On the Rise

January 25, 2009

On a cool Toronto evening last October, 23-year-old National Ballet of Canada corps member Jenna Savella made a larger-than-life appearance.

As part of Nuit Blanche, an annual city-wide, dusk-to-dawn arts extravaganza, NBC staged an interactive, virtual ballet class at its hometown opera-house venue, the sparkling Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The image of a scantily clad Savella sinking securely into a deep plié was projected onto a huge screen in the glass-fronted lobby. Curious passersby paused to watch. Using a ballet barre set up on the sidewalk, some even tried to imitate Savella’s clean, elegant movement. “Cool,” observed one young man as he gamely struggled into a botched fifth position.

“Cool,” however, is not a word that usually describes Savella. “Hot,” in all its meanings, would seem more appropriate. With her exotic looks and flaming stage presence, Savella has become a dancer to watch.

As a late starter—Savella did not begin serious ballet training until age 15—she had some catching up to do, but lately she has stood out in a striking range of pieces. In a Balanchine-Wheeldon-Tharp mixed program that launched NBC’s season in November, Savella danced in all three works, making a notable debut as the lead ballerina in the third movement of Symphony in C.

Her talent attracted attention even before Savella joined NBC. In May 2002, while in Grade 12 at Canada’s National Ballet School, she was given a lead in John Neumeier’s Yondering during the students’ spring showcase. An impressed Paula Citron, Globe and Mail dance critic, identified Savella as “another future star who brought grace and intensity to the stage.”

Two years later, when current National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain staged Act Two of Swan Lake for NBS senior students, she picked Savella to dance Odette. That fall Savella became a company apprentice and in August 2005 joined the corps.

The only daughter of Filipino immigrant parents, Savella grew up in Surrey, British Columbia, a sprawling city of some 400,000 people that forms part of Metro Vancouver. As a girl she was inspired by seeing her cousins perform in ballet school recitals and pranced around the living room enough to convince her mother to enroll her at age 5 in Dance West, a popular local school. Savella says she “did everything” there—tap, jazz, ballet, modern and musical theater. In her teens, she also began classes at Irina Lavrova’s Classical Ballet Academy in neighboring Surrey. It was only then, studying the Cecchetti and Royal Academy of Dance syllabuses, that Savella began to consider ballet as a career.

In 1999 she was selected to attend NBS’s annual summer school, but was not invited to stay on. She tried again the next summer when, although she didn’t know it, Savella had a powerful ally. “My colleagues thought Jenna was too late,” recalls NBS artistic director Mavis Staines, “but she impressed me more than anyone else that summer. You could see Jenna had innate musicality and a special way of phrasing movement.”

Savella moved to Toronto and enthusiastically threw herself into her studies, but with a self-critical eye. “I felt very behind,” she says. Even after joining the National Ballet, she continued to struggle to overcome what she saw as the handicap of a late start. “I was frustrated enough to be motivated to keep working and get better,” she says.

Kain, however, had already noted Savella’s sterling work ethic and was confident her time would come. “Jenna has so many interesting physical qualities, those long feet and an extraordinary jump, like a gazelle; not too many have all that. She’s such a hard worker, a quick learner, versatile and, best of all, she loves being onstage.”

Kain began feeding Savella featured roles: Moss in Cinderella, the Snow Queen in The Nutcracker and in June 2007 an emotionally rich lead in the “Autumn” section of former NBC artistic director James Kudelka’s The Four Seasons. “It was an incredible experience,” says Savella. “I’d always dreamed of dancing Autumn.”

In casting his popular Rolling Stones ballet, Rooster, British choreographer Christopher Bruce auditioned the entire company. The dancers wore numbers. Savella was among those chosen, over several senior dancers. Then last April, Savella was cast in the classically rigorous first section of former NBC member Matjash Mrozewski’s A Delicate Battle, for a performance in San Francisco during “An International Salute to the San Francisco Ballet” at the War Memorial Opera House.

Savella’s once budding talent is, as Kain puts it, now “bursting into bloom.” The stylistic variety of the November mixed bill was a challenge Savella relished. “It helped me discover a lot of things about my dancing, what’s working, what still needs more work.” Savella says she’d love to dance major full-length roles if she had the chance, but she’s not fixated on them. “I want to do my best in whatever challenges I’m given. I aim to show that I love what I do.”

Michael Crabb is dance critic of Canada’s
The National Post.


Photo: Sian Richards, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada