Ballet Stars
National Ballet of Canada's Heather Ogden. Karolina Kuras.

After 20 years with the National Ballet of Canada, principal Heather Ogden has her dance bag essentials down to a science. "My bag is usually pretty heavy," she says. "I always like to be prepared." And as a mother of two, organization is key. Ogden keeps her Lululemon bag in order by storing like items in small pouches. "When you need something, you don't want to take forever," she says. "I like to be able to see everything easily."

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Heather Ogden in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Bruce Zinger, Courtesy NBoC.

When National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden was in high school, she earned a spot at Royal Winnipeg Ballet School's year-round program. She had loved their summer intensive and knew she wanted to dance professionally—but she also knew that she wasn't ready to leave home. “I was reluctant to leave my family," she says. “It was a hard decision, but I knew I was getting really good training at home." She took a chance and stayed at her home studio, Richmond Academy of Dance in British Columbia, until she graduated high school and auditioned for NBoC.

These days, many promising ballet students leave home for professional schools, hire personal coaches and jet from one competition to another. Those who lack the financial means for such training, or aren't ready (or allowed) to leave home yet, may feel they have no chance at making it professionally. Pointe investigated four training “disadvantages" in today's high-profile world. Here's how to make sure you're still on track for a career.

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Where would ballet be without villains? Aurora would never sleep, and Odette would never become a swan. Getting cast as one of ballet’s memorable miscreants can help dancers develop new facets of their artistry and explore their dramatic side. Three professionals talk about how they approach their baddest roles.

Creating a Commanding Carabosse

Blessed with long legs, strong technique and grace, Maria Kowroski has all the qualities of a perfect Lilac Fairy, a role she has performed with consummate skill since becoming a principal dancer with New York City Ballet in 1999. So it surprised ballet master in chief Peter Martins when Kowroski asked to play Carabosse in his version of Sleeping Beauty, a role that’s the absolute opposite.

“It’s taken me a few seasons to feel comfortable in it,” she admits. To channel Carabosse’s ferocity, Kowroski calls on methods from her acting classes, like centering herself so she can draw on an inner source of anger. “When you’re really mad, it comes from a deep place. You have to try to feel that connection,” she says. She finds it helps to talk to herself throughout the performance. “I look at the king and queen, and think, ‘This is all your fault!’ ”

Kowroski says a dancer must fully inhabit the production’s outlandlish Carabosse costume, from the beaded robe and claw-like fingernails to the peaked cap. “It’s important to not hold back,” she says. “You really have to believe what you’re doing, not just go in halfway.”

Making Myrtha Menacing

She’s mean, she’s mad and she’s ready to make men dance to death. But Myrtha, the queen of the ghostly Wilis in Giselle, is also calm and collected, says National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden, who has mastered the role’s combination of rage and restraint. “She’s a queen, and you need to have a certain regal quality,” she says. From Myrtha’s first bourrées onto the stage, “You are in command of the whole act. This is your land.”

A powerful technical dancer, Ogden loves Myrtha’s athletic jumps and challenging adagio. Yet to convey Myrtha’s eerie authority, “I focus on having a really quiet interior, even though the dancing has to be huge.”

Expressive mime completes the portrayal. “Myrtha doesn’t rush for anything,” Ogden says, so she tries to hold each gesture as long as possible to show that quality to the audience. “I walk almost late. When you hold a movement, it gives weight to the mime.”

One key moment comes when she plucks rosemary sprigs, a symbol of remembrance, from Giselle’s grave to summon her. Because Myrtha holds one in each hand, it isn’t possible for Ogden to use only her stronger side when it’s time to toss them away. “When I throw the left one,” Ogden admits, “it kind of goes ‘Boop!’”

Though she usually dances prima ballerina roles, she relishes the opportunity to play opposite to her personality—and opposite her husband, fellow principal Guillaume Côté, who dances Albrecht. “People always laugh because I have to be so mean to him!”

Ruling the Stage as Von Rothbart
Joshua Grant doesn’t want to play good guys. “People say I have this bubbly personality, but I enjoy doing angry roles to get some aggression out,” he says. Last season the Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member found a satisfying outlet when he was cast as Von Rothbart in PNB’s Swan Lake.

Grant was well prepared by his tenure as a principal with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Famed for their send-ups of classical ballet, the Trocks taught Grant to let go of his inhibitions, which he finds essential to creating a believable evil magician. After all, villains are bold and unapologetic: “All I have to do is walk around and the audience knows that I own everything onstage,” he says.

