Elena lobsanova as juliet
Recalls Mavis Staines, artistic director of the National Ballet School where Lobsanova trained for nine years, “One always felt Elena had been on this planet before and that she’d been a ballerina.”
Born in Moscow, Elena Lobsanova’s microbiologist father moved the family to Toronto in 1991, and still she speaks to her family in Russian. Although she never studied ballet in Russia, her instinct to move and fill a room was instantaneous, as was her mathematical fascination for the craft.
Now, this extraordinary athlete lends her emotional ability and technical poignancy to the title role in Romeo and Juliet, on stage at the Four Seasons Centre from June 20-22. Madison Schill, former model, writer and ballet dancer herself, sat down with Elena to discuss collaboration, physics, and those virtuoso beats.
INTERVIEW BY MADISON SCHILL | PHOTOGRAPHY BY DANIEL NEUHAUS
Madison Schill: Do you remember the moment you fell in love with ballet? Was it an immediate pull, or did you slowly become wooed by the sport?
Elena Lobsanova: There were two moments for me, and both involved my sister. We were very close growing up, and always musical, artistic, creative…constantly producing something. One thing, the visual side, emerged as she showed me a black and white photo of a dancer in arabesque. I don’t think I could speak yet, I was maybe two years old but I remember being fascinated by the lines of her arms, legs; the pure physics of it. It is so mathematical and this image of physics caught in a moment. On the physical side, I knew ballet was for me when my sister would play the piano when we were home alone. Immediately, I had the instinct to fill space. I think my body always knew what ballet was, even before I knew its name. I took naturally to the discipline, my dad had gone to the military and I felt that I identified with the efficiency of discipline.
MS: What was it like working with Karen Kain so early on in your schooling? How did your role as Odette shape you?
EL: It took us nine months to put that ballet together, and that was the working period we had at school. I was particularly slow; I couldn’t pick up the material as fast and I hadn’t had much experience of this type. I could feel that something was missing, I was lacking a sense of direction and connection with my body. When she came, she was very strict, which was good; the discipline helped me forget my ego, forget pain, and to begin working to a common goal.
MS: She also selected you to represent the school in 2009’s Erik Bruhn competition, where you won the female prize.
EL: Competition became an honorary thing for me. Mentally, I’d already prepared myself 6 months before the competition. [When Karen told me,] I was already studying in Banff for the summer, and although this competition was a particularly special one, it could have been anything. I always tell myself, “Pretend like the show is tomorrow.” Whether it’s Odette, [the competition], or anything, it could happen tomorrow and [I tell myself] I should always be ready.
MS: That’s a lot of pressure. Did Banff help ease that?
EL: Banff was such good training for me. We had done some Balanchine pieces, Divertimento Number 15 particularly, and even though it was really technical, I felt incredibly comfortable. Every spare moment in Banff, I was working: trying to perfect a movement, a turn and the physics of these movements. My comfort in crafting these things definitely propelled my work ethic in that time. I always felt I needed to meet my personal standard, and this created a sense of nervousness for me when I danced around other company members. The intimacy of Banff helped remove that awkwardness for me, and allowed me to work on my technique.
MS: How many pairs of pointe shoes do you go through in a show/month?
EL: I used to go through three pairs a day, actually. For shows it depends on the role, but my coach Magda has really upped my confidence dancing in “dead” shoes. Even if they’re dead, you can always lift out of them. As long as you do the technique right, you can make anything work.
MS: It’s all about the lift! Aside from technique, you’re universally praised for your emotion and connections to the roles you play. How, and where, do you draw this from?
EL: It’s inside. I’ve always been fascinated by literature, and I think it’s so important to read into characters and delve into that world. It’s so beautiful how introspective writers can be, in how they portray their own characters. Once you read enough, you take with you this different world and I’ve fallen in love with [Romeo and Juliet] in particular. I’m very empathetic. I really, really don’t want to betray them and their story. Basically [Elena laughs], I like to forget myself. I want to get rid of my ego and tell their tale.
MS: This is your sixth time playing the role of Juliet. What do you hope to do differently?
EL: I still have the same feelings about her, the same ideas. These ideas, I think, correspond really well with everyone else’s, too. We’ve been rehearsing so much lately that I really want to integrate this consistency; I feel like recently the collaboration has been splendid. Sometimes the collaboration and the ideas behind things can be so inconsistent, which is quite frustrating. Now, I can’t wait to get on stage.
MS: Juliet is an integral part of the ballet, but of course, she’s only half of the story. What is the process like as you bond with your partner? Is it hard to let these connections go after the shows are over?
EL: At the end of a production, it’s quite cathartic. You truly feel like you’ve lived an entire life, and the music, it dictates the span of that life. And then your portrayal, the choreography, the connections, they’re little details that bring to life the complexity of that role. At the end you can’t help but experience this huge cathartic moment.
MS: Is that taxing, does it take a toll?
EL: But again…I’m not me during this time, so I don’t feel bad. And [Guillaume Coté], he’s not him either, hopefully. So, you’re bringing so much to everyone else, you give so much because it’s not you, it’s more than you. It’s so powerful because it’s not you! I wouldn’t be able to, be myself, my ego is not powerful enough to connect with the audience and resonate so strongly. I’m using the portrayal of this woman. For me it’s like my friend was there, somebody completely non-existent, and I just felt it.
MS: Almost like a really beautiful form of multiple personality?
EL: [Laughs] That’s right! It’s more like you empathize with a person so much that you create this persona, and they’re really connected with that partner. But that’s all left on stage, that’s left with the audience. And then you find your own ego again.
MS: I’ve never thought of it in such a beautiful way.
EL: Yes! You also learn so much from that person, because you can’t really learn a lot from yourself, right?
MS: What has Juliet taught you?
EL: Well, she would give up her whole life for this one person, so in a way, it’s taught me that we’re very little until you respect somebody else. And once you respect somebody else, or love somebody else fully, and are generous fully with somebody else (with anybody, friends, colleagues… just anybody) .it can be magnificent. Generosity in general is what she’s taught me.
Catch Elena in Romeo and Juliet, running June 20-22, 2014. Tickets on sale here.