Elena Lobsanova catches your eye even before she starts to dance. It’s not just her natural beauty, long limbs and elegant carriage. The 25-year-old National Ballet of Canada first soloist, who last month danced the tragic heroine in Alexei Ratmansky’s new Romeo and Juliet, possesses something that can’t be taught: charisma. It’s an unaffected air of mystery ripe with expressive possibility.
Yet, though she caught ballet fans’ attention early on, Lobsanova’s journey to performing one of ballet’s most coveted roles has not been easy. Plagued by injury, she’s had to learn the virtue of patience, one step at a time.
Russian names still hold a mystique in the ballet world, but while Lobsanova was born in Moscow, her father, a biophysicist, moved the family to Toronto when she was 4. Lobsanova’s parents put her in a local dance studio. By 10 she had been admitted to Canada’s renowned National Ballet School as a full-time student. When she was 17, Lobsanova made a big enough impression dancing the lead in the second act of Swan Lake at the school’s annual showcase that NBC offered her an apprentice contract. And that’s when her troubles started.
Lobsanova’s talent was obvious, but her body was still growing. Her teachers had hoped she would stay an extra year in NBS’ post-graduate program to ease the transition into the rigors of company life, but the young dancer believed she was ready. Then, in her apprentice year, she was sidelined by a stress fracture in her left foot, a recurrent injury that was to slow her progress in the years ahead.
It was not just her body that let her down. She set such high standards for herself that she undermined her confidence onstage. “I felt I had to keep pushing,” she says. It was a damaging trait artistic director Karen Kain countered by not applying undue pressure. “She’s an extraordinary talent,” says Kain. “She has this extra luminosity as a performer, but she’s a late bloomer.”
Even so, while her promotion through the ranks—second soloist in June 2009, first soloist two years later—has not been meteoric, Lobsanova hasn’t wanted for featured roles. Acknowledged by critics for her natural authority in the 19th-century Russian classics—her épaulement, enhanced by long arms, is especially captivating—she’s also proved herself to be versatile. She made an impressive, last-minute debut as the Dark Angel in Serenade, and two years ago was picked by choreographer John Neumeier to dance her first full-length role, the lead in The Seagull.
Kain put Lobsanova in a powerful spotlight in 2009 by selecting her to represent NBC in that year’s Erik Bruhn Competition. Although it’s a small, invitational event, it features the best young dancers from several major companies and the standards are high. When she was named winner of the women’s prize, Lobsanova’s expression quickly went from stunned amazement to radiant joy.
Magdalena Popa, NBC’s principal artistic coach, says young dancers need to understand that there’s no fixed timetable in terms of career progress. “It all depends on the individual dancer,” she says. She worked with Lobsanova on Juliet, helping her integrate her natural classical poise into the more viscerally motivated style Ratmansky’s choreography demands.
Lobsanova had already danced in NBC’s staging of Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons, but self-deprecatingly jokes she was picked for Juliet “because I still look quite young for my age.” Ratmansky has a different reason. “She possesses an organic quality in her movements and her lines are beautiful,” he says. “Her spontaneous reactions sometimes are just brilliant.”
Lobsanova’s fans hope that her performance in Romeo and Juliet signals her full flowering as a ballerina. Lobsanova, looking back, wishes she’d been more aware of her developing body’s vulnerability to injury; she might have avoided some hurdles she’s had to clear. Yet, the time spent recovering was not wasted. “It made me appreciate how much I really love dancing. Now, even if I’m nervous before a performance, as soon as I get out there, I’m in a different world.”
At a Glance
Training: Canada’s National Ballet School, three-week program at École Supérieure de Danse de Cannes
Favorite Role: The lead in Theme and Variations
Dream Role: Odette/Odile
Dance Idols: Anna Pavlova, Xiao Nan Yu