This week, the National Ballet of Canada will open its stage to the dazzling display of human physicality, athleticism and passion that is Carmen. It has been four years since the company first staged the ill-fated love story as a one act. Italian choreographer David Bombana has since returned to revamp the passionate tale into a full-length ballet. Taking on the leading roles are two of the companies long-time principal dancers: Greta Hodgkinson and Piotr Stanczyk. This will be Piotr’s second time performing Carmen. For Greta, this will be her first after a leave of absence during that season for the birth of her now three-year-old son Maxime. Just two weeks into rehearsal, I got a chance to catch a pas-de-deux rehearsal with the two dancers. (Note: A rehearsal that left us exhausted from just watching!) Afterwards, as the two stretched out in a boardroom of the company’s Queen’s Quay studio, we talked about the upcoming performances of Carmen, the future of ballet and the endless days spent in studio rehearsing.
How does this experience differ from the 2009 production of ‘Carmen’?
Piotr Stanczyk: For me it is definitely easier. And because I’m doing it with Greta, it’s super easy because she’s brilliant to partner and dance with. There is no particular pattern so it is really hard to learn. You have to memorize an hour and a half of steps and they are all different.
Greta Hodgkinson: It’s always easier to do it with someone who has performed it before. I learned it [in 2009] but didn’t perform it because I was pregnant. I was kind of half learning it. I never danced it on stage, so it’s not really in my body the same way that it is for him.
This ballet is continually described as “passionate, erotic and sensual.” How do you prepare to take on a role like this?
GH: Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal.
PS: I’m just passionate and emotional.
GH: It helps to have that kind of temperament. He chose people that could really interpret those qualities in the role.
PS: It’s years and years of practicing and having access to being passionate and emotional. I don’t really have much problem coming in or out of it, I’ve just been doing this for many, many years so I’m used to just feeling it.
Would you say this is the most passionate ballet you’ve ever taken part in?
GH: No, I think there are some very passionate ballets out there. This is a different ballet because it’s very contemporary. It’s extremely physical. Like what you saw, I did a back rollover! I’ve never had to do that as a ballerina before. Even when we’re not in tutus, our most contemporary works don’t tend to be that modern.
Do you think this is where ballet is headed?
GH: Definitely. Choreographers are demanding more physicality — pushing people further, higher legs, more turns, higher jumps. It’s always that. Trying to do more than what you did before. I don’t know if it’s more modern, but I think it’s just to more extremes.
Do dance movies depict the real thing? Describe the atmosphere within the company around casting time.
PS: I’m not saying anything now…[inciting some laughter on his end, exclaiming ‘I knew this was going to happen!’]
GH: We pretty much know what we’re going to dance. We normally know what ballets we’ll be doing a year in advance.
PS: We always know.
GH: Certainly for some of the corps de ballet or some of the soloists, they might be surprised by a great opportunity. There is a girl in the corps de ballet who is understudying the role of Carmen. She’s beautiful and didn’t know she had the role when casting went up. That’s a huge opportunity.
Do you think the younger generation has enough interest in ballet?
GH: I think it’s changing and getting better. I think the younger demographic tends to gravitate towards the more modern/contemporary pieces, which always surprises me. Well maybe not in a way, because we tend to be wearing fewer pieces of clothing. It’s more edgy which I know is an attraction for a lot of people. They come to see these beautiful bodies and the physicality and the real athleticism that we have.
PS: I think the athleticism of it is really important, especially for boys, because when I was growing up that’s what pulled me towards it. Ballets like Carmen and Romeo and Juliet — where there is a lot of athletic, physical and passionate stuff will draw a lot of teenagers to come watch it.
Do you think the city in general does enough for the arts?
PS: No. I’ll rephrase that – does the province do enough for the arts? No. Does Canada? No. We are always last. The arts will always be last. That’s just the way it is, unless you are in Europe, it’s just a different mentality there.
GH: You know during the wars, when no one had any money the arts were one of the last things to be cut because that’s what people needed. They needed that escape and they needed that beauty in their lives. Now it’s the complete opposite—we’re the first thing to be cut all the time. It’s a real shame.
PS: Could you imagine how boring life would be without entertainment, without art? I think what we’re creating here is a food for the soul.
Before you get on stage, do you have specific routines or habits?
PS: Over a period of years, you sort of develop your own routine. My routine is I eat around 4:30p.m. Then I have to have a nap for an hour.
GH: Then I have to knock on the door to wake you up.
PS: Yes that is right. Then I have a shower, put on my makeup then I have an hour of warmup. That should put me just about 10 minutes before the show starts. For the last 10 minutes I go to my room and just concentrate and don’t do anything. I’ve been doing that for years now.
GH: I eat early too. Then I’m incredibly superstitious about my makeup, hair and warmup routine. I go through about 5,000 shoes that I have to try on. I then choose what pair I’m going to use for the show but then when I warmup they are usually not right. So then I have to change and I spend the rest of my time trying to figure out my shoes. For something like Swan Lake, I have about twelve pairs for one show, just sewn and ready. I only use two but the constant trial and error is exhausting.
Why so superstitious?
PS: It’s just stress.
GH: It’s how most of us just channel our nerves. I don’t really get nervous for the show, but it’s a way to control it because you can’t really control what’s going to happen on stage.
Describe what it is like working with each other.
PS: In one sentence: I just do what I’m told.
When a man partners a woman it’s all about the woman. The most important thing that we never had a problem with is the trust. Actually, a few years back, Greta came to me and said “It doesn’t matter if the partner is wrong or right, a woman has to always feel that the presence of the partner is there.” Even if I’m wrong, as long as my hands are there in a proactive way, she feels safe and she can dance.
GH: That was really smart. [She laughs]. Not every partner approaches it like that so it is much appreciated. There are always things that you are used to but because we’re both experienced and we’ve adapted that sort of learning approach where he’s listening to what I’m doing and I’m trying to respond to that, it’s pretty easy to come together.
PS: Partnering is never the same. Doesn’t matter how many years we practice, today was different than yesterday, and it’s going to be different than tomorrow. It’s how we respond to each other, how we listen to each other and these little things, we just fix them right away.
GH: That’s live art.
We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with the National Ballet of Canada and Daniel Newhaus on this project. Thank you to Daniel for creating such stunning photographs and to the NBC for inviting us into their rehearsals.