Where would ballet be without villains? Aurora would never sleep, and Odette would never become a swan. Getting cast as one of ballet’s memorable miscreants can help dancers develop new facets of their artistry and explore their dramatic side. Three professionals talk about how they approach their baddest roles.
Creating a Commanding Carabosse
Blessed with long legs, strong technique and grace, Maria Kowroski has all the qualities of a perfect Lilac Fairy, a role she has performed with consummate skill since becoming a principal dancer with New York City Ballet in 1999. So it surprised ballet master in chief Peter Martins when Kowroski asked to play Carabosse in his version of Sleeping Beauty, a role that’s the absolute opposite.
“It’s taken me a few seasons to feel comfortable in it,” she admits. To channel Carabosse’s ferocity, Kowroski calls on methods from her acting classes, like centering herself so she can draw on an inner source of anger. “When you’re really mad, it comes from a deep place. You have to try to feel that connection,” she says. She finds it helps to talk to herself throughout the performance. “I look at the king and queen, and think, ‘This is all your fault!’ ”
Kowroski says a dancer must fully inhabit the production’s outlandlish Carabosse costume, from the beaded robe and claw-like fingernails to the peaked cap. “It’s important to not hold back,” she says. “You really have to believe what you’re doing, not just go in halfway.”
Making Myrtha Menacing
She’s mean, she’s mad and she’s ready to make men dance to death. But Myrtha, the queen of the ghostly Wilis in Giselle, is also calm and collected, says National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden, who has mastered the role’s combination of rage and restraint. “She’s a queen, and you need to have a certain regal quality,” she says. From Myrtha’s first bourrées onto the stage, “You are in command of the whole act. This is your land.”
A powerful technical dancer, Ogden loves Myrtha’s athletic jumps and challenging adagio. Yet to convey Myrtha’s eerie authority, “I focus on having a really quiet interior, even though the dancing has to be huge.”
Expressive mime completes the portrayal. “Myrtha doesn’t rush for anything,” Ogden says, so she tries to hold each gesture as long as possible to show that quality to the audience. “I walk almost late. When you hold a movement, it gives weight to the mime.”
One key moment comes when she plucks rosemary sprigs, a symbol of remembrance, from Giselle’s grave to summon her. Because Myrtha holds one in each hand, it isn’t possible for Ogden to use only her stronger side when it’s time to toss them away. “When I throw the left one,” Ogden admits, “it kind of goes ‘Boop!’”
Though she usually dances prima ballerina roles, she relishes the opportunity to play opposite to her personality—and opposite her husband, fellow principal Guillaume Côté, who dances Albrecht. “People always laugh because I have to be so mean to him!”
Ruling the Stage as Von Rothbart
Joshua Grant doesn’t want to play good guys. “People say I have this bubbly personality, but I enjoy doing angry roles to get some aggression out,” he says. Last season the Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member found a satisfying outlet when he was cast as Von Rothbart in PNB’s Swan Lake.
Grant was well prepared by his tenure as a principal with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Famed for their send-ups of classical ballet, the Trocks taught Grant to let go of his inhibitions, which he finds essential to creating a believable evil magician. After all, villains are bold and unapologetic: “All I have to do is walk around and the audience knows that I own everything onstage,” he says.
At 6′ 4″, clad in a costume that features 16-foot wings, Grant effortlessly commands the audience’s attention. But, he cautions, “It’s really easy to get lost in the costume. You almost have to act ten thousand times better to compensate.” Villains defer to no one, so Grant menaces the crowd as well as the cast. He does not ever bow to the audience, even at the curtain. He knows he’s nailed the role when they boo—a response only a villain could love.