Ballet Stars
Karina González in Ben Stevenson's Coppélia. Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Are you more of a Giselle or a Juliet?

I've always said that my favorite role is Juliet, because of her vulnerability and maturity throughout the ballet. But now that I've performed Giselle, I find her so incredibly enjoyable, from being a village girl who falls in love for the first time to the most tender, almost weightless dancing in Act II.

Are you more at home in the studio or onstage?

I love the time in the studio. The process of starting from zero to getting better each day is so rewarding. My favorite phrase in rehearsals is "Let's do it again, so I can sleep in peace tonight." I need to feel so comfortable in the studio so that when I am onstage there are no bad surprises.

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Ballet Stars
Yasmine Naghdi in The Sleeping Beauty with Eric Underwood. Bill Cooper, Courtesy The Royal Ballet.

What is the hardest role you've learned?

Swan Lake. You need so much endurance to get through it. Especially in Act III, when you're about to do the fouettés—I feel like I can't see, I'm so tired by that point. It's a battle of your own mind.

You've danced Aurora for The Royal Ballet and at San Francisco Ballet—how were they different?

In London it was my debut; it was 10 times harder dancing it for the first time. Revisiting it in San Francisco, I had so much more experience—it wasn't as hard as I remembered. Anytime you revisit a role, it becomes slightly less hard than the first time.

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Ballet Stars
Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB

Your teacher at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Marcia Dale Weary, recently passed away. What impact did she have on you?

I feel deeply indebted to her. She shaped my life's course, and I know that were it not for her, I would not be living out my dream today. She led by example through her remarkable commitment to her work, as well as her genuine kindness and generosity.

You were a trainee with San Francisco Ballet. What was that experience like?

It was an exposure to different schools of thought. We were mostly in the full-lengths, and watching run-throughs of Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote was revolutionary for me. But I was young and far away from home. That transition was hard. My body started changing. It wanted to be fleshy. Biology is cruel in that way. I desperately wanted to fit in, but it wasn't meant to be.

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Ballet Stars
Hee Seo in La Bayadere. Courtesy ABT.

What are you proudest of in your career?

That I learned how to work in the studio. I always loved being onstage, but now I love the process of getting there. I used to want to be perfect in a role from day 1. Now I work to where I want to be.

Is there a role you haven't danced yet that you're excited to do?

I can't wait to learn Manon—I am dancing it with American Ballet Theatre this season. Usually ballet characters are straightforward—shy peasant girl or flirt—but Manon is complicated.

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Ballet Stars
Réjean Brandt Photography, Courtesy Royal Winnipeg Ballet

After growing up in Florida, how did you adjust to the climate when you moved to Winnipeg, Canada?

It was shocking. The winter is brutal! Now I know what to expect, but it's still a bit of a shock. I think the first day of snow was September 26th.

Do you have a go-to anecdote about company life?

Once we were on tour in Arkansas for Nutcracker. We got to the finale, and the music cut out. There was a womp-womp moment, the curtain came down, and we had to restart from the top of the coda. But the audience was excited they saw it twice—they felt like they got double their money!

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Ballet Stars
Kajiya as Gamzatti in Stanton Welch's La Bayadere. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy of Houston Ballet.

Your director Stanton Welch claims that you can hover in midair.
Really? I am not sure that I can do that. I do know that I repeat things over and over because I need to find my own way with each step, and maybe the floating quality happens in there somewhere. I just do it.

If you had to pick one signature role which would it be?
Just one? I can't. I have two. One is Giselle, because she's a human and not a creature, and people can relate to love and heartbreak. Stanton's Madame Butterfly is also important to me, because I met him when I was 17 and had heard that he thought I would be great in the role. I finally danced it in 2016 and it's a spectacular part.

Kajiya as Giselle in Stanton Welch's "Giselle." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy of Houston Ballet.

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Ballet Stars
Adiarys Almeida in Don Quixote. Courtesy Almeida.

