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People love to discover new talent, but mature talent is exciting too. However, it’s often said that just when a dancer reaches her peak of artistry, her body starts to give way. Here we profile three great ballerinas who have been around the block and are still in top form, physically and artistically: Leanne Benjamin of The Royal Ballet, Larissa Ponomarenko of Boston Ballet, and Julie Kent of American Ballet Theatre.
Light as thistledown, forceful in dramatic roles, at 45 years of age, Leanne Benjamin is still at the peak of her career. A principal with The Royal Ballet for almost all of the 17 years she’s been with the company, the petite (5'2"and pencil-slim) Australian ballerina has danced nearly every leading role in the classical repertory. She has received praise for her finesse and dainty detailing, but she has more to offer than pretty tutu-and-tiara princess roles. She seems born to create the fiery and often unsavory characters of 20th-century choreographers, roles that demand incredible strength and dramatic skill. The passing years have dulled none of her physical abilities—in fact she seems to get better and better.
Benjamin attended the Royal Ballet School and joined Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet). She later danced with London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) and Berlin’s Deutsche Oper Ballet, where Kenneth MacMillan was guest choreographer. She danced in his Distant Drummer and, in 1992, followed his suggestion to return to England and joined The Royal Ballet.
She feels that it is her enthusiasm and positive attitude that has kept her vital. “I have energy and rarely come to the theater with a heavy heart,” she says. “You have to leave all your problems outside the studios and forget yourself. Discipline is the big word with me. I very rarely miss daily class.” Even after her son was born six years ago, she returned to the studio three months later to work with Wayne McGregor, “who immediately had me turning myself inside out!” It’s helpful that she has a naturally flexible body.
At this stage of her career, Benjamin, who has guested with Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, has cut down on the big ballets such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, but she still dances Giselle. “Keeping the classical technique going is good for me,” she says, laughing. “I feel happier in flowing garments than in a tutu these days, though I danced The Firebird with Johnny [Jonathan Cope] in Hamburg this summer. I think it is the hardest ballet of all. There is so much jumping and using the arms at the same time with birdlike movements.”
Her great love is doing new works. She has been, and still is, sought by choreographers like McGregor, Kim Brandstrup, and Christopher Wheeldon to enrich their creations. These works demand the “impossibles” of technique, going at top speed, wrenching her off-kilter, overextending her long legs. Yet, matched against some of the finest younger members of the company, she excels, making it all appear effortless.
And she admits, “I love the darker characters. They are so much more interesting and realistic.” She has danced many of MacMillan’s ballets in which the heroines must express dark psychological elements, along with convoluted athleticism. Benjamin is always convincing in both dancing and acting, whether she is partnering Carlos Acosta in MacMillan’s Mayerling, or Johan Kobborg in Manon.
“I don’t do much guesting,” she ends, “so I give a lot of myself here at Royal Ballet. And, as I have a child, I enjoy being at home.” —Margaret Willis
My Approach Take care of yourself. You spend so much time stuck in the studio each day doing physical things that it’s important to have other interests. Watch “normal” people—you never know when you could use some of the movements you see for your own characterizations.
Body Smarts It’s all about discipline, discipline, discipline. The warm-up is so important, so make time before class; don’t arrive at the last moment. Use class to improve, not solely to get the body moving. I love to do Pilates beforehand—but not on performance day!
Regrets Sometimes we’re not suited to certain roles no matter how much we would like to dance them. I wanted to do Onegin so much, but was never chosen! It can seem unfair when “your” roles go to others. But you have to remember that there are other things for the company to consider, such as box office receipts. So don’t get disappointed.
Advice Don’t be discouraged if a teacher tells you that you are not suited for dance. Remember that Darcey Bussell was told she was too tall for ballet! Get another opinion and have faith in yourself. Be organized and have a happy balance—a life away from ballet. Don’t be bored—I am surprised how many young people come to work with blank faces, no enthusiasm or motivation for the daily rituals. Each day I try to push myself that little bit more.
Like a friend who reveals herself gradually, Boston Ballet’s Larissa Ponomarenko has shown us the hues and shapes of her talent over a 16-year period. We’ve grown to know her as the doomed heroine of a story ballet, the precisely stepping lead in a Balanchine work, or the hard-edged, gender-less performer, charging through the modern works. Outlasting two artistic directors (Bruce Marks, who hired her, and Anna-Marie Holmes), she has continued to be a favorite of artistic director Mikko Nissinen since his arrival in 2001.
Ponomarenko’s roles for Boston Ballet’s opening gala last September proved again her value. She appeared first in a character solo from The Little Humpbacked Horse, a 1960 Soviet ballet by Aleksandr Radunksy. Pert and assured on her pointes, with proper flourish of gestures emphasizing the choreography’s folk-dance origins, she looked every bit the product of her Russian classical training. The jolt of surprise came in her next appearance as one of six scantily clad, sexually charged women partnering one of the sword-slashing men in Jirí Kylián’s mysterious Petite Mort.
Born in Ukraine, Ponomarenko entered the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg at the age of 10. “I had to live apart from my family, in school dormitories for eight years, only returning home in the summers,” she recalls. At graduation she turned down the Kirov’s invitation in favor of Ukraine’s Donetsk Ballet Company. Her personal coach, the late Ninel Kurgapkina, thought she’d be stuck at the Kirov in roles like Little Swans or Red Riding Hood because of her small stature. Besides, Ponomarenko had met Viktor Plotnikov, two years her senior, when he studied at the school. Now her husband of 17 years, he had left St. Petersburg to join the Donetsk company. The couple immigrated to the United States after the Donetsk troupe toured here in 1990. They danced with Ballet Mississippi for two years and Tulsa Ballet for a year, before coming to Boston.
