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It had the makings of great satire. Three male dancers wrapped up in several layers of dripping cellophane, set against a background of vibrant pink. Above them was the headline FEMMES. Below was a blurb outlining Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' concept: an evening of ballet on the theme of "Woman," which would be part of the larger 2018/19 season billed as "an ode to woman."
The punchline: the triple bill would be choreographed entirely by men, and out of the eight choreographers on the season program, only one would be female.
It's tricky to recognize Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla in the latest character he's written for himself. The fictional Milton Frank—star of the new mockumentary series "Off Kilter"—is a moody choreographer whose tender ego is easily bruised as he attempts to revive his floundering career. Cadilla, on the other hand, is down-to-earth and humble; the actor/filmmaker loves to chat about his family and is clearly more comfortable raving about his colleagues' successes than turning the spotlight on his own. But Milton Frank isn't something Cadilla pulled out of thin air—the character comes from everything Cadilla experienced during his many years as a dancer.
Jurgita Dronina is doing fouetté turns with her back to me. Facing the far wall, she builds momentum with the precise placement of each demi-rond-de-jambe. She apologized ahead of time, explaining with a self-deprecating smile: “I can't spot in the mirror. I'm always telling my partners, 'Don't worry, I'll turn fine onstage.' "
On this particular morning, the National Ballet of Canada principal is working before scheduled rehearsals to prepare for two upcoming galas in Taipei and Singapore. First on the program is Aurora's Act III pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, a ballet she's performed numerous times, and I'm struck by how fresh the century-old choreography looks inside her body. Breathing into the retirés that mark the beginning of the solo, Dronina finds brightness and vulnerability. Her upper-body elegance extends into her port de bras and legs. But what she offers, first and foremost, is emotion. When she steps into first arabesque, her gorgeous extension comes with a surge of glee. She's actually blushing—exactly what you'd expect of Princess Aurora on her wedding day.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Dronina considers dance and acting inseparable. While she has earned a reputation for her unremitting work ethic—mornings that often begin at 7 am, with personal training and Pilates before company class—she says this is all in service to the foundation she needs to perform. “I want to go onstage and lose myself," she tells me. “I can't be thinking about anything technical. That's why I work so hard, so that onstage I've transformed."
Dronina was born in Saratov, Russia, in 1986, but she grew up mainly in Vilnius, Lithuania, where her family relocated when she was 4. She started out studying ballroom dancing—following in the footsteps of her older sister—and then moved on to gymnastics, but found it physically grueling to no justifiable ends. “It was useless to me—to break my body for nothing? I didn't see the purpose."
One day a choreographer came to the gym to lead the warm-up. Taking note of the 9-year-old Dronina's musicality and grace, he suggested she try out for the local ballet academy. For the audition, the somewhat bewildered Dronina improvised a hip-hop solo. “The jury didn't know what to think—but they started clapping," she says with a laugh. “Then they accepted me."
Dronina's physique might seem genetically predisposed to ballet, but she claims that this is an illusion created by relentless work. Training six days a week at the academy, she was often told that she probably wouldn't make it as a professional. “They told me, 'You don't have a jump, you don't have the legs, you're not turned out.' "
Soon, however, Dronina began competing at international competitions, winning gold and silver medals and proving her real power as a performer. After she finished her studies at the Munich International Ballet School, she accepted a position in the Royal Swedish Ballet from artistic director Madeleine Onne, who'd seen Dronina in competitions and been persistent in asking her to join. Onne cast her in soloist roles right off the bat, letting her attack the full spectrum of the company's classical repertoire. Three years later, when Dronina was just 22, Onne promoted her to principal dancer.
Yet the Royal Swedish Ballet lacked the variety she was looking for, especially in the way of new commissions. Hankering for more creative breadth, Dronina joined the Dutch National Ballet in 2010. But Amsterdam never felt like home, and within a few years her focus began to shift again, especially after the birth of her son Damian Ulysses in 2012. (Dronina is married to former Dutch National Ballet dancer Serguei Endinian.)
“I started thinking it wasn't the repertoire I wanted to dance until retirement," Dronina says. “Amsterdam wasn't the city I wanted my kid to grow up in. I was 29 and I thought if I stayed past 30, I might stay there forever."
She put her feelers out for a new company, wanting one with a good balance between classical ballets and new works in a big, vibrant city that her whole family would enjoy. Canada was an attractive option from the outset: Her husband grew up in Montreal (and danced originally with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens). They spent 10 days in Toronto and fell in love with both the city and NBoC. “The dancers were so friendly and supportive, everyone sharing ideas and approaches to the work," Dronina says, adding that she cried on the plane home. “I said to my husband, 'My love, I don't want to leave. I feel so good here.' "
Artistic director Karen Kain wasn't in the market for a new female principal dancer. But after Dronina's visit, Kain started to wonder whether she could make it work. “She was very special," Kain says. “She has lovely articulation in her legs and feet. And she's very technically assured—although I'm sure she doesn't feel that way." Kain raises her eyebrows knowingly. “And I really liked her. It seemed like it should happen."
Dronina's first season was full of the dramatic roles she thrives in. Last November, she danced Hermione in Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale, and loved what it demanded from her as an actress. “I talk in my head with every gesture," Dronina tells me, referring to the climactic trial scene in which Hermione pleads for her life. The next challenge came from La Sylphide, set by Danish choreographer Johan Kobborg. “I'd never danced a Bournonville ballet before and Johan was a great teacher. The style is so simple but so clear. You can't add anything on top of it, like at the beginning I wanted to do something extra"—she demonstrates a little épaulement—“and he said, 'No, no, no! Very plain. Very Bournonville.' It was a totally different approach." Her meticulous attention to detail paid off—reviews were unanimously glowing.
Dronina maintains a position as principal guest artist with the Hong Kong Ballet, now run by Onne, who continues to nurture Dronina's career. Dronina also recently curated, hosted and danced in a gala in Vilnius, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Lithuanian Ballet.
Meanwhile, her family takes full advantage of Toronto, often attending museums, galleries, concerts and festivals. Family is a huge source of stability in her life. “When I met my husband, my life changed. He didn't judge my approach. He says, 'This is what ballet should be, so much more than performing steps.' Once I found happiness in life, I became happy in ballet."
Yet Dronina maintains that her work is still fraught with a sense of struggle. “You get a new body every day. You see me in tendus and I'm crying. I have sweat dripping into a pool below me."
And yet it's these challenges that make her dancing most meaningful. Once company class is over, she puts the grueling technical work aside and dives headlong into character, setting and emotion. “At 11:30 am, I'm done. I can rehearse Giselle." She meets my eye and her smile becomes radiant. “You achieve something and you think: Oh, it was worth it. Now I understand."