More than a Balanchine Baby

September 30, 2009

In Diamonds she reflects imperious classicism as if each turn and balance decreed divine rule. For Agon she whisks through angles, sexy in a game of wills. She also strikes lyrical chords in other Balanchine ballets but can just as easily square off to sling spice into Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera or give her partner as good as she gets in Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs. Through a simple walk in Robbins’ In the Night, her most recent company premiere at Miami City Ballet, Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg suggests the whole history of a love affair.


Plucked from studies at the School of American Ballet, this ballerina has spent her 15-year career, from apprentice to principal, under the artistic direction of Edward Villella, who delivers to MCB dancers his bred-into-the-bone Balanchine style. And there’s no more receptive stylist than Kronenberg.


“When Jennifer came to our school,” relates Susan Pilarre, a faculty member at SAB, “I was impressed with how readily she took to the Balanchine tradition. She had a great sense of beauty in the movement, which you can see in her dancing to this day.”


During the summer of 1989 at SAB, Kronenberg got her first taste of Balanchine’s realm, both daunting and wondrous for her. This native of Queens, New York, rode the subway into Manhattan escorted by her grandmother, who’d sit through every class and never failed to encourage the fledgling ballerina. Grandma Carla, a Dutch immigrant, presided over Jennifer’s formative years like a fairy godmother, exposing her to the arts in the city and old-world cultural values. “We always had a special bond,” says Kronenberg.


Another heroine from her youth, Teresa Aubel, director of the Once Upon a Time performing arts academy in Queens, initiated Jennifer from age 7 into ballet, tap, Indian classical dance, and acting. “Teresa invested so much of herself in me,” says Kronen­­berg. “She made me understand what a career in ballet would be like—how much work and how rewarding.” Even after she entered SAB, Kronenberg kept going back to Aubel’s school. “That was my comfort zone to keep my focus and sanity.”


At 17, during her first full year at SAB, Kronenberg auditioned for MCB on a lark. “I had won the Villella pointe-shoe scholarship. Was that a premonition or what!” muses the ballerina. “Still, it hadn’t occurred to me to come down to Miami. A friend didn’t want to audition by herself, so I went along just to hold her hand.” Kronenberg didn’t think anything would come of this. “One day,” she says, “I got a phone call in the dorm room telling me, ‘Miami City Ballet is on the other line, and they want to know your shoe size.’ At first I wondered what for. Then I found out they’d offered me an apprenticeship!”


The other dancers who came into the company with Kronenberg in 1994 have moved on, so it’s with a mix of amazement and satisfaction that she remarks, “Here I am—last woman standing!”


Kronenberg still welcomes feedback from Pilarre, who occasionally coaches Balanchine ballets at MCB. “From the beginning, she’s made me feel I shouldn’t worry so much about what other dancers did ages ago,” says the ballerina. “ ‘Dance like yourself,’ she’d tell me. ‘It’s all about truth in dancing.’ ”


Indeed, a frank personality stamps Kronenberg’s performances. As the Waltz Girl in Serenade, for instance, she traces a ballerina’s journey from yearning to fulfillment with convincing emotion. During MCB’s debut at City Center last winter, Kronenberg’s command as a lead in Symphony in Three Movements stirred The New Yorker critic Joan Acocella to praise how she “moved through the piece like a symbol of winged victory.”


An expressive face and striking figure are Kronenberg’s natural assets, but studiousness and sweat-equity led the dancer toward mastery with range. “I always had the ambition to become a principal,” admits Kronenberg. “I guess what got me promoted was that passion and honesty. But I had to work hard at technique. Many of the roles given to me at first felt beyond my capability. That ended up helping me. For cleanliness and strength, you always have to keep at it. You learn in class every day.”


In early years she looked toward New York City Ballet dancers like Darci Kistler and Peter Boal for stylistic purity that never lacked daring. Lately she’s focused on stability for multiple pirouettes and unflustered balances, her strength increasing through private training with kettle bells.


