On April 30, Ballet in the City will be bringing Sonia Rodriguez to Detroit, Michigan, to debut an evening with the ballerina titled, “A Ballerina’s Legacy: Sonia Rodriguez.” But what is her legacy, exactly? It’s not cut and dry. She’s been dancing with The National Ballet of Canada since 1990, and has been a principal dancer with the company since 2000. In 2012, she was honored with a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, tying her deeply to her community. Of course, Rodriguez has always had strong ties to Canada. She was born in Toronto but moved to Spain at the age of five with her family. Moving back to Canada with The National Ballet was, in essence, Rodriguez’s homecoming, where she has now created a home of her own – not just with the National Ballet, but also with her family. Whatever she wants her legacy to be, she has worked to make it so.
Rodriguez and I had the opportunity to talk earlier this month about her journey through the ballet world, what fans can expect from her show in Detroit, and, of course, just what she thinks – and wants – her legacy to be.
Ballet in the City: We’ll start by talking about you and your journey through the ballet world. You were born in Toronto but spent the majority of your childhood growing up and training in Spain, before coming back to Canada when you joined The National Ballet. Had you always planned to return to Canada, and how much of a shift and a culture shock was it for you when you did return?
Sonia: I always wanted to come back and learn more about my place of birth. As a child, for me, Canada was this far away, exotic place. As a child, I always that coming from someplace else made me special and different from the other kids. I came here mostly because I had won a competition in Italy and I had the chance to go to a different place. I had relatives in Toronto – I was only 17 at the time – and my parents felt a little bit more comfortable knowing that, at a young age, I would be somewhere where people would take care of me. Also, I was Canadian, so it worked in my favor. I wanted to come here. I researched the company; the company had a great repertoire of classical and contemporary works. It seemed like a great place to start; I was very excited about the whole prospect.
When I first came – well, when you’re 17, you’re not really thinking. I was invited to audition. The head of the jury was the director of the school here at The National Ballet School. She said, “You can come here to the school since you’re only 17, and then wait a year and join the company.” A few months later, someone had left the company and they were looking for somebody; she had spoken to the director and he was very interested in me. So I got on a plane and I came here, very naive and very excited about coming over. When I got offered a contract to start immediately, I accepted. I remember that night, it really hitting me hard, and really realizing that I had made a major change in my life. This big decision, it was going to change everything. I remember feeling somewhat overwhelmed telling my parents. I was going somewhere far away, I was leaving home. I didn’t really speak the language. I could understand a little bit but I had lost all my English. It was a huge change coming here. It was a much younger country, culturally. The weather was so different. The people were so different; they were a lot more reserved. There was a lot to take in. I spent the first few months just smiling a lot, just trying to be liked and fit in somehow. I was the youngest in the company at the time.I think that helps a little bit, people took me under their wing and thought I was cute. They were very welcoming. It was good but it was definitely a culture shock.
It sounds like it! But now, you’ve been there 26 years. What has kept you with The National Ballet for so long and kept you excited about dancing with them throughout your career? Were there ever any moments you considered dancing elsewhere?
The company has changed a lot. I’ve been through three different directors so it feels like they each brought something different with them and a different approach to the company and the look of the company and their priorities. There was a lot of switching around of dancers every time a new director came in. Without having to go anywhere, I feel like I’ve experienced different companies in that way.
It’s been my home. I feel like this is my family and I grew up here. I feel very comfortable here. It’s a place I always felt very challenged in and it allowed me to grow at my own pace. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t think it was always fantastic and there were days, like with anybody, where there are ups and downs but then you learn a lot about yourself. Ultimately, it makes you stronger when you overcome those moments, when you’re out of your skin and not feeling good about yourself. I think I had maybe only one occasion where I felt very unhappy. I don’t know if it was just how I was feeling or how I was perceiving my environment, but I was ready to perhaps go and make a big change because I didn’t see any way out. But then, for one reason or another, I didn’t. Things changed, and I changed, and it was a new chapter in my life.I’m glad I didn’t. I think everybody’s journey is a little bit different. You make the choices that are in front of you; they’re not necessarily good or bad choices, but they are what you take.
Obviously you’ve made a big impact on your community. You received a star on the Walk of Fame in 2012. Tell me about what that honor meant to you.
It was very unexpected and it was a huge honor to be recognized outside of my little bubble that is my world, my institution, my ballet world. This is outside that, I felt like I had broken through that, reached beyond that. It was such an overwhelming feeling, too, to be standing there and being honored that evening by Veronica Tennant – she put so much thought and effort in her presentation. Just the energy in the room, it felt like such an honest, positive… Everybody was there to celebrate me in an honest way, to thank me. It was very humbling and very overwhelming. It was probably one of the most special days I have had in my career, standing there and feeling the love that everybody was pouring out.
