In June, National Ballet of Canada corps member Christopher Gerty danced his first full-length role, Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. But five years ago, while studying in San Francisco Ballet School's trainee program, his professional dreams were almost crushed. He was hit by a car and broke two ribs. Then a torn meniscus sidelined him from performances for nine months. With those setbacks behind him, the lanky 23-year-old now looks to a bright future.
Photo by Karolina Kuras
Emily Molnar has given Ballet BC fresh life.
Watching the exuberant dancing of today’s Ballet BC, you’d hardly guess that the troupe was on the brink of collapse a little more than four years ago. In 2008, dwindling audiences had compounded the company’s financial difficulties. Forced to lay off staff and dancers, that December, Ballet BC filed for bankruptcy protection. It looked like the final curtain.
Today, buoyed by critical acclaim, returning audiences and an improving balance sheet, the Vancouver-based Ballet BC has risen from the ashes under artistic director Emily Molnar. This season saw a bold and successful reimagining of Giselle by Montréal choreographer José Navas. The troupe toured Canada and the U.S. with works by William Forsythe, Jorma Elo, Medhi Walerski and Molnar herself. This July, the company returns to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
Although Molnar, 39, is the first to emphasize that the turnaround has been a team effort, it’s generally agreed that the former Ballet BC star who came back as artistic director has been central to the company’s revival. Molnar’s calm, encouraging yet demanding approach has given the dancers a renewed sense of purpose. “It’s important to me that there’s an intention,” she says. “There’s a reason why we’re doing this, there’s something we have to say as artists.”
Ballet BC was founded in 1986 out of the failed Pacific Ballet Theatre. During the first six years, directors came and went, making Ballet BC’s identity hard to pin down. A promising period unfolded with the 1992 arrival of artistic director John Alleyne. He gave the company a sleek, neoclassical look; but audiences wavered as the company explored a broader programming approach. There was a sense that Ballet BC had lost its way artistically.
Molnar replaced Alleyne in 2009. She’d begun her career with The National Ballet of Canada, then joined Forsythe’s Frankfurt-based company in 1994. It proved the perfect place for a dancer of Molnar’s considerable height (5’ 11”) and powerfully distinctive way of moving. But four years later, she was lured back to her homeland by Alleyne. She remained with Ballet BC until 2002, when she became a freelance choreographer, working in a contemporary style that’s rooted in ballet yet distinctive in its visceral power and dynamic variety.
Upon taking over Ballet BC, Molnar quickly infused the troupe with fresh confidence. “I spent a lot of time getting the dancers to take ownership of the work,” she recalls. Molnar says she wants dancers to be curious about the artistic process and eager to participate as creative collaborators.
Molnar has also been reaching out to the community, rebuilding bridges that neglect had allowed to crumble. That includes spreading the word about Ballet BC by speaking to local groups. “There’s a lot more engagement. People feel more welcome now,” she says.
She defines Ballet BC broadly as “a contemporary ballet company,” but more in the European than American sense of that definition. “Everything we do requires a classically trained dancer, but does not always have a codified use of the classical idiom. Our work today focuses on new movement invention.”
It’s an approach that embraces a wide range of possibilities. She’s hired a number of Canadian choreographers, such as Crystal Pite and Wen Wei Wang, as well as American-born former Ballet BC member Donald Sales.
“I like to bring in artists who stimulate the dancers,” she explains. “My biggest responsibility is to cultivate potential, to provide a productive environment where the dancers can grow. I want us to take the art forward, and make sure dance remains a valid art that’s going to last.”
At A Glance
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Size: 14, plus 3 apprentices
Starting salary: From $540/week
Length of contract: 36–40 weeks or more, depending on touring
“When you audition, it’s important to know about yourself, about what people are going to see first, so that you know how to present yourself and show what it is about you that’s special,” says Molnar. “I often recommend that dancers avoid cattle calls because it’s very hard to be seen as an individual.” Apart from having auditioning dancers take class, Molnar likes to work with them individually or have them work in the back during a rehearsal to see how they pick up information. “Openness and work ethic are huge for me,” she says, citing the need for her dancers to be fully engaged in the creative process. “It’s not just about learning steps.”
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
If Adji Cissoko hadn’t failed a simple test at age 6, she might never have become a dancer.
In Germany, Cissoko’s homeland, children routinely get a medical examination before entering elementary school. “I had difficulties when the doctor asked me to make a circle while reciting a certain sentence,” she recalls. “He told my mother it would improve my coordination and spatial awareness if I took dance.”
That was 1997. Today, Cissoko, 20, has just completed her first season with the National Ballet of Canada. The company’s artistic director, Karen Kain, has high hopes for her. Cissoko, however, is not your average budding professional, nor has her journey been without a few bumps. At 5’ 9”, she’s tall. A short torso, long limbs and a lean build make her look even taller. As Cissoko acknowledges, learning to control such an expansive body and to move at speed are continuing challenges.
And there’s more. Cissoko is of African descent, a woman aiming for ballet’s stratosphere in a traditional art form that still struggles to adapt to the realities of a multicultural world. Cissoko’s West African father, a musician, came to Germany as a young man from French-speaking Senegal. Her mother, a nurse, is German and white. Cissoko says her lankiness comes straight from her father’s side. She attributes her leanness as much to genes as to the grueling work. “I eat a lot,” Cissoko says reassuringly in careful, German-accented English. (She also speaks French and Spanish, and understands Senegalese.)
Toronto audiences have had early opportunities to appreciate Cissoko’s somewhat raw but unmistakable talent. Apart from her height and color, Cissoko stands out for the concentrated intensity, energy and sense of purpose she invests in whatever she dances, while still seeming natural and spontaneous. Depending on the choreography, her arms can float delicately or slice through space like a knife. Above all, the sheer pleasure she takes in dancing—much more than a warm smile—is palpable. It’s a joy she clearly strives to share.
As a child, Cissoko began weekly free-form movement classes at the Munich Ballet Academy. Her teachers spotted an unusual talent and she soon moved into formal Vaganova-based ballet training. Year by year, her dance schedule intensified to the point that she had to complete her academic studies in night school.
In 2009 she traveled to Switzerland to compete in the Prix de Lausanne. She did not make the finals, but she had what turned out to be a fateful meeting: Karen Kain (president of the jury that year) was waiting for a train to Geneva when she spotted Cissoko on the platform. “I’d noted Adji’s talent, even if it was clear she hadn’t got used to the length of her legs yet,” says Kain, in her day also considered a tall dancer. “I knew how she must be feeling, so I went up and told her how good I thought she was and not to be discouraged.”
After Lausanne, Konstanze Vernon, founder of the Munich school, sent Cissoko’s video to the School of American Ballet, where she was accepted for a summer intensive. “I was trained in a Russian Vaganova style and all of a sudden I was having to move so fast,” Cissoko remembers. “It was a difficult adjustment.” So for a change during her New York stay, Cissoko took class at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. “Adji only did barre,” says JKO principal Franco De Vita, “but it was clear she was quite exceptional. I followed my instincts and offered her a full scholarship.”
Cissoko spent just a year at JKO but made a strong impression. “Adji is disciplined, dedicated, learns fast and never missed a class,” says De Vita. “She was the perfect student.” In fact, she impressed her teachers so much that faculty member Raymond Lukens picked her to dance a solo in his staging of the tarantella from Bournonville’s Napoli for JKO’s year-end performance.
JKO students often set their sights on ABT II and according to Australian-born Aaron Smyth, then a classmate, “there was some surprise” that Cissoko was not hired. “Adji has very good musicality and a lovely quality in her dancing. Also with those beautiful long legs, she stretches and leaps to beyond.” On top of that, Cissoko was popular with fellow students, described by Smyth as “wonderful” and “a delight.”
De Vita explains that ABT II was looking for a short dancer. “It’s unfortunate there wasn’t a spot for a tall girl,” adds Lukens, “but as we always try to explain to students, it’s not about their ability. There are other issues that can get in the way.” Cissoko seems to have been listening. “I like to stay open-minded,” she says. ”I knew it was going to be hard because of my height. You have to face the realities of a dance career.”
