The pale sun streaming onto San Francisco Ballet’s company class bathes Lily Rogers delicate blond beauty with a translucent sheen. With her slender frame, finely tapered limbs and oval face dominated by huge green eyes, the 5’ 7” corps dancer resembles a Pre-Raphaelite beauty. That is until she cuts a coupé with the precision of a razor blade and attacks a whipping turn with hurricane ferocity. There is steel under the porcelain.
Born in San Francisco, and trained at SFB’s school since she was 6, Rogers’ third season has her thrilled yet clear-eyed. The 20-year old dancer is taking on the lead in Firebird, the second Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, and the trio in Helgi Tomasson’s new piece Common Ground. “He wants a really sharp, punctuated musicality, and me and Elana Altman to be very much alike. Rory Hohenstein has to sort of manipulate us in different shapes and movement patterns, kind of amoeba-like.”
While praising out Rogers’ jump and extensions, ballet master Ashley Wheater sees other qualities too. “She is musical and she is smart. She has been diligent about her work in the corps. Choreographers of stature have given her opportunities, and she has learned from them,” he says. “She clearly has a lot of potential.”
Yet Rogers is a dancer who almost didn’t make it. In her last year at the San Francisco Ballet School, after bouts of muscle tightness and arthritic pain, she discovered that her left hip socket was too small for the ball of the joint. “I was out for five months and didn’t know whether I would be able to come back.”
Rogers credits the dedication of teacher Shannon Bresnahan for her recovery. “She started me over and taught me technique from square one, in this meticulous, intense way. I am so grateful to her.” Though she had resigned herself to another year at the school, she was offered an apprenticeship after the 2004 summer session. A year later she joined the company.
The last two years have been a whirlwind of experiences, not the least was being on stage night after night in the corps de ballet and learning how to connect with an audience. The Balanchine repertoire, with its emphasis on speed, seems to fit Rogers’ impetuous appetite for movement even though she wasn’t sure that she could make it through last year’s Allegro Brillante. “It was so fast, I thought I was going die at the end, but it was so rewarding.”
Yet there is a traditional ballerina inside Rogers, one who relishes a floating port de bras and the glitter of tiny bourrées. When she performed the role of a swan maiden in Swan Lake, it would have been difficult to miss her precision hops and deeply centered arabesques. Yet her fierce cambré just about snapped the circle formation in the ‘Winter’ section of Christopher Wheeldon’s 2005 work for SFB, the edgy Quaternary. The choreographer picked her for a small featured role in the piece, and she is grateful. “He took a chance on me, and he was so patient. He made a huge difference in the way I approach rehearsal. Now I go in there with everything on the table.”
Another who has taken a chance is SFB resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov, who has set his new Firebird on her. “Lily has a personality—a quality when she steps on stage—that enables her to capture the audience. There’s a fire inside of her, a magnetic quality,” he says. “She’s still very young, but she definitely has a gift.
For Rogers the opportunity to go beyond the athleticism of contemporary styles, work in a classically expressive mode, and create a complex character is a dream come true. “This is a role I can completely dive into. You are a phoenix, half woman, half bird, and you are trying to find how much of you is this creature or this bird. And then you fall in love with this prince, and you have your heart broken. It has so many things that I can bite into and think about.”
Rita Felciano is the dance critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine.