As told to Laura Cappelle, Margaret Fuhrer and Nancy Wozny
Every young ballet student has a dream role, a part she feels she's made to dance. But a seasoned star has many dream roles over the course of her career. They trace a trajectory—the evolution of the way the dancer defines herself, and the “ballet ideal," as she matures into an artist. We asked some top ballet dancers about their dream roles and how those have changed.
Principal, Pacific Northwest Ballet
I saw Swan Lake in Brazil when I was 11, and dancing Odette/Odile became my dream. When I finally got the opportunity in 2007, it was even more than I expected. It's hugely challenging to be a human/bird; there are so many nuances. As a sensitive person, I connect to the fragility of Odette, to her human suffering and her disappointment. But there is a side of me that is playful and vibrant like Odile, too. Her flirtatiousness feels connected to Brazil's dance culture, which is all based on flirting.
During my time at New York City Ballet, Jerome Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun became another dream role. But when I actually performed it, I felt uncomfortable. It was intimate, but not in the way I thought it would be. The stage seemed so naked and exposed. The music felt too slow—there were awkward moments. But I still love watching it. I would like to explore it a little more.
Juliet is another part I dreamed of, and I love the Jean-Christophe Maillot version of Roméo et Juliette that we do here at PNB. But it's emotionally exhausting. When you're doing Swan Lake, even though it's sad, you're not asked to be as impulsive onstage. In Maillot's Roméo there is just so much pain.
Principal, Bayerisches Staatsballett
I can't say I've had many dream roles. Growing up in Spain, I didn't have access to performances—we didn't even have a ballet school in my town. I started full-time training very late, and my only goal was to be onstage. I joined Víctor Ullate's company at 15, and while I created solo parts in his neoclassical works, I didn't know much about what ballet was like elsewhere.
Once I got to know the classical repertoire, I figured I should try everything to decide what I liked, so at 22, I joined San Francisco Ballet. I performed all the classics, and the reality couldn't be a letdown, because I'd never dreamed about them. I just tried to do them as correctly as possible. I loved Swan Lake, because you have a character—you're a magical creature.
I moved to Munich because I yearned to do more dramatic ballets, like Lady of the Camellias, Onegin and John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet. The first time I saw Cranko's Romeo, I was in tears. I wanted to be out there, dying. When I discovered Lady of the Camellias, it felt like everything had gone still. Dancing those ballets, they've lived up to my dreams and gone far beyond them. Each performance is an intense experience. As I get older, I try to keep them as truthful for me as possible.
Principal, Mariinsky Ballet
As a student, I saw nearly every performance at the Mariinsky Theatre—and each time I'd want to perform that ballet! I still want to do everything.
When I joined the Mariinsky, I was happy to dance anything I could get. But the role I dreamed of, above all, was Nikiya in La Bayadère. Here in Russia, everybody wants to dance Odette/Odile, but for me, ballet isn't just Swan Lake. I'd done the Kingdom of the Shades before, but I only made my debut in the full Bayadère in 2010. I never tire of it: There are so many things I can still work on.
Today I think a ballerina should be able to do everything. There are still some roles in the repertoire that I'd like to try, like Kitri in Don Quixote. I would also love to dance Wayne McGregor's Chroma some day, and to work with John Neumeier or Mats Ek.
Principal, New York City Ballet
When I was younger, I was less role-oriented and more dancer-oriented. I did a lot of jazz and tap, and I remember seeing Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain and thinking he was fantastic. Actually, to this day I've tried, when I do side gigs, to see if there's anything we can re-create from his movies. I haven't yet, because it's pretty hard to justify paying Warner Bros. for the rights to a short dance. But wouldn't that be amazing?
Once I got to New York, the end all, be all was Apollo. What I like to do as a dancer is to have a conversation with the audience, and Apollo offers these still, quiet moments when you can connect with the people watching you. You create an atmosphere. And that moment when the curtain comes up, and the strings are going crazy—that's the coolest thing in the world.
The most fun I've had onstage recently is in ballets I didn't expect to come my way. Like Opus 19/The Dreamer—it's epic for the guy. I'm at this incredible point in my career where I've been able to dance some of my dream roles. So it's the ballets that catch me by surprise that end up being the highlights.