03/20/2014 05:28 EDT | Updated 05/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Making Each Performance Even More Beautiful Than the Last

I never know when I will learn something that will profoundly affect how I approach my performances. Five or six years ago, I was asked to perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for a children's concert. There were seven performances and I was dancing The Dying Swan. It was my first time performing the role and I was eager, but intimidated, to take on such a famous solo danced for over 100 years by some of the world's greatest ballerinas. Even though the audience was mostly under 10 years old and wouldn't know the difference, I still wanted to reach as high a level as possible and do the work justice.

One day backstage I was chatting with the cellist who was playing while I danced. I regret that I have forgotten her name, as I will never forget our conversation. It was her first time taking on the beautiful Saint-Saens music and she said that she was feeling as I was regarding such a monumental work. We also talked about how to go about repeating the same work for multiple performances. How when a performance goes well, artists are inclined to attempt to repeat it in the next show. But of course each performance is unique. In trying to recapture something from a past performance we inevitably miss the mark.

The cellist and I both agreed that the authenticity and emotion of an art is lost when the artist is not fully in the present moment. So what to do when the pressures of a past performance show up to haunt me? Well, this wonderful young cellist had come up with a strategy, and it has altered my approach to performance ever since. She said that before she begins a repeat performance she tells herself "make it even more beautiful."

It seems so simple, but I have said this phrase to myself many times since, and it works. These five words not only free me mentally from the last performance, and any expectations of what my performance should be, but also encourage me to keep pushing the envelope artistically, to keep moving forward rather than worrying about something in the past. They help me focus on the goals at hand and the potential of the present. I believe this idea has made me a better dancer.

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Jillian Vanstone in Onegin

This week I will be dancing in The National Ballet of Canada's production of Onegin. My role as Olga is one of my favourites -- full of challenging, but highly enjoyable, choreography and a range of emotions. In fact, the entire production is one of my favourites.

I have danced the role in previous seasons and had successful performances each time. Even though it has been a few years since I have danced the role, it would be tempting to try to recreate what worked in the past, to hang on to what was successful. It would then be tempting to try to repeat that night after night over the course of this week. But I am a different person and dancer now than a few years ago and I am different each day in body and mind. This would never work. So throughout the rehearsal process I was trying to challenge myself to be even better in this role and to keep it fresh and vibrant.

With performances now beginning I will strive to make each performance unique. Before the curtain goes up I will be thinking of that cellist who has no idea what an impact her words made on me. I hope to each time make it "even more beautiful."