Lara O'Brien as Juliet in Robert Weiss' Romeo and Juliet

Denise Cerniglia, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

Carolina Ballet's Lara O'Brien Looks Ahead to Family and Her Growing Business

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.

Wearing a red leotard, Lara O'Brien stands in fourth position crois\u00e9 on pointe with her right arm held head height, as if lifting a tray.

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.

Any disadvantages?

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.

What's next?

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.

Lara O'Brien, wearing a pink dance dress and a chunky gold crown, makes a beckoning motion with her right arm and looks toward her right.

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.

Latest Posts


James Barkley, Courtesy Dance for Change

Take Class From Celebrated Black Dancers and Raise Money for the NAACP Through Dance for Change

Since the nationwide fight against racial inequality took center stage in May, organizations across the dance world have been looking for meaningful ways to show their support, rather than fall back on empty social media signifiers. July 10-11, Diamante Ballet Dancewear is taking action with Dance for Change, a two-day event dedicated to fundraising for the NAACP, and amplifying the voices of Black professional dancers.

Organized by Diamante Ballet Dancewear's founder, Nashville Ballet 2 dancer Isichel Perez, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre teacher Elise Gillum, Dance for Change makes it easy to participate. Dancers need only to make a donation to the NAACP (in any amount) and email proof to diamante.ballet@gmail.com to be given online access to a full schedule of Zoom master classes taught by Black pros artists. Teachers include Ballet Memphis' George Sanders, Boston Ballet's Daniel Durrett, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Corey Bourbonniere, and more. "It's important that we amplify BIPOC voices during this time, and it's also important that we're conscious of where we're putting our dollars," says Bourbonniere. "Diamante is doing both with Dance for Change, and I'm honored to be in this talented group of melanated dancers."

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Vikki Sloviter

Sydney Dolan Takes Center Stage at Pennsylvania Ballet

This is Pointe's Summer 2020 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Just days before the world shuttered under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, and the curtain came down indefinitely on dance companies everywhere, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Sydney Dolan debuted Gamzatti in La Bayadère with captivating ease. Her jumps soared, her technique was sound, and her cheeky smile paired with exquisite port de bras was beguiling. Though she didn't know the company would soon cancel the remainder of its season, her beautiful performance acted as a kind of send-off into the unknown.

Dolan's career could be described in one word: charmed. At just 19 years old, she's flown through the ranks at PAB, debuted a long list of roles, won a Princess Grace Award and been named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch." Yet it's her challenges that have shaped not only her training but her outlook, giving her a solid foundation for becoming one of Pennsylvania Ballet's rising stars.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Courtesy de Roos

SAB Student Founds Dancewear Nonprofit to Help Others in Need

When School of American Ballet student Alexandra de Roos was 8 years old, she placed a collection box at her dance studio for others to donate their gently used dancewear. De Roos, now 17, has since turned that single collection box into a nonprofit organization that aims to minimize economic barriers in the performing arts with free dancewear and classes.

De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

"I knew that dancewear was really expensive and that a lot of students might not be able to do the thing that they love because it's cost-prohibitive," de Roos said. "I really wanted to create something to allow people to have the same experience of the love and joy of dance that I've been so grateful to have."

After SAB shifted its winter term online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, de Roos decided to expand Peace Love Leotards. She reached out to dance companies, resulting in partnerships with brands including Jo+Jax, Lone Reed Designs, RubiaWear and Wear Moi.

"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

Editors' Picks