The Natural

San Francisco Ballet's Tina LeBlanc blends technique, verve, classicism—and range.

 

 

At best, judging dancers by their national origin is a fool’s game. But who can resist playing it when the dancer is Tina LeBlanc? Watch her perform for 20 minutes and you will know why she is the quintessential American ballerina.

 

The purity of her line, the directness of her gesture, the clarity of her articulation, the vulnerability with which she permits the music to engulf her limbs, and the sheer naturalness of her demeanor—all betoken the guilelessness of this country at its finest. LeBlanc’s biography offers no contradiction. She was trained entirely on native soil, launched her professional career in association with one major American dance institution, the Joffrey Ballet, and has attained her glorious peak in another, the San Francisco Ballet, which LeBlanc does not hesitate to call “the best company in the country.” Except for raising a family, there has been nothing else: Her star has risen high in the sky and remains there, radiating a luster that remains undimmed even now in her late 30s.

 

LeBlanc, who has danced professionally for 24 years, has been a principal at SFB since 1992. She exalts everything from the Maryinsky classics to de Mille’s folksy Rodeo to Balanchine’s cut-crystal Square Dance to Forsythe’s edgy, daredevil excursions. She commands the noblest partners, the highest respect from colleagues, and after a period of uncertainty, on both her part and theirs, the most loving response from audiences.

 

So, in conversation, you might expect the voice of experience to dominate, a hint of “been there, danced it all” satisfaction, maybe a bit of weariness. Uh-uh. This is the same Tina LeBlanc who, between Swan Lake rehearsals, confides that, “I feel I didn’t mature till a couple of years ago.”

 

You comment on what seems likes LeBlanc’s preternatural concentration in performance, her coolness in the face of an awesome technical challenge. With a laugh, she tells you that “it’s an illusion.” So, when Jodie Gates, a former colleague at the Joffrey, recalls LeBlanc sitting backstage doing a crossword puzzle while waiting to dance Balanchine’s hellishly difficult Tarantella, you find it all too easy to believe it. “Oh, I know Jodie loves to tell that story,” LeBlanc says, “but puzzles were just a way of channeling my performance anxiety. I got nervous every time I went on. I still do.”

 

You wouldn’t suspect that from watching LeBlanc in rehearsal for SFB’s Rodeo, a ballet that, oddly, she never danced during her Joffrey days. Even at an early stage of preparation, this is one Cowgirl who can shrink into her skin after being rejected, yet still muster the inner strength to capture both her beau and the respect of an entire prairie town. Today, LeBlanc is having trouble with dancing on the side of her foot. There’s a whispered exchange with Joanna Berman, the retired SFB principal who’s coaching this revival. Smiles, shakes of the head, no scenes, no temperamental displays. The rehearsal resumes.

 

One might expect this kind of determination from a woman who recalls that, “I was 11 when I thought, ‘If dancing is what I’m going to do, I’d better start working because I only have a few years before I leave home.’ ” LeBlanc doesn’t know where her passion to dance came from, but it also ran among her siblings. Both older sister Laurie and kid sister Sherri enjoyed respectable careers, the latter at both New York City Ballet and SFB.

 

But LeBlanc, even while training under Marcia Dale Weary at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, saw only one company in her future: “ABT, because they did the classics and that’s what I was trained to do.” She went to the auditions at 15; the thought of rejection never entered her mind. “When my number wasn’t called, I thought it was a mistake. And when Patricia Wilde told me I was too short, I was devastated.” LeBlanc, who stands 5'1", faced her first reality check.

 

“There have been a few incidents when I’ve been considered too short, LeBlanc says. “Sometimes they were right. Sometimes, it wasn’t warranted. My height hasn’t held me back, but I haven’t gotten to do a few ballets I might have liked. [She cites Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, in which she eventually was cast.] Yes, occasionally, I get tired of being considered the small girl.”

 

After the ABT auditions, LeBlanc went home and entered a regional festival in York, Pennsylvania. Soon enough, a call came from Sally Brayley Bliss to join Joffrey II. Seventeen months later, in January 1984, she was invited into the senior company. LeBlanc wasted no time in attracting attention in a wide range of repertoire. “She was a dazzler, a little spitfire,” remembers Ashley Wheater, a Joffrey colleague who is now a ballet master at SFB. “But, there was an artist there, too.”

 

Because the Joffrey toured extensively in the ’80s, LeBlanc acquired a national following. Nobody who saw her and the late Edward Stierle in Saint-Léon’s La Vivandière pas de deux has ever forgotten that sublimely harmonious, ineffably exuberant pairing.

 

Eight years later, it was time for a change. LeBlanc’s husband, Marco Jerkunica, whom she had married at 21, wanted to leave New York. In addition, Robert Joffrey had died and Stierle was fatally ill. Gerald Arpino’s full control of the company was threatened. And there were artistic issues, too.

 

“The Joffrey was a great company to start with,” says LeBlanc. “They paid attention to details. But I was feeling smothered. When I went onstage, I didn’t know how much was me and how much was the coach. When someone coaching your Juliet tells you what count to breathe on, what you should be feeling…there was no sense that it doesn’t work on me or doesn’t feel good.”

 

LeBlanc liked the repertoire Helgi Tomasson was building in SFB and she was impressed by the standards on display during the company’s City Center season in 1991. When the Joffrey was on tour in Los Angeles, she called Tomasson, told him she was in the area and drove 400 miles to take class. Not only did he hire LeBlanc; two years later he also engaged David Palmer, her old partner at the Joffrey.

