Like Mother, Like Daughter

What it’s like when ballet careers run in the family
Published in the April/May 2012 issue.

Left, Cheryl Yeager when she was an ABT principal; right, daughter Hannah Marshall. (Photos courtesy Cheryl Yeager.)

Hindsight is 20/20. For a ballerina, having a daughter who wants a ballet career can be both elating and scary. A professional knows all the hardships—injury, pain, competitiveness, disappointment. And she can spot every mistake her daughter makes. It’s a mixed blessing for daughters, as well. While a mother who knows exactly what it takes can help, the fact that she probably has her own opinions about every phase of training comes at a cost. “Now that I’m a professional, it’s great,” says Gabriella Yudenich, a soloist with Pennsylvania Ballet whose mother, Barbara Sandonato, danced with the company. “But when I was 15, my mom and I had some nasty fights about ballet.” When a dance career passes from mother to daughter, what does that mean for their relationship? Here are several who have found different ways to cope.

Irina Dvorovenko and Olga Dvorovenko
Olga Dvorovenko explains that her daughter, American Ballet Theatre principal Irina Dvorovenko, was always independent and driven. She remembers when a 10-year-old Irina marched into her Kiev Ballet School audition, told the pianist what music she wanted and performed a self-choreographed solo—and was accepted to the academy. Then at 16, Irina traveled alone to the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, and returned with a silver medal, prize money and a new TV, VCR and video camera for the family. Then there was the car: “Irina had a used car shipped home from one of her first professional tours in Japan,” Olga says. “We never had a car before.”

Talk to Irina, though, and you’ll hear about a mother and father who worked diligently to provide for their daughter and guide her through the inevitable tears and hard work of a dance career. Olga and Vladimir Dvorovenko both trained as ballet dancers and became principals with the Ukrainian State Academic Dance Ensemble. Despite the couple’s relative success, life was bleak in Ukraine during the Soviet era. They didn’t have an abundance of anything at home. “Dance was our light,” Olga says.

From Irina’s earliest days, she loved being in the theater. “The dancer’s lifestyle excited me,” she says, “to sparkle and dazzle onstage and to be exceptional.” She dreamed of a career that would take her to the top. Her parents taught her how to work, how to look at and correct herself. When Irina was a teenager, her father filmed all her performances. “He would sit next to the orchestra pit and tape me, then we’d go home and work,” Irina says.

“As dancers and teachers, Vladimir and I would see every error,” Olga says. “We’d say, ‘If you do this, it will be better.’ ‘Look at this finger, here, it has to be up.’ It takes hard work—a lot of work—to be number one.”

Irina never rebelled. “I’d rather hear corrections, even if they sound painful or uncomfortable, from my family than hear that someone doesn’t like something, but doesn’t tell me why or explain how to fix it,” she says. Today Irina still looks to her mother for input. “My mom’s my mentor and advisor, friend and supporter,” she says. “I don’t hide anything from her.”

Gabriella Yudenich and Barbara Sandonato

Barbara Sandonato, founder of the Barbara Sandonato Ballet School in Philadelphia, was a trailblazer. An elegant and sophisticated Balanchine-trained dancer, she was Pennsylvania Ballet’s first company member and first principal in the 1960s. Back then, she had no idea that her daughter, Gabriella Yudenich, would one day be the first member of Pennsylvania Ballet II and, now, at 28 years old, a soloist with the main company.

Early loss drew mother and daughter together and helped dispel some of the natural tension that arose during Yudenich’s teenage years. Alexei Yudenich, Sandonato’s husband and Yudenich’s father, who was also a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, died when his daughter was only 6.

After her husband’s death, Sandonato turned to teaching, traveling up and down the East Coast to make ends meet. Since she had no extra money for childcare, she took Yudenich with her. When she was 11, Yudenich had an epiphany after seeing a documentary, Backstage at the Kirov. “It struck a chord within me,” Yudenich says. “It showed a girl in the corps de ballet being singled out for solo parts and her rise to dancing Odette in Swan Lake. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to do this.’ ”

Sandonato remembers the night, during a commute in their car, when her daughter told her from the backseat that she wanted to dance. “I said ‘Gabby, you’re 11, you have to do such a crash course,’ ” she remembers. “If by 13 you’re not accepted to a major school, it’s not going to happen.”

But Yudenich’s desire was sincere, so Sandonato began training her at home. “We got up every morning, put the kitchen timer on and stretched,” Sandonato says. Yudenich also began taking Sandonato’s classes, and enrolled in summer courses at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, where her mother was on staff.

At 14, Yudenich entered the School of American Ballet’s year-round program on full scholarship. During the audition, Sandonato remained in the lobby. She had been in the school on full scholarship herself under George Balanchine. Yudenich has long dealt with people thinking her opportunities came through her mother. “This is a very competitive profession,” she says. “And people are going to say what they’re going to say, period. It’s been almost harder at Pennsylvania Ballet because people know who my parents are.” But ending up there almost seemed like a coincidence. The year she left SAB, PA Ballet needed girls for their Nutcracker. Yudenich auditioned and got hired. After, she stayed on as the first member of PA Ballet II.

Now a soloist, Yudenich and her mother know that their successes have come from perseverance. “In our business you’re always striving,” Sandonato says. “Telling someone they’re the best is not going to help. You have to be strong enough of mind and body to improve yourself to the capacity that you can.”

Hannah Marshall and Cheryl Yeager
A quintessential soubrette with an effervescent stage presence, Cheryl Yeager proved a popular principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre in the 1980s. She danced leads with Julio Bocca and Mikhail Baryshnikov in ballets that included Coppélia and La Sylphide. She also had roles made on her, such as Twyla Tharp’s razor-sharp Brief Fling.

Yeager’s daughter, Hannah Marshall, now a pre-professional student at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, is more at home in lyrical roles like Swan Lake’s Odette. Even at 16, Marshall has an effortlessness in her dancing that makes it seem like each sky-high extension and expressive upper body movement really does start from deep inside and move out.

While Yeager did not teach Marshall until her daughter was 11, she oversaw Marshall’s dance development from the outset. Marshall took her first “Mommy and Me” class as a toddler at Manhattan’s Ballet Academy East, where Yeager is on faculty, and she continued on through the graded level program at BAE until moving to JKO last fall. “It was just so nice having her in the same building,” Marshall says. “And she guided me, but with just enough room that I could do things sort of on my own.”

When Marshall did eventually take class with her mother, there was occasional mother/daughter tension. (“Sometimes with technique I can get a little, ‘Enough, Mom,’ ” she says.) Marshall has relished, however, the moments where Yeager can offer perspective. “The first time I didn’t get a part,” Marshall says, “I was crushed and she knew exactly what to say because she’s been there, but she could also be my mom at the same time.”

Now that Marshall is on her own at JKO, Yeager misses her but is glad that she is doing what she wants. “When you’re a dancer it affects your life forever,” she says. “It has been my life since I can remember, and now it’s her life, too.”