From high kicks to high rises

Classical ballet alumnus Michelle Knappstein talks to us about her journey from the stage to consulting as a civil engineer for UNICEF in Vanuatu

At the age of 14 I decided that I wanted to pursue dance professionally and a few years after making this decision I was accepted into the Classical Ballet programme at the New Zealand School of Dance. The three years spent studying at the NZSD provided me with performance opportunities at the School and with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.  But quite apart from that, it was at NZSD that I learnt skills that have helped me navigate my way through the ever-changing world we live in.

In pursuit of a career in dance I spent two and a half years living in London and travelling around Europe. This time spent taking classes and working in hospitality helped me discover my identity and the values that are important to me. It was an opportunity to experience different cultures, learn new things and grow as a person.  Having a consistent routine of attending ballet classes helped me stay grounded and gave me an understanding of the importance of life/work balance.

When I returned to New Zealand I began a Bachelor of Engineering degree at the University of Auckland. From the time I left school at the end of Year 12 I always had in mind that I would re-train at some point and pursue a science related career.

A professional dance career is generally limited in duration, so I kept my options and mind open to other opportunities. Engineering seemed like the best fit for my interests in onsite and outdoor work.

I learnt so much during my three years at NZSD, but five stand out in my mind as key to the completion of my Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) degree and securing a position at Tonkin + Taylor (an engineering consultancy).

These are: discipline, attention to detail, integrity, the ability to take criticism and always to learn from mistakes.  These built cultivated skills important to detail oriented work and resilience to handle pressured environments.

Michelle Knappstein, Construction of the Arras Tunnel. Photograph by Colin McLellan

I spent 7 years working for Tonkin + Taylor as a Civil Engineer. I believe that my background in dance has set me up well to be resilient, creative and bring a diversity to the team at Tonkin + Taylor. It has also helped me to have a growth mindset where I am constantly trying to learn new things, take opportunities and better myself.

In 2019 I took a volunteer position in Vanuatu with Volunteer Services Abroad (VSA) working with the Department of Water Resources (DoWR) with technical support provided by Engineers Without Borders New Zealand (EWBNZ).

Moving to a country with different cultural values and language was challenging, but the skills I had learnt from pursuing a career in dance have helped me overcome these challenges. Every morning I practice yoga (which I was introduced to at NZSD) and I keep in mind the nutritional advice that was provided during my time studying.  This helped me to keep balance and adjust to life in a different country.

Following the COVID-19 outbreak and Tropical Cyclone Harold, a Category 5 cyclone which hit the northern islands of Vanuatu on April 6th I have taken up a consultancy role with UNICEF in Vanuatu to help the DoWR with providing safe and secure water to rural communities. This work is highly rewarding and utilises skills that I have learnt from NZSD, University of Auckland and my time at Tonkin + Taylor. One of the most enjoyable parts of this role is utilising the arts e.g. videos and drawings to help improve sanitation, hygiene, and health in communities.