Ketlin Oja is a popular name in Estonian Culture circles. She’s a ballerina whose artistic qualities and physical strength always leaves audiences enchanted. But the stage isn’t the only place where Ketlin shines. In the spring of 2019 she took on the challenge of being a full-time student as well as a full-time dancer; a feat not many dare to embark on. This decision is so rare that some even assumed she must be retiring. But ballet was not going to take the back seat even if some professors didn’t appreciate her “hobby”.
“I had a funny thing happen when I got interviewed for my bachelor’s program, the professors told me, ‘We’re glad you do ballet but we want to focus on science here, and we don’t appreciate side hobbies.’ And I was like ‘Ohhh ballet, hobby…ha’ but I couldn’t quite say in the interview, you are my hobby and ballet is my profession.”
So where did it all start for Ketlin Oja? After seeing a childhood friend from her local sandbox perform, she decided she also needed to be on stage. It was not long after that she found herself in ballet class.
Sometimes not having a natural relationship with ballet, through parents or family, for example, can be a blessing. It gave Ketlin an unbiased desire to pursue it for herself.
“It was interesting, I said to myself that I wanted to audition for the ballet school. The initiative came from me, which is good in the big picture because now I feel like all I’ve done I’ve done for myself. No one pushed me to this path, I chose all the good and bad parts of this profession. I have felt responsible from the beginning.”
Ketlin continued to train in Tartu, the second biggest city in Estonia and also her hometown until the end of elementary school, which gave her a more “normal” childhood. Many dancers miss out on that experience due to moving to a boarding school from a very young age.
After receiving 3rd prize at a competition in Italy, Tiiu Randviir a prestigious coach, took notice of Ketlin and invited her to join her class at the Estonian National Ballet School in Tallinn. The only catch was Ketlin was a year younger than this class.
“The education system got a bit messy. I wanted to be in Mrs. Randviir’s class but her class was one year above my age group. To make it work, I did high school in two years instead of three. It also made me push harder in ballet. I had to learn fast and progress more effectively both in ballet and in academics.”
Ketlin graduated in 2015 and was immediately welcomed into the Estonian National Ballet under the directorship of Thomas Edur. Ketlin has been with the company for eight years. She passed through all the ranks and roles gradually which, according to her, made the transition to soloist a beautiful and holistic experience.
One would think that with a thriving career as Ketlin has, university would be the last thing on her mind. But for Ketlin it has always been hovering somewhere in the background.
“The idea has always been there because I come from a background where education is very valued. It’s a normal part of everyone’s journey. All my friends from Tartu, the ones I went to kindergarten with, all went to university, and of course, since I was still in contact with them I felt like I wanted to join their path. I always knew it would come, I just didn’t know when. Then I got injured and reality hit me. The injury made me realize I need to focus on, well, I don’t want to call it plan b, because I enjoy it and it has benefited my mental health, but in a way, it is a plan b.”
One of the mental challenges of ballet can be the feeling of not being in control. As it is a subjective art form, and full of many talented artists, trying to achieve your goals is never cut and dry, black or white.
“It’s a big collective here, in the theater. Many people work here. And it’s unrealistic to expect that an organization this big can meet or exceed the personal expectations you have for your work. I’m sort of a control freak and want to take matters into my own hands, I want to make or do something in my life that will have an effect because I did it, not because I waited for someone else’s approval. School gave me a great balance, it was something that I could do for myself. I have total control over how I learn, and how I study; it’s more objective, whereas art is always subjective. It’s just the nature of ballet and any art. Having that balance is so refreshing. I’m in such a better place.”
Ketlin began her studies right on the heels of Covid, which helped her to both ease into the full-time student full-time work life and find ways to make use of her time in the middle of the pandemic.
“Covid helped because it is hard to balance both lives. While many people had an identity crisis, especially in the live art field, for me I was ok because I could focus on school. Somehow it softened the impact of what was happening around me. I could just close into my little bubble and still feel productive and move forward even if society was at a standstill. In that sense, school has always helped me push through even when things around are difficult because I can shift my focus, and distract myself with other aspects of life.”
Though university and ballet are very different, Ketlin, still managed to intertwine them in a unique way, especially in regards to her thesis.
“I did my bachelor’s at Tallinn University and I studied cultural theory. It was very academic, very theoretical. We learned how to analyze different cultural aspects, we discussed what culture is, and we had very fascinating seminars. It made me think of culture in a different light. I got to choose a minor and so I took a course in political science.
For my thesis, they said to choose something that you’re very comfortable with because it will be your first defense and you will be very nervous. So I thought, what do I know that’s culture? Ballet! So I did my thesis on Giselle and how female madness is interpreted throughout history. I studied Giselle’s history, ballet’s history, madness history, female madness history combined with ballet, how we express that through body language, and where all the gestures come from. It was all very interesting. And I hope I danced Giselle all the better because of what I learned.”
Dancers often go to the gym to exercise their muscles to help them maintain the strength and stamina needed in ballet. Ketlin found that university helped her exercise her brain, and it produced some very beneficial results.
