Gabriella Yudenich is one of those dancers who looks completely at home in the ballet studio. A petite brunette with sparkling eyes, the Pennsylvania Ballet soloist has an infectious laugh that she doesn’t hesitate to unleash, even in the middle of a packed, slightly frantic rehearsal. Whether in rehearsal or performance, she stands out for her buoyant jump and luscious, fluid port de bras. Yudenich has dance in her genes: Her parents, Barbara Sandonato and Alexei Yudenich, were principal dancers with PB in the 1960s and ’70s. Nonetheless, when Yudenich decided she wanted to pursue ballet as a career, she found herself up against some pretty serious odds.
“I didn’t have natural turnout, natural feet or easy extension,” Yudenich says. “When I was 15, a doctor actually told me that I was not built for the profession and that I would never make it as a dancer!” But equipped with a serious work ethic and an unwavering passion for the art form, Yudenich, now 25, has become a performer one Philadelphia reviewer called “electrifying”—and her star is still on the rise.
Though her parents retired from dancing before she was born, “from the time I was little, I always remember ballet being there,” Yudenich says. She accompanied her parents to their dance teaching jobs and, when she was 6, started taking classes herself, both with her mother and with other teachers at studios where her mother taught. Still, dance was only one of many childhood interests. While Yudenich quickly fell in love with story ballets and enjoyed being onstage, she didn’t always like the discipline and routine of class.
Her turning point came when she saw Backstage at the Kirov, a behind-the-scenes video following Kirov Ballet dancer Altynai Asylmuratova through rehearsal and performance. “I was so captured by her life,” Yudenich says. “It struck a chord with me. I told my mom, ‘I know what I want to be—a ballerina!’ She said, ‘Oh, then you have a lot of work to do.’ ”
That hard work came in the form of intense training at The Rock School, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, School of American Ballet, among others. And it paid off: At 18, Yudenich was invited to join Pennsylvania Ballet II. She became an apprentice with PB at 20, and a member of the corps soon after. In September 2007, she was promoted to soloist, thanks in part to the kind of fairy-tale debut most corps dancers only dream of. Cast as the understudy for Myrta in PB’s February 2007 production of Giselle, Yudenich ended up dancing on opening night, and her commanding performance won an enthusiastic response from audience members and critics alike.
“Gabby has a strong and reliable technique, with a wonderful ballon in her jump. But the most important aspect of her dancing is her performance quality,” explains PB Artistic Director Roy Kaiser. “She demands that you watch her.”
Yudenich excels in both classical and contemporary work, and has performed the role of the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. She has also danced a featured role in Mauro Bigonzetti’s Kazimir’s Colours. Her dream roles—Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Nikiya in La Bayadère—reflect the special place she holds in her heart for the classics. Yet no matter what the role, it all comes back to the music: “As a child, if I heard Tchaikovsky, even though I didn’t know it was Tchaikovsky, it just made me want to move,” she says. “That’s why I absolutely had to dance. When the music is beautiful, it makes me so emotional—and then to dance to that music is such a treat. It’s like my body can almost breathe through the music by dancing.”
Kathryn Holmes is a dancer and writer in New York City.