The Natural

June 21, 2007

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.