At 6' 4", clad in a costume that features 16-foot wings, Grant effortlessly commands the audience’s attention. But, he cautions, “It’s really easy to get lost in the costume. You almost have to act ten thousand times better to compensate.” Villains defer to no one, so Grant menaces the crowd as well as the cast. He does not ever bow to the audience, even at the curtain. He knows he’s nailed the role when they boo—a response only a villain could love.

We tend to think of professional dancers as tuning into an all-ballet channel. Not so, according to these five, who read, movie-binge, ace Final Fantasy, design headbands, tweet, go to college, raise cats and more. Their offstage adventures are as varied as the talents that make them so compelling onstage.

 

Connor Walsh
Company: Houston Ballet
Rank:
Principal since 2007
Age: 23
Dance Stats:
Known for his long-limbed line, technical polish and princely good looks, Walsh made a smashing debut as Des Grieux in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon.
European Soccer Fan: As a kid, Walsh may have given up soccer to dance, but don't ever expect him to give up his devotion to England’s Chelsea Football Club. “OK, I have several jerseys, but I really do take them off after the game,” admits Walsh, who never misses his team in action thanks to the miracle of DVR.
Music Lover: A devoted indie music follower, Walsh can be found at Houston’s best dives for local live music on his nights off. “Houston buzzes with great bands,” Walsh says. “Plus, I’m single, so it’s great to get out.” He swears by Bob Boilen’s picks on NPR’s All Songs Considered, which he uses to keep his iPod fully loaded.
Restaurant Hound: If it’s new, Walsh has to try it. “Restaurants are in my blood; my father and brother are in the biz,” he says. “Houston has the best Tex-Mex food anywhere. I never run out of places to try.” That said, after the show Walsh heads to Little Bigs—he loves their mini-burgers.

 

 

Heather Ogden
Company:
The National Ballet of Canada
Rank: Principal since 2005
Age: 28
Dance Stats: Ogden, a die-hard lover of the classics and dramatic contemporary roles, found the best of both worlds in this season’s The Sleeping Beauty and a new work by Aszure Barton.
Kitchen Queen: On her nights off you can find Ogden concocting new recipes for Guillaume Côté, her fiancé (and her very first partner in Romeo and Juliet). “Cooking relaxes me,” she says. “I’m no expert chef, but I do like to experiment, especially with fish.”
Freshly Loaded iPod: Ogden likes to change it up music-wise. She just added some Kings of Leon and Adele, along with some warm-up favorites by Rachmaninoff and Mahler.
Wedding Planner: This is a temporary job, but with a summer wedding planned, much of Ogden’s off time is spent arranging her big day. “So far I’ve tackled the guest list, menu, photographer, florist and DJ,” she says. “I’m still shopping for my dress, though.”
Lost Fan: Ogden never misses an episode of ABC’s mythic epic, Lost. “I really get into the characters,” she says. “It’s a such a huge mystery.”

 

 

Tricia Albertson
Company: Miami City Ballet
Age: 30
Rank: Principal since 2006
Dance Stats: With her long limbs, unconventional elegance and a body made for Balanchine, Albertson made a big impact during recent performances of Allegro Brillante and Symphony in Three Movements.
Exotic Locales: Albertson is a travel connoisseur. “I avoid tourist traps at all costs. If the guidebooks say this is the place to be, I go in the opposite direction,” she says. She prefers offbeat places like Thailand and Prague. Last summer she enjoyed a peaceful week meditating at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California. She says, “Three hours of tai chi a day really slowed me down.”
Feline Power: With nine cats, it’s no longer a hobby. “I am truly a crazy cat lady. They seem to migrate to me, and the nine are just my and my boyfriend Adam Bierman’s indoor ones,” she says. “When I’m not dancing, I spend a lot of time cleaning up after my cats.”
College On The Side: Albertson takes classes online at Miami Dade Community College. This semester, it’s oceanography and a math class. “I still don’t know my major yet, but soon,” she says. “I have homework all the time, but it’s worth it. It keeps me open to other possibilities.”

