June 2005  | This Issue


The Definition
of Ballerina:
Part One

For Part Two Click Here


hat is a ballerina? Is a dancer with a major ballet company a ballerina by association? Are only principal dancers ballerinas? Is it their technique? Their musicality? The proportions of their body? Or is it a mysterious je ne sais quoi that cannot be taught? In a recent conversation with Lorena Feijoo, Cuban born principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet, we talked about how one knows that the dancer on stage, whether male or female, is truly an artist. "I can sit in the audience," she said, her long narrow fingers constantly moving to emphasize her words, "and when somebody comes out, they don't even have to dance. It's just their presence. Either I go with them and I am caught in their magnetism or they could have the most beautiful extensions and bore me to death."

Describing her experience working with former Kirov and American Ballet Theatre dancer and choreographer Natalia Makarova on the re -staging of 'Paquita,'  Feijoo elaborated: "For me there is a big difference between a great dancer and a ballerina. And this woman is a ballerina. Every rehearsal was great. Just the pleasure of seeing a ballerina in front of me and having her tell me what each step meant to her." When Makarova demonstrated what she sought from Feijoo in her performances of the 19th century masterpiece, Feijoo felt an awesome responsibility to live up to the standard set by the world-renowned Russian star. Makarova's criticisms also brought her to tears. "She would have four corrections for one step. At times I wanted to run from the room. But the pleasure of watching her took me back to my roots. That's the way we used to rehearse in Cuba. Very calm. We would go through it step-by-step, truly through each one."  

Feijoo's early training began earlier than most: it could be said that her exposure to the classical ballet repertoire began before she was born. Her mother, Lupe Calzadilla, took a brief respite from her performances with Nacional Ballet de Cuba to give birth to Lorena. Soon back to work, the wardrobe mistresses held the baby girl while her mother performed 'Swan Lake.' When she finally reached the mandatory minimum age of nine, Feijoo took the physical examination and enthusiastically joined the ballet school in Havana. Children are not encouraged to begin younger than nine years old because, Feijoo explained with a conspiratorial smile, "they just want to jump around, pretend and improvise." Instead of having fun, the beginning students at the Alejo Carpentier National Ballet School are taught to hold each position for sixteen counts with the arms just so. This requires taut attention, something that is rare even in nine-year-olds.  

Arriving for classes at seven in the morning, the students studied not only ballet but piano, music comprehension, French vocabulary, Cuban folkloric dances, salon dances and improvisation. They would break for lunch at two o'clock and walk a few blocks to the academic school where they studied the regular curriculum of math, science, literature and languages.  

When she reminisces about growing up in Cuba, Feijoo's smile turns sad. She misses her country, her family, her friends, the music, the rhythms, the way people live and the way they celebrate. She worked hard but also enjoyed a childhood like many others. Most of all, she loved going to the beach and spending long hours reading great books in her pajamas. "On the weekends while my sister [Boston Ballet principal dancer Lorna Feijoo] played with her friends, my mother would complain to me, 'You just changed from one pair of pajamas into another!'"  

Any rest she captured on the weekends was well-deserved. During the week in the evenings after spending twelve hours between the two schools, the aspiring young dancer would go to the studios at the Garcia Lorca Theatre in Central Havana and rehearse for an upcoming competition.  Feijoo believes that her deep sense of commitment comes from her Latin roots. "Cuban people are so passionate about whatever they do. We are very driven people. We just set goals and, whatever they are, we go forward to them like a horse wearing blinders ."  She laughed and threw her head back against the high-backed chair.  

Lorena Feijoo in Tomasson's Giselle. Photo-Andrea Flores

On the afternoon that we met she had just seen a therapist for a pain deep in her hip. It was a Wednesday and she had to give several more performances that week before jumping on a plane to New York where she was scheduled to dance the pas de deux from 'Don Quixote' at a gala. She is smaller than I expected. Her presence on stage is enormous; she eclipses everyone around her.  

Her earliest goal was to join the Nacional Ballet de Cuba and dance on the same stage, in the same repertoire, as her mother. She accomplished this goal in her teens and by twenty already felt stifled by the limited repertoire and the artistic decisions made by the company's ultimate authority: Alicia Alonso. "I was dating someone at that time who was older than me and he decided to leave Cuba. I was thinking about it, too." The difficulty of a decision she made nearly fifteen years ago registers on her face. Her dark eyes lose focus and she stares into the distance.  "At that time the company still had a lot of the older, original dancers. Alicia Alonso would give me some chances -- she would give me some principal roles -- and then suddenly I would do a lot of corps de ballet. And I didn't know how long these ballerinas, who I greatly admired, were going to be there. I wanted to have my life. I wanted to do other contemporary work and be a little more in touch with what was going on in the world."

Until that point her only exposure to other dance companies was through the biannual International Dance Festival of Havana. "A lot of great dancers and choreographers go to Cuba to donate their work. They don't receive a penny," Feijoo remembers. "But I think they love working with the dancers of the Nacional Ballet de Cuba and it's a famous festival so they get to show their work. I met a lot of choreographers there. One of them was Ann Marie D'Angelo who was a well-known ballerina. She eventually became the Assistant Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet after she had danced with them for a very long time. She loved working with the Cuban dancers. She first started going to those festivals with her own group and they would do the most amazing things. Very contemporary. In Cuba the repertoire is traditional , classical ballet. That has always been their strength. So when I saw something so contemporary on stage it was, for me, very surprising. I remember thinking, 'Oh my god, look at what you can do even with classical technique.'"   

