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Credit: Sonia Rodriguez and Harrison James in La Sylphide. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.

Interview: Ballerina Sonia Rodriguez on La Sylphide

By Taylor Boileau on April 4, 2016

La Sylphide will be performed on the Southam Hall stage of the National Art Center April 7-9th, presented by the National Ballet of Canada.

Restaged by Johan Kobborg, this timeless romantic ballet portrays the story of James, who is lured away from his betrothed by the mystical Sylphide. We spoke with principal dancer Sonia Rodriguez about her career and how her passion translates into her everyday life. Read on to discover how this world renowned ballerina is a lot more like you and me than you would have thought.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

I think that drive and that passion is really important and you can’t just pretend to like dancing, you have to really love what you’re doing. It takes a lot of time and self analysis, dedication, and a lot of hours.

Apt613: People talk a lot about the challenges and rewards of touring musicians and actors. Dancers are far more mysterious artists, could you tell me a bit about the challenges and rewards you find as a touring dancer and how they are different or similar to other artists?

Sonia Rodriguez. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic, from the National Ballet of Canada website.

Sonia Rodriguez. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic, from the National Ballet of Canada website.

SR: Oh god, there’s so many!

Clearly, there has to be a high level of dedication to the art form in order to be successful, or even to become a professional, because it is very demanding on various levels. Most dancers start at a really young age. It kind of needs to become a professional because you need the time to find the aesthetics.

I know from the outside, a lot of people see young dancers starting at such a young age as a huge sacrifice. Maybe they think they’re losing their childhood. But, I remember not wanting to do anything else. Any time I could spend dancing in some way was just a happy time for me.

I think that drive and that passion is really important and you can’t just pretend to like dancing, you have to really love what you’re doing. It takes a lot of time and self analysis, dedication, and a lot of hours.

Being on stage is probably the most rewarding thing for me and what most dancers aspire to do, to actually be performing in front of an audience. But the whole working process is as rewarding for me too. You know, that time you have alone where it’s just yourself with a coach or your partner. That time where you take class every day, it’s almost like being in a zone. It’s such a selfish time in a way, where you just work with yourself and your craft. And also the relationships that you forge with the different dancers when you’re working on a particular role, creating a character. I find those hours in the studio are very rewarding.

You speak a bit in your interview on the National Ballet of Canada website (above) about how you weren’t always so enthusiastic about dancing, when did that change?

Well, what drew me initially was the movement itself and that sense of freedom that I got from seeing a ballet. I loved watching a performance on stage, it looked like a completely different world. But when I started doing classes it wasn’t relayed the same way as what I thought it was going to be. So when I was five and I started I didn’t really like it.  

But I continued and it became a love that grew slowly. I knew by the time I was 12, and I say 12 because that’s when I really have the recollection of someone saying “What would you want to do when you grow up?” and I knew that this is what I was. I was a dancer. We didn’t even see it as a job. I think most dancers don’t think of their careers as a job. It is something that defines them as a person and gives them a sense of identity.

Do you spend a lot of your time touring?

I work mostly with the company. I do some guest appearances on my own too, but I’m full time with the National Ballet. They are starting to travel a little bit more now. For a period of time we weren’t touring as much, but we are starting to pick up again. Which is very nice, because a company of this talent needs to be seen. We were recently in Washington and we will be going to New York for the second time now in the last two years. Of course we’ll be coming to Ottawa and I’ll be going to Houston soon for a separate project.

What is the process for a company that’s beginning to perform a new ballet?

The repertoire decisions are made by the Artistic Director, in this case Karen Kain. She has a lot of things to consider in what a season will be like. So she works on planning new productions, new choreographies and ensuring things work well together, because you want to have a well-balanced season. And then it’ll be announced to us before the public and it’ll be cast. If it’s a production that’s been in the repertoire for a long time, like a classical piece, then you kind of know which roles you will be doing. If it’s new then the choreographer gets to know the dancers really well and chooses from there.

Now the movie Black Swan has created a bit of a terrifying reality of what it’s like to be a ballet dancer. It paints it as a very emotionally strenuous and competitive field. Do any of those stereotypes ring true to you?

I don’t think Black Swan was a movie about dancing or the ballet world per say. I kind of looked at it as a psychological thriller that revolves around the ballet world. So I felt that the world was very distorted to her view which was not a healthy view. So things portrayed in that movie didn’t really portray what my world is like. Of course, I didn’t take offense to that, because it was about her psychosis and not what the ballet world was.

It’s a very difficult style to master and I find it very taxing on the body. But there’s something about when you start doing it with the music and the character and everything comes together, it’s so magical that it just carries you through the whole production.

You spoke a bit about feeling restricted in dance in your youth but that you were eventually able to find your freedom. I’m wondering where does the line lie, or how do you take the different elements you’re given, like the choreography and the spirit of the character, and really make a performance your own?

Well, ideally you have someone who you’re working with who appreciates the individuality of each dancer and what they can bring to the role. With La Sylphide in particular, it’s a very old ballet, one of the first romantic ballets. It’s been done by many many ballerinas and each has brought something different to it. Johan was very generous in letting us bring something to the character. He was very encouraging in helping us all find our own way. He was amazing at bringing the best out in everybody. That was definitely one of Johan’s strengths.

What do you do to decompress from such a challenging lifestyle?

Dancing is a stress relief but it also brings other stresses. Like I said, I love being in the studio and getting into character and being able to express with my entire being. I find it very very rewarding.

But just the pressure of performing can get to you. My family keeps me very humble. I definitely leave work at work and deal with my life at home and my kids. Which is good, it keeps me well balanced. You have to take care of your body if you want to have a long career. Go to the gym and work on different things. You wanna look at it outside of the studio and see how you can improve. We also have a really good team of therapists and doctors at the company to take care of or prevent injuries.

What is your favourite scene in La Sylphide?

Visually I think it’s really beautiful when La Sylphide enters through the window. I think that that whole scene is just perfect, when you think of what a romantic ballet is suppose to be. I think that image just says it all. She’s entering through the window and James is kneeling at her feet. I love that scene because I know the effect that it has when you see it.

But also the whole thing is beautiful. It’s a very difficult style, very quick, boiling and jumping, but at the same time you need to look ethereal, light and effortless. It’s a very difficult style to master and I find it very taxing on the body. But there’s something about when you start doing it with the music and the character and everything comes together, it’s so magical that it just carries you through the whole production.

The relationship between the characters is beautiful, the way they touch each other, which isn’t something you see in most ballets. When you think of the two lead characters who do all this dancing but never actually get to touch each other. There’s a big contrast too when you’re watching it, because it’s a lot more earthy in the first act. Everyone is wearing character shoes except for the Sylphide. But in the second act, which is in the forest, it’s got that ethereal look to it and it’s so distant from the first act.

La Sylphide plays at the National Arts Centre from April 7-9, 2016. Tickets start at $25 and are available online or at the NAC box office.

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