 

 

Daniil Simkin
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Rank: Soloist since 2008
Age: 22
Dance Stats: After a summer of gala globe-trotting, Simkin applied his high leaps and classical aplomb to new ABT works by Aszure Barton and Benjamin Millepied this fall season.
Gadget Geek: Name the device and chances are Simkin has it. “I was born into a techie family,” he says. “If I wasn’t dancing, I was behind a computer and have always been drawn to gadgets. Oh, and I am a PC—a Sony Ultra-Portable to be exact.”
Gamer: Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3, he’s not particular. “I play anything and everything. For a while, I was addicted to World of Warcraft,” he admits, “but thankfully, I stopped.” Simkin would like it to be known that he’s not the only gamer at ABT. “Lots of the men play,” he dishes.
Deep Reader: Simkin never travels without a book and prefers nonfiction. “Anything on science, the economy, psychology or spirituality will do,” he says. He just finished Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.
Connector: Simkin tweets and stays in touch with his over 4,000 Facebook friends by updating his page often. “It’s great to connect to people, but you shouldn’t open yourself completely. A little distance is good here,” Simkin advises. He has his own website where he blogs—www.daniilsimkin.com—and he tweets at twitter.com/daniil.

 

 

Lia Cirio
Company: Boston Ballet
Rank: First soloist since 2007
Age: 23
Dance Stats: The unpredictable dynamics of Jorma Elo’s choreography, which she performed this season, fit Cirio’s athletic strengths. “Being off-center feels natural to me,” she says.
Movie Buff: If it’s funny, Cirio wants to be watching it—usually with her brother Jeffrey Cirio, who is also her roommate and a Boston Ballet dancer. Classic chick flicks like You’ve Got Mail, or the more recent The Proposal, top her list.
Vampire Lit: Cirio has read every one of the books in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, which chronicle the life of Bella Swan and her beloved teen vampire, Edward Cullen. “Sorry to say,” says Cirio, “the movie did not live up to the book.”
Artisan: After looking at the steep price tag of a headband, Cirio thought, “I could make these,” and now she does. Cirio’s whimsical headbands feature fun buttons, colorful fabrics and delicate ribbons. She sells her vintage-feel handiwork on etsy.com, a crafter’s website.
Shoehound: If you check out Cirio’s closet you will find a sea of shoes. “Dresses and shoes are my weaknesses,” she says. “I love to shop.”

Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston.

"It set me on a roll,” says National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden, recalling the thrill of being featured in Pointe’s February/March 2002 issue. It was such an honor to be recognized among other dancers I admired." Then an NBC corps member, Ogden recently had made her debut as Juliet. Now 27, she has performed a wide range of lead roles, from classical to contemporary, abstract to demandingly dramatic. A particularly special experience was dancing Dulcinea with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in its revival of Balanchine’s Don Quixote at the Kennedy Center in 2005—and with NBC in Toronto in 2007. “I’ve had a lot to grow with,” she notes. Audiences have taken to Ogden’s unaffected charm and the sheer physical daring of her movement—she never holds back. “I’ve worked hard for all this,” says the modest, soft-spoken Ogden, “but I still feel very blessed.” —Michael Crabb

 

Principal dancer Heather Ogden remembers being called into the studio in May with her colleagues and hearing the announcement that James Kudelka would step down as artistic director on June 30, 2005. “We were stunned that James was leaving,” she recalls, “but almost immediately, everyone was speculating that Karen Kain would be his successor. She had clearly been groomed for the job and was certainly the popular choice. She also understands how this company works, from the bottom to the top, which is a big advantage.”

In fact, Kain was identified as the top candidate for the job long before she was offered the position. “Like many corporations, NBC had in place a written succession plan for senior leadership of the company,” explains David Banks, chair of the board of directors. “The plan singled out potential candidates and was designed to help the formal work of a selection committee, should the need arise. Karen headed the list as possible artistic director. After James’ resignation, we had to decide whether we should conduct a proper search or appoint Karen.”

Jim Pitblado, a past chair of both the NBC board and foundation, was given charge of the succession planning committee. During an intense three-week period, he and his four colleagues conducted a wide-ranging survey of NBC stakeholders, both inside and outside the company, in Canada and abroad.

“Karen’s name kept coming up,” he says. “What really surprised us is that no negative facts of any consequence were mentioned about her. You’d think that over a 30-year career, she might have rubbed someone the wrong way, but not Karen.”

In her former life, Kain had a glittering career as NBC’s prima ballerina and was an international ballet superstar. Penelope Doob, who is head of the dance department at York University and helped Kain write her autobiography, Movement Never Lies, points to the former ballerina as one of the most beloved and recognized cultural icons in Canada, a rare tribute for dance in the starry climes usually reserved for sports figures or rock stars.

After retiring as a dancer, Kain became an artist in residence with NBC in 1997. Two years later, she became artistic associate, which made her an integral part of the top managerial team. Nonetheless, she did not find out until after the fact that she had been identified as the top candidate to succeed Kudelka.

