as hard.” Emma’s advice in a nutshell is to work hard. Simple, perfect advice.

Pointe shoes

One of the other interesting projects that Emma has done includes a documentary for Freed, her pointe shoe of choice!

We certainly can’t wait to see Emma perform in her next role whether it’s classical or contemporary ballet, as whichever role she takes on she will light up the stage as she has done for the last ten years and continue to inspire all those around her.

You can follow Emma Lister on Twitter

by Savannah Saunders