 

In the beginning, paradise on the Pacific proved elusive.

 

“The first year I came here, I felt lost,” says LeBlanc. “Helgi is very much an ‘I’ll step back and see how you handle this role’ kind of director. He had me learn everything to see where I would shine. Betcha didn’t know I even learned the Agon pas de deux.”

 

LeBlanc articulates the difference between working at The Joffrey and SFB. “I came from a company where they spent so much time taking things apart that they sometimes never ran the whole ballet until opening night. Then, I joined a company where, in my first rehearsal, I was running a pas de deux. I didn’t know what I looked like; I was just doing it. I realized I had to break it all down for myself.

 

“We have a great coaching staff here,” adds LeBlanc. “If you tell them you’re not comfortable, they will find the way that is right for you. Sometime in my second or third year, I found my own voice. As I learned, I became comfortable with the process.”

 

Still, something was missing. LeBlanc had been hailed for her classical pedigree and acclaimed for her speed and verve, but she still thirsted after the juicy Romantic roles. “They started with Swan Lake,” she recalls. “I struggled, pushing myself to that White Swan adagio.”

 

Sleeping Beauty presented another challenge. “At first, I didn’t see any character development in Aurora. I was overwhelmed with the technical aspect. I let it bog me down. A couple of years later,” LeBlanc says, “my approach was different. It was still a scary assignment, but I wasn’t overwhelmed.” By the time she tackled Giselle, technique and characterization had fused.

 

But if you ask LeBlanc about recent satisfactions, she cites Lar Lubovitch’s …smile with my heart. “I thought Lar would give me the bouncy number. But he chose me for the romantic duet.” And LeBlanc says she “demanded” to dance the slow, rapturous “Man I Love” duet in Balanchine’s Who Cares? “I got tired of being thought of as the turning girl.”

 

Tomasson sensed LeBlanc’s range long ago. “To see such depth come into Tina’s dancing in her maturity is wonderful. She has added another dimension,” he says. “The length of her line, her lyrical phrasing are beautiful to watch.”

 

In recent seasons, Tomasson has increasingly paired LeBlanc with Gonzalo Garcia, one of the SFB’s most exciting, if occasionally unruly, dancers. Fourteen years her junior, he calls their collaborations inspiring. “I have learned so much from Tina. She has taught me to focus my energy and not waste it. She tells me how to breathe, how to enjoy myself, how to approach it correctly, I found much of my Apollo through her.”

 

To all in SFB, LeBlanc often seems the most grounded person in the building. She attributes that quality to her marriage (“for a while, it was way up or way down, we were either on our honeymoon or ready for divorce, but we worked it out”), and to her two sons: Marinko, 8 (“He’s a competitive gymnast at the moment”), and Sasha, 3. Combining a career with a home life has, she says, enriched her enormously. The talk of the company is that whenever Tina takes family leave, she comes back dancing better than ever.

 

LeBlanc agrees. “Motherhood changes your perspective. You focus on what’s real—the home—and treat dancing like fun. I was so stressed after Marinko was born, with all that crying. But when I got back to the studio, it was my quiet time. Dancing, after all, is my side career.”

 

LeBlanc, who turns 40 in October, knows she can’t avoid the inevitable forever. “I have been thinking about retirement lately,” she says. “My body still feels pretty good. The telling factor will be when I stop enjoying it, when I feel dancing is no longer worth the effort. It will be something inner, a moment when it will be too hard to pull it out of myself. But,” says this most polished of artists, “dancing has never been about being perfect, anyway.”

 

Allan Ulrich is Dance Magazine’s senior editor.

The Conversation
Dancer Voices
Paloma Garcia-Lee has appeared on Broadway and in TV's "Fosse/Verdon" and will be in the new West Side Story film. Photo by Susan Stripling, Courtesy Garcia-Lee

I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon. Photo by Eric Liebowitz/FX Networks

You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.

"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Courtesy CalArts

Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
LA Dance Project. Photo by Jonathan Potter, courtesy LADP

We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.

But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.

There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Carlos Acosta in a still from Yuli. Photo by Denise Guerra, Courtesy Janet Stapleton

Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.

The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in Fancy Free. Photo via pbt.org

A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.

This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Courtesy Bloc Talent Agency

When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Hamrick rehearsing Port Rouge in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Hamrick

Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.

So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Photo by freestocks.org/Unsplash

What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?

—Anonymous

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Stephen Mills' Grimm Tales, which premiered last month, is the first ballet funded by the Butler New Choreography Endowment. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin

As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.

So where can companies find the money?

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Social media validates extremes over clean, solid technique. Photo by David Hofmann/Unsplash

The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."

My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.

This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Courtesy Khoreva

The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?

Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Royal Winnipeg Ballet revived Lila York's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale earlier this month. Photo by David Cooper, Courtesy RWB

When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.

It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Merce Cunningham in his Changeling (1957). Photo courtesy DM Archives

Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.

Courtesy DM Archives

Dance in Pop Culture
Courtesy MPRM Communications

A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.

But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."

Keep reading... Show less
News
A 1952 photograph of Merce Cunningham in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three. Photo by Gerda Peterich, Courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates

One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.

This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.

The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
George Balanchine's Don Quixote. Photo by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.

Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.

"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."

Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?

Keep reading... Show less
News
Sarah Lane will perform in one of the "You Are Us" benefit concerts. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy ABT

After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Malpaso Dance Company in Cunningham's Fielding Sixes. Photo by Nir Ariel, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox