Interview with Elena Lobsanova, Principal Dancer, National Ballet of Canada


Elena Lobsanova, 31, is considered one of the finest purveyors of classical technique in the National Ballet of Canada. Born in Moscow, she immigrated with her family to Toronto when she was four. After graduating from Canada’s National Ballet School, she joined the company in 2004, and was promoted to principal dancer in 2015. Her prowess as both a classical and contemporary dancer was acclaimed when she won the prestigious Eighth International Competition for The Erik Bruhn Prize in 2009.

On March 13, 2018 she will be making her debut as Princess Aurora in Rudolf Nureyev’s much loved production of The Sleeping Beauty. The role of Aurora is considered by many balletphiles to be the quintessence of Russian imperial style classical technique. What makes this performance particularly special is that Lobsanova’s debut as Aurora was supposed to be in 2015, but she was injured just before the season opened, and never got to perform the role on stage.


What was it like being cast as Aurora in 2015?

I was very excited and deeply honoured. Nureyev had created the ballet on the company and a long line of dancers had performed in it through the years, and I was joining that line. The rehearsals were a marvellous time for me, because I had a wonderful working relationship with Karen Kain. She is so beautifully generous and spent so much time with me preparing the role. Just before opening, I tore my Achilles tendon, probably due to overuse. I was crying so hard – all that preparation and I never got to do the role on stage. I used to quip that I had done my Sleeping Beauty shows in the studio. Incidentally, I’ve since become much better at preventing injury.

How did you find out that you were performing in the 2018 revival?

I got an email telling me to report for a photo shoot for Beauty. They put me in a costume so I knew I would be performing. It was a beautiful gesture.

Aurora is regarded as one of the “must do” roles for a ballerina. Were you daunted by her many challenges when you were first cast in the part?

I wasn’t drawn to her initially, although I recognized how important she was. What finally drew my interest and made her more compelling was when I discovered that beneath the grandeur of the ballet as a whole, her character actually has growth. Aurora has three different personas – she is sweet and innocent like Juliet in the first act, as ethereal as Giselle in the second act when she appears in a vision to the prince, and finally, as a glittering technician in the third.

That’s a fascinating analysis of her character. Can you elaborate?

In the prologue, the fairies give baby Aurora the gifts of virtue, which she embodies in the first act. For example, the Rose Adigio represents chastity. She is naïve and virginal, yet vivacious as she waits for the ball to begin. In the second act her sylph-like character represents timelessness and purity. She has to be an inspiration to the prince so he will want to find her castle and awaken her. She is a spirit, a nymph – ethereal, enchanting – nothing about her is grounded. In the last act, she is maturing as a woman and a potential queen with responsibilities. The dancing is more refined. The finale is a statement piece – there is no story at the end, just a feast of showy dancing for the eyes. Taken together, the three acts display a clear stylistic growth. She has a range of temperament, and responds to people differently in each act.

Speaking of the famous Rose Adagio – just how difficult is it to balance on one point shoe, the other leg in the air, and switch hands with four different cavaliers, raising both your arms above your head in between the hand changes?

For me, the shoes are all important. If you have the right pair of shoes, balance is not a problem. The Rose Adagio is just one part of the first act. In fact, the challenge of the act as a whole is more a matter of stamina. There is a fast solo at the beginning of the act, then the Rose Adagio itself which includes dancing with the cavaliers, followed by a longer, slower solo to end the act. Incidentally, Sleeping Beauty is filled with crazy balances.

Could you explain what you mean by the right shoes?

I use Freed of London. Because they are handmade, they are not that durable and break down faster, but they look better on stage. They are also more flexible, but this means there is more to control. It’s the way you use the shoes, work them in, break them down, that determines how you execute technique. The shoes I wear are sensitive. They adapt to my dynamic. I treat my shoes like pieces of art.

Do you generally approach story-telling ballets through character?

Yes. I have to find something that is definite, a hook I can grab on to, so I always do a detailed analysis of a role, even though it takes time. I’m lucky to be around people like Karen Kain and Evelyn Hart and the répéteurs – people who think the way I do. I ask a lot of questions and do research online. Ballet is dead without character or story, which is the reason for technique to be there. Technique is a statement of character.

What is your actual working process?

I learn the steps first, then rehearse in costume. I then add on other layers like how I should acknowledge the other characters on stage, or recognize what signals the music is sending.

What’s the greatest challenge for you in performing Princess Aurora?

In the second act vision scene there are three sets of diagonal bourrées followed by two turns in arabesque and a double turn in attitude. That combination drives me crazy because it is so technical and mechanical, and is quite gruelling out of context. On stage, it is much easier because you hear the music and you’re your body is compelled to keep going, to tell a story, so there is meaning in the moves. The vision of Aurora is calling to the prince to rescue her. (Note: bourré is a series of tiny steps on point; arabesque is balancing on one foot, with the raised leg behind in a straight line; attitude is balancing on one foot with the raised leg behind with a bent knee.)

Your partner as Prince Florimond is Naoya Ebe. Have you performed with him before?

We danced together in Giselle and La Sylphide, so we’re used to each another. I like the quiet power in him as a dancer.

How would you characterize Sleeping Beauty as a whole?

 It is a ballet of many details, lavish in nature with a richness of choreography. Nothing is gratuitous in the ballet. I’ve found that there is a lot of subtext going on, that the mechanics of technique all mean something. Overall it is really lovely dancing.

Do you think that the company has changed during your years in the National?

Yes. The dancers are much more solid in terms of technique.

How would you describe your own personal philosophy of dance?

I would say that I’m most interested in my personal development. I have my own work ethic with my own standards of technique and artistic ability. My motto is that I need to become better every day. Initially, when I joined the company, I felt empty. I felt that there had to be more than just artifice. When I decided that my life’s work was self-improvement, it was the spark that gave dance meaning. I realized that it was up to me to find a way of working, to focus, to create art, to tell a story, to speak a language. I’m happiest when I’m working my ass off.

Is there any dancer you particularly admire?

The Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru who is a principal with the English National Ballet. I watch her videos and say to myself, “That’s ballet!” She is more than just empty mechanics. She makes ballet a language that speaks.

(Elena Lobsanova performs the role of Princess Aurora on Mar. 13. The National Ballet of Canada’s production of Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Mar. 17.)















Dance Review – Kevin O’Day’s Hamlet

Given the fact that ballet audiences are notoriously conservative, Karen Kain has taken a huge chance on Kevin O’Day’s Hamlet. In particular, composer John King’s original score is of the snap, crackle and pop variety, much like Thom Willems’ music for William Forsythe. The choreography is relentlessly contemporary ballet, filled with flexed feet and angular arms. Nonetheless, the opening night audience seemed to be exceedingly positive, especially toward Guillaume Côté in the title role.

O’Day is American so Hamlet must have been on his high school curriculum somewhere. On the other hand, he did dance with Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet, and since 2002, he’s been artistic director of Mannheim’s National Theatre Ballet so he will have soaked up German influences. In fact, this work was created for Stuttgart Ballet in 2008, a home for contemporary ballet on the edge if ever there was.

I deliberately did not read the scenario, waiting to see how the ballet would unfold – in other words, to find out how well-defined a storyteller O’Day is. His Hamlet shows that he clearly knows Shakespeare’s characters and their relationships. There is no revisionism when it comes to the conversion of the tragedy to dance. To get around the band of actors, he cleverly transforms the troupe into Two Travelling Dancers (Elena Lobsanova and Dylan Tedaldi) to re-enact the story of the murder of Hamlet’s father.

One other innovation is the eight-member corps de ballet who when they are not courtiers, don veils over their faces to become omens of death, or furies within Hamlet’s conscience, or agents to spur on revenge, or symbols of tragedy. Their impact is too little, too late, and they are a weak link in terms of theatrical effects. For example, during the final duel scene, they form a clump on the upper gallery and perform a slow march the length of the tier while Hamlet and Laertes (McGee Maddox) are engaged in a life and death struggle below. At first they are distracting, and then they become invisible as one’s attention focuses on the fight.

As for the choreography, O’Day (whom himself was a star with Twyla Tharp and well-acquainted with her choreographic challenges), has created a bravura role in Hamlet. Any male dancer is going to look like a stand-out given the physical twists and turns he must negotiate. There are three long solos that are all a gymnastic/acrobatic tour de force. O’Day seems to love slow lunges and elongated stretches that lead into fast turns and showy jumps. Out-thrust limbs propel the body in multi-directions, asking the dancer to bend like a contortionist. Côté has the technique to pull the choreography off smartly and the acting skills to nuance character. For example, his first solo is almost that of a spoiled brat having a tantrum, sitting by his father’s grave, hugging his knees, and then letting his arms and legs flay about. His rage is palpable – he is a man torn between duty and will.

The partnering looks dangerous which is always a crowd pleaser. In Hamlet’s pas de deux with Ophelia (Heather Ogden), the poor girl is lifted overhead with split legs, to fall upside down – a favourite manoeuvre of O’Day’s to the point of excess repetition. Yet O’Day is able to build in emotional differences. A tender first duet with Ophelia, followed by one of Hamlet’s rejection when he feels she has betrayed him as a spy for her father Polonius (Jonathan Renna) and his uncle Claudius (Jiri Jelinek). With Gertrude (Stephanie Hutchison), there is warmth between mother and son, albeit strained. The dances between Gertrude and Claudius, on the other hand, are brimming with sexual undercurrents.

O’Day has also created two showy roles for both Claudius and Laertes, and in both Jelinek and Maddox, he has exceptional dancers. Jelinek is sophisticated and sexy, and cuts a commanding figure on the stage. He radiates control and O’Day has given Claudius strong, bold moves to reinforce that persona. Maddox’s Laertes has all the exuberance of youth with superfast spins and jumps. Yet his grief over the death of both father and sister rings true. Both dancers are also excellent actors.

Ogden is a strong technical dancer, yet she manages to submerge her strength in Ophelia’s frailty, which is not an easy thing to do. O’Day has her execute some strange things, such as punch her head into Hamlet’s stomach in the rejection pas de deux, which we take to be her desperation to find his love again. She is certainly tossed about by Hamlet, both in affection and rejection, with overhead cartwheels and awkward flexes in her body, but she radiates vulnerability throughout. Her suicide scene is quite poignant.

Hutchison’s Gertrude shows the woman’s weaknesses, attempting to walk that fine line between lust for Claudius and mother’s love for Hamlet. Her choreography is reactive, a feather in the wind, giving in to both lover and son. Hutchison has always been a very intelligent dancer, and she once again shows her ability to understand what is required of her in terms of Gertrude’s personality.

Horatio (Brendan Saye) is an interesting role. He has to show a strong presence as Hamlet’s companion, plus perform the final solo of the ballet which could be anticlimactic. Saye is certainly someone to watch. He seems to be a dancing actor of keen intelligence as well as possessing a flawless technique. Horatio’s choreography is one of formality and correctness, but Saye is never stiff. His Horatio is eloquent in his concern for his friend, and after Hamlet’s death, noble in his grief.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Robert Stephen and Christopher Stalzer) are the fun roles, full of spice and vinegar – jokesters of a dangerous type. Renna’s Polonius is upright and correct, yet always in the moment. As for the Two Travelling Dancers, they have to be sprightly, energetic and very technical which Lobsanova and Tedaldi are. Tedaldi is another one to watch. Kevin D. Bowles has fun drumming bone on skull as the comic relief Gravedigger, and it’s nice to see Peter Ottmann on stage as the stately Osric, the referee of the Hamlet/Laertes duel.

Tatyana van Walsum’s set is very stark. The lower walls are a burnt orange, while the stage itself is surrounded by a meshed upper gallery accessed by two steel staircases. Both the upper tier and the lower stage have concealed doors in the blackness. O’Day has elected to place various characters in the upper gloom to foretell of things to come, like Polonius and Claudius spying on Hamlet. Or else they are dimly lit behind one of the upper doors as a symbol of doom. In fact, I find Mark Stanley’s lighting design too dark over all, and I doubt if audiences in the fifth ring are going to be able to see specific staging details. There are also two exceedingly ugly drops, a see-through puce green scrim at the front, and a clearer-coloured one at the back. Both have some weird kind of design that look like cow hide colouring. If there is some kind of design symbolism, it eludes me.

As for van Walsum’s costumes, she has opted for a smart contemporary look. Hamlet, of course, is in black, with a very attractive mesh sweater top and slightly baggy trousers. The other men wear much the same design but in different colours. The women are in short dresses or skirts. I do have one complaint, however. Claudius’ burnt orange costume is similar to the colour worn by Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. I realize it shows they are on the same side, but it means that Claudius loses his distinctive presence on stage, while Laertes’ gray and Horatio’s blue stand-out amid the crowd.

As for King’s score, which is part recorded and part live, it mostly comes in short bursts of electronica sounds, or brief spurts of orchestral chords. One does begin to feel over time that it would be nice to have a flow, a continuum, a run of music, no matter how dissonant the noise. It feels that the music never gets really started before it stops. Conductor David Briskin comes up to the plate in pulling the live and recorded forces together. One of the trombonists gets a special bow for, presumably, his blasts on the horn. The best part of the score is the disco beat of the court party when the Two Travelling Dancers appear.

So, on a first go round, how does Hamlet fare? The ballet has some great roles, particularly for the men. It’s a North American premiere which makes it unique to the National on this side of the Atlantic. While Hamlet has eye-catching, edgy choreography, it does, unfortunately, suffer from repetition, especially in the first act. One can, however, live with the score because the choreography is relatively strong. More to the point, Hamlet shows off the company well. It should have a shelf life because it does demand repeated viewings, which is always a good sign. I left wanting to see Hamlet a second time (as opposed to never again).

Hamlet, National Ballet of Canada, choreographed by Kevin O’Day, Four Seasons Centre, Jun. 1 to 10, 2012.