As Roma Sosenko, principal ballet mistress at MCB, attests, “Jen meets every challenge. When she stumbles, she bounces back up.” Sosenko appreciated the ballerina’s preparation for the lead in Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, a technical challenge from the start. “Some dancers find it petrifying,” she says. “Jen worked and worked, never quite satisfied till curtain.”


Pilarre, who participated in a 1964 Ballet Imperial revival alongside Suzanne Farrell, saw in Kronenberg’s version the ideal Balanchine ballerina’s “sense of moving expansively, with incredible musicality.”


“Jen’s always had beauty and charisma on her side,” adds Sosenko. “Now she’s dancing with a palpable level of enjoyment that only comes with maturity.”


When The George Balanchine Foundation recorded the pas de deux from Rubies at MCB in 2008, Kronenberg danced it with Renato Penteado. The two have often wowed audiences with this ballet, buoyed not only by the choreography but also by their adventuresome spirit.


“I love to do energetic dances with her,” says Penteado. “In Rubies we kick back and play. She has so much confidence and passes that on to me.” He likes to think their friendly fit was tailored in the stars. “We’re both Gemini, and guess what! We like to have lots of fun but also drive ourselves hard.”


Of course, in the stakes for Kronenberg’s perfect partner, Cuban-born Carlos Guerra enjoys an advantage. Married to the ballerina since 2006, this MCB principal celebrates how often he’s paired with his wife. “We have a level of intimacy that lets me know what she’s going to do almost before she does it,” he says. “Sure, we may argue about things, but we come to an understanding with more honesty than with other dancers. It’s a great form of freedom.”


Kronenberg says, “There’s nothing better than doing what you love with the person you love the most.”


Watching Villella rehearse this couple in the second-movement adagio of Symphony in C one notices how intently the director informs Kronenberg’s physicality: her surrender to the languor of Bizet’s music and alertness to the contours of each phrase.


She also happens to share Villella’s place of origin. “My teacher, Teresa, was very much into reminding us that Edward also grew up in Queens. There was a boy in our school who was a tough little Italian kid and she’d refer to him as a little Edward Villella. So, when I ended up here it was a funny coincidence. I knew how he felt playing in the streets; that’s what you do in the city. In Queens there’s nowhere else—most people live in apartments—so you play in the streets. It makes you a little bit tougher.”


But that tough base yields to tenderness when she dances Giselle, which she considers her most rewarding experience. “Emotionally, physically, I’m transformed,” she says of that romantic lead. “The story has everything you could want as a dancer.”


Guerra confesses, “The first time we did Giselle was at the beginning of our relationship, and the stage romance gained for it.”


Kronenberg has perfected her comic timing in Coppélia and sparked up both Kitri and Mercedes in Don Quixote. She has earned further authority in dances by Taylor, Robbins and—most compellingly—Tharp, who created the role of a flamboyant siren on her for NIGHT­SPOT two seasons ago.


“Twyla knows what you can give better than you,” says Kronenberg. “You could be thinking you’ve tried your hardest, and she’ll say there’s more. Next day you find a way to give that to her.”


Dancing Tharp’s In The Upper Room remains a personal triumph for Kronenberg. “It was tough to get at it and through it–like learning to take a deep breath and relax in the middle of a storm,” she declares.


Her athletic stride has scored bravos, making her a top contender for Tharp’s The Golden Section this season at MCB. The coming programs bring Taylor’s Company B, a Kronenberg favorite, and Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, with Balanchine fare beckoning the ballerina to Allegro Brillante, Divertimento No. 15, and Who Cares? For the company’s 25th Anniversary next year Kronenberg has her heart set on playing Juliet next to–who else?–Guerra as Romeo in John Cranko’s portrait of those tragic lovers.


“I want to keep growing,” Kronenberg resolves, “to be worthy of new opportunities.”


Guillermo Perez is a South Florida-based writer in the performing arts who has covered Miami City Ballet since its inception.


Photo: Jennifer Kronenberg in Balanchine’s
Theme and Variations. Matthew Karas.