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By Allan Ulrich
In the highly competitive upper echelons of the ballet world, what Clara Blanco did several years ago is almost unheard of.
In 2006, the San Francisco Ballet corps member quit the company and headed for England’s Birmingham Royal Ballet. A year later, she was eager, if not desperate, to return to San Francisco. These defections, more often than not, are considered rebuffs to the company that has been deserted. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” seems to be the prevailing philosophy. But after a heartfelt request, SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson took Blanco back in time for the 75th anniversary season’s New Works Festival, and her career has flourished ever since.
A wanderer no longer, Blanco returned a wiser person. “I think Helgi understood how I felt,” said the dancer in a break between rehearsals for Swan Lake and John Neumeier’s Little Mermaid at the SFB Association Building. “Since I returned, I have been given a lot of assignments, and I have learned what I really want from dancing. I’m in a better place now.”
Critics and audiences have noticed that evolution in Blanco’s performing style and the frequency of her solo appearances. She was part of the cast that has made Christopher Wheeldon’s luminous Within the Golden Hour such a calling-card for the company (it went on the SFB tour to China this fall) and choreographer Yuri Possokhov has tapped Blanco for all of his most recent works. She takes pride in Tomasson’s praise for her Dancing Doll in his Nutcracker, although her fine-boned features have adorned that ballet’s Grand Pas de Deux as well.
Ballet master Anita Paciotti remembers that performance as a defining moment in Blanco’s progress. “Clara showed a real understanding of the classical style. Her port de bras is exquisite. We all often use Clara as the example of just how the arms, neck, and head should look on a certain step.”
But the recent assignment that means most to Blanco is Nora in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House. Her polish and dramatic projection as the playwright’s “doll” heroine who finally rebels made her a formidable onstage presence, despite her 5'2" height. “Now I love the roles that require characterization,” she said. “When I was younger, I was always afraid of them. I was shy about parts that could not be expressed through the steps alone.”
Blanco explains her reticence by her background, in which pure classicism ruled. A native of Valladolid, Spain, she started dance lessons at 6, deciding at 9 that ballet would be her career. At 12, she persuaded her mother that she should enroll in Maria de Avila’s Estudio de Danza in Zaragoza, and they moved there. It was a life changer.
“I never saw anyone as dedicated as Maria,” Blanco recalled. “I remember going to the studio and never knowing when I was going to leave. She would spend three, four, five hours in a class. We forgot about eating. Maria gave all her knowledge. Her teaching was so pure. If something didn’t work, she would take you into a corner and practice until it did. And I was even more of a perfectionist than her.” (De Avila has furnished SFB with some of its finest male dancers in recent years, including Gonzalo Garcia and Ruben Martin; Blanco was the first SFB woman to come from the school.)
A performance at the 1999 Prix de Lausanne won Blanco an SFB School scholarship. Tomasson offered her a corps contract in 2001. She knew she had chosen wisely after rehearsing the fairies’ entrance in Sleeping Beauty with the formidable Russian teacher Irina Jacobson.
“An amazing woman. She was so particular in every detail, and yet so generous in sharing her wisdom,” said Blanco. “In the first rehearsal, an entire hour was spent on walking on from offstage. But that’s the kind of attention you need in a school.”
The Birmingham year did afford Blanco the opportunity to perform in major ballets by Ashton and MacMillan, who are rarely represented in SFB’s repertory. But she hated the weather in the English city (“I think it rained 300 days that year”) and the touring, and wasn’t prepared for the rigid casting system. (“You are not permitted to do roles until dancers with more seniority have performed them first.”)
So Blanco is not inclined to stray again, especially in light of her assignments for the 2010 season. She has been cast as the ballerina in Fokine’s Petrouchka, the company’s belated centennial tribute to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. “The ballerina doll is a role that requires a lot of work from me,” she said. “This is an old ballet and it has a very specific style that recent creations do not possess.”
And she’s keen on performing in an upcoming Wheeldon premiere, Ghosts, and also The Little Mermaid. “I love it. It’s so European, so Neumeier. We have nothing like it here.” While Blanco sighs about her modest height, she has coped admirably; and when paired with a diminutive, stylish partner, like Gennadi Nedvigin, their admirers easily adjust.
Now 26, Blanco hopes this may be the season when everyone takes notice. Ask her what she thinks she’ll be doing a decade down the line and she cites two former company principals she admires.
“I think of Muriel Maffre or Tina LeBlanc. The dancers in their 30s have all the pains, but they also have all the knowledge to compensate for the pains. Ten years from now,” said Blanco, “I’ll be dancing at my peak.”
Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor.
Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB
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