Fearless in Seattle

January 31, 2010

PNB’s Carla Korbes has found a new freedom and confidence in her dancing.

Carla Körbes in costume for Jean-Christophe Malliot’s
Roméo et Juliette. Photo by Matthew Karas.

 At one moment in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette, in an act of supreme trust, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Carla Körbes flings herself backwards into the arms of Romeo. This is a turning point in the ballet—and crystallizes Körbes’ interpretation of Juliet as jubilant and transcendent. Gone was any shadow of her previous back injury, which had delayed her debut as Juliet for 18 months. What emerged was a sensuous dancer with exceptional line and an expressive upper body. Composed and fearless, Körbes breathed life into Maillot’s vocabulary of adolescent love. Such performances have lifted her into the top tier of principals at PNB.

This has been a long road for the 28-year-old Körbes, beginning years ago in Brazil when she was a child. Early on, teachers noticed that there was something different about the way Körbes danced: her charm, her ease onstage, her resolve, but also her sense of humor and uncanny ability to draw in an audience. Shortly after arriving at Porto Alegre’s Ballet Vera Bublitz school in 1993, she was placed in the most advanced class—an achievement her family considered well worth the hour-and-a-half commute from her home village of São Leopoldo. Soon, she was performing soloist roles, including a full-length Don Q at age 14.

About that time Bublitz brought in New York City Ballet’s Peter Boal to partner its most talented student. Boal danced Apollo with Körbes, and was convinced that he had found a treasure deserving of a wider audience. “Sometimes choreographers, whether they are alive or dead, reveal themselves to dancers—as Balanchine did with Carla,” says Boal. “The pas de deux we did was seamless. She was intuitive about every aspect of it.”

In 1996 Körbes left Brazil to attend the School of American Ballet—a daunting step for a 15-year-old who knew no English and had difficulty with the pace of SAB classes. “But I was a sponge,” says Körbes in lightly accented English. “Being so far away from home, it was important to me to be accepted by my teachers.”

There were plenty of corrections: using more turnout from the hip, relaxing her hands and fingers, learning a different technique for turns, and trying more complicated jumps. But she took correction well and had an intuitive sense of rhythm (“I’ve never really been a counter!”). She zealously guarded any time she could spend in the studio. The hard work paid off—with lead roles in the end-of-year workshop and a year’s tuition funded by Alexandra Danilova so she could continue at the school.

Three years later, she received the Mae L. Wien Award for Outstanding Promise, and joined the corps of NYCB in 2000. The following year, Peter Martins selected her as the Janice Levin Dancer honoree, also an award for potential. While still in the corps, she danced featured roles in works by Balanchine, Feld, and Preljocaj, and originated roles in ballets by Wheeldon and Richard Tanner. In 2005, she was promoted to soloist. She managed all this despite suffering a severe midfoot fracture early on at SAB, and being plagued with minor injuries. “Some seasons,” recalls Körbes, “I didn’t even dance corps parts.”

One of her favorite roles was the playful Titania in Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was noted by Time Out New York as one of the top 10 performances of 2001. But doubts got the better of the young dancer and continued throughout her New York career. “I had an obsession about fitting in,” says Körbes. “I wanted to have Peter Martins look at me and say something about my ‘perfect’ body. But somehow I never felt good enough, and all those feelings were overshadowing the art of what I was doing.”

Körbes’ last year at NYCB was especially hard. “All I could think about was, ‘Am I thin enough?’ I felt that my legs were too big, and I didn’t look like the other women in the company. The dancer in me was dying, and even the Carla I wanted to be was fading away. It was hard for me to enjoy myself onstage.”

In Boal’s view, Körbes was underutilized at NYCB. “With over 100 dancers, more than a dozen ballerinas, and hungry soloists, there was a long line for roles Carla would have been well suited for,” says Boal. “She learned fast, but she’d be fourth cast, or an injury would prevent her from performing.”

Körbes remembers talking with Boal about their first meeting, how she seemed completely fearless then. “Peter reminded me that as a kid in Brazil I could do anything, but at NYCB I grew to believe that I was bad at everything,” says Körbes. “That’s what’s hard about ballet: You build a belief system and it can crush you.”

When Boal became artistic director of PNB in 2005, he invited Körbes to follow him—thus providing PNB with a versatile and arresting soloist. As a new import to PNB, Körbes was named a 2006 Dance Magazine “25 to Watch.”

The gutsiness she had at 14 as Kitri in Don Q—could she find it again, 10 years later? Under Boal’s encouragement and PNB coach Elaine Bauer’s careful attention, and with partners such as Stanko Milov, she did. Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake was the ballet that launched her career as a principal. In it, she danced an ethereal Odette and a cunning Odile, confident and dramatic.

“I think that ballet showed the best of our partnership,” says Milov. “She’s a very sensitive dancer with a special kind of emotional availability. That unguarded manner will help her to continue to grow as an artist.”

Principal Jeffrey Stanton, another of Körbes’ partners, gives her credit for handling the shift to a smaller company well. “When she first arrived and Boal was the new director, we were all wondering who was Peter’s star…will she be a diva,” says Stanton. “But she was very relaxed.” Körbes is a quick study, acknowledges Stanton, and one who is very present as a partner. “She’s so grateful to her partners,” says Stanton.

At PNB, Körbes relishes playing with the details of a role—the nuances and the musicality. She attributes her growth to the many coaches she has had there—from Mimi Paul to Violette Verdy. “They are all like little bricks of information to make a house,” says Körbes. “In Portuguese, it’s called ‘tijolo,’ or little bricks.”

Even though PNB feels comfortable for Körbes, it’s still not home in Brazil. “I miss my family,” says Körbes. “But my parents also left home at an early age, so we respect each others’ decisions to follow our dreams in life.” Körbes’ family travels to the U.S. for special occasions, like her Odette/Odile performances.

Despite Körbes’ resolute focus on her work, she has built a life for herself outside of ballet. In Seattle, she lives with her boyfriend, and a little toy fox terrier named Bella (acquired in her NYCB days). She’s a part-time student at Seattle University in PNB’s Second Stage program (aimed to help dancers with career transitions). Körbes also finds time to go samba or salsa dancing at the Spectrum Dance Theater studios or at a friend’s house. “It feeds my soul at another level,” she says. “It takes me back to my roots.”

After five years at PNB, Körbes has come to terms with perfectionism. “It is just part of the ballet world,” she says. “But I can now find a better balance between my struggles and my freedom to be a true artist, a carefree dancer.” Talking with the spirited and confident dancer, it’s difficult to imagine the years she spent plagued by body issues.

For Körbes, repertory is food, and she has been fed well. Last year alone, she danced principal roles in over a dozen ballets, from Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake and “Diamonds” from Balanchine’s  Jewels to Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance) and Robbins’ West Side Story Suite, where she sizzled with Latina energy as Anita. She has also originated leading roles in works by Twyla Tharp and Benjamin Millepied. “Every now and then, I see that 14-year-old from Brazil in all of these new roles, and there’s nothing artificial about her,” says Boal. “She’s still a vessel for any choreography or music that comes her way.”

The versatile ballerina will again be tested this season. A highlight is the role of Aurora in Ronald Hynd’s Sleeping Beauty (Feb. 4–14), which she will no doubt fulfill with both grace and stamina. At PNB, Körbes commands a huge array of roles. There, she is royalty—and, for now, she is reigning supreme.

Gigi Berardi is a contributing writer for
Dance Magazine and an assistant editor for the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science.