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By Dana Gavin Frank
Lyrical yet cherubic, this 21-year old is leaping into leads at Texas Ballet Theatre.
Onstage, Texas Ballet Theater’s Carolyn Judson captures that rare mix of spontaneity and authority without a trace of aloofness. She is at once in control of her long limbs, and yet each step seems entirely new—one more word in a monologue as she carefully wrings a character out of the choreography. Endowed with a beautifully proportioned body and a cherubic face, Judson impresses with elegant lines and lofty ballon. But it’s her ability to embody a role that elevates her artistry to a compelling level. “She’s a lyrical dancer, and there aren’t many of them left,” says TBT artistic director Ben Stevenson. “She has a fragile, endearing vulnerability.”
In person, she projects a similar juxtaposition of innocence and sophistication, befitting her youth and her quick rise from the corps to leading roles. After only one year with Texas Ballet Theater, Judson was tapped to dance Odette/Odile in Ben Stevenson’s Swan Lake last spring after dancing roles such as Prayer in Coppélia and Solveig in Peer Gynt. In Romeo and Juliet last October, she danced the role of the star-crossed lover with frequent partner André Silva.
Judson grew up in Sacramento, California, the middle child of an arts-inclined family, and came to ballet at a relatively late age. “In the fourth grade, a friend said, ‘Let’s take jazz,’ ” she says with a laugh. She began taking classes at Deane Dance Center, and was encouraged by her jazz teacher to add ballet to her repertoire. “The doors were opened for me to any type of dance,” she recalls. Soon she found herself joining her ballet friends on summer workshop auditions. “I thought, ‘This sounds like fun.’ ”
This casual beginning to her career belies her intensity onstage, or perhaps explains it. Judson’s attention was firmly attuned to high school and plans for college, even as she grew to love the art form. Stints at San Francisco Ballet and Houston Ballet’s summer programs left her with interest in a career but still focused on her scholastic ambitions.
“She’s intelligent,” remarks Stevenson. “That drives her to push her technique.”
However, when Houston Ballet asked her to stay for the year-round Academy program during her senior year of high school, Judson’s ambitions began to shift. She decided to leave her family behind, move into a townhouse with 12 other dancers and a chaperone in Houston, and complete high school via correspondence. That year, she caught the eye of Ben Stevenson, then artistic director of Houston Ballet who says, “I first saw Carolyn at summer school because teachers always pointed her out. One notices her.”
Judson deferred college acceptances in order to stay at Houston Ballet, where she spent another year, she says, “covering all the corps in rehearsals and getting a sense of how a company works.”
Just as she was ready to begin auditioning for a full-time position with a company, Stevenson left Houston to head up Texas Ballet Theater in Fort Worth. Judson says she was encouraged to audition for the company (then called Fort Worth Dallas Ballet), by Houston Ballet Academy directors and her own desire to work with Stevenson. “I enjoyed working with him,” she says. “And when I accepted the contract, I knew I made a good decision.”
“Carrie’s been wonderful to work with,” says Stevenson. “For example, Prayer in Coppélia, she took a little thing and made it important. That’s a sign of artistic capabilities. She inspires choreographers and directors to want to work with her.”
Judson thrilled audiences as The Snow Queen in Stevenson’s The Nutcracker. Her gentle approach, coupled with the unabashed joy that infuses her performances, garnered attention from critics and crowds. “Audiences choose people,” says Stevenson. “They wonder, ‘Who is that little girl in the corps de ballet?’ They want to see what that person has to offer.”
“It’s all so new and very stressful,” Judson admits as she prepares for the opening of Romeo and Juliet. “I’m feeling pressure to prove that I can do it. I don’t know if that will ever go away. Challenging roles will always be challenging. I’d never seen Romeo and Juliet before,” she says. “I had no idea what to expect.”
In her performance, however, she embraced Juliet’s innocence as well her tragedy, all while delivering a mesmerizing technical display. Her youthful looks were handy, but Judson’s quick footwork early on and her abandon during the lovers’ first pas de deux endowed her interpretation with intensity and emotion.
Judson freely admits that she enjoys being onstage. “Finishing a performance is such an accomplishment,” she says with a grin. “With Swan Lake, it was so far from perfect. The show was a blur, but I can remember bowing and thinking, ‘I just finished my first leading role!’ It was a relief and a high!”
Dana Gavin Frank is a writer based in Dallas.