Ponomarenko, now 39, joined Boston in 1993, and during her first season she danced leads in The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and Onegin. Twyla Tharp chose Plotnikov for the company’s premiere of In the Upper Room but not Ponomarenko. Set on proving her versatility, Ponomarenko asked permission to watch rehearsals from a corner of the studio to learn the roles on her own.
“I knew Russian dancers did not have a good reputation for contemporary ballets. We never had things like jazz classes,” she says. “In the next season, the injuries started all around me. I wound up performing two different roles.”
Since then Ponomarenko has had a full plate in every style. She’s been a first choice of Jorma Elo, Boston Ballet’s resident choreographer, and cast by many others. For Elo, she has twirled through impossible postures and even spoken onstage in Russian as the tortured woman in Brake the Eyes (2007)—one of her most startling appearances.
Ponomarenko has had a couple of career-interrupting injuries: an undiagnosed back problem that kept her out for four months, and, later, a six-month absence to heal a broken metatarsal. But each time she has recovered with the help of massage, Pilates, acupuncture, and water therapy. She also credits her husband for the back-to-basics classes he gives her at home. “I couldn’t ask for a better personal trainer!” she exclaims.
“I’ve been thinking about retiring but everyone tells me ‘No!’ Now I feel more enjoyment with my dancing. I’ll take it day by day, step by step. I’ll stay vigilant.” —Iris Fanger
My Approach I’m pretty good at analyzing why things work in a ballet. I work with a mirror, almost like a sculptor with stone and a chisel, in slow motion, going from pose to pose. I’m a very hard worker.
Body Smarts You have to manage your body, treat your body as an instrument. I swim a lot, take massages. I have to have enough greens and vegetables. I love avocado for energy, and pasta.
Regrets Sometimes I regret that I didn’t make a bigger name for myself. But I prefer a walk by the sea or in the forest, instead of calling managers for more bookings.
Advice Stay true to your heart. Be conscious every minute, and be present. Life can end anytime.
Last October during American Ballet Theatre’s Avery Fisher Hall season, Julie Kent was one of six dancers to premiere Alexei Ratmansky’s new ballet Seven Sonatas. Kent, as usual, was in superior form—technically dynamic and physically stunning. Her long ballerina limbs, feet that arch high up on her ankle, and a classically beautiful face accentuated the piece’s lyrical movements. The surprising part? Just that summer, Kent, 40, had given birth to her second child, a baby girl.
This year marks Kent’s 24th with ABT. And while she is known the world over as a great artist and exceptional ballerina, her enduring success is not only the result of that talent. Kent has an unfailing work ethic, a steely personal strength, and smarts, both intellectual and instinctual.
It was Mikhail Baryshnikov who first spotted Kent and hired her as an ABT apprentice in 1985. She had previously trained with Hortensia Fonseca at the Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet (spending summers at the School of American Ballet and American Ballet Theatre II). In 1986, she was the only American to medal at the Prix de Lausanne and she joined the corps of ABT that same year. In 1987 she got one of her biggest breaks. She starred as the ingénue in the movie Dancers, with Baryshnikov and Alessandra Ferri, making her a household name in the dance world.
While the attention could have gone to her head, it didn’t. Kent continued to work consistently at ABT, with few injuries, while shining in every role she was given. Even at a young age, she was respectful to those around her, reliable, and disciplined—and she never missed class.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a terribly disciplined person because discipline is doing something when you don’t feel like doing it,” Kent says with a chuckle. “All my years in the studio and in class, I enjoy it. I enjoy being around my friends and colleagues, the atmosphere. It is so much a part of my life.”
Today Kent is celebrated as a great dramatic ballerina. Whether it’s as Giselle, Hagar in Tudor’s Pillar of Fire, or Juliet in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, she comes onto the stage and you instantly believe her. She’s got that special larger-than-life quality that allows her to project to the back of any opera house.
What’s more, Kent’s unmannered technique is the perfect conduit for the varied choreographers in ABT’s repertory, including Balanchine, Kudelka, and Kylián. No detail is too small for her—from the style of the ports de bras down to the way she does her hair and make-up for each particular role.
She says she learned about performing (and staying power) from the legends who surrounded her as she progressed. “Having had the opportunity to watch dancers like Baryshnikov, Natasha Makarova, Cynthia Gregory, and Martine van Hamel up close,” says Kent, “I was able to learn a lot.”
Today, Kent has not slowed down at all. She continues to dance a full season with ABT and guest all over the world. In ABT’s company premiere of John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias this May, Kent will dance the leading role of Marguerite on opening night. The role requires great technical ability as well as tremendous acting chops and artistry—a perfect fit for Kent.
“For me, the key is continuing to make a contribution: to your audience by giving performances that inspire or touch them, and to your company as a fellow dancer, a role model, mentor, and also doing whatever it takes to help insure its continuation,” Kent says. “So it’s not just me wanting to be on the stage for as long as I can. It’s bigger than that. I still feel like I have something to contribute to my company and to the dance world.” —Kate Lydon
My Approach The first thing is being able to dance physically. That comes with taking good care of your body and following your instincts about when to push and when, if you’re pushing against a brick wall, to back off.
Body Smarts After I had my son William I started taking Pilates, and that made a big difference in my body. I had tried it in years past. But once I found the right teacher, I realized that I just hadn’t been guided in the right way.
Regrets I feel blessed in my life, but of course I made mistakes. You look back and realize certain things could have been handled better or with more grace or clarity. But you don’t understand those things until you understand them. And nobody gets to go back, so the only thing you can do is learn from your mistakes.
My Advice You can learn a lot just by observing— watching rehearsals, performances, how others put on make-up, how they do their hair—all of those details. It’s just as important as someone telling you, but you’re learning for yourself.
Photo by Dee Conway, courtesy Royal Ballet