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By Michael Crabb
Partners onstage and off, Bridgett Zehr and Zdenek Konvalina are the new darlings of National Ballet of Canada.
Zdenek Konvalina and Bridgett Zehr of National Ballet of Canada. Photo by Matthew Karas.
A roof-lifting roar reverberated through Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre opera house at the end of a Swan Lake that fans had been anticipating with huge expectations.
The March 13 event marked the local Swan Lake debuts of two much-admired National Ballet of Canada principals: American Bridgett Zehr and Czech-born Zdenek Konvalina. This was their first time dancing the leads together in a major full-length classic since joining the company almost four years ago.
It was the intimacy of their dramatic portrayals as much as the dazzle of their dancing that won Zehr and Konvalina a well-deserved ovation. Audiences have a keen nose for magical partnerships and this one showed all the promise of such a pairing of exceptional talents. Konvalina’s affecting attentiveness and the emotional intensity of Zehr’s doe-eyed response revealed a tender connection.
That connection had been equally apparent during rehearsals where Konvalina’s sharp eye was continually alert to Zehr’s needs, offering unobtrusive support to help her find her center or a warmly encouraging smile after she’d nailed a difficult combination.
That enthusiastic Swan Lake audience in March should probably have also offered a symbolic bouquet to the free lunch program at Phillippi Shores Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Without it, Bridgett Zehr would likely never have become a dancer.
By the same taken they should also be very grateful that the Brno Conservatory in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia took in the athletic soccer-loving 9-year-old Zdenek Konvalina.
Both Zehr and Konvalina are former members of Houston Ballet. During their final year in Texas, company artistic director Stanton Welch paired them as the leads in his 2006 production of Swan Lake. Zehr, five years Konvalina’s junior, was still in the corps and until then, as she confides with a grin, an admirer “from afar” of the handsome, dark-blond principal. Working so closely together on Swan Lake laid the foundation of a friendship from which romance later bloomed.
Zehr admits she was hoping they’d dance together again in Toronto, but it’s taken time for that wish to be fulfilled. Although Welch had promoted Zehr to soloist following her success in Swan Lake, National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain could only offer her a second soloist position in Toronto. “I realized I’d have to work my way up here,” says Zehr. Meanwhile Konvalina, who maintained his principal rank in the transfer to Toronto, was partnering such seasoned company principals as Sonia Rodriguez and Chan Hon Goh.
Toronto audiences did get a tantalizing sample of the intoxicating spell Zehr and Konvalina conjure when they danced the “Facades” pas de deux in the National Ballet’s premiere of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces in 2007. This might have led sooner to more such opportunities had Zehr not been sidelined for almost a season with a serious foot injury—a nonunion stress fracture—that required surgery in 2008. It was during this difficult period that the two dancers’ personal relationship deepened.
Understandably, the ballet grapevine quivered when rumors circulated to the effect that Konvalina would partner Zehr in her May 2009 Toronto debut of Giselle—only to be quieted by news that ranking principal Aleksandar Antonijevic had been assigned that honor while Konvalina would partner Chan Hon Goh in her farewell performances.
Both turned out to be admirable matches. Zehr’s Giselle was rapturously hailed by her adoring fans and she was made a principal soon after. Yet those same fans, excited by Zehr and Konvalina’s not-so-secret romance, longed to see them partnered in a major classical ballet, especially after their December appearance in The Nutcracker. Finally, with Swan Lake, everyone’s wish came true.
But where, you may ask, does the free lunch program at Phillippi Shores Elementary fit into the story? Well, Bridgett Zehr comes from humble origins. Her parents divorced when she was 6 and her mother, who had spent a decade dancing with a semi-professional troupe, was waiting tables. Because of the modest family income Bridgett and her sister Rachel qualified for the free lunch program.
Meanwhile, the fledgling Sarasota Ballet had launched an outreach initiative in 1991 called Dance: The Next Generation, an ambitious program that used dance to support disadvantaged and at-risk children and prevent them from dropping out of school. Students who were enrolled for free lunches were given an opportunity to attend the DNG program. Bridgett’s mother, delighted, sent both her daughters to the weekly ballet class.