How was training at the Cuban National Ballet School different from what you see in the U.S.?
It was free education, so it was very hard to get in, and there was a cut every year. We had academics alongside art, and we had to take a lot of different things: modern, character, ballroom, choreography composition, history of dance, music, French, makeup—everything you need for this profession.

Why did you defect?
I always wanted to have an international career. But also, I was 19, and I had a boyfriend. We were dating in Cuba when he won the lottery visa to come to the United States. When I was on tour here with the National Ballet he came to see me and I thought, I'm in love! So I stayed with him.

Has the political opening of Cuba affected you?
Before, if you defected, you had to wait five years to go back. That was pretty rough. Things have changed so much. It's about time; we're neighbors! Last year I was able to go back and perform at the Grand Theater in Havana—with my family, my teachers and my friends there.

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Ballet Stars
Lopatkina and Danila Korsuntsev in Balanchine's "Symphony in C." Photo by N. Razina, Courtesy Mariinsky Theater.

Last weekend, the Mariinsky Ballet announced on its website that one of its most revered prima ballerinas, Uliana Lopatkina, has retired from the stage. A principal dancer since 1995, Lopatkina's interpretation of Odette/Odile and "The Dying Swan", among other roles, was legendary. To honor her dance career, we're re-visiting this interview from the February/March 2013 issue.


What's the toughest part of being a dancer?

More than most professions, ballet erodes the private sphere. You don't fulfill yourself in this career: You serve it; you're a slave to it.


What ballet makes you most nervous?

Swan Lake. Even if it's not the most difficult ballet to perform, it's difficult in another way, a mystical way.

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Ballet Stars
Vanessa Zahorian in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

You trained partly at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. What's the most important thing you got out of that experience?

The opportunity to go to Russia at age 16. Oleg Vinogradov, the director at the time, chose me to be an apprentice with the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet. I worked with Andris Liepa and Ninel Kurgapkina, and took class next to ballerinas like Diana Vishneva and Uliana Lopatkina. It was an honor.

Since then, you spent your entire career at San Francisco Ballet. How have you grown as a dancer?

When I first came I was very focused on technique. I was 18, in the corps, and all of a sudden I was Sugar Plum. At this point 20 years later, I'm focused on the emotional aspects of my performance. I'm not concerned about how many turns I'm going to do, or how long I'm going to balance.

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Aleksander Antonijevic, Courtesy NBoC

You're celebrating 25 years with the National Ballet of Canada. What makes it home?

I wanted to join the National Ballet because it had one of the best repertoires in the world. We do all the staples of the classical canon and yet get to work with amazing creators like Jirˇí Kylián, William Forsythe, Glen Tetley and all the iconic choreographers of the 21st century. I still feel that way.

What have you learned that could be helpful for young professionals?

Look around and really watch the people around you. I can't tell you how important that was for me, to have so many great dancers to learn from. You can absorb a lot by watching, you don't always have to do.

Your tenure has spanned three directors. Do you have tips for surviving directorial changeover?

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Salenko in "Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Yan Revazov, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin.

Staatsballett Berlin's Iana Salenko on guestings, salsa music and her knack for design.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I'm a tiny dancer, so to dance roles for tall ballerinas I would never have dreamed about, like Swan Lake—I'm very proud that I managed to get them.

What's the hardest thing about guesting with other companies, like The Royal Ballet?

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Ashley Murphy and Oscar Sanchez in The Washington Ballet's Director's Cut. Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy TWB.

Why did you make the move from Dance Theatre of Harlem to The Washington Ballet?

I had been at DTH for 13 years, and I wanted to see what else was out there. I felt like it was time for me to experience other choreography and a bigger company setting.

Has the change helped you grow as a dancer?

Definitely. At DTH, they knew me and trusted me with a lot of principal roles. Here, I had to work my way back up. I'm more of a performer onstage than in the studio, so it was hard for me to show them what I could do. But the people around me were so encouraging, which helped my confidence. As my first year went on, things got better.

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