Tell me about the piece you danced for that induction, with the accompaniment by Oscar Lopez.
This is ultimately a show, for television, so they wanted some entertainment. Sarah McLachlan was performing, they had asked me if I would perform also. Some ideas were thrown back and forth about what the concept would be or, at one point, if I could do something with Sarah. A lot of what was being celebrated and what Canada is a little bit about is multiculturalism. The fact that I was Canadian born but raised in Spain, they wanted that duality. We came up with the idea of having a performance that would celebrate my Spanish heritage. We asked Oscar to come on and play some music. I didn’t want to be purely Spanish; people would expect flamenco music but that’s not what I do. I found this lovely piece of music that Oscar played that had this warm, Southern feeling, Spanish, Latin rhythms in it, but it wasn’t that specific. I wanted the piece to really come from me. So I decided I would choreograph that piece, which is something I’d never done before! It was fun, but an experience that definitely was not easy to try to put something on yourself. You can’t see it! I had a great time doing it and Oscar was wonderful to work with. I felt really good.
That is one of the pieces you’ll be performing with Ballet in the City when you’re with us in Detroit later this month. Can you tell me about the other selections you will be dancing in that show, and what fans can expect from it?
I’m bringing another dancer with me, but he’s not performing – he will be participating in the master classes in an effort to inspire young men to dance. It will be helpful, also, so we can work on pas de deux and perhaps some repertoire that involves pas de deux and partnering.
As for the show itself, we have narrowed it down to a solo from Giselle and Sleeping Beauty, the third act. I wanted to give quite a variety of styles, so I wanted the solos to be very different from the others and be completely different styles, so we could talk and expose the audience to some history of ballet and what makes them different; one is a romantic piece, Sleeping Beauty is definitely classical, it’s pure classicism, and then I was just looking for another solo. I have narrowed it down to Dying Swan. I think that would be a lovely choice. And then we have the piece mentioned before from the Walk of Fame induction. Jessica [Wallis, Executive Director of Ballet in the City] found a guitarist to accompany me, so we’ll be able to have some live music, also which makes it quite special, I think. In addition to this, I will be calling in members of the audience (hopefully young ballet dancers) to participate in my dancing of the “Mad Scene” from Giselle. I’d like to talk with them about artistry and how to portray that artistry and expression onstage, which is not easy but so important to what it really means to be a dancer.
This show with Ballet in the City is being billed as an intimate performance with the audience, which is very different than performing on a large stage for an even larger audience. What is so appealing for you to be having this more intimate evening with everyone?
What’s nice is that you break a little bit of that barrier that being on top of a stage creates. It creates a magic. We’re put up there and it does look magical, it looks so different. We create a world that people like to come and experience, and escape their daily lives to see that. But what I wanted to do, and what is o lovely about this show, is you bring them into your world. I wanted to make sure they got that. When I was talking to Jessica about the concept of it, I wanted to invite the audience to understand what it’s like for the dancer and our point of view: what it takes to go through a routine every day, what it is like to get ready for a performance, where you go to right before you go on stage, what goes through your head sometimes – the expectations – and also the feeling afterwards, that you finished your performance, and what are you left with, what is that feeling you have at the end. That’s what I wanted to do.
It’s difficult when it’s just you, trying to fill that evening. I can come and perform three solos, but that’s going to leave you feeling empty. I wanted to tap into other things and really invite the audience to be part of what I do.
The title of this show is “A Ballerina’s Legacy.” What, when all is said and done, do you really want your legacy to be?
For me, I feel very proud and very fortunate to have had the opportunity the career that I’m having. That after 26 years of doing something that I love so much, I’m still able to do that. I want to share what it means to go through that maturity and that growth as an artist, and to be able to really get to that point where you know so much more than when you started, that you’re able to physically and even psychologically share that. Not many people get to still be performing at the top of their game after such a long time. I think that’s something I feel very proud of and I want to share with people; I want to tell people, “You can do that.” Yes, by nature, it’s not a career that’s as long as others, but by taking care of yourself, and knowing your art and knowing your body, and by respecting your physicality, and by having a willingness to always keep growing and learning, you can have a fairly long career, and how wonderful is that?
Join in Sonia’s performance celebrating her legacy- purchase tickets here.
Dance with Sonia on May 1- purchase class here.
Interview and Blog by Laurel Wilder.