Company Life: The Hardest Role

Three dancers share their biggest challenges, and how they conquered them.
Published in the October/November 2012 issue.

Gyrotonic helped Vanessa Zahorian create Odette’s fluid port de bras. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

For some dancers, it was their first Giselle. For others, it was a contemporary piece set to music with no discernable rhythm. But every ballerina has one: a role that challenged her technique in new ways, or pushed her past her perceived limits, and will live in her memory as the hardest role she’s ever danced. That part can come along at any stage in a career. Here are the strategies three dancers—a corps de ballet member, a soloist and a principal—used to get through their most difficult roles. As they discovered, mastering a challenging part means becoming a stronger, more confident and more complete artist.

Achieving Warp Speed

Now in her fourth year in the Pacific Northwest Ballet corps, Margaret Mullin has danced everything from the Bluebird pas de deux in The Sleeping Beauty to Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort. But the ballet that taxed her most was David Dawson’s contemporary work A Million Kisses to My Skin, which PNB performed this past March.

Frantically paced, with huge, hyper-extended movements, A Million Kisses requires “taking every ballet position you’ve ever done and making each one 20 degrees bigger,” Mullin says. She found the piece’s turns and direction changes so fast that spotting was impossible. Instead, she learned to use the edge of the white stage floor to gauge her position. “It was the only way I could tell where to stop,” she says.

Mullin looked to her training in non-ballet styles to help her get the hang of Dawson’s movement: “Even though I hadn’t done his particular style before, my background”—which includes tap, jazz and modern—“helped me adapt to it.” Beyond that, mastering the role took plenty of rehearsal, a good dose of courage and an open mind. “I’ve always found it helpful not to think ‘I’m a ballerina,’ but to become the dancer that is required for each piece,” she says. “I never imagined I could dance something like A Million Kisses, but…I did it.”

Taking On Balanchine
Before joining Miami City Ballet in 2007, soloist Jennifer Lauren had already danced Kitri, Aurora and Giselle with Alabama Ballet. Yet she considers the Sleepwalker in George Balanchine’s La Sonnambula, which she first tackled at MCB, even more demanding.

La Sonnambula is the story of a Poet enchanted with a mysterious Sleepwalker with a glassy, distant stare. To achieve that dazed look, the dancer playing the Sleepwalker must essentially eliminate her peripheral vision—but she still has to get through some complicated partnering sequences with the Poet. “Our eyes are such a big part of dancing, and then you have this role where you’re not supposed to use them. It felt like I was dancing blind,” Lauren says. The adjustment was especially disconcerting because MCB performs in four theaters each season. “Every stage was different. I had to learn to just trust that the floor was there.”

Lauren received coaching from Allegra Kent, one of the most famous interpreters of the Sleepwalker role, and MCB artistic director Edward Villella, who showed her that the key to being a compelling Sleepwalker is convincing the audience that there’s an inner life behind those unseeing eyes. “They helped me figure out that it’s not necessarily what you do with your face; it’s what you project out from inside,” Lauren says.

Becoming Odette
A principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet since 2002, Vanessa Zahorian is known for her athleticism and speed. So when she debuted in SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake, Odile’s 32 fouettés were no problem—it was Odette that challenged her.

“When you dance fast, you dance smaller. Odette was a whole other thing for me—traveling, taking up space, elongation,” says Zahorian, who had to figure out how to expand to fill the music during Odette’s tender adagios. “I tend to rush to the end of the music instead of taking up the whole phrase. I had to think about staying grounded and breathing fully and deeply in order to slow myself down.”

Coaching from Tomasson and SFB school associate director Lola de Avila set Zahorian in the right direction. Yet it ultimately came down to practice, practice, practice. “I would go into the studio for hours on end. I would fall, get back up, do it again,” Zahorian recalls. She also started doing Gyrotonic to open up her upper body, which helped her achieve Odette’s delicate, fluid arms.

Zahorian says performing Odette took her to a new level of artistry. “It allowed me to explore a different side of myself,” she says. As overwhelming as the challenge was, “it was one of the most fulfilling roles that I have ever done.”