Equally surprising is that she never saw her job as artistic associate as an apprenticeship. Rather, she viewed herself as being part of Kudelka’s support team. It was not until quite recently that she realized these last eight years were on-the-job training for artistic director and began to see herself in that role. Now she is taking on one of the most challenging cultural jobs in Canada.

For her part, Kain is in no hurry to put her own stamp on NBC. “I have a huge respect for the company’s heritage, and I plan to build on that,” she says. “I served under every artistic director, and I appreciate what each brought to the company. The mandate that founder Celia Franca put in place is still valid. Our benchmark is the classical repertory, support for Canadian choreographers and bringing in masterworks of our time.”

But the change in command comes at a difficult time for the company, which has been suffering financially. Kain is reluctant to give a precise number concerning box-office losses, but the 2004-05 season was not a good one for NBC. She uses the word “challenging” to describe the audience drop-off and adds that necessity dictates that she proceed with caution her first few years. “We always budget very conservatively and never plan for full houses, but we’re nervous right now over this nasty surprise and really have to analyze what happened. Are we moving too fast with unfamiliar work? Is the audience drop-off specific to us or to all dance companies? Sadly, people who came to the shows loved them, but not enough of them came. If you asked me to sum up my vision, it is survival.”

Kain is pinning some hopes for renewal on the move to Toronto’s new opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts, in September 2006. She talks glowingly about the closeness of the stage to the audience, even at the back of the hall. “The European horseshoe shape goes up rather than out,” she explains, “so there are very few bad seats and wonderful acoustics. Everyone can experience the immediate and visceral passion of dance. I hope the new opera house will seduce people into the theater and that we will delight them or even surprise them when they are there.”

The move to the new house will be costly, though, primarily because the company will need more dancers to accommodate the increased number of performances. Currently the company has 60 dancers, including apprentices, but the ideal is 70. Thus, in a time of audience malaise and donor fatigue, the new director has to find the resources for the necessary company growth.

Enlarging the endowment may be one answer. NBC’s endowment is about $11 million, but in comparison to a few U.S. companies with endowments in the tens of millions, this is pitifully small. Part of the problem, according to Kain, is that American businesses and individuals get a complete tax write-off for their donations. In Canada, it is only a 50 percent tax benefit. “We have to convince governments to be smarter about donations to not-for-profit arts organizations to encourage philanthropy,” says Kain.

Since the recession of the late 1980s, NBC has never had, Pitblado points out, “a year of fat on the bones.” Thus, in the current rough times of government funding cutbacks and the fierce competition for corporate dollars, being artistic director of NBC is not without its pitfalls. All see Kain, however, as having the goods to take on the job, and there is, apparently, a steel magnolia that lurks within her charm.

In fact, the word that comes up most frequently to describe her personality is “tough.” NBC principal dancer Jennifer Fournier sees Kain as someone who cares passionately about what happens on the stage. “She is brutally honest and a person who does not settle for mediocrity. You can’t get to the top of the dance world without handling the truth, and that will carry over to her decisions as an artistic director.”

At the same time, Fournier feels that Kain’s greatest strength is her open-door, nurturing attitude. “Karen is very intelligent and emotionally in tune with how things impact dancers,” she adds. “She is also open to new ideas. She never stopped growing as an artist, and she won’t stop growing as an administrator.”

Kain points out that NBC is not a company she is stepping into as part of a career move, but one that she has been a part of her entire professional life. Acting as artistic director will be a labor of love. Nonetheless, she is not rubber-stamping what has gone before, and one picks up a flash of steel when she talks about
raising standards. “When I’m watching from the audience, it is with the eyes of someone who has seen the best in the major dance centers of the world,” Kain says. “Sometimes we are there, and sometimes not. I want us at the top of our game for every performance. I’m ready to take on the challenge.”


Paula Citron is a Toronto-based arts journalist.

Beautiful National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden seems to be artists' muse of choice these days. A few months ago, director Ben Shirnian and fellow NBC principal Guillaume Côté released a hypnotic video starring Ogden. (Côté is her husband, which made the film's loving camerawork especially touching.) Now photographer Christopher Wahl has created "The Heather Project," a series of intimate snapshots of Ogden at work that, when you click on them, come to life as short video clips. It's "a photographer's view of the moving image," Wahl explains, "as if to point the camera but not press the button." Check out The Heather Project here.

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