She was offered positions at The Washington Ballet, Boston Ballet II and Dresden SemperOper Ballett, but she auditioned in Toronto at her mother’s suggestion. The National Ballet held the appeal of an exceptionally wide-ranging repertoire from an iconic Sleeping Beauty to the outright avant-gardism of Aszure Barton, Crystal Pite and Marie Chouinard. And, of course, she had already met the company’s boss on that Swiss train platform.
Kain was impressed by Cissoko’s “huge progress” since Lausanne and did not view her height—or anything else—as an impediment. “It may not appeal to all directors,” Kain says frankly, “but I love having so many interesting types here—size, shape, skin color. Frankly, I don’t even notice that Adji is a dancer ‘of color.’”
Cissoko experienced one kind of culture shock when she moved from Munich to the feverish pace of New York, but she was still in a school environment. The transition into a company in another new city brought its own challenges. “As first-year corps I was afraid I’d be standing around in pretty poses, but we dance a lot,” she says. “At the beginning it was almost overwhelming.” Her first assignment was Balanchine’s Serenade, a work that exalts the female corps. Then came pieces by James Kudelka, a former National Ballet artistic director. “I was in Snowflakes and Flowers in his Nutcracker and understudied one of the fairies in Cinderella,” Cissoko recalls. “There are difficult, fast combinations in each, very specific musicality, and the coordination was hard to find, being so tall, trying to control all of that.”
National Ballet staff, however, try to keep a watchful eye. Says Kain, who met with Cissoko her first week to check how she was settling in, “I really want Adji to get a strong foundation and a sense of the support of her colleagues. She’ll need time to gain confidence and control of her body, but there’s something wonderful about her. I’m sure choreographers will want to use her unique talent.”
Senior ballet mistress Mandy-Jayne Richardson, who works directly with the corps, says she tries to give as much individual attention as she can, but the reality, as Cissoko acknowledges, is that a dancer also has to take personal responsibility. “You have to develop a certain independence and look out for yourself,” Cissoko says.
Despite her admirable work ethic and extraordinary facility, National Ballet staff are cautious about pushing Cissoko too fast, although they did have her understudy the demanding Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote. “There’s tremendous strength and a good base in her dancing,” says Richardson, “but with such long legs she needs time to coordinate everything. She’s having to work at a very fast pace, and we don’t want her to get injured.”
For the first time in her life, Cissoko is living alone, in a small apartment near Toronto’s colorful Italian neighborhood. “It’s good to be able to come home, relax and have some quiet time,” she says. She’s also enjoying the city. “People are so helpful. I lost my wallet and somebody found it and called me right away.” As her talent matures, Cissoko is likely to have plenty of opportunities beyond Toronto, but NBC, where several JKO graduates have begun their careers, certainly hopes she’ll make Toronto home. Says Richardson: “We’re really lucky to have her. There’s no doubt Adji has a big future.”
What does it take to be a successful leading ballerina?
It’s more than just dancing at a higher level. You have to remember it’s not only about you, even if you’re in the spotlight. You must share yourself with the whole company. You gather that energy so they’re involved with you, so there’s a dialogue. Then it becomes more real and exciting for the audience.
Is there anything about your body you’d change?
Basically I’m pretty happy, except I’m quite tall and it’s been a challenge to find the right partners. I’d hoped to dance Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew. Reid Anderson was staging it. He told me, “I love your dancing. I love your acting. But the way some of the pas de deux are choreographed, it would just be impossible.”
Do you have a dance idol?
Sylvie Guillem. She has a great sense of ease when she dances. I’d seen her dance in classical works before, but when I first saw her in a contemporary piece in my teens, she almost looked like a different dancer. Every movement, although abstract, made sense.
Any special pointe shoe tips?
I sew a yarn semi-circle around the front edge of the toe so that I don’t go over my shoes too far.
What’s your favorite relaxation?
I love cooking. When I’m at a restaurant and order something delicious I try to figure out the flavors. I go home and see if I can make it. But I don’t use recipes. That’s why I can’t bake.
Any private indulgences?
I have a weakness for handbags. I have quite a collection. My husband will ask, “You got a new bag?” and I’ll say, “No, I’ve had it a while. It’s just that you’ve never seen it before.”
