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By Wendy Perron and Lindsay Cowan
The judges of the New York International Ballet Competition did something unprecedented in 2003. They awarded a prize to a dancer they had already eliminated.
Kathleen Breen Combes, a 21-year-old dancer with Washington Ballet, and her partner Jonathan Jordan were the first to perform the Bournonville duet that was taught to all participants. During practice sessions, she had wowed Ilona Copen, executive director of NYIBC. “When I first saw her,” says Copen, “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the quintessential ballerina!’ ” She had a lovely port de bras, strong legs, long lines, and to top it all off, an engaging effervescence.
But in that first round, Combes did not perform well. “She was a bundle of nerves,” recalls Copen. The young dancer was cut, but continued to perform as Jordan’s partner. “In the second round she looked absolutely gorgeous,” says Copen, “and the third round even more gorgeous.” The judges decided to give her The Lefkowitz Award for Special Achievement, which is used on an occasional basis for outstanding work. When Copen presented her with the award, she said, “This is a first for us.”
Looking back, Combes now admits that her nervousness got in the way, partly because Bournonville is not her strong suit. But she knows she pulled herself together the next time out. “I just got out there and enjoyed it for myself and my partner.”
Four years later, the promise Combes showed at NYIBC has blossomed, and she has just been named first soloist at Boston Ballet, where she’s been ever since. She has danced Myrtha in Giselle, the Russian girl in Serenade, leads in ballets by resident choreographer Jorma Elo and guest choreographers like Val Caniparoli and Helen Pickett. She has also danced in works by Petipa, Balanchine, Ashton, Kylián, and Mark Morris. Combes was recently called “a glamour girl in the making” by a radio commentator, and her Myrtha in Giselle was hailed on a website as “a star-making turn.” In person, Combes is modest and down to earth, warm and genuine.
A native of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Combes is one of six children from an Irish Catholic family. Stricken as a toddler with a condition that her mother nicknamed “sloppy leg syndrome,” she did not walk. (Her father died shortly after she was born, which may have been a contributing factor.) A doctor said that her legs might not develop normally if she did not do some sort of physical activity to strengthen them. Her mother, a physical education teacher who loved ballet, enrolled the 3-year-old Kathleen in ballet class. At 8 she studied with Magda Aunon, a Cuban teacher at Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique. Aunon, whom Combes thinks of as a grandmother, saw her raw talent and worked closely with her. “Even when she was very young, Kathleen was exceptional,” says Aunon, “not only for her natural ability and potential to be a dancer, but also because she could express feelings.”
Aunon suggested that Combes enroll at Harid Conservatory when she was 14. There she studied for three years in an environment she calls “intense, yet amazing.” After graduating a year early at age 17, Combes decided to go to Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet for a year before auditioning for companies, a move that introduced her to the Balanchine repertoire and further strengthened her technique.
She soon landed a job at The Washington Ballet under artistic director Septime Webre. “I loved it there,” she says. “It was fun, contemporary, and I got a lot of exposure.” After three years she wanted to go to a larger company that had full-length ballets, so she auditioned for Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet.
Nissinen raves about his young soloist: “She excels in all types of ballets, and Kathleen has an absolutely piercing stage presence. When she steps onstage, there is not a doubt—she is there.”
Combes has much admiration for Boston Ballet’s reigning ballerinas. “Larissa Ponomarenko is gorgeous. She’s like water: You watch her and it’s just one seamless movement. She’s breathtaking. And Lorna Feijóo is so strong and dynamic and has such flair.” She says she loves the environment Nissinen is creating. “We get to work with so many different choreographers and styles. We work with Jorma one week, and then we’re doing Giselle, and then we’re in another studio doing Balanchine. It makes you very quick.”
Being cast as the lead in Jorma Elo’s new Carmen last year was a big break for Combes. Elo, who has continued to cast her in new works, says, “Kathleen is always positive, always willing to try everything, even if I have crazy ideas. She affects other people around her to try anything no matter what it is. For her, there’s no holding back.”
She certainly didn’t hold back in her portrayal of Myrtha in Giselle last spring. She was ghostly delicate and hauntingly beautiful, yet controlling and stately. Local critic Alan Helms wrote in In Newsweekly: “A highlight . . . was Kathleen Breen Combes’ brilliant performance as Queen of the Wilis, so regal and implacable that she made your blood run cold. Combes has emerged this season as one of the undisputed stars of the company.”
For her portrayal of Myrtha, she had major help. Maina Gielgud, who set her acclaimed version of Giselle on the BB dancers, coached her closely.
“Working with Maina was one of the best experiences of my life,” says Combes. “She has a great passion for ballet. I came in and worked extra hours just to be in the same room with her, to have her explain things to me. It almost became an obsession for me.” She recalls what Gielgud said to her about the moment when Giselle steps in front of Albrecht to plead with Myrtha to spare his life. “The way you look at her, you’ve never seen this kind of thing before. Why would you possibly want to save him?” Combes also remembers Gielgud’s help with projecting the power of this role. “She wanted you to have a sense of full command, that no matter which way you were facing, everybody could feel you.”
Combes has responded to other famed coaches too. When Francia Russell of Pacific Northwest Ballet came to help with Balanchine’s tragic La Valse, Combes soaked it up. “It’s a role that’s not technically difficult. It’s purely about the drama,” she says. “You’re all white in the dark and it’s beautiful to do. Francia told me, ‘You have to be young and innocent and almost awkward.’ Everything was so important—the fingers and hand movement. You were sensing the man behind you, that magnetism between you where you almost touch but you don’t.”
Combes recently danced with her boyfriend, principal Yury Yanowsky, in a couple of ballets. “It’s so funny to work with someone that you live with,” she says. “We did the Helena and Demetrius pas de deux in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when you’re always fighting. We would laugh because during the same period we’d have these tense rehearsals of Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, where it gets a little heated trying to work out the partnering. And we’d go to Midsummer and fight with each other, so by the time we got home we were fine!”
Whichever role Combes is dancing, she brings a freshness to the stage. “For me it’s the most comfortable place. There’s no place else I’d rather be. If I didn’t feel that way, I don’t think I could put in all the long hours and the hard work, and look at myself in the mirror for seven hours and critique myself. I get out there and it’s like my own world.”
Her own world was recently tested when guest choreographer Helen Pickett, a former Forsythe dancer, asked her to improvise onstage alone for a full minute in her ballet Etesian. “As dancers we’re used to people telling us exactly what to do,” Combes says. “When you’re not used to improvising, to be told ‘You can do whatever you want’—it’s like this open expanse of space, freedom to do anything—and that’s the most daunting aspect of it.” But she kept working on it. “By the time I got to opening night, the fact that I was in a spotlight in pitch black was nerve-wracking. But all of a sudden, instead of being afraid, you get to express yourself. I get to express how I feel right now and do what I want to do.”
Combes admits that she would like to dance Juliet, Nikiya, or Giselle. “I love roles where you can throw yourself into it.” Reflecting on how hungry she is for coaching, she says, “I would die to work with Maina again.” The company won’t do Giselle this coming year, but in two or three years Gielgud might return to coach the ballet once more. And Combes cherishes Gielgud’s encouraging words to her: “Maybe next time.”
Wendy Perron is editor in chief of Dance Magazine.
Lindsay Cowan is a Washington, D.C., writer who often covers dance.