In addition to cancelled shows, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted final performances for many retiring dancers. Pointe is giving several retiring principals and soloists a chance to reflect on their careers and offer advice to the next generation.
Carolina Ballet principal dancer Lara O'Brien planned to retire from the company she has spent her entire 19-year career with this spring. Her final onstage appearance, as Lady Macbeth in Robert Weiss' Macbeth, a role she originated in 2016, was supposed to happen in May but was cancelled due to COVID-19. Luckily, the production was rescheduled to November 19-22 in Raleigh and she will delay her retirement until then.
A native of Crystal Lake, Illinois, O'Brien trained at the School of Ballet Chicago and School of American Ballet before joining Carolina Ballet in 2001 as an apprentice. She was promoted to soloist in 2004 and principal in 2011, and is also a mother and the owner of two dance studios. The 38-year-old O'Brien spoke to Pointe about about her career in Raleigh, as well as what it takes to balance dance, family and a business.
Why are you planning to retire?
I am feeling called to some new adventures. I started a family two-and-a-half years ago and I want to have more time with them. I have had really long and healthy career, and knowing it had to end at some point I would like to go out while I am still dancing really well.
Nineteen years is a long time with one company. Did you ever think about dancing elsewhere?
Joining Carolina Ballet was such a blessing. I have been given opportunities to dance a lot. I was promoted fairly quickly and have done a lot of leading roles that I never dreamed I would dance. I never had a desire to leave.
O'Brien in Rite of Spring
Armes Photogrpahy, Courtesy Carolina Ballet
What do you feel are the advantages of dancing with a regional company such as Carolina Ballet for many years?
Staying rooted in one place for a long time has its advantages in that you build a confidence in, and loyalty to, the company and take ownership of it and the community. I meshed really well with Ricky Weiss' vision and felt from the start that I had an artistic home at Carolina Ballet. And it means a lot that Raleigh has embraced the company and that we are an important part of the city's growing cultural community.
We didn't tour as much as maybe I would have liked to early in my career, and connecting with the larger dance community outside Raleigh proved more challenging.
For the past four years you have also been a ballet school owner. How have you juggled the demands of dancing and running a business?
I have two Tutu School franchises—one I started in Raleigh in 2015 and another in Cary in 2017—for students ages 18 months to 8 years old. I want to give young children a positive, nurturing introduction to what ballet is and what it can be. I marinated on opening the first Tutu School over months because I was really unsure if it would take focus away from my dancing. But as a principal dancer I had some flexibility in my schedule, I had help from two teachers I hired, and I let some things go in finding the right balance.
I am very stimulated by business ownership and am looking forward to expanding and growing the business. I am looking forward to spending more time with my husband (Matthew Muñoz) and my son Theo, who loves taking ballet at Tutu School along with trucks, trains and tractors.
O'Brien as Lady MacBeth in Robert Weiss' Macbeth. The ballet, which was to be her swan song, has been rescheduled for next season.
Armes Photography, Courtesy Carolina Ballet
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your plans?
COVID-19 has certainly had an impact. The fact that I am now working on staying in performance shape through the summer and planning to be rehearsing and performing in the fall changes some of my focus and time that I was expecting to turn towards family and travel later this year. It also remains to be seen what will unfold with plans for a third Tutu School franchise this year. Nothing is lost, per se, but things are on hold with the delay in my retirement.
What advice would give to aspiring professional dancers?
Fall in love with ballet. Everything is built on that. It is not an easy career, so you want to ground what you are doing on something that really matters to you. Continue to cultivate that throughout; recognize why you are dancing, what is worth sharing and what all of the hard work and dedication means to you.