How did becoming a mother affect your dancing?
Taking time off to have my daughter Ava, who’s now six, gave me a chance to reflect. It made me realize just how precious dancing is to me. Being a mom, having that responsibility, has made me more mature and true to myself as a ballerina.
When New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder heard she’d be dancing Giselle, she was excited—and nervous. Bouder had already danced Aurora and Odette/Odile at NYCB, but the Romantic-era Giselle was a lifelong dream. “It had been one of my absolute favorites since I was a child,” she says. Opportunity knocked in 2008 when legendary prima Carla Fracci, then director of the Rome Opera Ballet, invited Bouder to dance the part in Italy. Bouder had watched American Ballet Theatre perform Giselle many times, and she’d also seen videos of several celebrated interpretations, Fracci’s included. But tackling the role herself required some more research.
Even the most iconic roles are not carved in stone. Ballet is a living art and, without stepping outside the bounds of the choreography and a particular production, most dancers legitimately strive to make a role their own. One way they accomplish this is by doing their homework, researching every aspect: the style, the music, the cultural history of the era. It could be paintings, decorative arts, books, lithographs, period movies—anything that stirs the imagination. You can’t dance a princess if you don’t grasp the concept of royalty. You can’t be Giselle unless you can enter the mind of an innocent country girl in medieval Europe. Bouder says growing up in rural Pennsylvania and being “kind of shy” helped her identify with Giselle. “You draw on personal experience where it helps.”
Ballerinas mostly come to a major role within the comfort zone of a home company. There will be directors, coaches and other dancers to guide them. Ballet mistress Karen P. Brown, who staged Kansas City Ballet’s production of the romantic classic, encouraged first-time Giselle Tempe Ostergren to study various Giselles on video as a way to see how different dancers approach the role. Brown says she tries to guide a dancer while still offering some leeway.
Bouder, by contrast, had to do a lot of prep work alone before her two weeks of intensive rehearsal one-on-one with Fracci. A friend lent Bouder British dance historian/critic Cyril Beaumont’s 1945 book, The Ballet Called Giselle. It’s a trove of information that Bouder admits she found almost overwhelming, but it helped her clarify her own approach. “It made me more decisive about what I really wanted to do, particularly about how I identified with the character’s innocence.”
Films of past interpreters can provide invaluable insight into a well-known part. Some clips, like those in Jacob’s Pillow’s new Dance Interactive, are available for free online (danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org). But keep in mind that Google can’t get you everywhere. For New York dancers, the invaluable dance division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has 22,700 films and videos, about half of which are of ballet, says assistant curator Charles Perrier—and very little of this precious footage can be found on YouTube. (That’s not to mention the rest of the dance division’s remarkable collection, which includes choreographic notes; dance biographies and histories; taped interviews with dancers and choreographers; and original costume and set designs.)
In fact, since all footage of Balanchine ballets is protected by the Balanchine Trust, when it comes to his works, the library is the best place to go. Unless, that is, you have access to one of the dancers who worked with Mr. B himself. San Francisco Ballet principal Sarah Van Patten, who dances leads in such touchstone Balanchine works as Serenade, The Four Temperaments and Jewels, says listening to former NYCB stars—Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, Violette Verdy and, of course, her own director, Helgi Tomasson—helps her achieve her objective of “trying to keep the ballets as honest to the choreographer’s intention as possible.” And with Balanchine, says Van Patten, the music is everything. “In approaching a new role of his, you need to listen to the music first, and know it inside out.”
Since narrative ballets are often built on literary foundations, going back to the story is a good starting point. Czech-born Jirí Jelinek, currently a principal with National Ballet of Canada, learned John Cranko’s Onegin as a member of Stuttgart Ballet, but had previously danced a version by Russian choreographer Vasily Medvedev in Prague. Both, like Tchaikovsky’s opera, are based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel. “The first thing I did was read the book,” says Jelinek. “It gave me a feeling of the character, that Onegin comes from a different, aristocratic world.”