The synergy created by these festivals brought American choreographer Ann Marie D'Angelo back year after year. In the beginning she would bring her own dancers but eventually she decided to use Cuban dancers. Feijoo delights in the joy of these early experiences.  "I was lucky enough not only to be chosen to dance in her choreography but to dance with her on stage. She was an excellent dancer. When I first saw her dance I was mesmerized. One of the pieces she created was just a trio. It was me and a guy who was a principal dancer and her. I was so young and so thrilled to be chosen to dance with her on stage. I remember the audience doing standing ovations, four or five curtains at the Garcia Lorca Theatre. It was a hit! People in Cuba always welcome the contemporary works because we don't see them a lot."

As much as she felt the attraction of the potentially infinite creativity offered by choreographers outside of Cuba, Feijoo remains staunchly grateful to the education and training she received in Cuba and still favors the full-length classical ballets such as 'Giselle' and 'Romeo and Juliet.' "I have always appreciated what I learned in Cuba. Especially now when we don't have time for anything. They say 'Giselle' and we have to put it together in a week. I can do this because of what I learned there. My training engrained in me a style that is not only technique but a real focus on the details. For me it was fascinating to see Alicia Alonso give the same importance to the mime as to the dance steps."

When Feijoo danced 'Giselle' during San Francisco Ballet's 2005 season, her detailed interpretation was startlingly different from those offered by the other dancers. The betrayal she portrayed when Giselle realizes her lover has lied to her was not suffered in solitude. In the famous Mad Scene, she ran through the crowd of townspeople grabbing one after another as if begging them to tell her it wasn't true. Her desperation and her insistence on the magnitude of this tragedy pulled everyone on the stage and the entire audience into her fatal panic. When the curtain fell after Giselle had stabbed herself with her fiancé's sword, the audience was so shaken with emotion they remained silent and motionless, unable to break the spell of Feijoo's performance.  

In Act II Giselle returns to the stage in the afterlife to join the Wilis, all of whom are broken-hearted maidens who died of grief. Feijoo's immovable and expressionless face was a haunting contrast to Giselle's youthful exuberance at the opening of Act I. But there was much more to her performance. "In the first part of the variation the Wilis are ethereal beings that are almost not present. Think of cloudy weather when your eyes cannot totally focus or as if you were watching through white gauze. Then, by the second phrase it has to completely change. The dancers each tell Giselle the story of how they died. For example, the first one, she died by throwing herself from a cliff. The other one, who does the turns, she died in a whirlpool. These details make the story so interesting. So rich."

Lorena Feijoo and Yuri Possokhov in Tomasson's Giselle. Photo-Andrea Flores

She continues with her memories about Alicia Alonso, "Alicia would always be so picky. It didn't matter how many prizes you won. It didn't matter how ready technically you were. It didn't matter how people would see you as a young dancer and think that you were very talented. It mattered that you understood the role. Those were tough things then because I just wanted to get out there and dance for the audience. But, now, I appreciate them so much. I feel that I was very lucky. I feel like people who are already here [at San Francisco Ballet] who are not necessarily so young, they never had the opportunity to go into those details. They didn't have people transmit the tradition as they do in Cuba."  

Somehow she must have known that leaving Cuba would not mean an end to dancing her beloved romantic roles. In fact, it was her friend Ann Marie D'Angelo who offered her a first opportunity outside of Cuba. D'Angelo was now the director of the Mexican company Monterrey Ballet where she had hired former American Ballet Theatre stars Melissa Hayden, Cynthia Gregory and Cuban-born Fernando Bujones. One of the first roles she gave to Feijoo was 'Swan Lake', which she danced with Bujones.  

After leaping from Cuba to Mexico, she didn't stop there. A friend who was dancing with the Royal Ballet of Flanders called to say the director was looking for a 'Giselle' and would Lorena like to come to Belgium. That phone call began a four-year period in which she flew back and forth between Mexico and Belgium, dancing both repertoires and speaking both Spanish and French. All the while, various American dancers would whisper a little English in her ear: "Why don't you come to America? You would have a great career there!"  

It was another former American Ballet Theatre dancer who finally got her to come to the United States. John Clifford brought together a group of dancers from all over the world including Cuba, Paris Opéra, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet. "We were all there for two months. It would have been an amazing company. The best quality dancers were there. Very mixed and beautiful dancers but something happened with the financial situation. We were there for two months and nothing happened."  

But something had happened. She had entered the United States with an artistic contract that enabled her to remain on friendly terms with the Cuban government. With this contract, her work was officially sanctioned by the Cuban Ministry of Culture and she did not have to defect. "So many artists don't have this choice," she said looking down at her resting hands. "I couldn't renounce my family and friends. It would have broken my heart. I could not see myself doing that and never going back to Cuba."  

When the opportunity to dance with John Clifford evaporated her friend Ann Marie D'Angelo appeared once again. Now Assistant Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet, D'Angelo encouraged Feijoo to join the company as a principal dancer.  

She joined the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and danced the contemporary repertoire until after four years she grew tired of it. D'Angelo had left and there was no one on the artistic staff pushing for new work. Feijoo felt that the company was stuck in the repetition of work that had once been ground-breaking but was no longer.

She sought change and made two telephone calls: one to Kevin McKenzie at American Ballet Theatre and the other to Helgi Tomasson at San Francisco Ballet.  

To be continued next month…more of Lorena Feijoo's thoughts about her San Francisco performances of works by George Balanchine, Yuri Possokhov, Val  Caniporoli and others as well as her soon-to-be released film with Andy Garcia, "The Lost City."  


Cover Photo: Lorena Feijoo in Possokhov's Study In Motion Photo-Erik Tomasson

For Part Two of This Article Click Here

©2005 Catherine Conway Honig
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Catherine Conway Honig lives
in the San Francisco Bay Area

For more articles  by Catherine Conway Honig, check the Archives

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