Sarasota Ballet hadn’t planned DNG as a way to recruit dancers, but after her fourth year in the program they transferred Zehr into the company school.
Until this point she had had very little exposure to ballet. “I think I’d seen The Nutcracker on video,” says Zehr. It did not take her long, however, to decide that ballet would be the focus of her life.
“I knew really early that I wanted to be a ballerina. I guess in a way it was an escape from the home stuff; not that that was so bad, but it was a way for me to have my own world. It made me feel very safe.”
Zehr had been allowed to enter DNG two years earlier than usual. It meant she was 14 when she completed the program. With the support of a Rudolf Nureyev Foundation scholarship, Zehr headed to Boca Raton for intensive studies at the Harid Conservatory. “It was very strict,” she recalls, “but a very professional environment.”
After her second year at Harid, Zehr decided to take the Houston Ballet Academy’s summer course and although only 16 was hoping she might be invited to stay. “It was such a good time, having a bit more freedom. But they told me to finish my third year at Harid.” This Zehr did before returning to Houston in 2002, Ben Stevenson’s last year there.
Incoming artistic director Stanton Welch hired Zehr as an apprentice the following year. She got to work with Maina Gielgud, his artistic associate. “I always learned so much from Maina,” says Zehr. “She likes hard workers.”
Gielgud quit two years later, leaving what Zehr calls, “a bit of a hole for the women” in terms of artistic guidance. That alone was not enough to start her looking elsewhere. It was the experience of dancing Welch’s Swan Lake that whetted her appetite for the big classical roles. “I was ready for a change,” says Zehr.
She looked first to Britain and was weighing an offer from English National Ballet when Zdenek Konvalina urged her to consider NBC. In the fall of 2005, Konvalina—also in search of a change—had flown to Toronto to meet with National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain. “He said what a great company the National Ballet was and how lovely Karen was as a person,” recalls Zehr. “So, I put National Ballet on my list, auditioned, met Karen, and everything just seemed to click.”
Unlike Zehr, it had taken Konvalina several years to decide on ballet as a career. It was his culture-loving mother who believed ballet school would be good for her athletically inclined son. Konvalina, who says he has an “independent streak,” remembers his early years at the highly regimental, Russian-dominated Brno Conservatory as “pure hell.” At one point, he nearly got kicked out. It was only in the later stages of the seven-year program, when Konvalina began appearing with the Brno State Ballet, that he finally committed to a career in dance.
Konvalina figured that he’d get more opportunities in a smaller company and after graduating chose to join the National Ballet of Moravia-Silesia in Ostrava. It was there he met Haitian-Canadian choreographer Eddy Toussaint, who’d arrived in 1997 to set his Requiem on the Czech company. Toussaint—coincidentally Sarasota Ballet’s first artistic director—recognized Konvalina’s promise, smoothed his path to North America, and worked with him on several projects over the next decade. Toussaint’s choreography for the contemporary section of the 2001 Helsinki International Ballet Competition helped Konvalina win the top prize.
Now a mature artist, Zdenek Konvalina is internationally admired for the refined splendor of his classical technique, the depth of his dramatic intelligence, and his incisive dancing in neo-classical and contemporary work. Says Maina Gielgud: “Zdenek is a true danseur noble in a world where the very concept has almost been forgotten.”
Konvalina’s duties in Toronto leave him room for frequent outside engagements. This season he is creating a new ballet for Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence with fellow NBC principal Guillaume Côté, and has upcoming guest appearances in London and Taipei. But the 2010 date Konvalina will probably remember most fondly occurred in February when he partnered Zehr in her cygnet-to-swan return to Sarasota Ballet. It was a triumphant homecoming for Dance: The Next Generation’s most famous graduate.
Like so many young dancers, Zehr left Sarasota dreaming that one day she would become a ballet princess. Her return proved she had accomplished that ambition—and found herself a prince as well.
Michael Crabb is dance critic of Canada’s The National Post.
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