When preparing to dance the female lead in another famous Cranko work, Romeo and Juliet, Miami City Ballet’s Jennifer Kronenberg also returned to the literary source, Shakespeare’s text. Kronenberg watched film interpretations of the play, too—Franco Zeffirelli’s from 1968 and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version—before continuing to videos of several different ballet adaptations. “It’s important to do that kind of research well in advance, if possible,” she advises. “It will help later with how you inflect the choreography.”
In the end, remember that research should inform but not dictate a performance. “Gather as much information as you can, yet avoid copying others,” Jelinek says. “Absorb everything—but let it help you find your own way with the character.”
Louis Robitaille has put BJM Danse Montréal at theforefront of all that’s edgy and cool in contemporary ballet.
Athletic, versatile and physically beautiful, the dancers of BJM Danse Montréal, formerly Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, have dazzled audiences worldwide for more than 35 years. Yet there was a time when the troupe fought to be taken seriously. High-minded critics and dance purists claimed it was too ingratiatingly accessible, relying on the dancers’ easy-on-the-eye sexiness to compensate for a lack of choreographic muscle.
Not anymore. The dancers are still electric, but now the choreography commands equal respect. BJM Danse is an intensely creative, even experimental company, attracting a number of today’s hottest choreographers, including Crystal Pite, Aszure Barton, Mauro Bigonzetti and Rodrigo Pederneiras.
Much of the credit for this evolution goes to Louis Robitaille, who has served as BJM’s artistic director for the past 12 years. Once the iconic prince of French-Canadian avant-garde ballet, Robitaille has come full circle in his career: He began dancing in the school of Les Ballets Jazz. On graduation he joined Montreal’s popular Compagnie de Danse Eddy Toussaint and quickly emerged as the troupe’s idolized male star. He later joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and was a keen participant in company choreographic workshops, leading to Bande à Part, a troupe dedicated to fostering choreographers. He also founded the short-lived Danse-Théâtre de Montréal, again to cultivate choreographic innovation.
It was an apt apprenticeship for what followed: assuming leadership of BJM when it needed a fresh vision. Critic Linde Howe-Beck says Robitaille “totally retooled the company from its name on up, making it hip and smart.”
In its first couple of decades the company was driven by jazz music, but for Robitaille, BJM is about much more. “I’m directing a dance company,” he emphasizes. “Les Ballets Jazz made big waves in the ’70s and ’80s. I respect our heritage, the public expectation for energy, joy, personality and physicality. But this is a new era. We work now with different music and a new generation of choreographers because they are the evolution of dance.”
Robitaille hires dancers to match. He looks for strong classical technique and a suitable physique—harmonious proportions, good feet and elegant lines—but, because of the demands of the choreography, Robitaille says extreme versatility and creative instincts are crucial. “We need dancers with diverse training: modern, jazz, even street dance. We look for theatrical skills and for dancers who are comfortable with improvisation. The men should look like men, strong and tall, with good partnering ability.”
The company currently consists of six men and six women. Ideally, Robitaille says he’d like to have 16 dancers, but with a modest annual budget of about $2 million (in Canadian dollars) he has to set priorities. At present, these are to pay the dancers a decent wage and give them intersting work to perform. “We need very good artists and for that we need to be competitive to attract and keep them.”
BJM’s dancers, though not unionized, do have a collective agreement. They are not hierarchically ranked. Weekly pay, based on experience and seniority, ranges from 650 to 750 Canadian dollars. “It’s not the greatest,” concedes Robitaille, pointing out, however, that BJM’s season offers from 40 to 44 paid weeks a year and that living costs in Montréal are low (“It’s possible to rent a comfortable apartment for $650 a month”). The company also tours widely across North America, South America, Europe and Asia.
Two-thirds of the company members on the 2009–10 season roster are new—an unusually high turnover. Robitaille says some of the dancers who left were simply “not the right fit,” while others opted for a change—sometimes because they wanted to work more intensively with one of the cutting-edge choreographers BJM had commissioned. “Today’s dancers want more than ever to explore, experiment and travel. It’s the reality. They must live their dreams.”
At A Glance:
BJM Danse Montréal
Contract: 40 to 44 weeks
Company members: 12–14
Salary: CDN$650–$750 per week