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

Grace and Tenacity: Vanessa Zahorian Reflects on 20 Years at San Francisco Ballet

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.

Zahorian as Juliet SFB's "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

How do you prepare for full-length ballets?

I need to know the story inside and out, so I read the book. Then I learn the choreography. We rehearse in the fall and then put things away until the season, January through May. I like that you get to taste it, but not perfect it. Later, before you go onstage, is when you dive in.

You're married to SFB principal Davit Karapetyan. You've said there are “peaks and valleys" for a couple working together. Like what?

There's more good than bad. The best part is actually dancing together, especially in Romeo and Juliet or Onegin. I can portray the story so realistically with him. The danger is that if you're having a bad day it's easier to take it out on your loved one in the studio. You're just so comfortable, but you have to be conscious of their feelings as well.

Zahorian as Diana in Vaganova's "Diana and Acteon (pas de deux)." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

What are the secrets to your success?

Focus, determination, patience, discipline. Having my own goals and morals, which drive me every day. Staying open, but with tunnel vision—not being distracted by petty gossip or drama. Just doing it for myself.

Do you have a hobby?

I'm learning Armenian over Skype. I speak Russian with Davit's family, but it's their second language, so I wanted to learn Armenian. It's very hard, but I enjoy it.

What is your favorite role?

Tatiana, from Onegin, because it's so meaty and in-depth. It's not all about technique—after I dance this role I feel accomplished as a dancer and actress. At this stage in my career I want a role to transport and motivate me.

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