As the curtain closed on the tender image of Juliet intertwined with her Romeo, the audience at Minneapolis’ Northrop Auditorium paused, letting the raw abandon of Sara Ivan’s performance wash over them before breaking into thunderous applause. Ivan had poured heart and soul into Maurice Béjart’s grueling 15-minute pas de deux. The performance, part of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s spring tour last year, meant more than a triumphant homecoming for Ivan, who grew up in the Twin Cities. It also marked her victory over an injury that had caused her to lose the role of Juliet three years earlier and almost derailed her career.
As a young student at Minnesota Dance Theatre, Ivan knew she wanted a dance career. When she was 17, on a whim she auditioned for Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell, a Balanchine-based intensive at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. “The audition was at our studio, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just take an extra class,’ ” she says. But she found herself immediately captivated by Farrell. “She was so elegant and a little intimidating,” she says. Ivan lacked any Balanchine training, but nevertheless Farrell accepted her on scholarship.
When she arrived in Washington, Ivan felt overwhelmed. She couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced Balanchine style and wasn’t used to wearing pointe shoes at the barre. “Suzanne approached me the third day, and I thought she was going to kick me out,” says Ivan. Instead, Farrell asked if she’d be interested in joining her company. Ivan stammered that she would be honored, to which Farrell replied, “Well, we’ll see.”
Fueled by Farrell’s encouragement, Ivan made an intense effort, absorbing corrections, going across the floor as often as she could. She fell in love with Farrell’s teaching style. “She used a lot of metaphors,” says Ivan. “She would compare développé to putting on white satin gloves.” On the last day of the summer program, Farrell took her aside and offered her a contract. “It was a dream come true,” Ivan says.
Through Farrell’s classes and videos of Balanchine ballets, Ivan started transforming her technique. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet works sporadically throughout the year, so many of its dancers freelance during off-seasons. For two years, Ivan danced with Washington Ballet’s studio company when Farrell’s company was off. In 2006, when Ivan was 20, Farrell cast her as the lead in an excerpt from Romeo and Juliet. The role calls for extreme flexibility and accentuated Ivan’s supple extensions. It was her first lead, and she knew that as a young corps member she needed to prove herself. “There are things at 20 that you just don’t have,” says Ivan in retrospect. “Strength, partnering experience, artistic maturity.” To compensate, Ivan threw herself into rehearsals to the point of exhaustion. “I was pushing too hard and wasn’t resting enough or eating properly,” she says. One morning during grand allegro, Ivan fell and felt something in her left knee snap. Terrified of losing her opportunity, she continued to dance on her injured knee for a week. She only made matters worse: By the time she saw a doctor she had completely torn her ACL. She would need reconstructive surgery to dance again.
Ivan was devastated. Another dancer took her place in Romeo and Juliet, but Farrell asked Ivan to assist during stage rehearsals. “I would point details out to her,” says Farrell. “Watching from the front provides a different perspective.” Ivan agrees. “I learned that even the smallest correction can make a big difference, and sitting in the audience I had the visual to see why.”
Ivan’s recovery lasted nine long months. Once reliant on her hypermobility, Ivan now had to develop strength and control. And she realized that she needed to take better care of herself. She returned to the company determined to put her setback behind her.
Last year, Farrell scheduled a reprise of Romeo and Juliet for the company’s national tour and gave Ivan a second chance to tackle the role. Ivan was thrilled. Her final Juliet in Minneapolis marked a turning point in her career. “I felt this moment of ‘I have arrived,’ ” she says. “I’m free to go on now with nothing holding me back.”