“One thing I realized almost immediately when I started studying was that I began to remember choreography so much faster. I was always quite a quick learner, but when I started studying I got a lot faster! You’re just more trained. The brain is a muscle and I started to train it even more efficiently than before. It’s not that someone is ‘smarter’ or more educated, but just more trained to retain things.”
The other skill that was exercised was time management. While Covid did help, it also, thankfully, did not last forever.
“For my bachelor’s I was lucky, Covid came and made my life so much easier. Online platforms became more and more used, and many subjects stayed online, even after the pandemic. But in general, it’s all up to very, very conscious time planning. For example, if you know your essay is due in one month, but you also know that at the end of the month, you have two shows and one stage rehearsal, you obviously won’t be writing that essay at the same time. So, you write the essay one month early, look like a dork to your classmates, and submit it because you know you don’t have time later.
I need to plan even more for my master’s now. I have a bullet journal, where I constantly write what I have to do and in that order. If I see I have a hard night at the theatre then I plan easier tasks, my dressing room is an office and every time there is a two-hour break and I don’t feel the need to go to the gym or do pilates then I use this time to rest and to study. I try to use every time gap there is and to put them together in an efficient way, like a puzzle.”
Sometimes, however, even with excellent time management, there are still mishaps. Ballet life is always full of surprises and last-minute changes that cannot be predicted.
“Once, I had an exam through Zoom (I was in the theater) I was there presenting. And all of a sudden there was a knock on the door of my dressing room. I looked at the TV on the wall and I saw that no one was dancing on stage, so I thought, uh-oh! I closed the Zoom for a second and they told me I need to go jump in for the second act. Thankfully I had finished presenting already, but I was supposed to stay until the end, in case some questions came up. So I did a bad thing… I took a screenshot of my face, I posted it there, quickly messaged some classmates who were also my good friends, and told them I’m going to be on stage and, I will not bring the camera with me, so if someone asks, my internet is bad and my screen froze. Thankfully no questions were asked.”
Days like these are almost comical, but it does paint a picture of the intensity and stress that can be caused by this lifestyle.
“I would often run from warm-up class to Tallinn University, then I would run back to the theatre for rehearsals. I think at one point my classmates constantly saw me running, so they always laughed at me. I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m saying it’s possible.”
Ketlin has certainly proved it’s possible. She successfully completed her bachelor’s and is now halfway through her master’s. While her bachelor’s was more broad and theoretical, she decided to shift gears for her master’s and do something more practical.
“For my master’s, I wanted to do something that I could see myself working in. So I chose cultural management at Tartu University. I feel like that is my area. I am quite a planner and organizer already in my life. It’s an enjoyable process for me.”
Masters has proven to be even harder than bachelors but she finds herself surrounded with people in a similar life situation making her feel even more understood and respected.
“Masters is, yes, harder, but many of my classmates are working full time too. It helps that the professors are aware that we’re working. When I told the university that I am working full time they understood it is difficult. Everyone in the masters is working. We have so many cool people; from directors of sports halls to the heads of Estonian concert halls. There are many cultural leaders who want to learn more about their field. The course has so many ages too. I think I’m one of the younger ones, whereas in my bachelor’s I was one of the older ones.”
The big question is, is university for everyone? Is it something everyone should do? To this answer, Ketlin gives some very helpful advice.
“I’m not saying everyone should go to school or university and studying is the only way, it’s just something that works for me. But what I would say to dancers is that I hope we don’t limit ourselves as human beings just because we are dancers. We can reach the fullest potential of ourselves as us first, and then also as dancers. But it shouldn’t eliminate other interests. So whatever it is, I recommend you to do that. If you feel you have your passion for something else other than ballet, then I’d say go for it. It can be cooking, it can be becoming a mother, if that’s what you feel inside you should pursue it and give it a chance. We are so goal driven sometimes, we only see ballet, but at the same time the more open we are to the world, the more open we are as artists in the studio.”
As mentioned before, pursuing a degree while dancing full-time is something quite unusual still among dancers. This opens a door for a flood of opinions and new mental hurdles.
“What I struggled with, and still struggle with is this false guilt that, maybe now I’m not that goal-driven anymore. Many people, when I started my bachelor’s, were asking me if I was going to retire! I thought, what’s going on? It was very upsetting actually. No, I’m not retiring, I’m becoming a better artist and you’re all benefiting from it. If I am mentally happy and more open-minded and just more as a human, it’s always worth it.”
As Ketlin has progressed in this journey she has had the opportunity to inspire and help others in taking the brave steps she did, and it is something she continues to do.
“It was so sweet when I started studying, there were many dancers who came to me asking, ‘I was thinking about studying too, now I see that you’re doing it, so do you think it’s possible for me too?’ And I was like, of course, it is! If you already have an interest and know what you want to study, then go for it. I know some dancers are doing online degrees in so many fields, like IT, graphic design, or business, everything, really. We are so rich as people because we’re artists. We see things around us in a different light, and that makes us stand out and gives us a unique lens for exploration.”
So wherever you are in your artistic journey, you don’t have to, necessarily, give up all your other dreams for the sake of one. It will take hard work, it will take sacrifice, but with the right perspective, a well-planned calendar, and a whole lot of passion and love, you could have the best of both worlds.